In January, Rolling Stone Country published the findings of an extensive investigation that uncovered a climate of sexual harassment and misconduct in country radio. In its wake, the Nashville community has struggled to figure out how to respond: whether it’s through sexual harassment workshops at Country Radio Seminar, potent Tweets from Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, or simply ignoring it with silence. But there are tangible steps that can be taken to protect artists and professionals who work in the music industry as contractors and consultants – such as a bill providing them the same workplace defenses that employees receive. Now, two Tennessee Democrats Rep. Brenda Gilmore and Sen. Jeff Yarbro have introduced such a bill – and Nashville’s musical community – including Rodney Crowell, Lilly Hiatt, Andrew Combs, Katie Armiger and Lorrie Morgan – are lending their support.
HB 1984/SB 2130 would offer full-time employee rights to artists and freelancers who, as it stands now, are unable to register complaints if they experience verbal sexual harassment of any kind.”There’s been significant reporting recently that shows that in some cases, female artists face a lot of predatory behavior just for trying to have their music heard,” Sen. Yarbro tells
“There’s been significant reporting recently that shows that in some cases, female artists face a lot of predatory behavior just for trying to have their music heard,” Sen. Yarbro tells Rolling Stone Country. “From what we’ve learned, if you’re a female artist, harassment is something you learn to expect as you try to promote your work. That’s unacceptable, and it’s a problem we should try to solve. We know the music industry isn’t a traditional workplace, so a lot of the ways we report harassment in traditional workplaces won’t work. The legislation that Rep. Gilmore and I have proposed just makes it clear that everyone has a right to be safe in the workplace, regardless of whether their job fits the formalities of the current law.”
One of the many challenges of policing misconduct in the music industry: Artists, however successful they may be, are not employees of their record labels. Instead, unless they have specifically detailed as such their contract, they are essentially freelancers. That means that they can only report physical harassment that’s a crime, not verbal harassment.
“Sexual harassment and misconduct happens in the music industry,” says Armiger. “It happened to me, and it’s happened to many others who have come forward to share their own stories. But it also happens in less-publicized industries, and it’s a huge problem for anyone who falls into that gray area of being somehow an independent contractor. Recognizing the problem is a first step, and I’m glad that legislators are now working toward solutions. Sen. Yarbro and Representative Gilmore have proposed legislation that would give protection to a greater number of workers. No one should endure harassment while trying to chase their dreams, or simply make a living.”
Lilly Hiatt agrees. “Everyone deserves protection, whether within the walls of an office building or the bunk of a tour bus. There should be no limitations for who qualifies. Glad to see this getting addressed.”
Singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell echoes her support. “As the father of four daughters, two granddaughters, and as a loyal friend to many great women, I support legislation that renders sexual harassment, or any form of harassment, a punishable offense,” he says. And Grand Old Opry member Lorrie Morgan also tells Rolling Stone Country that this is legislation she is glad to see proposed. “I’ve seen the entertainment industry for decades and at a variety of levels, and it’s so important for artists who are out there knocking themselves out and sharing their gifts to be afforded the same protections as every other working man and woman,” she says.
HB 1984/SB 2130 is legislation that attempts to address the issue. As the bill reads, “it is a discriminatory practice for an employer to harass an employee, an applicant, or a person providing services pursuant to a contract because of the employee’s, applicant’s, or person’s sex.” It then defines “employer” as, among other definitions, “any person acting as an agent of an employer, directly or indirectly.” That means artists, contractors and freelancers will be able to file complaints, should the bill pass. No date has been set as of this writing, but the bill is expected to be heard in the coming weeks. What degree of support it will get on the floor is to be determined, but visible names and artists endorsing it can only help its chances.
“It’s disgusting to think that some folks’ cries for help can’t be heard because of partisan politics,” says Andrew Combs. “This new bill seems like a step in the right direction, but we need more: big name artists and associations such as the CMA, Grammys, ACM, AMA, all need to start speaking up. I’ve never understood the whole ‘don’t ask, don’t tell, play dumb,’ ignorant side of the music business here in Nashville regarding sexual misconduct, racism, politics, etc. It’s such a lame stance as a human being to disregard something that can inflict so much pain on another person.”
Alex Little, counsel to Armiger in her case against her former label, Cold River, was the first to discuss a bill like HB 1984/SB 2130 with Rolling Stone Country, and he’s encouraged to see it come to light. But he also notes that, even if passed, it’s still not enough – and Nashville needs to address its broader culture of silence in the face of sexual harassment and assault. “As a major first step, this is hugely important,” Little says. “It will provide protections for hundreds or thousands of artists who wouldn’t have it otherwise. But although this would create new protections, that doesn’t mean they will be used. There are so few people in positions of power to speak out and condemn these behaviors, so I think it will take legislation like this as well as real courage from the industry to start telling the hard truths.”