Samantha Maloney’s story begins where most sexual harassment claims in the music industry end: with a non-disclosure agreement. It was February 2018 when Maloney signed the document that would perpetually silence her regarding speaking out about a sexual harassment incident she allegedly experienced while working at Warner Music Group’s flagship record label Warner Records.
Maloney, a former vice president of A&R at the label, was let go from the company in late September 2017 as part of a company restructuring. She signed a separation agreement and was paid severance. About a month later, her lawyer wrote to WMG alleging misconduct by executives both at Warner Records and WMG she’d heard about and, in one case, personally encountered. That final allegation involved one of the company’s highest-ranking executives: Maloney alleged that she’d been propositioned by WMG chief executive Stephen Cooper.
The company immediately launched an investigation. Three months later, Warner Music Group paid Maloney $240,000 and she agreed to never publicly speak about the claims. (Maloney declined to comment on any specific allegations for this article, but said she “support[s] any effort to expose the coverup of sexual abuse in the music industry.”)
Maloney’s allegations and the steps the company took at the conclusion of the investigation, critics of the company and the broader entertainment industry say, are indicative of a wider pattern: Misconduct accusers are silenced with ironclad NDAs, while powerful male executives are protected against a public airing of allegations against them. In recent years, advocates and lawyers who represent employees have increasingly criticized NDAs in the context of sexual harassment allegations, asserting they keep claims against powerful members of the entertainment industry protected from public view.
Maloney’s claims against Warner start in February 2017. Warner Music Group’s top executives were celebrating the biggest night in music at the record company’s exclusive Grammy party at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. At one point during the party, Cooper was talking to Maloney and complimented her work. Then, she alleges, he propositioned her for a sexual act with himself and a female party guest. (A rep for WMG says Cooper “denies the claim that he made an inappropriate remark at a party.”)
Later that night, according to what three sources tell Rolling Stone Maloney told them after the alleged incident, Maloney approached a Warner Music Group HR executive who was also at the party and told her about Cooper’s alleged comment. These sources say Maloney told them in subsequent days and months that she told the HR rep that their boss had asked her to join in a sexual encounter — a comment that would have been a violation of the company’s code of conduct and an abuse of power from a significantly higher ranking executive at the company. According to these three people whom Maloney separately confided in after the alleged incident, the HR representative brushed it off.
“The whole thing feels wrong to me,” Michael Howe — a former vice president of A&R at Warner in whom Maloney confided and who was let go by the company the same day as Maloney — tells Rolling Stone. “At the time [of the allegation], she had the highest-grossing and revenue-producing single.” (Maloney worked with several bands while at Warner, including Disturbed, where she handled orchestration on the band’s triple-platinum cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.”)
Maloney told Howe, who now works with the Prince estate, about the alleged incident within a month or two after she said it happened, Howe says. “[Cooper] said, ‘You’re basically keeping the lights on,'” referencing the Disturbed hit, before propositioning Maloney at the party, according to Howe’s account of what Maloney told him. “It was shocking.”
A second Warner executive, who is no longer at the label and requested anonymity saying they fear retaliation, recalled feeling most surprised about the human resources exec’s alleged dismissal of Maloney’s claim at the Grammy event, rather than the notion that a high-ranking entertainment executive might make an inappropriate comment to a female subordinate. “I’m not surprised it happened — which is so sad — but surprised nothing was done about it when she went to them in the beginning,” she says.
“The whole thing feels wrong to me. At the time [of the allegation], she had the highest-grossing and revenue-producing single.” – former Warner VP Michael Howe
According to WMG, the company’s leadership was not made aware of Maloney’s claims until after she had been let go, and they initiated an independent investigation the day after she lodged them with the company. In addition to investigating Maloney’s sexual harassment claim against Cooper, the legendary music company also looked into sexual misconduct allegations against senior vice president Dave Dyer and executive vice president Jeff Fenster. The allegations and broader details of the investigation, which ended three weeks later in November 2017, were never made public, though Cooper and Dyer remain employed at Warner, while Fenster was fired. At the time, WMG expressed its gratitude to Maloney without naming her, saying in a statement to Billboard that an unnamed former employee “helped us… bolster our efforts to maintain a safe, respectful, and professional environment.”
About a year after the alleged incident with Cooper, Warner paid Maloney the $240,000 and signed a settlement agreement. In that agreement, which Rolling Stone has reviewed, Warner denied any wrongful conduct and documented their payment to Maloney by pointing to her participation in the investigation.
Maloney also agreed to nondisclosure terms that would prevent her from discussing the settlement or any alleged harassment at Warner. As laid out in the agreement, any breach of the confidentiality terms by Maloney or the few people she was authorized to share the settlement agreement’s terms with would result in a $60,000 fine. In signing the NDA, Warner was also bound to keep it confidential. But if it failed to keep the document private, that wouldn’t constitute a breach, according to the document’s terms.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for WMG says that the company “takes these matters very seriously, and we’re grateful to our former employee for her courage in raising concerns in 2017. At that time, an independent third party conducted a thorough investigation of the claims and we took appropriate actions based on the findings, including the termination of one senior label executive and disciplinary measures for one other label executive.
“Over the last four years, we have taken actions, including revising our Code of Conduct, deploying dedicated DEI expertise, rolling out additional training programs, and reinforcing clear channels for people to voice any concerns,” the company adds. ”Our company values a diverse and inclusive workplace free of harassment and discrimination.”
While the news of Fenster’s departure was reported in the music press at the time, Dyer wasn’t named. Fenster is currently listed on his Linkedin page as a president at 300 Entertainment, which WMG purchased in 2021. (A source close to the situation tells Rolling Stone that Fenster had a “first-look deal with 300 that pre-dates Warner’s acquisition” and that “Warner is still in the process of that integration and all it entails.”) To this day, Warner Music Group has not publicly detailed any specific allegations against Fenster. A rep for WMG confirmed that “Fenster is not an employee of Warner or 300,” but did not comment when asked for clarification on Fenster’s specific allegations. (Fenster did not reply to repeated requests for comment.)
Beyond Maloney’s claim against Cooper, Warner also looked into an alleged incident flagged by Maloney regarding Dyer, Warner Records’ senior vice president of radio promotion. At a dinner the label hosted in 2016 that Maloney had attended alongside several other Warner executives, Dyer allegedly touched an artist the label was courting on her leg in a way that made her uncomfortable.
The musician declined to comment for this story, but her attorney at the time, who asked not to be named, confirmed the alleged incident to Rolling Stone, recalling the artist telling her about it the same night. “I can confirm my client was uncomfortable with whatever touch she received from Dave Dyer,” the lawyer says.
“Dave threw a grenade in this deal,” Howe, the A&R trying to sign the artist and who was at the dinner as well, says. Referring to the alleged incident in emails obtained by Rolling Stone sent shortly after the 2016 dinner, Howe detailed his concerns about Dyer’s alleged behavior toward the artist. (Through a rep for WMG, Dyer declined to comment.)
“The notion that we have to be careful which representatives of the company are invited to an artist meeting because ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘that’s just how promo guys are’ is egregious, especially in this day and age,” Howe wrote to his supervisor soon after the alleged incident. “I’m not assassinating Dave’s character or suggesting that he’s a fundamentally nefarious guy, but I can only deduce that [one high-level Warner exec with oversight over Dyer] is either unconcerned with the institutional message — and resultant damage — such conduct breeds, or that he is so focused on his own job preservation that he will let… staff do whatever it wants. Either one is obviously very disconcerting.”
“It’s a boys’ club, and no one’s ever had the balls to stop them,” one former Warner executive
Before her role at Warner Records, Maloney garnered a reputation as a prolific drummer, playing with numerous high-profile rock bands including Hole, Mötley Crüe, and Eagles of Death Metal. She joined Warner in 2014, staying there for three years until she was let go as part of a larger restructuring at Warner Records from hard rock to pop and hip-hop.
In December 2017, the company announced in a staff memo signed by WMG’s chief people officer Masha Osherova (a different HR executive than who Maloney allegedly spoke with at the Grammy party) that it had taken unspecified disciplinary action against unnamed Warner employees. “I’m writing to let you know that a former Warner Bros. Records US employee has come forward with concerns about inappropriate behavior by several of our US executives,” Osherova wrote.
The company further noted that Warner expected that media coverage of the allegations would mention Cooper had been “accused of making an inappropriate remark at a party.” Reports at the time from Variety and Billboard identified Fenster and referenced the alleged comment from Cooper without specifying what he’d allegedly said.
As CEO of WMG — the third-largest record company in the world — Cooper remains one of the most powerful men in music, and the highest-ranking executive for the company overseeing the musical careers of Cardi B, Lizzo, Dua Lipa, and many others. He’s a regular fixture near the top of Billboard’s annual power list, coming in at Number Three in 2022.
Appointed as CEO in 2011, Cooper had no music industry experience before taking on the role and was better known for steering struggling companies including Enron, Krispy Kreme, and MGM. Widely regarded in the broader business world as an expert at company restructuring, Forbes once called him “the king of the turnaround world,” noting that he’d saved hundreds of companies over three decades.
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In a statement to Billboard at the time, WMG said it was grateful to Maloney (identified as a “former Warner Bros. Records employee”) for coming forward to raise her concerns. In the staff memo, Osherova vowed WMG would continue to take action toward improving its workplace and eliminating instances of sexual misconduct. “As you would expect, we treated these concerns very seriously, and appointed an independent investigator to conduct a review,” Osherova wrote in the memo. “Some of the accusations were found to be true and, as a consequence, we are in the process of taking the appropriate disciplinary actions against the relevant employees.”
In February 2018, two months after Warner sent the memo to employees, Maloney signed her NDA and, per the agreement, is not allowed to speak about the incident to anyone but her lawyers, tax advisors, and husband.
NDAs themselves have become more controversial in the #MeToo era. The biggest problem with NDAs, says Katherine Atkinson — a prominent discrimination attorney who’s represented victims of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment across entertainment — is that they leave issues unresolved and allow companies to perpetuate the status quo.
“The music industry is 15 years behind the rest of the world, and definitely any other industry” – music attorney Jennifer Justice
“The issue with NDAs is that’s how you get Harvey Weinstein being able to perpetrate horrific acts over such a long period of time,” Atkinson says. Even NDAs that shield far lesser misconduct are problematic in Atkinson’s view. Referring to “inappropriate comments — comments that somebody shouldn’t say in the workplace that get hidden with an NDA” — Atkinson notes the risk that, if the person who makes the comments never faces any public consequences, they may be emboldened to do more, even to escalate.
Both Atkinson and Jennifer Justice, another prominent entertainment attorney, noted that signing an NDA itself following alleged misconduct isn’t always the problem, particularly if a victim doesn’t want their story known to the broader public. But as Justice says, the documents often make it harder for companies or accused workers to be held accountable.
“The music industry is 15 years behind the rest of the world, and definitely any other industry, including tech and Wall Street,” Justice says. “The music industry is run predominantly by white men, and it’s always been run by the same people, and they’ve never been forced to reckon with it like every other industry has, so they get away with it.” With few of the people who’ve been outed facing serious consequences and some of them remaining in the industry, a woman who might otherwise come forward is, Justice says, “petrified” to do so, “because either she has to admit that she will no longer be in the music industry — she just has to take the money and run — or if they do come out, they’re vilified for it.”
California, where Maloney signed her NDA, has in recent years tried to curb the practice of NDAs in the context of sexual harrasment claims being settled and passed legislation curbing their use. In 2019, the state passed a law restricting NDAs from masking sexual harassment claims in settlement of lawsuits or administrative actions brought by employees, though that doesn’t stop NDAs that had previously been signed.
Federal lawmakers are also pushing back against the use of NDAs in this context as well. Last week, President Joe Biden signed the Ending Forced Arbitration Act into law, which in certain contexts will prevent companies from enforcing arbitration agreements for sexual harassment claims.
Advocates are actively trying to push the industry to address the issue of sexual assault and harassment in the music business. Dorothy Carvello, a former A&R at Warner Music subsidiary Atlantic Records who left the company in 1991, detailed her own sexual harassment allegations against several prominent industry leaders that she claimed led to her firing in her 2018 book Anything for a Hit. Pointing to her experiences at the time, Carvello is troubled by what she views as the “institutionalized abuse of women.” “The men are rewarded for their abusive behavior, and the women are disregarded like I was fired for not sitting on a boss’ lap,” she adds. “The proof of the reward is that these men keep their jobs while the women are cast out.”
Carvello, who has pushed for workplace harassment victims to be released from their NDAs and hopes to do so through shareholder activism at each of the three largest music companies, is also launching Face the Music, a foundation that she says will offer, among other things, legal counsel for women in the music business to come forward to safely report sexual harassment claims.
After Maloney told a third former Warner executive about Cooper’s alleged comment, the executive advised Maloney to seek legal counsel. “She came to me a couple nights later; she was shocked and didn’t know what to do,” the industry insider, who requested anonymity over fear of retribution, says. Pointing to the nature of the broader music industry, he says, “I told her to get a lawyer, to protect yourself, because they’ve got the major bucks. It’s a boys’ club, and no one’s ever had the balls to stop them.”