Flip the Script: Overcoming Scottish music's toxic past

In a post-COVID world, could Scotland's music scene become safer and more inclusive for all? We speak to the Glasgow Accountability Network and Scottish Women Inventing Music who are working towards exactly that

Feature by Tallah Brash | 31 Aug 2020
  • Scotland's Music Scene

From Aretha Franklin and Lesley Gore in the 60s via Bikini Kill, X-Ray Spex, Salt-N-Pepa and No Doubt in the 90s to more recent artists like Dream Wife, Janelle Monáe and Cardi B, women in music have been tackling feminist issues, challenging stereotypes and sticking two fingers up at the patriarchy in their songs for decades.

'Girls to the front' is not a new ideology. Kathleen Hanna coined the phrase in the early 90s when touring with Bikini Kill. Thirty years on and there’s still work to be done. But for once it feels like we could be at a genuine turning point from the never ending sorry-go-round of men taking advantage of the other sex, and that extends to all women, female identifying people, non-binary and all those from the LGBTQIA+ community, no matter their race.

In Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, which follows the life of Hanna, she’s caught on camera during a gig saying: “All girls to the front! All boys be cool for once in your life, go back,” and as noted by NPR music writer Ann Powers, one of the documentary’s many talking heads, “it was a flip of the script that blew people’s minds.” In Scotland the script is being flipped once again as, dear reader, we're happy to report, the Scottish music scene is gearing up to bid farewell to its toxic past.

But why now? Back in March life was put on hold due to the global pandemic we're all currently living through. During lockdown months, domestic abuse was reportedly at an all-time high, and as time stretched on upsetting stories about several high profile musicians (Tom Meighan [Kasabian], Mark Kozelek [Sun Kil Moon], The Killers, The Growlers) and a label (Burger Records) came to light. It's impossible to say whether or not these stories would have been told had it not been for the rare gift of time that coronavirus offered to an otherwise non-stop industry, but closer to home the same thing was happening.

Several accounts of discrimination, abuse of power, aggression, bullying, manipulation, harrassment, complicity, rape and sexual abuse have risen to the murky surface of Scotland’s music scene in recent months, with many from within its DIY grassroots communities speaking out online about their experiences. Realising it’s no longer enough to just be angry at this mess we’re in, certain individuals and organisations are stepping up, taking action and ready to do the hard work.

"The music industry has never been a level playing field..."

The Glasgow Accountability Network (GAN) are one such group. Describing themselves as “a collective of artists, organisers, activists and survivors working on collective action as a response to abuse and insidious toxic culture within our music community,” GAN was set up during lockdown, giving survivors hope that there could be a safer music community to return to post-coronavirus. “We believe survivors,” they tell us via email to maintain their anonymity, “and we are advocates for survivor-centred, non-carceral approaches towards transformative justice. We encourage harm-doers to take authentic action and steps towards accountability.”

Nothing that has come out hasn't been heard before. “The music industry has never been a level playing field, [it’s] one of the least regulated industries there is in terms of codes of conduct and good practice,” GAN are quick to point out. “Representation has never been a focus or concern for the cis white male gatekeepers at the top. The music industry has operated as a noxious boys’ club since its birth. Moving forward, we need to see more diversity within music and these gatekeepers need to loosen their grip on the keys if we want to have a better, safer future in music.”

The Skinny has regularly highlighted safe spaces and their importance for music communities over the years, but it's become apparent that simply declaring a space as ‘safe’ hasn't been enough. There needs to be a cultural shift in attitudes for safe space policies to truly work, with education, mentoring and training from the ground up being the key to lasting change.

As an immediate response to what has come out during lockdown, Scottish Women Inventing Music (SWIM), a charity set up in 2018 that advocates for women in Scottish music, recently made their intent known in a Twitter post, announcing extensive plans to offer support from experts, education for all and change through collaboration. “We’re looking at a collaborative approach with a number of different groups to try and signpost help for victims more clearly and also support anyone who approaches SWIM for help,” a SWIM spokesperson tells us via email. “We’re committed to creating change through understanding, collaboration and education.”

GAN also agree there “needs to be more education for all participants in music to raise their consciousness on how their actions and behaviours may give or take away space from someone of a marginalised identity.” And are keen to highlight: “This applies to cis white male fans of music as well, as often this particular group of people are the ones who uphold the power of a harm-doer within a scene and dismiss the voices of survivors upon call out.”

Education is the vital next step in rebuilding a broken system, but it needs to sit alongside action and solidarity. In the same way the Black Lives Matter movement gains strength and momentum through the continual work of activists and its growing network of allies, the Scottish music scene needs to build community power. People need to be willing to check their privilege, learn and grow from past mistakes, and call people out.

GAN believes that “calling out your friends on their harmful behaviour is an action of compassion and care,” and "hope that through education on accountability and transformative justice, that we can normalise accountability.” When we ask what their plans are for the future, they tell us: “We aim to support smaller community groups with their own interventions and actions towards transformative justice with harm-doers within their groups before things escalate towards a larger community call out. This includes signposting individuals to the appropriate services, organisations and practitioners to support them through their situation. If things escalate to a call out, GAN will amplify these actions and stand in solidarity with that community." They conclude: "Ultimately, we hope to set an example that harm-doers will no longer be tolerated or welcome within music communities.”

Next Steps

One of SWIM’s big plans is to develop a Kite Mark. “In collaboration with a number of organisations [the aim is] to encourage all involved in the Scottish Music industry to uphold best practice and a code of conduct,” they tell us. “Our hope would be that the SWIM Kite Mark acts as a means to achieving accountability, positioning accountability as a necessary step for change, as it would set a clear expectation and assist with getting policy and procedure in place in venues etc. It is incredibly important that we are not doing this in silo. Change is necessary and we must come together in order to achieve it.”

When we ask GAN what their hopes are for the future of the Scottish music scene, their message is loud and clear: “Our hope is for a safer, inclusive environment where all participants are welcomed, appreciated and respected equally.” Unsurprisingly SWIM echo the sentiment: “That one is easy – equality and respect for all those who work and exist within it. It sounds simple, but we still have a long way to go.”

The stresses and concerns coronavirus has posed for the future of Scotland's music industry are countless, and there is a genuine fear that not all venues will reopen and not all those working in music pre-pandemic will return to their jobs. But it’s also given us an opportunity to change something we do have control over – the kind of music scene we want to return to post-COVID. Ask yourself, do you want to return to a scene that's populated with toxic individuals, unsafe spaces and unfair practices, or do you want to return to one that’s free from discrimination and welcoming to all? Believe survivors. Call people out. Seek help. Be a good ally. Work together not against each other, and treat others as you’d like to be treated. It’s time to do the work. It's time to flip the script.

If you need advice or support on any of the above issues, the Glasgow Accountability Network and Scottish Women Inventing Music have links to several helpful resources on their websites