Protecting yourself as a freelance musician

“There should be no ‘everyday’. We should have zero tolerance for abuse and discrimination.”

DC Sebastian Valentine
Surrey Police Safeguarding Investigation Unit

This post is a round-up of a workshop on protecting yourself as a freelance musician hosted by Rocket Opera.

I have started with a quote which absolutely set the tone of the discussion for us and it is worth repeating:

“There should be NO everyday harassment, discrimination and abuse.”

This means that everything that we put up with day to day, week to week, and grumble about as being a necessary part of the industry should be considered, called out, and changed.

This feels huge, almost unimaginable. The day to day imbalances and discriminations in the music industry are so wide-spread, this would take a vast culture change.

So, why is this so significant in the music industry? Whose job is it to change it? And what can be done?

There are several things about music that makes these issues more significant and widespread in our industry, one of the main being imbalance of power.

Why does it have such an impact?

Sebastian shared the fact that, in safeguarding children, one to one music lessons are considered the highest risk activity; this is the place a child is most at risk of abuse.

The pupil/master relationship is one where the imbalance of power is especially strong. The master has absolute knowledge and power, and can command the pupil to do uncomfortable things in the pursuit of musical excellence.

But that power can often allow the teacher overstep the mark.

Our musical experience as players and composers is always deeply personal and entwined with our sense of self. When learning, we can be subjected to what is actually bullying. We are shown a world in which success can be cruel, and competition and criticism is everything.

We can and must model different behaviours.

By understanding the many generations of power play going on in the industry, we can turn this on its head and demonstrate to the musicians of the future that leaders can and should be kind, compassionate, considerate and collegiate.

The idea that people can get away with doing whatever they like because they are artists or geniuses just doesn’t wash today.

Which brings me to one area where the music industry really falls behind and that is its attitude to trans and non-binary people.

In opera, in particular, trans and non-binary people find it exceptionally difficult to enter where voice types are associated with genders, and with a repertoire in which so many gender roles are totally out of date.

How can we  begin to safeguard people who can’t even access the industry in the first place? What can we do as individuals?

There may be an imbalance of power, but that does not mean we as individuals have none.

If someone reports something to you, either as an individual or part of an organisation, believe them. Always. Never dismiss someone who is reporting abuse. They may be put off trusting anyone else.

If you’re part of an organisation, find out the reporting procedure (there should always be one, even if it’s not easy to find) and encourage them to report.

Be an ally. Support them in any way you can.

If you witness inappropriate behaviour, call it out, either at the time if you feel safe doing so, or report it later

Tell the person experiencing the abuse that you saw it, that it is not acceptable, and that you’ll be a witness if they need you to be. This is so powerful – that person will almost certainly be doubting themselves and wondering if it is their fault. You can take that worry away and consider reporting it yourself if appropriate.

If you are the recipient of harassment, abuse or discrimination, always tell someone. Rely on your friends and allies.

Report it officially if you possibly can – relying on informal support from someone you trust can help.

Seek the help of charities and other organisations that are set up for dealing with what you have experienced.

Bear in mind that where there is public money behind an organisation, there has been an agreement made to treat everyone involved with respect. Breaking that agreement could result in a loss of funding. Behind the figure who may be abusing their power is often a board of trustees who are obliged to act if the funds that organisations rely on are put at risk.

You can find your power and safety within the music industry in various way.

Be part of a collective, a network – make sure you have like-minded people around you.

Talk to each other and listen to yourself – What makes you feel uncomfortable when it happens to you and or others?

Know what is in your power and what isn’t.

What is: be an ally, don’t buy into bad cultures, stand up for your colleagues, know your rights and reporting structures within the organisations you work for, and know where the money lies!

What isn’t: freelance working rights and the wider culture.

Know the power of activism, self-belief, and finding your people.

Social media is extremely powerful for this.

Be a colleague, and a nurturer – not a competitor. Show how powerful that is. If you need professional help with a safety issue, or you need to report something or talk to someone, here is a list of organisations that can help you:

Help resources for sexual harassment from the Musicians’ Union.

Help resources for bullying and harassment at work: NHS and UK Government.

Resources for bullying, harassment and other issues from the Incorporated Society of Musicians.

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