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VOL. 42 | NO. 9 | Friday, March 2, 2018

Musicians want freelance, contractor harassment protections

By Sam Stockard

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Country music singer Katie Armiger re-emerged in the spotlight Monday to back legislation giving freelancers and contractors protection against sexual harassment.

Some two years after going public with accusations detailing country’s music’s untold story about how women are treated, one of sexual innuendoes, crude comments and unwanted touching by radio programmers and “influential professionals,” the 26-year-old Armiger remains caught up in a legal battle but hopes to keep other performers from falling into the same trap.

The legislation, sponsored by Nashville Democrats, Sen. Jeff Yarbro and Rep. Brenda Gilmore, a candidate for the state Senate, would extend the same workplace rights to contractors and consultants as it does to company employees protected under current law.

House Bill 1984 is set to be heard Wednesday at 3 p.m. in the Human Resources subcommittee at the Cordell Hull Building. Its companion, Senate Bill 2130, is not scheduled for a hearing yet.

Armiger contends her former label, Cold River Records, encouraged her to dress provocatively and flirt with powerful men. Otherwise, her career would suffer.

Preferring to make it in the music business “with integrity,” Armiger resisted. She says she suddenly found her career hitting a wall, losing control of her website and social media accounts, as well videos that were pulled from the Internet. She didn’t realize at the time she had no protection against sexual harassment.

“My creativity, my songs, my career, my ability to perform, my intellectual property were and still are held hostage,” she says. “They’re held by certain people in the music industry who wanted to behave in ways that were demeaning, uncomfortable and have no place in the music-making industry.

Armiger is working part time and going to school while out of the music industry.

Her experience parallels a sexual harassment scandal that rocked the country music industry last summer when allegations were leveled against publicist Kirt Webster by some two-dozen people, including Austin Rick, a young singer who claimed Webster coerced him into sexual acts, reports state.

Webster denied the allegations before abruptly leaving his firm, and two of his most famous clients, Kid Rock and Dolly Parton, dropped his services.

Rick, who did not attend a press conference at the Cordell Hull Building, issued a statement:

“I know from experience that there’s never anything fun about reliving the gruesome details of sexual victimization, no matter the context. Yet this is precisely what so many of my friends and colleagues in Music city have done so selflessly for the betterment of the status quo.

“We’ve endured shame, ridicule, dismissal and outright hatred from people who believe that we, the victims, should have done more, and sooner.”

Rick said he believes the Legislature will agree with him that workplace harassment needs to be “eradicated.”

The legislation is designed to protect young people who, too often, run into “predators” as they work their way into the industry, Yarbro noted. He pointed out most people learned about this type of behavior when superstar Taylor Swift counter-sued a radio disc jockey in Colorado for touching her inappropriately.

“Nashville is the capital of the country music world, and every year thousands of people move to Tennessee to be part of what is a multi-billion-dollar industry,” Yarbro said. “But little do they know when chasing their dreams to Tennessee if they make it they’re often entering a world that’s full of legal loopholes devoid of the protection most of us expect and take for granted in the workplace.”

Most people can’t afford to take on the music industry when the total damages could be only $1, Yarbro said. The majority of people working in the music field don’t fit the employer-employee relationship, thus the need for stronger protection and a “change in culture that says harassment isn’t OK any time, any place in any industry or any sector of our economy,” he added.

Gilmore, calling harassment one of the most common problems in the workplace, said the public needs to stop blaming victims and start taking the matter seriously. The former chairman of the Legislature’s Black Caucus said she and Yarbro have reports from more than 30 sources, including artists, manager and radio reports, detailing harassment.

“Our report reveals there’s an environment where artists and other music professionals, especially women, are expected to be overly accessible and to use sexuality when they’re visiting stations, meeting with certain program directors or attending industry events in the hopes of having their songs added to the rotation,” Gilmore said.

Studies suggest 60 percent of women keep harassment incidents to themselves, making it an “invisible but enormous problem,” she said. Most of the time, perpetrators are older, more experienced and control the victim’s livelihood, creating a “power dynamic” in which the victim fears for their career if they speak out, Gilmore added.

The public attitude toward sexual harassment victims is not sympathetic, with people often asking why someone would wait for years to make allegations, Gilmore said. But as more young women enter the workplace and the number of contractors and freelance workers increases dramatically in the coming years, Gilmore and Yarbro say their legislation needs to take hold now.

“Sexual harassment isn’t just a cultural touchpoint. It’s not just something that’s discussed on stage at the Oscars. It’s something people are living with in the workplace almost every day. And we as a Legislature have failed to protect people, and we should acknowledge our responsibility and saying sorry is never sufficient here,” Yarbro said.

Armiger still in legal fight

Not long after sexual harassment accusations surfaced against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in late 2017, Armiger went public with her complaints. Her former record label, Cold River Records, contends she broke a “non-disparagement clause” included in a confidential 2016 settlement when she broke from the company, reports state.

Pete O’Heeron, who is her mother’s cousin, and Texas-based Cold River Records, filed for the injunction to stop Armiger from making any more statements about her experiences. She started making records at age 15 after winning a performing contest in Houston, and the company formed around her as she cut about five records and 16 singles.

Nashville attorney Alex Little, who is representing Armiger, said he is concerned about people continuing to try to “bully” his client.

“But I think she’s speaking about a really important topic, and I think she’s got the right to do that, and she’ll continue to do that,” Little said.

The lawsuit is being heard in Nashville and could be a factor in similar proceedings dealing with workplace and sexual harassment and settlements reached in order to keep them secret. Congress, for instance, is dealing with its own sexual harassment scandal in which money is said to be socked away in the federal budget to pay off victims and keep them quiet.

Armiger said she has tried to work with other record companies but has been denied because, even though executives “love” her music, they believe she is too big a risk for a record contract.

Going up against the country music industry and winning passage of the legislation will be tough, she admitted.

“I think it will definitely take more artists and industry support, and I don’t think that should be hard to do, because this is something that is desperately needed in not only country music but all music in Nashville,” Armiger said.

Sam Stockard is Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Nashville Ledger and Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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