Heathcliff Berru and other Missing Stairs

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Why we owe it to ourselves and everyone else to directly address abuse in our industry and communities.

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Jes Skolnik | January 20, 2016

Broken Ladder

By now, if you pay attention to music media, you’ve probably read about the multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault against the (now former) CEO of Life or Death PR, Heathcliff Berru. Berru stepped down as CEO yesterday, though he is the company’s founder and owner, and the statements from Berru himself and Life or Death PR are unclear about whether he will completely sever himself from all ties with the company.

(Note: at the time of publishing, Life or Death’s website and roster are “under maintenance.” Many of the artists represented by Life or Death severed ties with them yesterday; others, like Killer Mike, are attempting to hold Berru accountable by remaining with the company but offering public support for the women he harmed.)

Berru’s “apology” is pure crisis management PR, as Flavorwire’s Judy Berman noted on Twitter. It is a bullshit apology that attempts to cast Berru’s pattern of predatory behavior as an “offense” rather than the harm it truly is and was. Berru’s statement also attempts to defer responsibility for such behavior onto alcoholism, an insult to any of us who are truly reckoning with our histories of substance abuse in responsible ways—alcohol and drugs reduce inhibitions; they do not turn a person without predatory instincts into a predator. For Berru and others like him to take responsibility for their behavior, they need to reckon not just with the consequences of their actions, but the causes. The first step towards changing it is coming to terms with real underlying issues.

I have seen and heard several people intimate that these abuses are solely a problem with the side of the industry that uses PR. Indeed, while Life or Death PR have said that they are “taking measures to ensure that the alleged behavior did not, and will not, make its way into company operations or impact our commitment to promoting art and assisting our clients,” Berru’s actions do reflect poorly on the entire company and will continue to; that damage cannot be undone. Berru used his position to get close to women, to harass and assault them, and used the trust his clients and employees had in him to deflect these charges for a very long time until they became so public they could not be ignored. There is no possible way his behavior couldn’t affect company operations.

We owe it to ourselves, to our work, and to the listeners and readers who are interested in what we do, to fix the missing stairs instead of leaping over them, to truly address these issues when they are raised, to listen to these allegations with fair and open minds and take them seriously.

But these things happen just as often in DIY scenes that eschew PR just as often as they do in the more capitalistic side of things. While the role of PR in the music industry is certainly always worth discussing, this is not a PR problem. As any participant in a DIY scene knows, our worlds are often tiny hierarchical mirrors of the moneyed music industry, with just as much social capital and trust at play. I have seen men use their social capital as well-respected members of the community (band members, show bookers, and so forth) in DIY scenes just as Berru did to manipulate and abuse others and, just as Berru did, attempt to wriggle out of responsibility for the harm they caused by calling on their cred (“I’m progressive! I’m a feminist! I organized this anti-racist benefit!”), the trust the community has in them (“he’s always been cool to me!”), and so forth. Lorena Cupcake wrote last year about the problem of “missing stairs,” people who everyone in the community knows to be a problem, but because they’re known quantities, the problem is never truly dealt with; we learn to leap over the missing stair time and again rather than taking the time to fix it.

The music industry, in all aspects, is a pretty small community, no matter which side of the figurative coin you’re on. Many of us love music and have made it our life’s work because we are survivors of intimate violence and abuse or otherwise “damaged goods”; this is certainly true for me. Music (and punk in particular) gave me the courage to live as a child when I felt that I had nothing. You don’t sign up for a lifetime of incredibly hard work with very little reward or stability unless you truly care about the art and the work. That, or you are completely delusional (some of your friends are probably already this fucked). We owe it to ourselves, to our work, and to the listeners and readers who are interested in what we do, to fix the missing stairs instead of leaping over them, to truly address these issues when they are raised, to listen to these allegations with fair and open minds and take them seriously. And it is on those who have social protection against direct recrimination who have the greatest responsibility to listen. Women and non-binary people who have been victimized often put ourselves in danger to speak up about what we’ve experienced, which is why so many of these allegations happen on bathroom walls and in private conversations for many years before they become more public knowledge.

We are long past time to stop excusing this shit, and it is on all of our shoulders to do so.

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