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Speech given by Deborah Annetts on the ISM’s latest report Dignity at work 2: Discrimination in the music sector

Thank you for giving me the time to talk about the ISM’s latest report Dignity at work 2: Discrimination in the music sector.

I am going to be sharing with you the results of our latest research which found that harassment and discrimination are rife in the music sector. Some of what I am going to share with you is difficult to hear. The report published on 28 September 2022 was authored by Dr Kathryn Williams, the EDI Officer at the Independent Society of Musicians, together with Vick Bain who many of you will know. Vick is former CEO of the Ivors, the founder of the F-List and an eminent adviser in the field of diversity. I am very lucky to have Vick as chair of the Independent Society of Musicians, or the ISM for short. I myself am an employment solicitor.

The report Dignity at work 2: Discrimination in the music sector was covered in the Guardian and across the music trade press and is the follow up report to the two reports we published on the same set of issues back in 2018.

Before we start getting into the detail, I want to share with you some of the history of the ISM. The ISM has long been the home to many thousands of musicians, singer-songwriters, conductors, DJs and all kinds of performers as well as teachers. We were founded in 1882 and by 1884 women were accepted as full members of the Society.

We now have over 11,000 members. We are known for our legal support as well as campaigning on a huge range of issues from diversity to cost of living issues, workers’ rights, Brexit and music education.

The ISM has worked for many years to tackle discrimination, including harassment and bullying. Part of how we do this is through providing members with legal support. We engage a team of six lawyers who deal with about 2,000 cases per year on behalf of members. We have just been successful on a workers’ rights case in the Supreme Court.

We also run a counselling helpline for members. We are totally independent - we just work for musicians.

Towards the end of 2017 you will recall there were lots of revelations in connection with Harvey Weinstein. Bit by bit the disclosures in the film world impacted on other sectors from theatre to music. In the wake of the #MeToo movement in 2017, the ISM legal team received an influx of calls from members, predominantly women, who wanted to share their own experiences. This resulted in a tripling of ISM legal cases concerned with discrimination and sexual harassment.

In response, the ISM launched its Dignity at work campaign, which involved researching the extent of discrimination occurring in the music sector and higher education and we published our research in 2018. The report you are going to hear about is our follow up research four years later. We wanted to find out if things had improved. Shockingly they had not. In fact they have got worse.

Dignity at work 2
exposed the devastating scale of discrimination (including sexual harassment and racism) in all parts of the music sector, including education. Musicians have come forward and shared with the ISM their deeply felt personal testimonies. We hope that this important report will be a vehicle for change in the music sector, making it unacceptable for anyone to commit discrimination or harass their fellow workers.

The first-hand evidence which forms the bedrock of the report paints a picture of unsafe workplaces where perpetrators face no repercussions and there is a scandalous lack of action by venues, contractors and employers. Very often the fear of being subjected to reprisals stops those who have suffered discrimination from making a complaint. Most musicians are freelancers and do not have access to the type of HR functions which everyone else takes for granted. Musicians are particularly vulnerable and as a result the fear of victimisation stalks our sector.

We ran an anonymous survey from May to June this year, and received 660 responses from individual or group performers, educators, and arrangers/composers/producers/songwriters, live music crew, festival staff, promoters, sound engineers, venue staff, artist managers, music publishers, studio workers, professional ensemble staff, music therapists, and more.

All research material was handled with care, respect, and sensitivity. There are some comments that are deeply distressing, and I am going to be sharing some of these quotes with you on an anonymous basis.

      In 2018, we reported that 47% of respondents had experienced discrimination. In 2022, this had risen to 66%.

      • 58% of discrimination was identified as sexual harassment.
      • 78%of discrimination was committed against women.
      • 72%of incidents were committed by people with seniority or influence over their career.
      • This is followed by 45% of all recorded incidents being committed by colleagues and 27% by a third party, such as an audience member, client, or customer.

      Our research suggests the more protected characteristics a person has, the higher the rates of discrimination experienced. While levels of discrimination are high across all groups, the people who are at highest risk of discrimination are Black, Asian, mixed or multiple ethnicity groups, people with disabilities, and women.

      Respondents had the option to share anonymous comments about their experiences. These were analysed to categorise the type of discrimination. Although there was discrimination identified across all protected characteristics apart from marriage or civil partnership, sexual harassment was by far the most common. 58% of comments directly relayed details of sexual harassment. 5% detailed incidents of sexual assault which go beyond the Equality Act and would be considered a criminal matter.

      Women’s comments detailed some of the locations where discrimination, or worse, had occurred: on stage, in rehearsals, on tour buses, teaching in schools, at networking events, during performances, and unwanted social media messages. There was no type of work setting that comes out as ‘safer’. No area of work reported levels below 62%. Studio and live music event workers both showed the highest at 76%. Women simply cannot escape it.

      Women shared examples of being pressured by those in positions of power into offering sexual favours or dressing more provocatively.

      'I was told as a female musician I would only advance my career if I was prepared to give sexual favours.'

      'Which instance?!! In a studio, on stage, backstage… everywhere.'

      Women feared not being booked again if they refused to comply or complained about the behaviour. Of the 78% of women who experienced discrimination, most did not report it.

      Employment status and reporting

      The most vulnerable category of worker is self-employed. Our research showed that 88% of self-employed people did not report their experiences of discrimination. Why not? 94% of them had no one to report it to. 69% feared losing work or victimisation.

      'Hard to prove anything, would get a bad reputation.'

      'Reporting… would most definitely damage my professional career.'

      'Your life is over if you were to say anything publicly.'

      Other reasons for non-reporting were, 'it’s just the culture here' and 'fear of not being believed'.

      Nearly a thousand comments relayed deeply felt fear and despondency at the realities of working in the music sector.

      'Being offered career breaks that turned out to require quid pro quo: he was expecting me to sleep with him.'

      'Sexist behaviour has been a constant throughout my career.'

      'Discrimination is endemic in the music profession.'

      Our research shows that a huge number of music workplaces are unsafe. The legislative framework fails to recognise the nature of the gig economy and rights such as third-party harassment have been removed. The lack of adequate protections allows deeply embedded power imbalances to go unchallenged. Perpetrators get away with their behaviour. There are simply no repercussions. This was also evident in our Dignity in study report from 2018.


      Our recommendations cover both the government and the music sector.

      1. Amend the Equality Act 2010 to ensure that all those working in the music sector are protected.

          2. Reintroduce rights around third-party harassment.

          3. Reintroduce the use of discrimination questionnaires to make it easier to challenge potentially discriminatory behaviour at work.

          4. Extend the time limit for bringing discrimination cases from three months to six months.

          5. Properly fund the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) and support its work.

          6. Membership organisations can change culture through their internal procedures. Our research analysed 26 membership organisations across the UK music industry and only 31% had a publicly available members’ code of conduct. They can do this by including provisions within their governance documents to take action against discriminatory behaviours.

          7. Established organisations such as orchestras, studios, venues, and labels can lead the sector by example through adopting guidance on sexual harassment and other types of discrimination and supplying all workers (freelance or employed) with a code of conduct that clearly defines unacceptable behaviour.

          8. Funding bodies should commit to regular and specific training on discrimination and harassment alongside providing written procedures on how complaints will be addressed.

          9. All organisations to understand their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 through undertaking training on the subjects of sexual harassment, inappropriate behaviour and discrimination.


            Perpetrators continue their behaviours because there are no meaningful repercussions, especially in self-employed settings. We need to find solutions which really will be effective when tackling these unsafe workplaces. And these solutions need to work for everyone.

            Our researchers felt hugely privileged to hear the brave testimonies of hundreds of people, which have collectively formed the voice of our new campaign called #Dignity2Work. As one respondent said:

            'I feel more safe and protected knowing it is an important issue for the ISM.'

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