SILENCE NO LONGER AN OPTION FOR ARIA: OPINION




It wasn’t just Sony. It never was.


Universal Music Australia’s belated - one might offer, forced – admittance of a moral black hole in its culture, as reported at the weekend by Nathanael Cooper of The Sydney Morning Herald, who broke the story of Denis Handlin’s ignominious exit from Sony Music Australia in June, is proof of that.


There’s more, plenty more. And I don’t just mean the expanded revelations about Sony Australia, from Kelly Burke in The Guardian, which showed via the stories of resilient survivors the human cost of a truly toxic environment, and the ongoing, not just historical, context.


Credible, detailed, and often horrifying accusations have been made on Beneath The Glass Ceiling – the Instagram site collecting anonymous complaints and stories about predators and abuses within the Australian music industry - involving at least one other major label, a number of significant music promoters and artists, and one notorious senior figure in radio.


While no one is named, many of these stories are as widely known and as easily identified as the Sony ones were prior to the SMH and Guardian revelations. They are neither ancient tales, nor narrowly focused: it is not in one city, one genre, one business, but everywhere, and happening at least up until last year.


They include mostly male alleged perpetrators, a series of male managers and superiors who seemingly took no action or were seen to be rewarding those perpetrators, and a small number of female enablers/defenders right up to senior levels who allegedly ran interference, punished complainers and buried complaints.


You can take it as read that every story told to Beneath The Glass Ceiling has been seen by those responsible, or irresponsible. It was a matter of much discussion at Sony before Handlin left, it’s been the topic of private discussions and the implied impetus of several emails to staff at other labels encouraging them to bring up issues, to speak freely. As Harry Nilsson sang, everybody’s talkin’.


So, with two publicly shamed members – one, Sony, the de-facto big boy in the room even as its financial presence waned; the other, Universal Music, the actual big boy in the room as the dominant force in artist numbers, releases, sales and charts - and one more all but outed, you might imagine the industry’s peak body, ARIA (the Australian Recording Industry Association) and its sister organisation PPCA (Phonographic Performance Company of Australia) would have spoken out by now.


Maybe to say, “we are appalled at these revelations and that they involve our members who are the leading figures in this industry. This is not our standard, this is not what we should stand for”.

Maybe to apologise on behalf of its members, to all those abused and damaged; to the industry generally; to the wider public who listen to, attend, and buy music reasonably assuming it hasn’t been made by some version of forced labour and destructive, disgusting methods.


Maybe to say we will investigate (a) how this happened, (b) what role ARIA played in allowing it to happen by inaction, (c) whether there was any deliberate policy of looking away by board members and staff, and (d) what can we do now and in the future to prevent this happening again and to establish procedures for redress and sanction in case it does.


The CEO of ARIA, Annabelle Herd, who took over on February 1 after most recently working in the TV industry, has done none of those. The chair of the ARIA board, Natalie Waller, a board member since 2019 as head of ABC Music, who took over in June to fill the position Handlin had vacated, has done none of those.


This matters.


It’s not just radio local music quotas, not just lobbying a federal government that has never cared about the arts, not just finding a way for musicians, crew and related workers to find a way to make a living in a lockdown country that is important. It’s also creating a safe and legal system in the industry, and helping those who have been damaged by the absence of a safe and legal system in the industry. Not talking, not admitting fault, pretending that we can go on as normal if we have an occasional #MeToo meeting, just isn’t good enough.


In fact, one of the people who might legitimately be asked a few questions on these points – apart from the obvious, George Ash, as president of Universal Music Australia and long-running ARIA board member, and indeed any other board member - is her predecessor, Dan Rosen, who now runs one of the major labels with a reputation under question, Warner Music.


After years of apparent silent inaction at ARIA, regarded fairly or unfairly as “the member for Denis”, he made one major change at Warner, moving on a senior executive with long-standing question marks over his behaviour. Interestingly, while encouraging staff to report and discuss any existing or previous areas of concern, so far, another senior staffer considered by disgruntled current and former employees as one of the alleged enablers of fellow executives, remains in place. As does Rosen on the ARIA board.


Certainly, the irony of the shitstorm created by arrogant, abusive and seriously damaging men having to be cleaned up by women is not lost on anyone. Nor does it surprise if you’d seen many corporate and political examples. And, yes, the unfairness of in some ways having to carry the can for policies and actions that flourished before Herd took this job is clear.


Herd wasn’t one of the MDs/CEOs/Presidents who created cultures of verbal violence, sexual exploitation and general abuse at their companies, along the way discarding “difficult” staff who complained while promoting some of the worst offenders. And she didn’t create what often looked like notional HR departments whose aim it seemed was to protect above and punish below.


She didn’t back Handlin on the ARIA board for years when absolutely nobody in the industry was unaware of most of the stories about Sony subsequently revealed. Nor was she someone who showed absolutely no curiosity about the veracity of those stories, and what it might mean for the industry, and most importantly, the mostly young people working within it.


And obviously Herd wasn’t someone who might have worried that if Handlin and Sony were exposed it might only be a step or two until their own questionable, if not objectionable, behaviour was exposed. Either by accusation or maybe retribution.


Nor did she allow ARIA and the ARIA Awards to become the fiefdom of one man who could, for example, demand a live performance and award presentation be restaged in front of an incredulous audience and television crew, because he was unhappy with something.


Nonetheless, for Herd, as the public face of the music industry and a self-declared agent of change, saying nothing just isn’t an acceptable move. And a soft-soap interview for the industry newsletter, which managed to mention in passing “stories of bad behaviour across the industry” without asking her about any of them or ARIA’s complicity doesn’t cut it.


Where’s the speech, a series of interviews, a video statement to the industry – anything?


There are plenty of people, among them staff at Sony, Universal, Warner and others, asking, when does the Australian music industry face up to its past, its harm and its future?



Annabelle Herd was approached several times for an interview.