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AMP London on cancelling artists - should the industry play judge and jury?


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The National Student recently attended Annie Mac Presents in London – a day of talks of various talks and panels in London, as part of her Equalising Music campaign with Smirnoff.

Image courtesy of Stoked PR

Though the main theme of the day was involving more women in the music industry, there were several themes covered, including a panel of ‘female bosses’, ‘breaking artists’, the emergent of Black British artists in the charts, and whether the music industry has the right to ‘cancel’ an artist’.

The second talk of the day, ‘Cancelling Artists: Should The Industry Play Judge and Jury’ was moderated by Mark Strippel (Head of Commissioning for BBC Radio 1Extra) and had a panel consisting of Laura Snapes (Deputy Music Editor of The Guardian), Archie Lamb (Music Manager for Hardy Caprio/Director of Bear Records) and Ben Zand (BBC Journalist and Documentary maker of R Kelly: Sex, Girls and Video Tapes).

What is ‘cancelling’ an artist?

Social media is more powerful than ever, for better and for worse – there are probably far more ‘stan’ and fan accounts than celebrities in existence. Digging up one misjudged tweet could tarnish an artist’s career, inciting many to ‘cancel’ them on social media.  Archie, Laura and Ben were quick to defend this though: artists are only human, and we are almost all guilty of posting something we shouldn’t have when we were younger.

Despite this, the undercurrent of the panel was that ‘stan’ and ‘fan’ accounts have become dangerous because such celebrities are elevated to some sub-human level. Subsequently, this leads to what Ben continually referred to what is psychologically termed as ‘the halo effect’ – because we love a celebrity, we choose only to see the good, defending them against evidence of their immorality.  

This is particularly relevant in the wake of documentaries and news stories surrounding R Kelly (Surviving R Kelly), Michael Jackson (Leaving Neverland) and, most recently, Ryan Adams.

Particularly in the case of Michael Jackson, many of his life-long music fans have sought to ignore the accusations against him, often refusing to watch the documentary entirely, not to change their 'picture-perfect' musical idol that they have always loved and looked up to.

Ben Zand found this self-delusion particularly evident when making his R Kelly documentary - “I made [the documentary on R Kelly] in the middle of Jim DeRogatis article in 2017 saying that he ran a sex cult, when there started to be an avalanche of people willing to talk, but it was still a bit more of a dialogue, there were still people defending him a bit more that they are now. I spoke to so many people who knew him back in the day, background singers, tour managers, his brother. Everyone was like ‘Yeah, I suspected something was wrong, but I didn’t see it myself’.” 

Another central theme to the discussion was questioning what it means to ‘cancel’ an artist, and can an artist really be ‘cancelled’ completely? Laura Snapes argued that, especially with Michael Jackson, it’s virtually impossible: his music has become such a staple to many and his influence is found in so many pockets of what we hear today and will continue to hear for a long time to come.

Furthermore, it was questioned whether an artist is ‘cancelled’ if their music is physically removed from the platforms we access them from, since, as R Kelly’s case was spoken about more, his music was played more, in turn earning him more royalties from streaming sites. Ben referred to when Spotify controversially removed R Kelly’s music from their playlists, and whether they should have taken it upon themselves to do it: it opens up a contingency of questions, such as why have they only removed R Kelly and not other artists that have been accused of sexual misconduct, such as Michael Jackson? and also encourages us to ask what is a ‘cancellable’ offence, and who has the rights to decide this?

Archie Lamb, Ben Zand, Annie Mac, Laura Snapes and Ben Homewood // Image courtesy of Stoked PR

Is the music industry itself morally responsible?

Ben Zand, maker of one of the R Kelly documentaries, argued that such questions as to what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ should be left to our justice system, which, he argues, has failed us, particularly in the case of R Kelly: we need to be questioning why this is. R Kelly was infamously acquitted in a child pornography court case in 2008.

Artists and managers have to take moral responsibility, too: Ben Zand brought this to everyone’s attention, particularly in the case of R Kelly - Lady Gaga did a song with R Kelly after he went through a trial for sleeping with a 14-year-old. You can say what you want about that. But now that it has become more public knowledge she has dissociated herself with him and removed her song from Spotify. The question is why not earlier?” 

Mark Strippel turned this question to music manager Archie, who argued that, as soon as he had knowledge of an artist doing something immoral or being an immoral person, he would drop them, and believes that all others should be doing the same.

The topic of NDAs then arose, which is a large part of the documentaries (particularly Leaving Neverland) and something that is generally used to silence victims or sexual misconduct and abuse from those of high power within the music industry in general. On this, Laura Snapes strongly asserted that we need to “weed them out”, “stop paying them, stop letting money, your bottom line, come before someone’s wellbeing”.

She also commented on the wider implications of NDAs in the industry, “What the record industry needs to stop doing is using NDAs to silence women who come forward with allegations of sexual abuse. Loads of women can't talk because they've been paid out, their silence has been bought. There's a huge wider political conversation going on about these NDAs, and the fact the record industry doesn't want to face up to this problem, they just want to make it go away with money and that is not the solution.”

All three panellists agreed that we need to stop allowing these artists and those in power to mute people who are saying that “heinous crimes” have taken place.

Why are we talking about it now?

The panel also discussed why we, as a society, are only talking about these things now: many may even argue that it has become culturally ‘fashionable’.

Though the MeToo movement inspired a huge conversation and reassessment of the industry, Laura Snapes argued that it’s completely different to bring out these stories form the music industry - “It'll be really hard to take down the biggest figures in music, because they are so protected. They use NDAs to pay people off. In R Kelly’s case, he put parents of some of these girls on the payroll. There are parents who have got drum credits on some of his records who have never picked up an instrument, it just means they get royalty points forever… The more pursuable stories are in that more mid-level, indie-ish tier where you can actually access the artist and access the people they might have allegedly abused… After the Ryan Adams piece came out, we have a big news meeting every morning at The Guardian and people were saying, ‘why haven’t there been more of these stories?’. And on one hand, there’s the culture of male genius that upholds music. On the other, there aren’t these figures like Harvey Weinstein, where tons of power is concentrated in a single person… Music doesn’t have the same celebrity aspect as film, it doesn’t have the same name recognition in the households.”

Archie Lamb and Ben Zand also questioned why people are only coming forward now – Ben had tried to get comments from Sony for 2 years for his documentary and didn’t get a response: “We asked numerous artists for their responses to R Kelly and none of them responded whatsoever. The question is why does it take you so long to speak out if, apparently, you knew these things so early on?” 

The panel was extremely interesting and sparked a number of important questions and debates whilst discussing such a sensitive and controversial topic – it certainly opened my eyes to question the motives of those who have protected stars such as R Kelly who are now coming forward. All three panellists called out the corruption within the music industry in general, showed how difficult it actually is to ‘cancel’ an artist, especially with the existence of NDAs, whilst dealing with some difficult questions from the audience.

You can also read an opinion piece by Lara Silva we published earlier this year - #MuteRKelly - Don’t separate the artist from the art

Quotes: Amp Presents

Lead Image Credit: Stoked PR

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