The sexism scandal at Burger Records proves that indie music culture needs to be detoxified

If the scene is to truly reckon with its rampant misogyny, it must stamp out abuse from the start – not just when allegations reach social media

Once again: what an exhausting time to be a woman. When a series of troubling allegations against the Californian garage label Burger Records surfaced over the weekend, it didn’t come as a surprise – instead, it felt like yet more overdue confirmation that indie music harbours poisonous levels of toxic misogyny.

In response to the allegations about the sexist culture at their label, Burger Records issued a statement outlining their plans to stamp out misogyny in the future.

The label said that, under the new name BRGR RECS, it would adopt a “zero-tolerance” policy with regards to abusive behaviour on their roster in the future. It said that the label will also “work with women in the industry, artists, and fans to create further actionable goals for educating our bands and the music community on recognizing abusive or predatory behavior”. This is an approach that unfortunately put the onus of fixing a broken system onto women. In the end, they opted to shut down completely.

Advertisement

The label also distanced itself from the affiliated Fullerton, California-based store, also named Burger Records, where some of the alleged abuses took place. Many of the women who have spoken out about the culture at the label allege that under-age girls were regularly invited into the backroom and preyed upon by older men. The label’s original statement claimed that the shop “is not a part of Burger Records”.

And yet you only have to delve into Burger Records’ well-storied mythology to find that the store and the label are linked. The shop has previously been likened to a nerve centre for the DIY label, which operates in a building just behind it. A 2014 New York Times profile on the label describes the store as a “warren of VHS tapes and cassettes” where its signed bands regularly hang out. Founders Lee Rickard and Sean Bohrman both lived there.

In another troubling interview with VICE, this one from 2013, a male journalist asks Rickard: “How old was that girl you had sex with in my basement?”. “Um… I don’t know…” Rickard replies. “She was legal. She had a mohawk.” The two founders and interviewer all laugh: “[_Laughter_]”. It’s revolting.

Then again, this laughing-off of abuse is hardly a surprise in a scene that often romanticises hedonism and partying, and passes off misogyny as rock’n’roll. Indie practically makes deities out of troubled male musicians wrestling with their demons.

By its very nature – and name – the DIY scene is a do-it-yourself entity, and indie music operates independent from the mainstream. Indie organisations are about resisting conventions, establishing your own structure and doing things differently. Often, crucially, they’re self-regulating scenes, which results in a lack of accountability or process when people do speak out against abusers.

Continually these scenes do not practice what they preach when it comes to the progressive values that help them to flog records. They avoid confronting the sexism they’re helping to harbour. Whispers about abusive behaviour circulate, but aren’t acted on for years, and when labels or bands finally take action, it feels more like a PR exercise in damage limitation. We only see labels issuing statements and bands booting out abusive band members when allegations surface publicly. And it is not good enough.

Advertisement

In the many years I have been writing about music, I’ve witnessed music’s casual misogyny first hand. The swaggering new bands of young men who get pissed on press duties, instigate uncomfortable hugs, call their female interviewers “darling”. The publicist who advises that it might be less awkward for everybody if you could perhaps refrain from asking about an act’s recent controversy, please. The female artists who are sick and tired of seeing their male peers praised as artistic mavericks and rewarded for getting their dicks out on stage, while they’re left to field constant patronising questions about how hard it is being a quote-unquote a woman in music.

And people then wonder why it might be hard for women in music. And this is not to mention the column inches freely handed to acts accused of predatory behaviour, such as PWR BTTM, Ryan Adams and Pinegrove. These acts have all been invited by mainstream publications to tell their ‘painful’ redemption stories, rather than those of the vulnerable, potential-filled people who may never pursue careers in the music industry again due to the atmospheres they helped to foster.

2018 Burger Boogaloo
The 2018 Burger Boogaloo. CREDIT: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images.

And this enormous unfulfilled potential is the most painful part of the story that rarely gets told – the most striking factor in the allegations against labels like Burger Records, and artists such as Ryan Adams, is the women who say that their negative experiences have driven them from music altogether. All of those valuable voices, stories, and talents – extinguished.

If the DIY and independent music scene is to truly reckon with its rampant misogyny problem, it must go much further than quietly dropping abusers from label rosters and issuing apology statements when allegations are made public. People must be supported and listened to from the very first moment that they raise concerns internally. It should not take being exposed on social media for an organisation to take its duty of care seriously.

Male musicians particularly should be calling out sexism wherever they see it. Gross displays of macho swaggering should be questioned, not rewarded. Toxicity must not be tolerated in any form.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement