Articles - Features

Making Gigs Safer Spaces


Where there is power there is often a breach of it. The past few years have been paramount for the entertainment industry’s beginning to open conversations surrounding power imbalance within its sectors. It is difficult to pin down exactly when misconduct of a sexual nature became the central offence within this conversation. The tape containing Donald Trump’s now-infamous “grab her by the pussy” line was unearthed and put into circulation in 2016. Whilst widely criticised it was not incriminating enough to prevent him from becoming President-elect. The following October saw a dozen women come forward with testimonials regarding the sexual misconduct of film producer Harvey Weinstein. In the wake of his resulting conviction in 2018, the #MeToo movement, accredited to Alyssa Milano in the US, began to gain traction with numerous people coming forward to speak out against instances of harassment, assault and rape. This movement, so publicly tied to the film industry saw the birth of branches in academia, science, politics and the music industry.

Despite this perceived united front across all sectors, the movement to stand with victims and open statements from both male and female celebrities, the trial of sexual misbehaviours remains one of the most dubious across the world. Only last month, Hayley Williams of Paramore posted on Instagram expressing her disgust at unspecified instances of abuse within her industry. Whilst a self-admitted emotional post, Williams noted how young men were vulnerable to the toxic masculinity that exists within record labels and big industry status. Phoebe Bridgers, who has spoken about her own experience of emotional abuse was more direct in her approach, merely tweeting “society has progressed past the need for dudes in bands”. However, when it does come to industry trickle down, the miniature much reflects the larger; abuse, dudes in bands and all. Alex Greenwood, who plays the drums in London based alternative rock band Sports Team, points out “you cannot consider gig spaces as distinct from the wider social context. I’m not sure if I think music scenes are necessarily prone to abuse of power any more than any other space in society. As anywhere, the systems are maintained by learnt and unquestioned behaviours and power dynamics exercised by individuals.”

Belfast’s own music scene has had some difficult wake-up calls over the past few months regarding reported instances of abuse amongst band members. With this scene so separated into different subgroups, there has been a move towards more unity through speaking out against such behaviours. Punk girl band Problem Patterns’ (pictured) Alanah Smith talks of the longevity of these power imbalances within the industry she’s frequented for over a decade. “I’ve lived in a few countries and I’ve seen a few scenes over the years. Unfortunately, this behaviour has been ripe in every music community I’ve seen, ever since I was a kid. I’ve been hearing stories right now that mirror exactly what was happening to my friends 15 years ago. It’s scary to think how little has changed in that time. Whether it is hardcore punk shows, garage rock bands, DIY spaces. As long as there are impressionable young people there will be vultures who wish to take advantage of them”. When it comes to the music industry as a whole, “There are people who will step over anybody to get what they want. They’re charismatic and manipulative. It’s never surprising to hear they’re the same people causing harm upon others.”

Identification and dispute of this kind of power disparity is something Smith is used to talking about. Since their formation in 2018, Problem Patterns have become notable figures in Belfast music, pushing their political agenda ahead of musical precision. Their music explicitly dissents marginalisation as a megaphone used to sound frustration. “Punk, at its very heart, has always been about acceptance, about creating a safe space for those who feel left out elsewhere. There have been many attempts by hate groups to co-opt the music for their own agendas, but that’s not punk. There is nothing punk about being an asshole,” Smith assures. However, there are a lot of things to be angry about, “most especially when it comes to the treatment of marginalised people. We sing a lot about our personal experiences as women, but acknowledge our own privileges, especially in feminist queer spaces.”

Of course, putting the fire out from inside the house is ineffective without direct action. As spokespeople for those unheard, Problem Patterns have hosted music nights in support of sex workers, played at international women’s day gigs and actively discuss rape culture within their music. In order to maintain action alongside such vocal proclamations, “we do our best to check out who we’re playing with at gigs and who we’re working with. In hindsight, we have not always been successful, but we will continue to do our best. We want to make sure we’re providing a safe space as possible, not only for us but for those who attend our shows too. We also need to look at finding more venues that are fully accessible. Live music is such a joyful experience, and it is a shame that it is often exclusive.”

Smith also points to how intolerance of abuse at a societal level, in turn, feeds to its intolerance in subcultures. “We need to teach things like consent from a young age, we need to teach people about self-confidence, about self-worth. My ideal music scene would have way more perspectives from way more people. It would be built on supporting each other, celebrating each other. There are also things we can do individually that help everything as a whole. Call your mates out on their shitty jokes, don’t laugh with them just so you don’t feel left out. Tell them that’s not cool. Microaggressions add up so easily. If you assist in planting these gross seeds everywhere, you can’t be shocked when the fruit turns out to be rotten.”

The responsibility of creating a safe space for women and other vulnerable people falls to the organiser. Addison Paterson is a Belfast-based gig promoter who set up her project Table It at the beginning of 2020. “The most important thing for me is that the environment is felt to be queer and womxn friendly and I hope the nature of the project (myself being both those things) ensures that is the case. Over and above that, it’s about making it unwaveringly clear that anyone who affects the safety, mental wellbeing or comfort of artists and audience members will be removed. I have zero interest in interacting – personally or professionally – with someone like that. I would rather three decent people turned up and had a good time than we were profitably successful but lost the feeling of being in the room with good people.” With small localised gigs this is easier. Paterson is merely the face behind one of several PR projects that have sprung up in Belfast since the beginning of the year. “It would be disingenuous to list all the things I do differently with Table It. I’m not partial to the idea of creative projects being in competition with each other. I started it less because I thought something was lacking within the gigging circuit that I could bring to it and more because I wanted to contribute further to something established that I already get so much from.”

When it comes to making music scenes, as a whole, safer places there is much to be done. “The crux of it is a zero-tolerance attitude,” Addison continues. “Safe spaces and having points of contact at gigs for anyone who feels uncomfortable is important and necessary, but ultimately that’s only helpful in the aftermath. Action needs to be preventative as well. There’s a lot of foundational work that needs to go into elevating women to a point where they aren’t belittled, sexualised or harassed in these settings because that’s pretty much ubiquitous whether you’re running, playing or attending gigs. There need to be real consequences for microaggressions, verbal harassment or low-level misogyny. It’s exhausting and it needs to be everyone’s problem.”

So much of the time it is those who have been exposed to or the victim of inappropriate behaviour that take the action. There is a blind spotting when it comes to the consequence for sexual misconduct in spaces frequented on evenings out. ‘Girls Against’ is a female collective campaigning to fight sexual harassment at gigs and music venues. Their goal is to open up discussion within the industry about assault. Originating in 2015, this group was born out of a realisation that all 5 of the young women who founded the group had been harassed at various gigs. None of them had talked to their friends about what had happened to them at the time. In a push to eradicate victim shaming, “we urge people to tell security or someone they trust to bring more awareness to the fact that the issue is happening. Security are often guilty of shrugging the issue off, and not being extremely helpful. We are working on a solid safety plan to try and change this. Getting bands to show their support against sexual assault during their gigs, or being open that groping is not tolerated also massively increases the safety and comfort for the audience. If people know that venues and bands will take sexual assault seriously, perpetrators won’t even bother to go.”

Whilst abuse has proved still rife across both big industry music scenes and those more localised, creatives looking to offer more protected spaces has resulted in new projects. Female collective ‘GXRL CODE’ were formed in Dublin in April 2018 after DJ Mona-Lxsa saw firsthand how difficult it is for young girls without connections to break into the music industry. Her idea was to carve out a creative space for women who, instead of each focussing on their own artistry and struggling, would focus as a group. Belfast’s Dena Anuska heads the northern leg of the collective, (“I launched it a while ago and the girls I’ve met since then, DJ’s, rappers, it’s been incredible,”) having hosted a ‘GXRL CODE’ gig at Culture Night in 2019.

The desire to enjoy live music without the threat of being harassed is a bare minimum ask and the expectation for most. As Belfast’s music scene begins to think about attempting to get back to regular programming over the next few months, now is as good a time as any to ensure a base level of civility and respect to all those in attendance is met. In any case, the conversation has been opened. Now is the hope that people will start to listen. H.R. Gibs

Photo by Ciara McMullan