Promoting safe spaces in local music

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Music promoters are increasingly providing safer spaces to combat sexual assault and other toxic behavior. Safe spaces provide a conflict-free area where community members can exist freely without harassment.

Art by Terri Powys

This growing list of music industry figures accused of sexual assault highlights a fraction of the musicians who have taken advantage of people. These former assaulters used a platform of fame to sexually exploit their fans.

As these issues come to light, more people in the Michigan music scene are finding ways to hold performers, promoters and others accountable for safe behavior.

“We have a very socially conscious crew here, and seeing how things have been going these past few years, there was a need to start actively thinking and talking about making show spaces safer,” said Nate Dorough, the lead talent buyer at Fusion Shows, a Lansing music promoter.

Just last year the BLED FEST music festival in Howell dropped the band PWR BTTM from its lineup after sexual assault allegations about PWR BTTM lead singer Ben Hopkins came to light. (see PWR BTTM Address Allegations via Spin.) The action sparked an important moment of accountability within the community.

Fusion Shows was instrumental in the decision as it was involved with the booking for BLED FEST.

It was a key move by a key player. As a big part of the Michigan music scene, Fusion sets standards for other promoters. Its event plan for the Do Good With Music Initiative is evidence of the efforts that Fusion has made.

“I want to stress, there was no real initiative,” Dorough said.

“It was just a meeting; we’ve made an unofficial but very concentrated push to be better about social issues in the music community.”  

But the meeting held an important conversation on ways to ensure safer spaces at Fusion events.

“We’ve made banners to hang at shows that let people know what their options are if they feel like they’re being assaulted, harassed, or if they’re just generally uncomfortable,” Dorough said.

The banners set guidelines for the crowd to follow at a Fusion event and have been part of Fusion’s process since September 2017.  

“We’ve hosted a sexual assault recovery workshop at our office” Dorough said. “We’ve had panels at last year’s BLED FEST to talk about a variety of these issues.”

Fusion focuses on these issues for the greater good of its mission, he said.

All we want to do is promote music and musicians.”

Art by Terri Powys

“I’m not sure it’s a requirement or a responsibility so much as it is personal choice, but it’s hard to just remain ‘Switzerland’ when it comes to assault,” he said. “You either want to stop it in your spaces, or you don’t. It’s not FUN to talk about and this business is about fun.”

While there are countless ways to handle toxic behavior at concerts, Dorough offers some helpful advice on his approach:

“At Fusion Shows events, we encourage you to go to the box office and ask for the ‘promoter rep,’ who is someone on our team in charge of the show. We’re not professionally trained with conflict management, but we’re prepared to do our best to separate the harming party, figure out what’s going on, and take the incident to another level if needed.”

Dorough hopes for a future focused on music and providing safer spaces for audiences to enjoy.

“The more we band together and make assault not welcome in our spaces, the more we can continue to expand on our mission to use concerts to give people a release from their everyday B.S. that we all have to deal with.”

Lansing musician and DIY show organizer John Warmb uses his house as a venue, First Contact. He and other First Contact organizer Piper Bazard say they strive to stimulate the music community in Lansing by giving musicians and other artists a space to share.

Warmb is no stranger to promoting safe spaces at First Contact.

He is also involved with Stoop Fest, a Lansing music festival that features a vast range of venue locations and artists every year.

“The group that plans Stoop Fest, it feels obvious that we consider safe spaces. It seems like all of the organizers are committed to this. I’m honored to be a part of it,” Warmb said.

Warmb has been part of the Do It Yourself community for nearly a decade. This group self-organizes artist-related events as a way to encourage creativity.

“Safer spaces is something that I’ve always been conscious of,” Warmb said.

“I’ve been in the DIY scene for seven years, and it’s always something that’s been apart of my booking process and how I operate.”

Warmb notes that when Fusion Shows removed PWR BTM from the BLED FEST lineup in 2017, it was “a really good moment of transparency” for the Michigan music scene.

It’s the kind of action consistent with the DIY community’s desire to promote inclusivity by welcoming a wide spectrum of artists and giving them a safe space to perform.    

Art by Terri Powys

“If you’re not using your privilege to raise up other people’s voices, it’s not right,” Warmb said.

“Getting young people involved, providing a platform for people of color, and women, femme identifying folks, and the LGBTQ community, those are very important elements to inclusivity and safe spaces.”

“Ultimately, the best thing to do to foster safer spaces is to A) start these conversations that are pretty difficult to have sometimes, B) listen to people, and C) uplift the voices of survivors,” said Warmb.

To support First Contact and their DIY initiative visit their Facebook page.

Warmb wants music fans in Lansing to rally and join the DIY movement.

“Ideally people will feel more empowered to host shows in their own houses,” Warmb said. “Having a network of safer spaces, once that network grows it establishes this norm in the scene that toxic behavior is not tolerated.”

Club Virago, a Detroit-based artist collective, strengthens the local scene by giving recognition to under-represented artists.

“The goal is to decrease disparities in the art scene and to bring light to those who don’t have a platform,” said founder Rori Mullen.

Art by Terri Powys

Club Virago is here to promote any marginalized group of artists, specifically females, and femmes.”

Mullen was inspired by artists around her to create Club Virago. The collective’s prior involvement in the Detroit’s Bleeding Hearts Club also encouraged a new space for underrepresented voices.

““We were all just people who loved art,” Mullen said.

“While I was in Bleeding Hearts Club last year it just felt like all the events I went to with them  were male-dominated and even felt like female artistry had little to no recognition.”

Club Virago prioritized femme voices who felt out-of-place in a male-dominated Detroit  industry.

“A lot of the time the girls I was friends with who were writers, visuals artists and musicians felt invisible compared to the men in the Detroit DIY art scene,” Mullen said.

Through the network of other artist collectives that Club Virago works with, Mullen notes that these groups draw attention to potentially harmful people within their community.

“Recently, many stories of abuse have flooded to the surface in the art scene,” Mullen said.

“So many collectives like VHS Country, Bleeding Hearts Club, Alt Nubian/Strange Colours, and of course Club Virago, have made public announcements about blacklisting abusers and emphasizing the importance of having a safe space.”

Providing safer spaces and focusing on inclusivity goes hand-in-hand for Club Virago. Mullen acknowledges the accountability that promoters are under when holding public events and the challenges that might bring.

“There is only so much we, people who are not qualified for legal repercussions and who are third parties of these situations, can do to help,” Mullen said.

“So, the safest way to help professionally is to blacklist and expose abusers for what and who they are on flyers, tweets, posts, etc.”

In Mullen’s eyes the future of artist collectives will be centered on equality regardless of demographic or background.

“I hope to see more people like me and all the people in Club Virago get respect like the men that have been dominating this community,” Mullen said,

“Until then, we’re going to keep pushing these amazing people and soon annihilate the misogyny and racism in art.”