At 2018 Country Radio Seminar, A Panel Addresses Sexual Harassment
Despite a culture-wide phenomenon in regard to the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements in America, it was largely business as usual in Nashville this week as the annual Country Radio Seminar brought country record labels and artists together for three of the most important days in country music each year.
CRS is an event that helps shape the narrative for the entire rest of the year in country music. At the panels, showcases, parties and other events that took place from Monday (Feb. 5) through Wednesday (Feb. 7), the issue of sexual harassment in country music, brought to the fore in a recent Rolling Stone Country article that details abuses female artists suffer at the hands of country radio programmers — some of which were alleged to have taken place at CRS over the years — was a topic of conversation, albeit muted.
Despite the allegations in the article — shocking to many readers, but an open secret in the Nashville music industry for years and even decades — the only nod at CRS to the #MeToo movement was a pair of sexual harassment seminars in a small conference room on Wednesday.
One female country singer told Rolling Stone Country that CRS is a "sh-t-show for artists. You go, and you're supposed to be the fun artist to do shots with," while other female singers and music business insiders claim that the free flow of alcohol, along with late-night private events that are tangential to, but not directly put on by CRS, lends itself to a series of uncomfortable situations that can put female artists — particularly the youngest and most vulnerable ones — in a compromising position. Especially events and meetings that take place in a hotel suite.
"If there's a bed right there, even if it's the middle of the day, it's really not a professional environment," one artist observes. "It's, 'Oh hey, let's go up and grab my jacket,' and then you're alone with people you don't want to be alone with."
CRS told Nashville's NewsChannel 5 reporter Jesse Knutson that the seminars were not planned in response to the Rolling Stone Country article, but that they were aimed primarily at smaller companies who might not have the resources to have their own HR departments. Taste of Country was in attendance at the seminar Wednesday morning, where a sparse crowd of maybe 30 watched a generic slideshow that presented various fairly obvious scenarios and asked attendees to identify whether they constituted sexual harassment or not. The only parts of the discussion that related directly to country music were when a male radio executive who owns a string of stations asked if he could be held liable for abuses that take place at his stations, even if he didn't know about them (he can), and an aspiring female singer asked how to deal with fans who try to interact with her inappropriately via social media (it's something all performers have to deal with, she was essentially told).
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The biggest #MeToo moment of CRS 2018 came from an older male star. Vince Gill shared a painful childhood trauma when he opted to perform a song titled "Forever Changed" in solidarity with abuse survivors who are finally finding the courage to come forward.
Knutson is an Emmy-winning reporter, and he turned to social media on Monday to announce that he had had his press credentials revoked when he arrived on the premises on the opening day of CRS seeking comment from Executive Director Bill Mayne about the allegations in the Rolling Stone Country article, among other topics.
A representative for CRS tells Taste of Country that when Knutson's credentials were approved months in advance of the event, it was understood that he was writing a story about the importance of CRS to the Nashville music industry. They tell us the interview with Mayne was supposed to happen Wednesday, but Knutson and his cameraman arrived on Monday at an inconvenient time, just before Mayne was scheduled to deliver opening remarks, so his credentials "were not granted," though they did arrange access on Wednesday as initially agreed.
Knutson says CRS reps initially told him told Mayne would be available, then said a few minutes later that he would not be available and that he could not cover the rest of CRS, either. When he pressed for clarification, he tells us they went to ask Mayne again, then "came back down, said, 'Yes, we're revoking your credentials,' and asked me to leave." He feels that they only agreed to let him speak with Mayne on Wednesday after he reported both on-air and on social media that he had been forced to leave.
Mayne told Knutson, "We do not tolerate, in any shape or form, any sexual misconduct, any improper behavior," adding, "Not only do we not condone it, but we also have a great degree of security...to ensure that every attendee ... that their safety is guaranteed at all times." Mayne adds that he has never heard of a single police report or complaint filed with the guest venue over any incident at CRS over the decades, though he admits he has no way of knowing what might happen at private events or gatherings.
Knutson says that — like many of his news colleagues, including Taste of Country — he has repeatedly hit a brick wall in trying to track down sources who want to go on the record about such hot-button issues for fear of damaging their own careers. Knutson turned to Facebook out of desperation to ask all of his Nashville contacts if they knew of anyone who would speak to him, and he says he's heard accounts of artists who have been specifically warned and even threatened not to speak to him.
"Their livelihood and their profession depends on attending those events and having good relationships with them, so I can understand why they wouldn't be allowed to talk," he states. One person he spoke to off the record "acknowledged that that's part of the problem; the fact that people are not speaking out about important things, and there is this culture of silence, is keeping them from holding people accountable."
Knutson says that only makes it that much more important that those who are in a position to bring attention to the problem of sexual harassment in country music should do so.
"As a person, I don't think that any of that is acceptable," he says. "As a country music fan, I don't want that in the genre that I love. I don't want these negative things to happen to people chasing their dreams, and anything I can do to help bring light to the situation, and to help bring people justice, I would like to do."
Taste of Country reached out to CRS officials to seek comment on the sexual harassment seminars and their aftermath. A representative for CRS tells us in an email that CRS executives have been in board meetings since the event ended, and that a comment might still be forthcoming, saying, "We understand the importance of this topic; however, please know that any lack of response is not us avoiding making a comment."
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