Playground behaviour in the cultural industries

This recent incident involving a German audio equipment company and a respected music technology journalist has understandably sparked a massive response online. The attack was made in the form of a video on social media, using a fake synthesiser promotion as a way to respond to the writer’s criticism of their products and ethics. Not only was it an appallingly childish way to create media attention, it was also clearly a very public bullying of an individual from a major company. Echoes of David and Goliath were ringing out across the interwebs.

And it got me thinking about my own career and how this element of bullying has become so commonplace and almost ‘acceptable,’ even in the modest little sphere in which my own work inhabits. I’m writing this, not so much as a way to expect sympathy, but more to share the kind of tactics used by artists and producers against other creatives, in what I have generally experienced as a very positive and encouraging atmosphere.

A dream comes true. For a moment

Like many composers I dream of that juicy film score commission, and back in 2015 I had this very opportunity I had waited years for. I received an invitation to score a new American film, starring one of the greatest actors of all time, Robert De Niro. I was astonished and thrilled at this opportunity. NDA’s were exchanged, accompanied by extended Skype conversations about expectations, creative decisions and so on. I worked on a scene, then another, with continuing positive feedback. There was no suggestion that I was ‘pitching’ for a job, or that any other composers were involved. The director loved my work as did the other line producers, until New Year of 2016 arrived. 


Given that it was the holiday season I imagined communications might quieten down a little, but given that this was Hollywood, surely, they didn’t sit around the Christmas tree and open presents, but instead pinged messages back and forth to one another constantly, chasing deadlines. But no, nothing. I sent a mail. Then another email. And then inevitably the message I dreaded, where they enthused about my work and were ‘appreciative’ of all the work I’d put in over the last two months, but were going to go with someone else. Perhaps it was just naïve of me to assume that I had the commission, given that I’d been working so intensely for eight weeks on these different scenes, with regular feedback. 

The commission itself was given to a team of writers who had significant experience in Hollywood and it was explained to me that, as much as they really loved the work I’d composed, as I had no experience in the film scene there, they would rather work with someone who did. Naturally that begs the question of how one does get experience then, but let’s move on. Bizarre as that argument seemed to be I had to accept it and asked what kind of fee they might offer to pay for my work for the last two months. “Fee?” they responded, wondering why I would want something. For those of you who aren’t familiar, it’s reasonably commonplace to be offered some kind of a minor ‘kill-fee,’ which shows an appreciation and respect for the time and work that you’ve produced that isn’t ultimately going to be used.

And then things got suddenly rather darker. Speaking on the phone to one of the producers I was immediately advised to stop with my whining about a ‘fee’ and indeed, if I did continue to request payment, that they would, in no uncertain terms, and to use their very melodramatic words, ‘never work in Hollywood again.’ I felt sick to my stomach. 

The fear of naming names

The very nature of this interaction affected me to such a point that here I am still unable and unwilling to name names for fear of future problems, and that’s where these issues most prominently have an impact. Looking at the whole #metoo movement it’s the element of fear and power that is most unsettling. Sharing such experiences for many women was potentially damaging for their careers and the balance of their lives. The irony of my Hollywood moment is that I have indeed never been contacted again, then again nor would I expect to be really. One can’t be too paranoid, can one? Let me just look out of the window one more time to check no-one is watching from across the street. All clear. Now, where was I?

Ah, yes, back in the 1990s and a time when trolling and online bullying was in its infancy. Yet some artists embraced this new technology to send out messages that were aimed to persecute and be as spiteful as possible. Interestingly one of these characters is now celebrated by media outlets such as Vogue magazine, Pitchfork, The Wire, The Quietus, an artist who has been described as creating ‘inspirational music and often beautifully evocative, nostalgic, even haunting.’ And yet my experience of this person is something quite different indeed.

I was the recipient of countless swaggering and antagonistic emails, where my work was described as ‘phony conceptual claptrap, pulling the wool over eyes who can’t see beyond their own arse.’ Threats were made to disrupt future shows of mine in an intimidating and aggressive manner. They told me that they ‘knew where I lived and that I was an overrated, overpaid, arts funded, talentless, Davros Dalek looking scanning twat.’ Yes, you may laugh, but the relentlessness of this was very damaging.

Apparently, I ‘hid behind industry hacks who would then ignore their products’ and they would do whatever it takes to ensure that it ‘means scuppering at least one of these grants YOU continuously get for producing utter shit.’ 

At one point, it happened that I shared a live billing in Brussels with a colleague of his. I vented my feelings about how distressed I was by his behaviour towards me, a complete stranger, whom I had never met. I ended up sitting in my hotel room in Brussels in tears, sitting on the floor of the show, exhausted, the water providing some solace to the internal pain I was experiencing. Returning home there a message waiting for me. ‘Your outburst was the funniest thing I heard all year. If you can’t take the heat use one of your grants to get out of the kitchen. Has anybody got anything good to say about you? Don’t trust the reviewers –what they write and think are two different things.’

And so it went on, week after week, month after month, for years. His relentless commitment to harass me down never ceased until most ironically his own career took off, as he was embraced largely by the very organisations that he spat such vitriol against for years. His albums were chosen as favourite releases by all the critics he seemingly despised and topped the charts of many journalists and magazines. Curiously, I saw him only once in all these years, and like most faceless online bullies he simply glared at me like a rabbit in the headlights, weak and unable to speak face to face. I simply smiled and said ‘hello’ to him, only to be greeted by silence.

An attempt to regulate bullying

It’s pertinent that I’m writing this on the day that a petition was handed in to the government calling for curbs on the media in the wake of the death of TV presenter Caroline Flack, who recently took her own life. They are calling for the media to be accountable for the way that they harass and vilify people. Holly Maltby, of campaigning group 38 Degrees, said that it’s not limited to celebrities: 

It’s people up and down the country, whose lives can be completely torn apart in a moment, because of harassment, intimidation and bullying, often at very difficult times,” she said as she delivered the petition. We’re gathering those case studies every day now, of people who said regulators need to be doing more, and the government need to be doing more.”

There’s a commonly held concern that behaviour by those who control TV has tended to normalise acts of bullying. Indeed, when I grew up, a TV talent show was light entertainment, and certainly on camera everything was relatively polite and respectful. Today however the emphasis is focused more on humiliation and exploitation. You might in the past have sat on the sofa with your family or friends and giggled at the singer struggling to stay in tune in a contest, but that was within the confines of your living room. Today it’s commonplace to ridicule and jeer at contestants, as a panel of judges compete with their level of sarcasm and wit, and an audience accompanies them with boos and shouting. This is then broadcast to the nation, which is then picked up by the press and recycled for days. And which is then endlessly retweeted by individuals in a cycle of humiliation.

Positive ways forward

The expanse of bullying and the effects it has on mental health are manyfold, and I’m fortunate to have had support from loved ones around me at these moments when I was struggling. But absolutely none of this is acceptable. It’s essential to talk to others about how you are feeling or seek professional help too.

I’m very conscious that we have political leaders at the moment who champion ideas of bullying and the language they use is septic and harmful, but here I’m trying to explore how the entertainment and culture industries also suffer at the hands of bullies, and what an impact that has upon individuals. The subject is far too widespread and complex to explore here in detail but it’s always important to continue the conversation. 

In closing, perhaps you are curious as to how the tale of the German audio company and journalist developed? Well, as of today, the director of the company issued an apology, then deleted the video in question, but then most bizarrely deleted his apology too. But don’t worry, the internet never forgets.

If you need support certainly contact the Mental Health Foundation or the NHS in the UK, or a similar organisation in your country.

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