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Opinion November 2, 2021

Putting the spotlight on cultural change in the music industry

Clare Gleghorn, Dr Brendan Magee, and Zac Zawalski
Putting the spotlight on cultural change in the music industry

About the Authors

Dr Brendan Magee and Zac Zawalski are the co-founders of Ako, a behavioural change consultancy specialising in improving an organisation’s ability to deliver change and improve connection with their employees and community. Ako’s approach draws on research-based data analysis, and cultural change to achieve holistic improvement.

Clare Gleghorn is the CEO of Bastion Reputation Management, one of Australia’s leading strategic corporate communications and reputation management consultancies. It works with CEOs, governments, industry bodies, businesses and organisations in a range of sectors to help address business challenges, influence outcomes and build and safeguard reputations.

Clare, Brendan and Zac are passionate about equality and positive culture across society. They have taken a keen interest in supporting cultural change within the music industry as music inspires and influences an enormous cross section of our society.

Update: Read Part 2 and Part 3.

In June this year, one of Australia’s biggest record companies, Sony Music, shocked the music world and Australia as a whole and when it announced its long-time C.E.O., Denis Handlin had been stood down.

The Guardian reported in June 2021 – The complaints, which were aimed broadly at the workplace culture rather than specific individuals, included allegations of sexual harassment at work events, intimidating behaviour, alcohol abuse and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace.

sony music aus

Sony Music Australia, Sydney office

Whilst this report focussed on the behaviour of the C.E.O. and employees of Sony Music, research conducted by Dr. Jeff Crabtree (2020) into workplace harassment in the music industry in Australia and New Zealand showed the toxic culture exposed at Sony wasn’t confined to this one company, but was prevalent throughout the industry, and was clearly discriminating against women.

He also cited international research that showed gendered power relations that were found to contribute to sexual harassment were not only prevalent locally, but also “a normalised part of occupational culture in the creative industries of countries in Europe.” (Hennekam & Bennett 2017, p. 418).

Changing behavioural norms

In light of these reports, and the changing expectations of society, the music industry is finding itself increasingly under the microscope. The behavioural norms that existed and were arguably part of the fabric that made up the rock and pop genre are no longer being tolerated in society.

Previously, many bands were known for their hard music, controversial lyrics, and even harder partying attitudes. For some, alcoholism, drug use, and promiscuous behaviour was all part of the deal. If you were involved in the industry, you were expected to be involved in the culture. Entire reputations were built on this perception.

The change in societal narrative has also led to an increased awareness of mental health issues, and this focus has impacted on the industry.

Rock icons such as Jimmy Barnes made their struggles known to the public, with G.Q. reporting in 2019, “His childhood was steeped in the most toxic cocktails of sexual abuse and alcoholism, and between 1998 and 2002 he was knocking back 10 grams of cocaine, six to eight ecstasy pills and three bottles of vodka a day”.

The behaviour of Barnes that was previously defined as ‘rock and roll’ was actually shown to be an artist’s coping mechanism.

Daniel Johns (formerly of Silverchair) has recently started a podcast sharing his struggles with mental illness. The famed ’27 club’ and the suicide of artists such as Chris Cornell have fuelled the narrative around “rock culture”.

Was this party culture that was seen by many to be an integral part of the creative process just a mechanism for these incredibly talented and artistic people to cope with childhood abuse and mental health struggles?

We have an opportunity to shift our focus

So, is this an opportunity to refocus the music industry – to reconsider the behaviours that were previously accepted, and to focus on the positive impact the industry has on society as a whole?

Artists such as Jack River are supporting the ‘Teach Us Consent’ campaign, with her song We Are The Youth a brilliant integration of music and activism. Our community now values Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) more than ever before.

In 2019, 43% of Australian workers strongly supported workplace D&I initiatives, up from 37% in 2017 (Diversity and Inclusion Council, 2019).  Learnings can be taken from across the globe where D&I initiatives such as the U.K.’s Music Masters auditing tool are resulting in positive change.

A focus on mental health and D&I initiatives within the industry will align with the sentiment across the community and provide an effective way to address some of the current cultural problems the industry faces.

The changes in the way that music is marketed and distributed are also diminishing the grip that organisations such as Sony have on larger culture. Independent labels can market themselves as promoting appropriate behaviour or support for artists that would have previously been overlooked because of their appearance or age.

Artists themselves can dictate their own culture and associated appropriate behaviours. P.C. based digital recording systems have lowered the barriers to entry in music production and thus “the gap between professional and amateur…has significantly narrowed” (Strachan 2017, p. 6).

A key positive of this change is that if an ‘amateur’ has a greater influence on the industry, the cultural norms they bring with them from mainstream society will allow the negative behaviour that is seen by ‘professionals’ as ‘normal’ to be challenged. The focus should be on music as a creative artform, rather than on the negative marketing image.

It is important to note that in no way are we advocating for a “sterilisation” of the music industry. We are not criticising anyone or placing judgement on anyone’s lifestyle or creative choices.

However, when certain expectations and behaviours are pushed onto artists or workers requiring them to conform to an inappropriate culture to remain part of the industry, or when a person’s behaviours to deal with personal trauma are exploited as a marketing tool, there needs to be serious internal examination.

It is sometimes a significant and often daunting process to address and modify culture and behaviour. A major challenge we often see in our work is uncertainty on how to address a problem, even though there is broad acceptance that change would be a good thing.

In 2019, Ako worked with Rugby Victoria and Monash University to reduce the prevalence of homophobic language within community rugby clubs. Monash conducted thorough research to understand why the behaviour occurred, down to specific behavioural drivers.

In this scenario, homophobic language was found to be caused by social norms rather than deep seated homophobia.

The insight from the research significantly changed how the problem was approached and enabled us to develop and implement an appropriate intervention in months. It allowed us to address and respond to the issues with certainty, rather than just a hypothesis.

Workplace harassment within the music industry can be leveraged in the same way – by using existing data by Crabtree (2020) and people sharing their stories and experiences to inform the intervention – we can respond to the situation in a sensitive and authentic way.


Enabling Music Reform

  • Workplace regulation

Firstly, it is imperative that there is workplace regulation within the industry; to enable all workers, regardless of their job title, position or ‘status’ to have the same protections as other workers outside the industry.

Crabtree reported in his research, Workplace harassment is thought to be a phenomenon that is a consequence of a persistent and recurring pattern of negative behaviour (p. 116). Almost all other industries have codes of conduct and H.R. practices to support and regulate the workforce.

However, regulation alone doesn’t ensure the safety of the workforce. Within the hospitality industry, which mirrors much of the environment of the live music industry, almost three-quarters of the 300 people surveyed said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances (73%) and inappropriate touching (69%).

By way of further comparison, the Australian Public Service Study showed a similar mean prevalence of serious harassment (9.9%).

Clearly, having a regulated industry doesn’t stop the harassment from occurring, so there needs to be a focus on creating acceptable culture and behaviours in addition to developing a robust code of conduct. This will enable workers to be supported, regardless of whether they are behind the bar, on stage or working in an office.

  • Closure and a healing process

Secondly, there is a need for closure. The industry has been dealing with its own trauma for far too long.

People need to share their stories, to be heard, and to be validated. There are initiatives such as Beneath the Glass Ceiling where people are able to communicate real life accounts of sexual harassment and assault in the Australian music industry. There needs to be a healing process as part of the pathway forward. And then there needs to be genuine change.

The stories and experiences that have emerged in recent months are horrific, but despite this, music has proven to be a calling that many will continue to pursue. These careers have developed because of a genuine love for one’s profession and craft.

The poor behaviour that has occurred is fundamentally a societal problem, and a change in the industry means a positive shift for society as a whole.

If Covid lockdowns have taught us anything, it is the need for authentic connection. Society has lost interest in artificial perfection, discrimination based on looks and age, and bad behaviour as a coping mechanism.

People are craving real connection and inspiration from a creative industry that has been tarnished by years of bad behaviour masquerading as culture. It’s time for the industry to renew itself and re start its positive influence on society.

If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 (24/7) or via text (12pm-6am AEDT) on 0477 13 11 14

Cultural change within the music industry will be a complex, multi-staged approach that cannot be fully articulated in a single article. If anyone from the industry would like a more detailed discussion they can reach Clare,au Brendan and Zac directly.

In the next piece in this series, we’ll discuss the challenges the music industry faces in enacting genuine culture change, responding publicly to issues, and rebuilding its brand when it’s built a reputation on sex, drugs, and rock n roll.



Burke, K (2021, June 21). Revealed: multiple allegations of toxic culture at Sony Music Australia as CEO Denis Handlin leaves. The Guardian.


Diversity Council Australia. (2019), DCA Inclusion@Work Index Mapping the State of Inclusion in the Australian Workplace,

Strachan, R. 2017, Sonic technologies: Popular music, digital culture and the creative process, Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Hennekam, S. & Bennett, D. 2017, ‘Sexual Harassment in the Creative Industries: Tolerance, Culture and the Need for Change’, Gender, Work & Organization, pp. n/a-n/a.

This article originally appeared on The Industry Observer, which is now part of The Music Network.


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