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In a touring world that has, over the years, included artists accused of rape, murder, kidnapping and other criminal behaviors, some are now questioning the ethical responsibility of the concert business in who it chooses to work with and what is in the best interest of fans, artists and society at large. To be certain, that’s a tall order for any industry, especially in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements when the business is striving to be more inclusive yet comes out of a tradition where such behavior was at times tacitly condoned if not openly celebrated.
”I think that it is important to think about the music industry as a workplace. When you’re thinking about who you book for a show or who you are representing and bringing into various spaces – and not just recording artists but producers and session artists – if you know or have reasons to know of wrongdoing you are potentially creating an unsafe atmosphere for other employees, musicians and those who may be interacting with them. You may be giving an explicit stamp of approval and if you are committed to workplace equality then that’s something that you should take very seriously,” says Lesley Wexler, a University of Illinois College of Law professor who co-wrote “#MeToo, Time’s Up and Theories of Justice” for the University of Illinois Law Review.
Though R. Kelly has continuously denied the numerous sexual assault allegations against him, he hasn’t been shy about using his live show to allude to his legal troubles. His 2004 “Best Of Both Worlds” tour featured video of the singer’s tour bus chased by police cars and a backdrop with yellow liquid, seemingly a specific and salacious reference to 2002 accustations of his having had sexual relations with an underage girl; on his 2012 “Single Ladies” tour he would bring a woman – an audience member or his then-girlfriend and now-accuser Kitti Jones – onstage and handcuff her in a cage, which would then be covered by a white sheet and would rock band and forth while a silhouetted Kelly pretended to perform sexual acts on his prisoner. But after allegations were unveiled in the 2019 Lifetime documentary “Surviving R. Kelly” and journalist Jim DeRogatis’ 2017 BuzzFeed News investigative report and 2019 book “Soulless: The Case Against R. Kelly” that Kelly was keeping women, including Jones, against their will in a “cult” and controlling every aspect of their lives, it’s hard to watch these videos let alone consider supporting one of his tours.
“The difference with this story and something like Harvey Weinstein is so much of that happened behind closed doors. Kelly was in the full glare of the world spotlight selling 100 million records of his own and those he crafted for others, opening the  Winter Olympics Games and performing at the  FIFA World Cup, and nobody cared to listen to these women [who’ve accused the singer of abuse],” DeRogatis, who has reported on Kelly for 19 years, told Pollstar.
Along with facing sexual assault and sexual abuse charges in Illinois and New York, the 52-year-old singer is now looking at 18 federal criminal charges involving five minors including allegations of child pornography and one count of racketeering related to kidnapping. Some have questioned whether Kelly’s manager or promoters should have taken responsibility for continuing to support his career long after he was first accused of abuse. Though many promoters have stopped putting on Kelly’s shows and RCA Records dropped the artist in January – and the artist is currently jailed as he awaits arraignment in New York Aug. 2 – is it too little, too late?
“If you’ve read [my book] ‘Soulless,’ the number of times at Kelly’s concerts that he is preying on teenage girls, having his guys choose them in the audience, pull them on stage, back to the green room, it’s happening all across the country,” DeRogatis said. “I have covered the concert industry as a pop music critic at the [Chicago] Sun-Times for 15 years, I’ve been going to concerts since I was 13; I know what it’s like backstage, I know what the road crews are like, the tech crews are like, the promoters are like – they can not claim [the abuse only happened] while the green room door was closed. This was on stage, this was in public.”
He added, “The anger I have at the concert and record industry is boundless. We know this is a cesspool in many ways, the way both businesses operate, but that kind of amorality for Live Nation to continue promoting some of his concerts even after #MuteRKelly launches its campaign, for Jive Records [which later came under RCA] to be named in that very first lawsuit as a party and to continue to make money with Kelly. … Nobody wanted to derail the gravy train, and as someone who believes in this music as a force of life, to think that it could also be used to corrupt and ruin so many lives, that just kills me.”
Live Nation declined to comment for this story but a source noted that the company has “not promoted an R. Kelly show in years.” Kelly’s manager, John Holder, did not respond to a request for comment.
DeRogatis, however, did praise independent companies like Jam Productions for cutting ties with Kelly earlier on.
Jam Productions co-founder Jerry Mickelson told Pollstar that after promoting 14 concerts with Kelly between 1996 and 2006 his company ceased working with the singer.
“Sometime after 2006 there came a time when we at Jam began to hear from some credible people in the industry about a number of very scary stories that included very bizarre behavior by R. Kelly,” Mickelson said. “So we made a conscious decision not to work with Robert even though we had additional opportunities. Jam will not endorse nor condone people who take advantage of others morally, physically and criminally. Life to us at Jam is not always about the money but rather doing what’s right.”
Some would argue that it’s not the concert business’ place to put a moral litmus test on every artist and that the decision to continue promoting an artist should simply be based on whether or not there’s demand from fans.
Although deciding to work with controversial artists may seem like a matter of free speech, DeRogatis argues that most promoters wouldn’t dare put on a show by a band with anti-Semitic or racist views – and that there seems to be a double standard when it comes to violence against women.
“There’s not two sides to anti-Semitism and racism. But apparently there are two sides to violence against women,” DeRogatis says. “That bothers me. I don’t see it as any different. Women matter and violence against women matters. … Are you going to do a tour by an anti-Semitic, racist man? … I don’t think they’d promote a Charles Manson speaking tour or a John Wayne Gacy tour. … But if you choose to make money from them as their promoter, then I’m going to hold you responsible and ask you the tough questions.”
Thanks to the #MuteRKelly movement, which was launched in July 2017 by Kenyette Barnes and Oronike Odeleye to draw attention to Kelly’s alleged crimes and end financial support for his career, protests took place outside the singer’s concerts and a number of tour dates were canceled. Some shows went on, though many failed to even halfway fill venues.
The most recent box office record for Kelly submitted to Pollstar is a Nov. 10, 2018, show at the Yuengling Center in Tampa, Fla., promoted by Ben Hated and Victory Promotions, that grossed $129,951, albeit with just 43% of the 4,252-capacity venue. Poor attendance was likely spurred by a petition protesting the concert that the Tampa Bay Times reported drew nearly 15,000 signatures. On the other hand, a Feb. 21, 2018, co-bill show with Charlie Wilson at Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena, which was promoted in-house, sold out its 13,500 tickets and grossed more than $1 million.
Relative to the impact the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements have had on combating sexual abuse in other entertainment areas, the music business has taken longer to hold alleged predators accountable, with artists like Bill Cosby (now imprisoned) and until recently Kelly continuing to tour after years of allegations.
“There’s a long ignoble history in popular music that starts way before Frank Sinatra and continues way after Ryan Adams of men treating women badly,” DeRegotis says. (A February New York Times expose alleged that Adams had a history of sexual misconduct, which the musician said included details that were “outright false.”)
Bringing up the history of misogynistic lyrics in pop music, DeRogatis says, “There’s a part of us that celebrates this really bad boy behavior. … I’m really wrestling with this question. In the music world, do we champion this? Is there a part of us that knows … and we kind of like it?”
Another question to ponder is whether artists who have been convicted of crimes but who have served their time should be given second chances. After pleading guilty in 2009 to felony assault for hitting then-girlfriend Rihanna, Chris Brown accepted a plea deal of community labor, five years of probation and domestic violence counseling. Brown, who has continued to rack up arrests and assault charges, was blocked from entering the UK in 2010 because of his assault on Rihanna and his 2015 Australia / New Zealand tour was canceled, but his record hasn’t seemed to affect his popularity or touring plans in North America. He has an arena headline tour kicking off Aug. 20.
Live Nation, which is promoting Brown’s “Indigoat” tour, and Brown’s manager declined to comment.
Tim Lambesis, frontman of heavy metal band As I Lay Dying, also returned to the stage after facing legal troubles. The vocalist pled guilty to a felony charge of solicitation of murder in 2014 after attempting to hire an undercover police office to murder his estranged wife. After he served two years in prison, Lambesis reunited with the metal band in 2018.
House Of Blues, which is owned by Live Nation, defended the decision to book the band at several venues this fall.
Tim Lambesis of As I Lay Dying performs during the Rockstar Energy Drink Mayhem Festival at Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center July 24, 2012. Photo by Joey Foley / Getty Images.
“Though staff and management may not agree with particular performers appearing at our venues, ticket buyers have the right to purchase tickets or not purchase tickets,” House of Blues said in a statement July 24.
In February, Memphis venue Growlers canceled its April 5 show with As I Lay Dying in response to “the combined voice of disheartened friends, local bands, and patrons” and pledged to replace the concert with an event to benefit victims of domestic violence.
“While I’m disappointed by the cancellation of our show in Memphis, I understand and accept the resentment some people have towards who I used to be,” Lambesis posted on Instagram. “I stand against that person I became during the darkest period of my past, and it is part of my life’s work to prevent others from going down destructive paths.”
He noted that since serving his time he’s completed courses to become an addiction treatment counselor, worked for one year as a case manager at an addiction treatment facility and spent two years tutoring inmates who never finished high school.
Professor Wexler said, “I think there’s a growing fear that it’s unfair to hold #MeToo perpetuators accountable because holding them accountable means exiling them from a community and they could never return. … There is a pathway back, there are ways in which #MeToo perpetuators can acknowledge their wrongdoing, take responsibility and change. We shouldn’t treat all perpetrators the same because they’re not all the same and I think it’s important to try and foster good behavior when you see it.”
While some professionals in the business took years to part ways with clients facing allegations, others like the team of Canadian DJ Datsik immediately split after accusations arose in March 2018 that he made unwanted sexual advances toward female fans, which the DJ denied. Circle Talent Agency, management company Deckstar and record label Firepower all cut ties with the DJ.
Minneapolis promoter Zack Chazin told Pollstar at the time, “This type of thing is way too common in the music business. I feel like back in the day this was just how it was. It was rock ‘n’ roll. But this is 2018. Times have changed.
He added, “I won’t be working with Datsik. I have already withdrawn offers I have out for him on 2018 festivals. I can’t change the world all at once but I can choose who I want to surround myself with.”