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Now & Then: Toxic Masculinity in Music Culture and DIY Spaces

As Burger Records shuts down amidst allegations of sexual misconduct, we are reminded of the toxic masculinity that permeates music culture and DIY spaces. Only this time there may be a brighter light ahead of us.

July 22, 2020
Written by
Cynthia Schemmer

TAKE A MOMENT TO REFLECT ON THIS: There was a time when the teen survivors of the predatory and abusive culture of Burger Records felt the warmth of a new day. They were accepted into a rock ‘n’ roll subculture that was separate from the world that often disapproved of them and offered little more than mainstream disappointments. They felt welcomed and visible, like they were truly a part of something, spending much of their time and money at Burger Records’ shop and shows—and this enthusiasm for a better world was used against them by the very adults they thought they could trust. 

If you are far removed from your teen years, or from being immersed in a subculture, I ask you to scour the deepest corners of your memory to remember those first moments of feeling invigorated by a community that existed on the fringe and seemingly welcomed you as you were. The need for acceptance cracked wide open during our teenage years, a time when we were the most vulnerable in both our bodies and identities, learning how to navigate ourselves amidst traumatic incidents in our homes, high schools, and spaces with others who we looked up to. Discovering a music community that professed a progressive DIY culture in a world that demands conformity was often our one great hope. We stumbled toward the horizon, despite everything, and let a new rising sun welcome us in—another world shone possible in a boundless night…

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Flipping through a record distro at a Long Island basement show - I'm the one in the background, on the left (2001).

When I was a scrappy teenager on Long Island, I leaned heavily into punk music. I learned how to play guitar at 13 in a town three miles shy of an official borough, ostracized by my classmates for being a lanky punk freak, longing for the days I could move to the city and meet people just like me. In 2000, I came across the ostensibly radical Long Island DIY punk scene, in which touring bands like Against Me! would drive east from their shows in New York City to play in our suburban basements, and local punk bands of young white men would use the mic to shout about feminism and change. In fact, our DIY scene was even written about in Newsday, and in 2001 a few friends even made a documentary about it—it was as if the sun burned only for us.

For a time, the Long Island DIY punk scene felt righteous, but the harm that befell women was consistently denied by the men in power. Our feelings of being unsafe were met with apathy—or even worse, laughter. When we called out big shit men with band clout for sexism or sexual assault, we were screamed at for being irrational liars. We were made to feel damaged and ungrateful, and we stayed steeped in its toxicity because it was all we had access to and all that we knew.

We were made to feel damaged and ungrateful, and we stayed steeped in its toxicity because it was all we had access to and all that we knew.

Eventually we left for college or the city, started our own bands, and created our own spaces that centered the voices of women within the larger Brooklyn music scene and beyond. The multiverse of social media had yet to exist, so addressing acts of assault by men in powerful bands often stayed local or had to be spread by word-of-mouth through the circuit of similar scenes throughout the country. (Let this question sink in: Did a single man who was accused of assault in this early 2000s music scene ever face any real accountability? I can’t say for certain, but my gut says absolutely not.)

Back then, in terms of punk and rock ‘n’ roll in New York, this scene was all that we had. There wasn’t yet a variety of independent DIY music scenes to subscribe to as there is today, and it felt so rare to be around young men who acted so radicalized, which made their failures and our silenced voices unbearable. Today, with the commodification of DIY music and radical ideologies, we’re seeing more spaces that cater to progressive politics and identities, and the men involved are essentially handed the tools to act as allies, and yet they are still failing us.

I am enraged, my insides set ablaze, when I think about how 20 years after my own initial experiences, women are still being harmed in these spaces—but even more so, how teenage girls are still being harmed by full-grown men. The accused affiliated with Burger Records presented a space for teens to congregate and engage with their favorite music and musicians, but behind closed doors they were like predators from a real life Brothers Grimm tale: the label used appealing rock music, merch that catered to a younger crowd, and all-ages shows to attract teens. They baited young hopefuls with a good time, often offering underaged girls drugs and alcohol before taking advantage of them.

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Long Island band On the Might of Princes (whose music I absolutely loved as a teen) playing at a local church (2001).

The predatory and abusive treatment of women in alternative music spaces is not new, but the  means by which we handle these situations certainly are. Today we are equipped with social media, which allows for survivors’ stories to be transmitted across the world, creating platforms for their voices and communities of support. We’re seeing this through Instagram pages like Lured by Burger Records, dedicated to sharing the stories of and supporting survivors of sexual predation by those involved with Burger Records; submissions_4la_musicians, offering space for LA survivors assaulted by musicians to have their voices heard and a resource for accessible therapy; and Clean Streets, which exists for survivors of the music industry at large to share their stories.

Women display immeasurable resilience in coming forward with their stories, and yet there is always backlash against the truth. Insidious comments that rally around the evils of  “cancel culture” have been left on the social media pages of accused men associated with Burger Records, and let me make one thing clear: vocalizing our stories of sexual assault and predation is not a culture. It is one of the first steps toward healing from trauma and it is a response to rape culture, a sociological concept in which rape is normalized due to societal attitudes about gender and sexuality that terrorizes the bodies and minds of women, nonbinary, and trans people.

Vocalizing our stories of sexual assault and predation is not a culture. It is one of the first steps toward healing from trauma and it is a response to rape culture.

On the flip side, it’s never been easier for men to self-educate/address toxic masculinity and systemic sexism/misogyny through the resources afforded them via social media and the internet. And yet, no matter how many articles they read or political stances they claim in their own lives and/or music, some men absolutely refuse to put their words into practice or take accountability for their actions. Such detrimental behavior either traumatizes young women from later participation in music, or further activates them to seek out other communities or start their own.

My hope is that the women coming forward about their own trauma caused by Burger Records will experience the latter, and here is my emboldened offering: Twenty years later, most of the problematic yet highly esteemed men who were musicians and gatekeepers in the DIY scene of my youth are now completely irrelevant; the women, however, are now at the center of this industry. We are musicians gaining international attention, acclaimed music writers, and activists who are forever working towards change. We are a community that will last a lifetime.

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For the Birds Collective, the New York feminist group and zine distro, co-founded by myself and friends in the mid-2000s (2009).
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Between Resistance and Community: A Documentary About Long Island DIY Punk, released in 2001 on VHS and in 2009 on DVD.

Today Burger Records announced that they would be folding the company, despite recent claims of a rebrand. This follows a slew of statements from affiliated artists—including Alice Bag and Bleached—cutting ties with the label. All of Burger Records’ social media accounts have been deactivated, they plan on removing all of their music from streaming platforms, and all of their artists own the rights to their own music and are free to reissue their records. The band Sloppy Jane has started a Google Doc of labels, managers, and lawyers who have offered to help women musicians once signed to Burger Records, and Lured by Burger Records continues to uphold the voices of the survivors. 

It’s bewildering to see my own experience still reflected, all of these years later, through the women coming forward against Burger Records and through so many others. It’s a trauma that we share with all the women who existed before us, and those who will exist after. I wish I could say things have gotten better, but we literally just heard accounts of grown men grooming teenagers who simply wanted to play music, go to shows, and feel connected to others.

So, what does a true reckoning within the music industry look like? That’s a question I do not have a complete answer for. But what I do know is that these independent music scenes and entities—no matter what they preach—replicate miniature versions of the whole spectrum of systemic injustice in our country. While holding these men accountable is a critical action toward change, the toxic foundation on which our entire existence is built upon (i.e. capitalism) must be dismantled, and we’re seeing this work being carried out internationally through the Black Lives Matter and abolitionist movements. Within the music industry, organizations like Calling All Crows and those that promote bystander intervention are working towards supporting the safety of women, nonbinary, and trans people. Independent labels like Get Better Records, a queer/trans/artist-owned and operated label based in Los Angeles/Philadelphia/Brooklyn, work tirelessly under a heartening and radical no-music-industry-bullshit approach. And there are plenty of resources available to those dealing with sexual and predatory trauma right now, which Lured by Burger Records has begun to compile.

We’re embracing the momentum mobilized by the many generations and music scenes that came before us. Despite how dark the days may feel, it’s promising to see how social media and the internet have offered new avenues for women to hold space for each other and to come together in ways that I didn’t have access to as a teenager—we are certainly not alone. So I ask you to keep on stumbling toward the horizon, scream straight into it, and see what light shines back—you have decades worth of women here to support you.

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