Sexual Harassment Claims Confront Music Industry : Bias: Three record companies and a law firm have had to cope with allegations of misconduct by executives.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The $7-billion-a-year record industry, periodically beset by controversies ranging from payola to drugs, is quietly exerting damage control over a potential new scandal: complaints of sexual harassment by some of the top executives in the business.

During the past 18 months, The Times has learned, at least three major record companies and a prominent Los Angeles law firm have had to cope with allegations of sexual misconduct by executives. In two cases, the misconduct had purportedly gone on for years.

Spokesmen for RCA, Island, and Geffen record companies acknowledged in terse statements to The Times that allegations of sexual harassment had been lodged by employees against a major executive at each company.

Meanwhile, an attorney once lauded as the biggest deal-maker in the business settled out of court several months ago with a former law clerk who sued him for assault and battery. Once head of the music department of the prestigious Los Angeles law firm Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, the attorney is no longer a partner there.

While sexual harassment in the music industry is described as the exception rather than the rule, dozens of industry sources said executive womanizing has been tolerated--even joked about--in certain offices for years. Women said in interviews that they had developed informal networks to warn each other of "bimbo hounds" who demand sex as the price of admission into the glamorous business.

In recent years, however, the freewheeling independent labels that helped create rock 'n' roll have been taken over by more traditional corporations fearful of costly lawsuits. Industry sources say sexual comportment has been a behind-the-scenes factor in certain recent executive shake-ups.

"The music business is basically a microcosm of society--it is controlled by white men, some of whom carry their power with dignity and honor, and others of whom use it to manipulate, exploit and repress those less powerful," said Rosemary Carroll, an attorney with the Beverly Hills law firm of Codikow, Leventhal & Carroll, which specializes in music.

"Sexual harassment may be a more serious problem in the music industry than in the overall business community because of the fact that ours is a relatively young business and that those most successful in it have grown used to writing their own rules."

The latest and most lurid of the alleged incidents involves Marko J. Babineau, former general manager of David Geffen's DGC label. Geffen Records is a hugely successful company known for nurturing quality artists such as singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and promoting blockbuster sellers by bands such as Guns N' Roses.

Babineau, 40, resigned Sept. 4 after his 28-year-old secretary, Penny Muck, complained that he had "masturbated in front of (her) in her office despite (her) protests" and ejaculated "onto a magazine she was reading," according to her attorney, Benjamin Schonbrun,and several other sources.

Babineau could not be reached for comment. The Times attempted to contact him through Geffen Records and acquaintances, and sent letters by messenger to two of his homes, but he did not respond.

Records show that the secretary signed a claim against Geffen Records with the California Fair Employment and Housing Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Sept. 12, saying she had been verbally and physically harassed by the general manager on four occasions in July and August. The last incident, she reported, took place Aug. 20.

In a statement prepared for The Times, Schonbrun alleged that Geffen Records "had knowledge of the deviant behavior of one of its executives and did not take appropriate measures to ensure a safe and sexual harassment-free environment at Geffen for years."

Geffen sources told The Times that Babineau had sexually harassed other female employees as far back as 1984, when he became head of promotion at Geffen Records.

"When I went to the legal department and complained," said one woman, "the question was never what to do with the men, but what to do with these women."

She and other Geffen sources said two women had previously been transferred to other departments after complaining about Babineau. Babineau was promoted, eventually becoming general manager of Geffen's new DGC label when Geffen Records was sold to MCA Corp. for about $540 million in March, 1990.

On Sept. 4--fifteen days after the latest reported incident--Geffen Records issued a news release saying that Babineau was taking a six-month "break" after 20 years in record promotion to spend more time with his family and baby daughter.

Geffen President Ed Rosenblatt said at the time: "I speak for David Geffen and everyone at our companies when I say we're going to miss Marko. He's not only made an important contribution to our success, but is a good friend. Thus, we respect the personal choice he's made and wish him well."

When pressed about the sexual harassment allegations against Babineau, Bryn Bridenthal, vice president of media and artist relations for Geffen Records, issued a new statement:

"This company is dedicated to the principle of a harassment-free work environment. We do not condone or tolerate harassment of any kind including sexual, racial or religious. But we are also dedicated to due process and believe it is wrong to prejudice any claim. Therefore, because of potential litigation, our attorneys have advised us not to comment further on this subject."

Bridenthal declined comment when asked whether Babineau had masturbated at his secretary's desk. She also declined comment when asked if Babineau was terminated because of the allegation. David Geffen personally declined comment as well.

Ellen Darst, a director at Principle Management, best known for managing the Irish rock band U2, said the news of Babineau's purported behavior "mortified" both men and women in the industry.

"I would like to be able to say that the Babineau incident has prompted a closer scrutiny, but I don't know that that's true," she said. "I haven't heard any executives saying: 'Isn't that a shame, we're going to institute a policy in our company to deal with this, or set up counseling to help victims deal with it.' "

More than 50 industry sources were interviewed for this story, but most declined to be identified, fearful that their careers could be endangered. Penny Muck agreed to go on the record with her allegations only after requests from The Times.

Several of the women interviewed told tales of being slapped on the buttocks in the office, encountering demands for oral sex in limousines, or fending off bosses before evening concerts.

The women said most of the harassment they had experienced came from men who either worked in record promotion departments, or who had once worked in promotion. Given the nature of their work, industry sources say, it is not surprising that it is promotion men who are being singled out for criticism.

The loosely monitored promotion departments are responsible for securing air time for new releases, and some men there have at times been tied to payola scandals involving bribing station programmers with money, gifts, prostitutes and other amenities. One woman known in the business as a "tough cookie" left promotion, telling friends she was at a disadvantage because she could not comfortably take men to strip joints.

To a far lesser degree, women also reported problems in some "artists and repertoire" divisions. The powerful A & R divisions are occasionally placed under pressure to supply performers with drugs and women.

Some executives, both men and women, also declined to be identified for fear of being blackballed in an industry whose executives change labels frequently. Others feared alienating promotion men they rely on to get their companies' records on the air, or said they were reluctant to give new fodder to groups seeking to censor records.

Some of these sources theorized that the industry--with its marketing of sex, its focus on youth, and its widely criticized degradation of women in videos and album covers--had come to tolerate in the workplace the same attitudes expressed in its recordings.

"We're an industry that hasn't grown up, that's made up of a bunch of adolescent guys going through puberty at 40 years old," said one male executive, who added: "To be fair, there are scores of females begging and promising anything just to 'be with the band.' "

Babineau and others accused of sexual harassment were often described as flamboyant, even charismatic men who had worked their way up to positions of power on solid records of success. Some are industry pioneers.

Attorney Abe Somer, longtime head of the music department at Mitchell, Silberberg & Knupp, negotiated what was then believed to be the most lucrative contract in rock 'n' roll history when he signed the Rolling Stones to a multi-album deal with Atlantic Records in 1974.

Last year, Somer and the firm were sued by a young law clerk for assault and battery. Somer "threaten(ed) physical contact in the form of lewd sexual contact, actually engaging in such improper contact and touching and physical abuse . . . without plaintiff's consent," the suit alleged.

The former law clerk settled her suit about 10 months ago, reportedly for a six-figure sum. She declined comment.

Somer also declined comment. "I can't say anything," he said. "I'm legally prohibited. No comment."

Somer, 53, had a history of sexual harassment complaints at the firm.

About 10 months ago, a secretary settled a second sex harassment complaint against Somer, The Times learned. An affidavit submitted in support of that complaint by a former law clerk swore that she, too, had been sexually harassed by Somer. The clerk, who is now an attorney, said in an interview that Somer harassed her in 1986 when she expressed interest in working in the firm's music department.

She said Somer asked her to meet him at his home, where he often worked. When she arrived, she said, Somer told her that as a condition of joining, she would have to drop her boyfriend, take adjoining rooms with him when on the road, and engage in sex with recording artists upon request.

"I kept telling myself, hey, this can't be happening, this is a senior partner at a law firm, he wouldn't do anything to put his own job at risk," she said.

When she protested, she said, Somer told her she was "too conservative" for the music business. She said he disrobed and demanded sexual favors. She said she ran out of the house and filed a complaint with the firm.

According to her affidavit, a member of the firm's management committee told her in 1986 that Somer had "similarly sexually harassed other women" at the firm and had received a "hand-slapping." The affidavit says she was also told that any damages assessed against the firm for his behavior would "come out of Mr. Somer's pocket."

Attorney William Cole, speaking for the law firm, responded: "All I can say is that we as a firm have a strong policy against sexual harassment and we actively enforce that policy. And part of that policy is to maintain privacy on both sides of any harassment allegations."

Since the assault and battery lawsuit was filed, Somer's status at the firm has been changed from partner to "of counsel," a loose association that means he is not an employee. He no longer maintains an office on the premises.

Two other sexual harassment complaints deal with prominent New York executives.

Jeff Aldrich, former senior vice president of artists and repertoire for RCA Records, was fired by RCA on Jan. 2, after an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment.

A RCA spokeswoman said the in-house inquiry was initiated after several female RCA employees complained that Aldrich, while inebriated, had sexually harassed them at a company conference in Scottsdale, Ariz., in December, 1990. One of the women he allegedly harassed was the girlfriend of a powerful RCA executive. The company would not comment on whether any financial settlement had been reached.

Aldrich voluntarily checked into a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program on Dec. 17, and RCA terminated his contract two weeks later. He declined comment.

"We are appalled by actions that involve harassment of any kind," said Trish Heimers, vice president of communications at BMG, the German conglomerate that now owns RCA Records. "We believe strongly that sexual harassment has no place in the work market and it will not be tolerated at BMG."

Six weeks after Aldrich entered the rehabilitation program, on Feb. 1, RCA rehired him as an independent consultant. He continued to work in that capacity until July, when he was hired by Los Angeles-based Giant Records. He is now an executive in the artist and repertoire department.

Mike Bone, a former promotion man who has been president of three record companies in three years--Chrysalis, Island and Mercury--has been sued for sexual harassment and wrongful discharge under New York state human rights laws.

Lori Harris, Bone's former administrative assistant at Island, sued both Bone and Island in July, accusing Bone of "using his position as plaintiff's supervisor in an attempt to influence, coerce and induce plaintiff to engage in sexual relations with him. . . . When (Harris) refused . . . he fired her from her job with Island."

According to several Island and other industry sources, Bone is accused of making sexual advances toward Harris at an industry party in July, 1990, and firing her the next day for refusing to accede to his demands. Harris, while declining to go into detail about the allegations, said in an interview that she was fired the morning after the incident.

"We all do stupid things in our life at some point. He had been drinking, and if he had said he was sorry the next morning, I would have understood. But he didn't say that. . . . Instead, he fired me."

Harris, an attorney's wife, added: "Fortunately, I was in a position to say no. A lot of other women aren't. To me, this amounts to economic rape, which is despicable." By filing suit, she said, she resigned herself to never working in the industry again. She now is a real estate agent.

Bone's attorney, Barbara L. Levine, said her client had not read the suit and would have no comment until he had. Bone left Island in December, 1990, a few months after the alleged incident of harassment, to become co-president of Mercury Records. Island and Mercury are owned by PolyGram.

"Allegations of sexual harassment had absolutely nothing to do with Mike's decision to go to Mercury," said Eric Levine, vice president of business affairs at Island Records. "No settlement has been made. The matter is currently pending so I am not at liberty to discuss it."

Bone left yet another job Friday when PolyGram issued a statement announcing that "effective immediately, Mike Bone will no longer serve as co-president of Mercury Records. We wish him the best of luck with his next endeavor. Future plans for Mercury will be announced shortly."

PolyGram staff called The Times daily this week asking the publication date of this article. However, Dawn Bridges, vice president of corporate communications for PolyGram, said the timing of his exit was "an unfortunate coincidence" and had nothing to do with allegations of sexual harassment.

As reports of sexual harassment against these and other executives spread, both men and women in the industry are beginning to examine gender-related behavior some felt had previously gone unquestioned.

"These are the heads of companies and the top partners in firms," said one major Los Angeles music deal-maker. "Can you imagine what happens with the lowly directors of small firms? This behavior is epidemic in the industry and accepted as the norm without people questioning it--either men or women."

"These are big names in the industry," said Nancy Jeffries, vice president for artists and repertoire of Elektra Records in New York, one of the highest-ranking women in the industry.

"But this didn't really hit the industry. Everything's been addressed as privately as possible. . . . I don't hear men talking a lot about this, but I have seen a lot of discussion out of the women's end. We are all kind of waiting to see what happens, actually, to see whether this kind of behavior will interrupt anybody's career."

Jeffries and other executives stressed that most men they have worked with are as horrified as women at the recent allegations.

Michael Greene, president of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which hands out the annual Grammy awards, has been an outspoken critic of the industry for its so-called degradation of women.

"I think there are elements, particularly within promotion of the recording industry that . . . sometimes can get out of hand," he said. "I know there's been a few incidents, but you can find a few incidents everywhere. I think we are just a cutaway of society. We're just higher profile."

Greene said women faced "probably more" job discrimination in the industry than in many other fields, however.

To many women, job discrimination and sexual harassment go hand in hand.

Some complained that women have long been "ghettoized" in publicity departments and a few other areas, just as women in the movie business have traditionally been relegated to such fields as development--where they are sometimes referred to as "D-girls."

"We work in an industry where mentoring is everything," said one mid-level record company executive. "You don't learn how to sign artists in college; even more than in the film industry, you learn on the job.

"Everybody has heard of the 'casting couch,' but people probably don't have any idea that sexual harassment is five times worse in the music business. I think that's because this (sexual harassment) is basically a warping of the mentoring process."

Before moving from one label to another, women said they rely on each other to pass on advice about known womanizers in specific departments. Some firms--Warner Bros., for example--were repeatedly described by women as safe havens from harassment.

Typically, women said, they are told to "loosen up" because the music business is "different." One secretary said her former boss demanded that she touch his genitals in the office as a test of her ability to "fit in," and threatened to fire her if she did not. When she complied, she said, he continued to demand such activities upon threat of telling others what she had done before.

Part of the problem, women said, is that men, particularly in some promotion departments, hire women for their looks and tell them they will show them the ropes in the business.

"If you can't stand the heat of being pretty," one secretary said she was told in her office, "then take a . . . can opener to your face."

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