In 1993, I was 14-years-old and the kind of fervently enthusiastic music fan that goes on to write about it for a living. One night, after attending a concert featuring two prominent metal bands, my best friend and I stood outside the front entrance of the arena and waited for her dad to pick us up. As we excitedly dissected the evening’s events, we were approached by a grizzled-looking man in requisite rock 'n' roll clothing, an all-access pass hanging from his belt loop.
“You girls wanna meet the bands?” he asked.
My friend and I looked at each other, bemused.
“Well… yeah…” my friend replied, hesitant, but not wanting to miss out on a golden opportunity.
“Alright,” this man -- probably in his mid-40s -- replied. “Follow me.”
“Hang on,” I said. “What do you get out of this?”
Without any hesitation, he smirked, nodded and pointed to his groin. I linked arms with my friend, who, like me, had visibly recoiled, and said, “Uhhh, NO.”
“Suit yourselves!” he snapped back and went off in search of other, less prudish schoolgirls.
Five minutes later, we were safely in the back of my friend’s dad’s car and on our way home. We never told any adults about the incident -- certainly not our parents, who fearfully might have stopped us from going to any more concerts -- and we barely discussed it with each other, because thinking about it creeped us out.
It was my first experience of the kind of exploitation that routinely takes place on the road. At the time, despite my youth, I knew all about groupies. I knew that as a female in this particular music scene, I was in a minority. And I knew that I might sometimes be targeted by creepy older men. But when it actually happened in real life, it was an infinitely more intimidating experience than I had bargained for.
A couple of months later, while squeezed into the crowd of a (to this day) well-respected alternative band, my friend was sexually assaulted by an older boy. She told me afterwards that she was trapped and scared and froze when this stranger’s hand climbed up her skirt because he was so much bigger than her. If you know any women who grew up going to shows in their teens, you will be hard pressed to find one who hasn’t experienced the wandering hands of a fellow audience member.
Assault at shows is an issue that has been publicly discussed since riot grrrl first shone a light on it in the early 1990s. This reached its peak in 1999 when the chaos of Woodstock resulted in numerous sexual assault reports and a number of rape allegations from audience members. More recently, in 2015, five teenage girls in the U.K. started #GirlsAgainst to highlight the fact that this problem is ongoing. Just last year, 26 women reported being assaulted at the Schlossgrabenfest music festival in Germany.
It’s not talked about all that often, but the risks facing women and girls who like live music are not limited to fellow audience members. There is a culture of silence in this male-dominated industry that, in my 18 years of journalistic experience on the road and backstage, has shocked me.
I once saw two girls pretend to faint at a pop-punk show in England, in order to get backstage. They succeeded. I happened to walk into a room after the show, where they were laughing about how clever they had been. I asked them how old they were. “Eighteen,” the chorus came back, but their undeveloped bodies and nervous giggling told a different story. After making out with each other for the entertainment of the headlining band, they were ushered into separate rooms by a singer and a drummer on the tour. I am not clear about what happened behind those closed doors, but I would hazard a guess that it probably wasn’t legal.
I have seen similar scenes play out, backstage at festivals all over the world, while tents are being broken down and gear loaded out. There are bands who are vigilant, who will politely shoo these girls away and call out other bands on the bill who don’t carry the same sympathy for, and sexual aversion to, underage girls. These bands are, thankfully, in the majority. But, in my experience, if you line up 10 tour buses, there are probably going to be a couple of people (sometimes crew members), who have no qualms about taking advantage of naïve fandom when the opportunity presents itself.
When Lostprophets frontman, Ian Watkins, was convicted of a litany of child sex offences in 2013, the focus was on the fact that the case horrifyingly involved two infants, whose mothers had been targeted by Watkins as “superfans” and ultimately were complicit in, and convicted of, the abuse of their own children. Watkins was also convicted of carrying out (and filming) degrading sex acts on a teenage fan, who had been an underage virgin at the time.
The issues surrounding bands and groupies are complex and frequently rooted in a culture that tells rock musicians that it's their right, and tells young women that their greatest commodity -- their easiest “in” -- is their bodies and their sexuality. Romanticized depictions of groupies in TV and movies (Showtime’s Roadieswas a recent offender) continue to perpetuate the idea that groupies are beloved and essential; that women can get in on the excitement of being on the road, if only they’ll give it up. In reality, groupies are often mocked by the band the second they’ve been ushered off the bus.
On one occasion nine years ago, I was traveling with an emo band in Europe. As the venue cleared out, I went to use the ladies' room and found a girl crying by the sinks. I asked if she was okay.
“No one asked me backstage,” she sobbed. “I really wanted to meet the band, so I dressed like this…” -- skin-tight, hip-hugging jeans, push-up bra and a cropped top; a lot of make-up for a face so fresh -- “…but still no one noticed me.”
“The reason you weren’t asked backstage,” I gently explained, “was because this band are good people. The only thing going on back there is eating, email-checking, and girlfriend-Skyping. You’re not missing anything, I promise.”
“I still wanted to be asked,” she wept.
“How old are you?”
A mere 10 minutes of telling this girl that there were other ways to participate in this scene that didn’t involve her body, she had stopped crying, started to mull over the possibilities of becoming a music photographer, and was ready to go home. If this had been a different band and a different concert, her evening could have ended very differently.
In the digital age, a brand new form of fan exploitation has emerged, and it doesn’t even require fans to leave the house. Just this week, YouTube star Austin Jones was arrested on two counts of producing child pornography, after he allegedly requested sexually explicit material from underage fans, via Facebook.
Back in January, a Boston man named Bryan Asrary was arrested after nude photos of a 9-year-old girl were found on his laptop and cellphone. He is alleged to have impersonated Justin Bieber online in order get them.
Similarly, traveling punk festival Warped Tour was plagued with problems in 2015 after allowing then-23-year-old Jake McElfresh (a.k.a. Front Porch Step) onto the bill, even though multiple underage, teenage girls had complained online about McElfresh’s lewd behavior towards them. These girls, scattered around the country, posted messages and explicit photos, allegedly from McElfresh, to their Tumblr accounts, having grown uncomfortable with the contact.
Today, most of the public concern expressed and discussed around this subject is focused on the online dangers facing children and teenagers. What those discussions so often fail to acknowledge is that the link between music and fan exploitation has always been there, and that the myth of the in-control, gleeful groupie is a frequently false one.
Certainly, the internet age does offer new and horrifying forms of exploitation, but it also leaves digital fingerprints, evidence, screenshots, and, like never before, a means to expose and convict the people who take advantage of music fans in sexual ways. The culture that encourages these uneasy and sometimes illegal relationships between musicians and fans needs a major reset -- one that we may finally be making steps towards in the wake of Austin Jones' and Brian Asrary’s arrests, McElfresh’s public humiliation, and the universal revulsion that greeted Watkins’ case.
In the meantime, we should be grateful that the digital age finally offers us a means to prove these predators exist, and do something about it -- something my best friend and I would have been eternally grateful for back in 1993.
For arts stories you won’t read anywhere else, come to KQED’s Arts and Culture desk.