The unwelcome return of SSD Concerts

Image of Hit the North line-up with all the withdrawn bands removed.

Right then. I spend a couple of days out of the loop getting a play ready, and when I finally start to catch up on things, I drop right into the middle of this shitstorm. I, along with most people, thought we’d heard the last of SSD Concerts and its manager Steve Davis back in April, after all the allegations of sexual harassment appeared on the Glassdoor review site. But unlike the management of Tyneside Cinema, the Vice-principal of Ballet West, Noel Clarke, and pretty much every else who resigned and disappeared for good, it now looks like Steve Davis thought he could step back into his role quietly once all the outrage had died down. And, boy, that’s backfired big-time.

And so, yet again I have to write about the subject that just refuses to die. No matter how many times these scandals erupt and people face consequences, it seems there are still people who will never learn. The only good news is that, this time, some people who I’d previously criticised for not taking action have pleasantly surprised me and earned my respect. Only some, mind.

Most of this has already been covered by people less pressed for time than me. If you’ve caught up elsewhere, you won’t find any new information here. I will, however, add a few thoughts of my own.

The story so far

Most of this section is a restatement of what I’ve previously said in my original article, and updated in last month’s odds and sods. If you’re up to speed on those, you can zip to the last paragraph of this section.

It looks like the events leading up to this fiasco go back years, but the issue first reared its head in public just over six months ago. Someone hacked the Instagram of SSD Concerts, the biggest music promoter in the north-east, and posted screengrabs of a series of employer reviews from Glassdoor. It is still not clear exactly where these reviews came from, but the common complaint across them all was sexual harassment. And I’m not talking about the occasional off-colour joke but some pretty serious allegations, including unwanted contact in the office and people in power making unwelcome advances in social settings. (There were complaints about racism too, but it’s the sexual harassment claims that have the most detail.) As always, innocent until proven guilty, but when the management responded by dismissing all complaints as malicious without evidence, and getting the person who hack their account arrested and cautioned, that convinced a lot of people they had something to hide.

Now, as anybody with any grasp of employment law knows, the one thing you absolutely do not do in response to complaints of discrimination or harassment is issue reprisals, be it attacks on their motives or threats of consequences – even if the claims are not upheld. The only excuse acceptable in law is proof of bad faith, and you cannot possibly know that if you dismiss complaints without investigation. Regardless, as anyone who remembers Tyneside Cinema knows, you get massacred for boilerplate platitudes, never mind threats. Numerous bands and venues (many of whom never liked dealing with them anyway) cut ties, but it was when big festivals such as This is Tomorrow and Hit the North dropped SSD Concerts as promoters that they were forced to concede. Steve Davis, the managing director implicated in the worst allegations, resigned. And that was the end of that.

Well, sort of. The first sign SSD Concerts were accepting defeat ungraciously was when Lanterns By The Lake was announced as cancelled owing to Coronavirus “complications”, when it was in fact still running with a new promoter. An internal announcement was then leaked suggesting Steve Davis was only resigning as MD and was staying on in another role. There was of course another uproar over that, and SSD Concerts then responded by saying he was leaving the company completely. They also said they would have an independent investigation, which raised questions over just how independent this would actually be, but there were the same suspicions over Tyneside Cinema and that turned out to be damning. Nothing came of the media outlets encouraging employees to come forward with their stories. It seemed like events had run their course, lessons learnt, move on.

But then we reached September, and the This is Tomorrow festival came up, and that’s when it emerged they hadn’t dropped SSD Concerts after all – their “new” promoter had taken them on as a sub-contractor. And we kept hearing from Steve Davis who was supposed to have resigned. BBC North then reported on this, and, for the first time, had direct testimonies from ex-employees. This caused considerable annoyance to artists such as Sam Fender who’d pulled out of This Is Tomorrow, and only come back on the understanding SSD Concerts was no longer involved – but most of them still performed, saying they didn’t want to let the fans down.

Perhaps SSD Concerts thought that if they lay low for a few months until the public pressure died down, they could go back to business as usual; and with Fender et al playing on, it looked like they might get away with this. If that was their plan, they misjudged the mood. The same people who’d railed against SSD Concerts back in April railed against them again. And then up came their other big event, Hit the North, again suspiciously taking on SSD as a subcontractor. It was also noted that Steve Davis was still down as a director of SSD Concerts at Companies House,* as well as the companies behind many of the events. And six months had passed and still no sign of this independent investigation.

(*: It should be clarified that directors of companies don’t necessarily have that much power, but this was still in outright conflict with earlier statements saying he was leaving completely. Some defenders of SSD are trying to square this by saying that he did leave completely but the independent investigator said it was okay for him to come back – but that’s a pretty poor excuse.)

A handful of bands pulled out of Hit the North in protest. And then, with days to go, SSD Concerts published a statement on their Facebook page with the results of the investigation, clearing them of wrongdoing; the worst transgression being unspecified problems over understanding the difference between workplace and social settings. There was no explanation given for the timing, but the fact it the day before Hit the North did come across as an attempt as damage control. And that brings up to the fateful 24 hours that changed a lot.

But before we get to that, I’m going to give SSD Concerts a concession. I am going to be fair.

The case for the defence

When you are dealing with someone behaving an obnoxiously as Steve Davis is, it is very tempting to presume guilt first and look for evidence to support your verdict second. I want to resist this temptation at all costs. As soon as you behave like they do not deserve a defence, you are treading on thin ice – you cannot make a fair judgement of guilt without considering the arguments on both side. Admittedly, SSD Concerts have done a terrible job of defending themselves, and I am under no obligation to make a case for them. But I’m going to do it anyway.

All allegations, no matter how believable, need to be treated with due process, but you need to be especially careful with anonymous allegations. It is not clear what safeguards Glassdoor has against falsification; there doesn’t seem to be any way of verifying somebody worked where they claimed to, and it’s also unclear if there’s any way to stop one person doing multiple reviews. I have to say, I have read the reviews and it does properly read like a series of different people giving opinions that fall into pattern – it would take a very good liar to write something like that so convincingly. But, hey, some people are good liars. I will return this topic later.

The other thing to be very careful about is trial by social media. I take notice of allegations on social media for one reason and one reason only, which is that the official channels to hold people to account fail to hold wrongdoers to account far too often. But, necessary or not, the problem with social media is that it can turn into a popularity contest. I’ve seen people with big social media followings get away with appalling acts of sexism or racism or harassment because their followers auto-defend everything they do, or, worse, set their followers on people who’ve done nothing wrong be deliberately taking things out of context. If there was any alternative to trial by social media, I wouldn’t even consider this.

But could you really stitch someone up this way? Let’s imagine for a moment someone does fabricate allegations against an organisation who’s done no wrong. Would that really spread over Facebook and Twitter? I’m not sure it would. I suspect you’d need enough people who think poorly enough of the company for this to take hold. One reason why they’d think poorly, of course, if the rumours are true. But there is another reason: they might simply dislike the company. I think it’s fair to say that SSD Concerts has made a lot of enemies over the years, and many bands report bad experiences dealing with them (which, I should add, are mostly over matters such as getting paid – I am not aware of any claims of sexual harassment of musicians). There is a danger that people in the music scene who wanted SSD Concerts taken down a peg or two were eager to believe the claims for that reason. But a shitty track record of dealing with bands is not the same as being a sexual harasser.

This is why it is important that claims are investigated properly. SSD claims that’s what its independent investigation is for; SSD’s critics, as we know, don’t believe that. One thing they are demanding is to see the report, but that is not really an option. Any proper investigation is going to have information that will give away the identities of people who made claims in confidence. Making information like that public is 100% illegal, no matter how much it helps clear your name. More widely, however: how is an independent investigation supposed to work anyway? I’ve long criticised the standard practice where the buck stops with trustees/directors to investigate their own companies. This is mostly because it makes it too for shady organisations to clear their own names, but it also makes it difficult for organisations who’ve done no wrong to prove they investigated themselves properly. We can say what SSD Concerts did wrong, but how were they supposed to do it right?

And that, folks, is the most generous spin I can write in SSD Concerts’ favour. Now let’s turn our attention to everything wrong with this.

Why I don’t believe their statement

So, to explain what is wrong with SSD Concerts’ response, I am going to focus on what they said rather than actual allegations. I apologise to anyone who thinks this is devaluing what the controversy is about, but there is a very good reason to focus on procedures: proving sexual harassment happened is difficult; but proving an organisation did not investigate it properly is a lot easier. I will say that I’ve seen a fair number of responses from people who say they work or used to work at SSD Concerts and were not contacted in this review – if that is truthful, that would render the entire statement null and void. But I don’t need to consider these conflicting statements, because there’s more than enough problems with their statement in their own words.

It’s not that the statement should be dismissed just because it doesn’t support the conclusion you wanted. The whole point of doing an investigation properly is that you don’t set out with a pre-determined conclusion in mind. If the allegations cannot be substantiated and there’s not enough evidence to find a pattern of behaviour, you have no choice but to respect the principle of innocent until proven guilty. The key condition, of course, is whether the investigation was indeed done properly. Here are my reasons to doubt this was the case:

  1. Lack of transparency. It doesn’t help that it’s normal practice for the accused party to commission an investigation, but there’s still steps you can take to ensure some sort of impartiality. One would think the bare minimum is to state who is doing the investigation. For all we know, they could be mates of Steve Davis, a loyal employee in the HR department, or a PR/damage-limitation firm masquerading as independent investigators. Without disclosing something that basic, one must wonder what they’re not telling us. We also don’t have sight of this report, and whilst the full unredacted report is probably not an option, Turning Moment did a summary for public viewing. If SSD Concerts gets to decide which findings of the report we can and can’t see, what’s in there that they’ve chosen not to tell us?
  2. Too much PR spin that doesn’t address complaints. Far too much of these statement skirts around the allegations. The first half of the article addresses nothing more specific than “informal” business practices with assurances that improvements were being put in place. Even if these improvements are genuine, none of that is an acceptable substitute for addressing the original complaints. They are far too serious to be remedied by a generic pledge to “do better”.
  3. Weak response to the allegations themselves: The only thing I can see that attempts to directly address the allegations is that some of the Glassdoor posts were written by the same person who hacked the Instagram account. That is a valid point in their defence, but not a particularly strong one. For a start, this isn’t Glassdoor telling us this, it’s SSD Concerts telling us what the investigator told us what Glassdoor told them. I’d want to see Glasspoor’s response first hand; for all we know, it could merely be from the same IP address, which is frequently misinterpreted as proof of the same person posting. If it was one person making the posts, that could simply be one person posting on behalf of several people. But even if this was a hatchet job, only some of the posts were written this way. There are still multiple complaints not written by this single rogue ex-employee – but those have been completely disregarded.
  4. Ignoring the strongest evidence: It is probably true to say that Glassdoor isn’t the most reliable medium to verify complaints. I’m not sure what safeguards, if any, there are to stop organised malicious allegations. But Glassdoor isn’t the only source of allegations: most notably, there were there allegations that same via the BBC, and they certainly would have does some level of verification. But SSD’s statement has treated that reliable source like it doesn’t exist. You should be very suspicious of anyone who disregards the stronger evidence against them and only engages with the weaker evidence.
  5. Defence by insinuation: The argument that SSD Concerts seems to think is the big “gotcha” is that none of the most vocal complainants took up the offer to be interviewed. In their own words: “People can draw their own conclusions as to why those individuals decided against having their claims heard and independently investigated.” Umm, I thought that would have been obvious: because those individuals didn’t trust that their claims would be independently investigated. But it’s pretty obvious what they’re trying to insinuate: that the reason these people didn’t take part is because they’re scared their lies will be found out. That insinuation is despicable.
  6. Endless accusations of bad faith: The latest statement may only have insinuated malicious motives of the people who spoke out, but previous statements have been said the same thing pretty directly. Most relevantly, the response to the BBC News piece whilst this investigation was going on, stating that one complainant was now working for a rival promoter and was spreading “unsubstantiated and fictitious allegations”. Well, no fucking wonder they didn’t they didn’t want to engage with an investigation in SSD’s payroll. And the investigator should have known this. A proper investigator should have told SSD Concerts not to do this as it compromised their ability to gather evidence. Unless, of course, they don’t really want to gather evidence.

Ultimately, this boils down to trust. Almost everything that SSD Concerts claims in its defence has no evidence to support it other than SSD Concerts’ say-so. Even if we charitably assume no direct lies are being told, what does “No evidence of racism, misogyny or sexual misconduct was found against the Managing Director” even mean? That could simply be because the investigator wasn’t looking for evidence that hard. Furthermore, there’s a serious question over this supposedly anonymous system of reporting complaints put in place. Given that one strand of complaints last time was complaints not being properly addressed, how are we supposed to believe the new one will be any better? Or any more confidential? What if the real purpose is for employees distrust it and shun it so they can say “but no-one complained”?

Who knows, had there been the same set of questions to a company with a spotless record of trust, I might have been more amenable to their defence.* But SSD Concerts squandered their record of trust a long time ago, with the resignation that wasn’t really a resignation and their withdrawal from events that wasn’t really a resignation and their announcement of a cancellation that wasn’t really a cancellation. With a such a pattern of misleading and evasive statements, it’s too late to expect claims of this importance to be taken on trust.

(*: Bad faith accusations excepted. There is never any excuse for that.)

I’m not saying this proves SSD Concerts’ investigation is a fraud. What I am saying is that the onus is on SSD Concerts to show the investigation was genuine and independent – and so far they have offered no evidence to show this is the case. If they’ve held evidence back, they are welcome to state their case now. In the meantime, I will stop short of saying the sexual harassment allegations are proven, but instead I will hold them to the same standard they seek to hold others, and say this: People can draw their own conclusions as to why SSD Concerts decided against having any transparency or accountability for an investigation they commissioned. That’s fair, isn’t it?

SSD Concerts have no-one to blame but themselves for what happened next.

The fallout and the consequences

Well, I hardly need tell you what happened next, but if SSD Concerts thought that this statement would work as damage limitation, it backfired big-time. Prior to this point, only a handful of bands pulled out, but in the predictable furore that broke afterwards, it accelerated very quickly. Those who tracked this say 70 of the 79 billed bands pulled out, with 3 brought in at the last moment to make 12. (Many thanks to Tits Upon Tyne for tracking this for us.) An obvious complaint? These actions penalised a lot of people who have wanted to see their favourite acts for a long time, and may well not get their money back. I sympathise, but there’s no getting round that fact that had SSD Concerts not gone to such lengths to conceal their involvement, there wouldn’t have been masses of groups left with no option but to pull out this way.

Just as relevant, however, was who was pulling out. The number 2 and 3 headliners were among the 70 cancellations, as were 90% of the fourth tier acts. The only good news for SSD Concerts was that their number 1 headliner, DMAs, played on. Incidentally, whilst Sam Fender said he was only playing because he didn’t want to let his fans down. DMAs posted a tweet saying how great it was to play in Newcastle. Just saying. Anyone would think this lot don’t consider groping women to be a problem.

The next battle SSD Concerts will be fighting is refund claims. I have heard that they put in their terms and conditions that there will be no refunds unless the entire event is cancelled, but the law doesn’t see it that way. If you buy a ticket for an Ed Sheeran gig and Ed Sheeran doesn’t show up, you can’t be denied a refund just because the support act played. Multi line-up events are a bit more complicated, but you will have trouble justifying the event as fit for purpose with such a large portion called off. Holding on to their number 1 headliner might count in their favour (and may get them off the hook for some tickets that, as I understand it, were originally sold as a DMAs performance before the event was merged into Hit the North), but with the next ten headliners virtually wiped out, they’d have trouble defending this in court.

To be blunt, however, SSD Concerts are buggered whichever way this goes. If they dig their heels in and hold on to the money (and get their way in court), who’d going to want to buy tickets from someone who thinks it’s okay to deliver 10% of the event and keep 100% of the money? If they lose in court, refunds on an event this scale could bankrupt them. Perhaps they could recoup the money by suing the bands who pulled out – the law is more likely to be on their side if they do that. But the price of suing bands is that no bugger’s going to want to work with them again.

Even if they weather the refund storm, they’re under pressure on a lot of fronts. A lot of SSD’s business was reputedly from bands who had no option of who to work with in the north east. With at least some venues and events broken away for good, suddenly these aforementioned bands will have alternatives open to them; they reputation might start at zero, but that’s still better than many people’s verdict of SSD. This is in sharp contrast to the Tyneside Cinema, where people liked the place enough to give the venue another chance under new management. All other things being equal, few people will want to choose an SSD event over a non-SSD event.

Perhaps SSD Concerts will choose to ditch the tainted SSD brand completely (they may have to if they go insolvent), and re-form under a different name. Unfortunately, they’ve already pulled that stunt. They tried to stay under the radar by running quietly as sub-contractors for This is Tomorrow and Hit the North, and that blew up very publicly. I can’t see many bands falling for that trick a second time. How about upping sticks from the north-east completely? SSD Concerts run events elsewhere in the country, maybe they can focus on that. Unfortunately for them, this time the national music media has picked up on the story. Six months ago they might have been able to move away from their notoriety, but it’ll be a lot harder now.

SSD Concerts are running short of options. I don’t see how they can survive this.

The wider fallout

SSD Concerts are not the only people whose actions have fallen in the spotlight. One question is being asked is why the agents of so many artists booked them into gigs with SSD concerts, especially after some of them precisely pulled out in protest. It’s not clear how much more clued up than the agents were than the artists they represent, but that’s an argument I’m happy to leave up to artists and agents to sort out amongst themselves.

There are a lot more grumblings over local media coverage, particularly the Evening Chronicle. Until now, I’d been giving them the benefit of the doubt. Back in early 2018 in the aftermath of Pantogate, they did some good coverage, getting stories from some of the actors caught up in that fiasco, whilst other publications’ coverage was little more than reprints of press releases glossing over what was going on. This time, however, it was the Chronicle’s coverage that looked like reprints of press releases.

Look, I get it. Local papers don’t have big budgets, and only rarely have the resources to go on investigative journalism; I’ve written and receive enough press releases myself to know that most stories are simply rehashes of the press release content. It’s common knowledge to artists writing a release is to give the journalists as little work as possible to do. But surely you should not be taking press releases at face value when the subject is value. At the very least you should verify the truthfulness of the content, or get some opposing views from the people who you know will disagree, or both. This was forgivable back in April when the news came out of nowhere and the media was playing catchup with Facebook and Twitter, but there was no excuse for uncritical coverage of SSD’s obvious whitewash statement six months down the line. For pity’s sake, did no-one at the Chronicle type “SSD Concerts” into Google News?

The paradox is that whilst I found the Chronicle’s coverage disappointing based on earlier standards, other publications who previously disappointed me suddenly earned my respect. I’d previously criticised Narc for staying silent during the scandals of Tyne Square Panto and Tyneside Cinema, but with Narc’s coverage focused on publicising music, it would have been impossible to sit on the fence. Narc chose to side against SSD Concerts, and not just out of obligation – they were one of the most vocal opponents last time round, and one of the first to call bullshit on SSD’s statement this time round. For years I’ve been suggesting the problem with the local arts publications is unquestioning loyalty to Team North East. I’ve never been happier to have been proven wrong.

However, I’m sorry, but I cannot talk about who is and isn’t on the side of arts workers without talking about the complete inaction of Newcastle’s cultural venues. Just like the Tyneside Cinema scandal, not a single one of Live Theatre or Northern Stage or Baltic Gallery or Dance City or Sage Gateshead or Centre for Life lifted a finger to help. And they could have made a difference if they could have been bothered. I have no doubt that had they stood in solidarity back in April and made sure the issue didn’t leave the public eye until SSD Concerts gave us answers, Steve Davis would have been out on his arse months ago.

What really irks me is the way that the members of NGCV lecture us non-stop on how it is our responsibility to stand up to bad things; be it racism, sexism, or the kind of sexual harassment we’re discussing now. But we the little people have little power to change things. They do have the power to make a difference, and so far they’ve done diddly squat about it. At least DMAs are consistent with the position they’ve adopted of “Not our problem, nothing to do with us, no action needed.” Inaction is much less defensible when you’ve sought the moral high ground telling other people to do better. You do better for a change.

Whatever went on at Times Square Panto and Tyneside Cinema and SSD Concert did not happen in a vacuum. It happened because the perpetrators, whoever they were, thought that local cultural loyalty would come first. Narc came out of this one looking good. Most of the other big players remain part of the problem. It is bitterly disappointing to see them stand by when they should be setting an example.

And finally, the good news

I am getting tired of writing articles such as these, and most of them end with a bleak sign-off asking yet again how long we have to wait before something like this happens again, and how many more times this has to happen before the people with the power to change things pull their finger out. There is sadly no reason to believe we’ve made progress on that front. However, something has changed for the better, and that something is people power.

There is one thing that differs between this scandal and all the others. In all of the other cases, when the wrongdoers were finally exposed for wrongdoing, and the negligent were exposed for their negligences, they resigned. It’s not clear whether they were doing the honourable thing, or simply realised the game was up, but it was the right outcome. SSD Concerts, however, clearly thought they could keep their heads down for a while and then go back to business as usual. The MD coming back after supposedly resigning and coming back to event they’d supposedly been dropped from was just taking the piss – but social media outrage is often transitory and somebody hedged their bets that the hashtag hordes would have moved on. Not this time.

This is important. Systemic abuse in the arts happens when people in positions of power think that they’ll get away with it forever. This can happen if abusers believe they’ll never get caught or never be brought to book, but the fallback, so some abusers seem to believe, is that you can just ignore it and carry as before and face no consequences – until now. This fallback has been put to the test, and it didn’t work. We now know people don’t forget something like that, and the consequences of behaving like nothing’s happened are severe. I really hope would-be abusers are taking notice, and will think twice before doing the same.

It should not have to be this way. The biggest cultural institutions in Newcastle should be showing leadership, which has been sorely lacking for the last year and a half. But where cultural leaders have let us down, the grass roots have stepped up handsomely. Until the people at the top pull their finger out, it’s going to to be up to the people at the bottom. But this time, the grass roots have shown how powerful they can be when they show solidarity. I believe an important change for the better has just been made, and those of us who stood up to those who thought themselves untouchable have a lot to be proud of.

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