Just a week after the demise of Life Or Death PR, following a string of allegations of sexual harassment against CEO Heathcliff Berru, the company’s former staff have spoken out in an exclusive interview with Billboard. Former President Nick Dierl and Senior Publicist Duncan Will had previously announced that they would be launching a new venture after the dissolution of Life Or Death. In the interview, they gave more details of their new company, Liberal Arts, and also answered some of a many questions surrounding Berru’s behaviour.
Awaking to the storm of accusations that followed Amber Coffman‘s incriminating twitter feed, Dierl was immediately called on to comment on the allegations against his boss. After discussing the situation with the rest of the company’s employees, Dierl spoke directly to Berru; “I then asked Heathcliff about the validity of the Amber story, and he told me that he was ‘blackout drunk’ that night… I couldn’t judge Heathcliff’s level of sincerity, either.”
The decision for Berru to step down as CEO came that very day, and it wasn’t long after that Dierl announced that the entire staff would be resigning from Life Or Death – effectively dissolving the company. A number of other women in the industry had added their voices to Coffman’s, including, as revealed in the interview, a female employee at Life Or Death, who had received inappropriate text messages from Berru. Will commented that “[Will and Dierl] believed all of those stories and chose to operate accordingly instead of contesting those statements.”
Now launching their new venture Liberal Arts under the aegis of Figure Eight Media, a subsidiary of Knitting Factory Records (who also held an investor share in Life Or Death), it is likely that a number of former Life Or Death clients will follow. Killer Mike and Wet have already confirmed their intentions to work with Liberal Arts. In the interview, Will and Dierl were at pains to be clear that Berru is in no way tied to the new business. Their words were backed by President of Knitting Factory Records, Ian Wheeler;
“I will serve as managing director for the new entity, which will be 100 percent owned by Figure Eight Publicity, a subsidiary of Knitting Factory Entertainment. An equity position will also being carved out for the founders of the new entity in the coming months. Previously, Heathcliff Berru owned 100 percent of Life Or Death PR, and we had an investor profit share. Life Or Death PR has now been dissolved. Mr. Berru is no longer a party to our organization and will not take part in our new venture, nor own an equity position. All ties have been cut.”
Disclaiming any knowledge of Berru’s sexual misconduct, Will and Dierl did admit to being aware of his problems with alcohol and drugs. After conversations addressing the issue back in October 2012, Will asserts that Berru removed himself from the day to day running of the business to a great extent. They also acknowledged that Berru openly engaged in exmarital affairs, but that those were something entirely separate to the kind of incidents described by Coffman and others.
“I don’t want us to seem like we didn’t have any awareness of anything he did, because that’s not the case. But there is a huge delineation between what someone is doing in their personal life consensually versus what’s nonconsensual.”
Regarding their awareness of Berru’s struggle with alcohol and drugs, and his sexual indiscretions, both Will and Dierl commented on the difficulty of raising these questions with someone in a senior position. Talking about his conversations with Berru about his drinking, Dierl pointed out that “It’s a precarious situation to voice that to your employer.”
Though both Will and Dierl stated categorically that had they known of or suspected the allegations against Berru, they would have taken the same steps as followed the events of last week. On being asked about the why they think the female employee at Life Or Death did not report Berru’s inappropriate behaviour, Dierl replied, “If you are young in the industry and making strides in your career, you might be afraid to say something that you think may jeopardise it.”
This is the crux of the issue. From the staff who don’t want to lose their jobs, right through to artists who are hesitant to damage relationships within the industry, experience has taught us how extremely unpleasant these situations can get. On top of the gross behaviour that sparked this whole conversation, Berru’s abuse of his powerful position is truly disgusting.
Because there does need to be a zero tolerance policy, + it needs to be upheld by all of us. If artists don’t accept less, that helps a lot
— Amber Coffman (@Amber_Coffman) January 27, 2016
Will and Dierl believe that Berru’s misconduct did lead to losing clients and business over the years, but it seems that no one clearly spoke out about the problem. “We didn’t know that Heathcliff’s actions were losing us business, especially clients I really cared about. We were being handicapped by it without knowing it for years.” So while Life Or Death may have suffered as clients left or label ties were severed, Berru was never personally held accountable until now.
And while there is no possible justification for Berru’s actions, or apology that can truly eradicate the damage he has done, it can be hoped that this landmark moment will have positive ramifications. The sad fact that some of the women who spoke out against Berru have not received the full support of the industry, shows how badly we stand in need of change. As a hopeful arbiter of this change, Duncan Will summed up this sentiment; “I applaud all of the women who came forward and brought these conversations to the public sphere. I hope that it’s a conversation that doesn’t end this week and continues to be talked about in the industry.”