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Punk Talks Controversy: Pinegrove, a Mishandled Allegation, and Finding a Path Forward

Punk Talks Controversy: Pinegrove, a Mishandled Allegation, and Finding a Path Forward
20 Apr
9:58

Late last week, a persistent subject of gossip in the emo music community hit breakout velocity. The subject was a Philadelphia-based nonprofit organization called Punk Talks, which aims to provide mental health education and services to DIY musicians and industry workers, and the nonprofit’s mishandling of sensitive issues. The conversation began with a series of since-deleted tweets from the organization’s Twitter account on April 12, offering commentary on an outstanding allegation of sexual misconduct by Sorority Noise’s Cameron Boucher. Uproar over the Twitter thread redirected attention to an incident involving New Jersey indie band Pinegrove, whose frontman acknowledged an accusation of “sexual coercion” seemingly unprompted last November. Now, the accuser involved tells Spin that Punk Talks’ founder “did many things without my knowledge, support or permission.”

Written in the first person, the controversial Punk Talks Twitter thread made blunt assessments and assertions about Boucher’s behavior and mental health. While it arose in response to a current news story, it was a jarring statement from an organization that has touted itself as offering free—and, more importantly, confidential—therapy and mental health support. On April 15, Punk Talks responded to criticism from fans, musicians, and others connected to the industry who felt the deleted tweets were inappropriately personal and revealing. “We have seen some of the information circulating online,” the organization’s apology statement began. “We’d like to address this, clarify misconceptions, and apologize for our missteps. … We acknowledge and understand the concern about using the Punk Talks social platforms for personal dialogue.”

In a separate public apology that same night, Punk Talks founder and executive director Sheridan Allen claimed authorship of the deleted tweets, writing, “Although these experiences were involving my work with Punk Talks, it was inappropriate and a mistake to use its platform to share those experiences. … I take full responsibility for this and I apologize to anyone who was upset by my actions.”

The deleted tweets and attendant controversy set off a wave of speculation in the indie punk community, where high-profile allegations of misconduct by members of bands including PWR BTTM and Brand New have worn nerves thin and spotlighted a need for accountability. At the highest echelons of the entertainment industry, companies may call in independent investigators and crisis PR managers, or use legal tools like private settlements and non-disclosure agreements to hush scandal. Smaller music scenes don’t have those resources; instead, amateur crisis PR often goes down in the DM, and public opinion holds court online. It’s not exactly a good system, especially considering the tight-knit scene: Accusers, the accused, and internet commenters may run in the same circles or frequent the same venues, placing would-be accusers under extraordinary social pressure and risk of retaliation. Not everyone wants to approach law enforcement—and in the self-sufficient, equality-minded DIY scene, many community members have ethical objections to involving police.

In recent months, Punk Talks stepped into that fraught void. Engaging publicly with misconduct allegations seemed to go beyond the mission of the organization, which promotes itself primarily as offering free mental health therapy for music industry workers via referral to volunteer partner therapists. Since founding Punk Talks in 2015 as a college senior, Allen has received glowing media coverage for outreach efforts such as tabling at live performances and distributing literature on mental healthcare access. The group’s motto, “You don’t have to be sad to make great music,” resonated in a community where artists and fans tend to be outspoken about personal mental health struggles, and where—as in much of independent music—many must navigate and pay for healthcare on their own, often without insurance. Last year, the group successfully crowdfunded money to become a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit.

The public apologies have cast a harsh new light on the handling of important, sensitive issues and they come at an awkward time for Punk Talks, which recruited new board members just months ago. One of these board members, Henderson Cole, took to Twitter to apologize further, writing, “Punk Talks has made serious mistakes.” Cole spoke to Spin via email, acting on behalf of Punk Talks; all of our communication was reviewed by the organization’s board. When we asked about the nature of those mistakes, he said: “Many of us on the board are just now learning the full extent of the mistakes that were made prior to our arrival, and there may still be more to learn.”

***

Barely three years old, Punk Talks is a grassroots organization with about five volunteer staff; the new board originally had 11 members, but some have resigned over the past week. In addition, the group works with about five outside therapists who accept client referrals but do not operate within the organization itself. As in any doctor-patient relationship, information divulged between clients and therapists is privileged and protected by medical confidentiality laws. It would be unusual for practitioners to reach out to business affiliates of an alleged abuser, and therapists have an ethical obligation to maintain confidentiality.

According to the Punk Talks board, Allen’s role was to intake clients and refer them to licensed partner therapists; she was not supposed to play the role of a therapist. But amid backlash to the deleted tweets, a portion of an internal Punk Talks email leaked online, revealing an odd approach for tackling one client’s issues. In their separate public statements, both Punk Talks and Allen requested the deletion of the leaked excerpt, which mentioned “working directly to take down the biggest band in indie right now,” as well as Snowed In Festival, a one-day event in Cleveland. “We are not and will never be in the business of ‘taking down’ bands; this was a poor choice of words on my part and not an indication of the work we do,” Allen wrote. As of this writing, the leaked email excerpt is still live; Spin has also reviewed the email in full.

The mention of Snowed In Festival and “the biggest band in indie” seemingly referred to a subject of much public speculation since last November, when Pinegrove frontman Evan Stephens Hall used the band’s Facebook page to issue an apology tied to a nonspecific accusation of “sexual coercion” and canceled the band’s upcoming tour dates, including one at Snowed In. (According to Cole, Punk Talks’ current board believes the leaked email excerpt indeed refers to Pinegrove.) In an interview with Track Record the following day, Allen claimed explicit involvement. “It is difficult for me to speak about this situation objectively, because I was directly involved in facilitating communication between the victim in this situation and the band’s label,” she told the site. “In this situation, I believe that the best example of restorative justice is in Evan’s decision to stop touring.”

Speaking by phone, Snowed In co-founder Cory Hajde says Allen had reached out to festival organizers. “She sent me a message very vaguely saying something came up with Pinegrove from an anonymous person who didn’t want their story to be shared, and she was in kind of a pickle of a situation,” Hajde says. “She wanted us to remove them from the show right off the bat.” Hajde was familiar with Punk Talks, and the organization was scheduled to table at Snowed In. But his company had signed a contract to secure Pinegrove’s festival appearance, Hajde says, and he was unwilling to breach it on the basis of Allen’s statements. “As time went on, it felt manipulative,” he says. “I kind of felt like she was manipulating the situation and sharing information she shouldn’t be sharing at all.”

Spin also reviewed a separate email from Allen to Hajde, his business partner, and to Pinegrove’s record label, Run for Cover. In this email, Allen writes that she is in contact with someone accusing Stephens Hall of misconduct, advises that he “step away from music,” and suggests the band seek assistance through Punk Talks and issue a public statement. When we asked Punk Talks about this email, Cole said that Allen reached out to the label and festival bookers without permission from the Punk Talks board, which was not yet fully functional. “Sheridan has told the board and the staff of Punk Talks that she did have the support of the accuser in any situation where she was contacting others about artists’ allegedly abusive behavior, but that does not mean that these incidents were handled appropriately,” Cole writes.

Until now, the person on whose behalf Allen claimed to act has chosen not to speak publicly. But after fallout from Punk Talks’ deleted tweets raised questions about the organization’s involvement with Pinegrove, she agreed to share a statement with Spin addressing the present situation. She wishes to remain anonymous, and her statement is printed here in full:

“It has recently been brought to my attention that Sheridan Allen did many things without my knowledge, support or permission involving the Pinegrove situation, even after I had already asked her to remove herself entirely from the situation. I told Sheridan repeatedly that I didn’t want to go public or for any public statement to be made. I never asked for her to request or demand any type of statement from Pinegrove or Run for Cover. I’ve never said or implied to Sheridan that I wanted to ‘take down’ Pinegrove. Her commenting and responding to Facebook comments and tweets about the Pinegrove statement, as well as doing an interview with Track Record, while referring to herself as an involved party, was done completely without my knowledge or consent. She also spoke to others about things that I had told her which I never expected to be made public in this already complicated and traumatic situation.”

Contacted for additional clarification, Cole responded, “The board does not condone or defend any prior actions of Punk Talks that happened without our knowledge and before our presence.”

In a separate emailed statement, Allen acknowledged emailing Pinegrove’s affiliates, writing:

“I did this with what I believed to be the consent and cooperation of the survivor and I am incredibly sorry to learn that I was wrong. I do not want to speak against the survivor, given what they have already endured, but I will say that the email sent to Pinegrove affiliates was proofread and approved. I was doing this in a misguided attempt to keep people safe and prevent further harm within our community, but this was a mistake. I am deeply sorry for this. I take full responsibility and am working with the Board of Directors and therapists to ensure I am held accountable for this action and any others that have been unintentionally harmful. I am grateful for the discourse and learning this experience has brought me and I promise to never contact band affiliates on behalf of survivors at any point in the future.”

The accuser confirmed that she read Allen’s email to the band affiliates, but at the time, she says, she was “in a vulnerable position and under the impression that Sheridan was an experienced mental health professional. I didn’t realize the full scope of the information contained in that email or how Sheridan got it.”

***

On social media, some community members accused Punk Talks of mishandling information shared in confidential therapy sessions, a claim the organization disputes. Client interactions with Allen, Cole writes, “were meant to be counseling and not official therapy sessions. We are currently investigating whether people contacting Punk Talks were adequately informed that these discussions were not therapy sessions, and whether they were made aware of how this would affect their privacy.” The organization’s licensed partner therapists have not breached professional ethics, Cole says: “At no point have there been any issues with any of the therapists who work alongside Punk Talks. They have continued to provide therapy to their clients and there have [been] no violations of their patients’ confidentiality.”

In the best case, the drama surrounding Punk Talks has spurred individuals to reconsider their own actions and the community at large to reflect on how best to handle accusations of misconduct or abuse, wherever they arise. Callout culture in DIY predates #MeToo and will certainly outlast it; as the wider cultural movement cools, indie music must find a way to handle accusations that honors both accountability and privacy. Charity organizations often tout close connections to the communities they serve, but in the case of Punk Talks and misconduct allegations, the boundaries feel too unclear. The result is an embarrassing, rumor-fueled fiasco that’s arguably started more anguish than it solved. It’s a story of good intentions gone wrong; of a fledgling institution unprepared for the pressures of public reckoning; and of the pressing need for an uncompromised restorative justice process that can earn long-term trust from its constituents.

It’s not yet clear yet whether that’s something Punk Talks can provide. Asked if he’d work with the organization again, Snowed In’s Hajde says, “Depending on how they take action on changing their methods and how they treat things publicly, I would. I definitely feel like everyone deserves a second chance.”

In the wake of the controversy, the board says it is working to right its course. “The board along with the staff of Punk Talks is currently working through every single Punk Talks policy to ensure that nothing will interfere with [our] mission moving forward, and to find and remove any Punk Talks policy that does not serve this purpose,” Cole told Spin. Contacting band affiliates with concerns about alleged abuse won’t be part of the new policies. “Sheridan been removed from all social media accounts associated with Punk Talks, which will now be managed by a social media editor,” Cole adds. “Any future statements made from any Punk Talks’ social media account will have the full approval of the organization.”

If you have information to share about Punk Talks, or another story you think we should know about, email [email protected].

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