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Australian record industry trade group revokes Icon Award from former Sony chief

By | Published on Friday 15 October 2021

Denis Handlin

The Australian Recording Industry Association has revoked the Icon Award it presented to former Sony Music Australia boss Denis Handlin in 2014. It follows the TV exposé earlier this week about the toxic corporate culture at Sony’s Australian division, which Handlin headed up for decades.

The investigation into working practices at Sony Music Australia on current affairs programme ‘Four Corners’ followed Handlin’s sudden departure from the major in June, which coincided with a report in The Guardian.

In that report, more than 20 former Sony Music Australia employees discussed the toxic environment Handlin created at the music firm, an environment that in turn resulted in “sexual harassment at work events, intimidating behaviour, alcohol abuse and the unfair treatment of women in the workplace”.

Since June, pressure has been building on Sony Music itself, in particular over how much the major’s New York HQ knew about the way its Australian division was being run. And if – as is claimed – the top guard at Sony Music in the US and Sony Corp in Japan were not aware of the issues until very recently, why were they so in the dark, given that the problems with Handlin’s management style were widely known within the Australian music community.

Meanwhile, pressure has also been building for the music industry organisations that celebrated Handlin over the years, which includes record industry trade body ARIA, where the disgraced Sony boss was a board member. Given criticisms of working practices in the Australian music industry go beyond Sony, an organisation like ARIA has a role to play in promoting wider reforms, but its past connections with Handlin damages its credibility in that domain.

So what is ARIA to do? In an op-ed for The Industry Observer earlier this week, record industry veteran and former EMI Australia boss Mark Poston said that a good starting point would be to revoke the Icon Award the trade group handed to Handlin seven years ago.

He wrote: “I believe the immediate action needed is for ARIA is to strip Denis Handlin of his ARIA Icon Award. I put it to you that this man is anything but an icon. You could say he is iconic for all the wrong reasons – that would be a better summary. Perhaps the right way to frame this might be that this particular kind of icon must never be allowed to exist ever again”.

The trade body has now heeded that advice, stating earlier today: “The board of ARIA has today resolved to withdraw the ARIA award made to Denis Handlin in 2014”.

In revoking Handlin’s award, ARIA also follows the lead of QMusic, a music industry development organisation in Queensland. It presented Handlin with an honorary award at its Queensland Music Awards in 2020. That award was revoked the day after the ‘Four Corners’ programme aired, with QMusic’s CEO making a much bolder statement explaining the decision to withdraw the honour.

CEO Kris Stewart stated: “Last night’s ‘Four Corners’ investigative report laid bare the undeniable fact that the culture under Denis Handlin’s leadership at Sony came at significant human cost. Toxic workplaces, be they in the office, boardroom, on stage or behind, have no future in Australian music. We cannot, and should not accept nor celebrate this kind of culture. The future of music must be one that is safe, supportive, and equitable for all”.

With both ARIA and QMusic having now revoked the awards they presented Handlin, all eyes are on collecting society APRA/AMCOS, which handed the Sony chief its Ted Albert Award for outstanding services to Australian music in 2009. According to The Guardian, a decision will be made on whether it should likewise take that award back at an upcoming board meeting.

Of course, while revoking Handlin’s honours may help these industry organisations play a more legitimate role in promoting better working practices within the music industry, it doesn’t actually help make those better working practices a reality. Which means, in the longer term, of more interest will be how Sony Music rebuilds its Australian business, and what the wider music industry can learn from past failings at the music major.