sexual assault

Women in the Music Industry Accuse Publicist Heathcliff Berru of Sexual Misconduct

Amber Coffman
Amber Coffman Photo: Noel Vasquez/Getty Images

In December 2009, on the anniversary of the death of one of her close friends, Beth Martinez met up with Heathcliff Berru at a Chicago bar. Like Martinez, Berru owned his own music PR firm, representing artists like Killer Mike, Of Montreal, and Odd Future. After a couple of drinks he offered to give her a ride home.

“It was a bad neighborhood and he kept putting his hand down my shirt and I kept telling him to stop,” Martinez told me. “I was married at the time and I didn’t tell my husband because I was ashamed. I thought my husband would blame me for drinking or taking the ride.”

Martinez says that Berru texted her the next day apologizing, and begging her not to tell their mutual friend about the incident. She kept quiet about it for years, telling only a handful of people close to her. That is, until last night, when a friend sent her some tweets from Amber Coffman, the lead singer of the indie band the Dirty Projectors.

In the tweets, Coffman said Berru once rubbed her ass and bit her hair. In a phone interview, Coffman gave a full account of the incident:

I was introduced to Heathcliff in L.A. at an Unknown Mortal Orchestra show through a friend and he got us into the show. He was very friendly and he introduced me to his fiancée so I sort of thought, Okay, well this guy is not threatening. And then a week later I went to the same show back in New York and I ran into him backstage after the show and he said, ‘Hey, let me get your number.’ It seemed harmless to me so I gave him my number.

Then we go to the after-party and it’s like me and it’s a lot of my friends there just hanging out at this cocktail bar. We’ve probably been there for about an hour and I was with my friend and we had just ordered drinks and we were leaning on the bar, and across on the other side of the room I saw Heathcliff make eye contact with me. He walked over and I was like, ‘Oh, he’s coming to say hi,’ and as soon as I thought that he comes up to me and his hand goes straight to my ass. He was rubbing up and down and I totally froze up. I told my friend ‘I’ll be right back’ and ran over and grabbed three of my other guy friends and I said, ‘Hey, will you guys come back over with me, I ditched my friend and my drink’s over there but this guy just grabbed my ass.’

So I walked back up with three guys and Heathcliff was still standing there and he says to me, ‘Can I just tell you that you’re incredibly cute?’ And then he grabs my hair and starts biting it in front of all these guys. We just left immediately. One of my friends almost punched him in the face.

I told Domino Records and I told my friends and people who I knew but I guess I didn’t really think to take it public. And it wasn’t until now that I realized that I was actually kind of scared to in a way.

Coffman said that she was sitting around with some friends Monday night talking about their experiences with sexual misconduct when she decided to tweet about it. She originally didn’t tweet Berru’s name, until a friend texted her that she knew tons of other women who had similar experiences with him. That’s when she decided to go public.

“I said, ‘Why does nobody say anything?’” said Coffman. “And my friend just said people were scared and I was like, ‘Well, I’m not scared.’ So I just said his name. And I was not expecting to get this response.”

One “homie” of the Life or Death crew even claims Berru once roofied two girls.

Many who have worked in the industry for years say Berru’s predatory behavior has always been a poorly kept secret, his apparent abuse explained away as a personality quirk or the cost of doing business.

“I have known about Heathcliff’s systematic abuse of women for years and that included Amber [Coffman] and Beth Martinez, the first two to come forward,” Judy Miller, the founder of well-known music PR company Motormouth Media, told me. “I have told people privately and was never really taken seriously. There are many others that have not stepped forward, many women I know personally.”

As news of Berru’s alleged misdeeds spreads, bands who currently work or have worked with him have begun voicing their support for Coffman and the other accusers. Sadie Dupuis, the guitarist of Speedy Ortiz, a band represented by Life or Death, tweeted that the band is “waiting to have a longer convo with them. but we fully support @Amber_Coffman @dangervillage @maaatika for bringing this info public and want to make it clear that we have no interest in directly or indirectly supporting an abuser, now or ever.” Wavves, a noise rock band on Life or Death’s roster, appears to have publicly fired the firm.

Less than 24 hours after Coffman hit send on her tweets, Berru stepped down from his role as CEO of Life or Death PR. The company provided the following statement:

Life or Death has a zero tolerance policy for the type of conduct alleged in today’s on-line postings. We take these allegations very seriously.

The men and women who make up this company do not, and will not, condone or tolerate any conduct described in the on-line postings. Life Or Death is 3 men and 3 women who are committed to promoting art and serving the clients that we’re so privileged to represent. We are taking measures to ensure that the alleged behavior did not, and will not, make its way into company operations or impact our commitment to promoting art and assisting our clients.

We are grateful to Heathcliff Berru for all the work he’s done to date and his creative vision at the company. We appreciate and support his decision to step down as CEO of Life Or Death.

Coffman says she feels relieved that the truth about Berru is finally being acknowledged. “I feel relieved more for other women than I do for myself,” she said. “Especially just seeing how many people have stories about him, it does feel kind of good that he doesn’t get a pass anymore.”

Update: Heathcliff Berru has broken his silence and provided a statement to Billboard. In the statement, he acknowledges that some of his behavior may have been inappropriate, but says he has long been addicted to drugs and alcohol. He also denies ever having drugged anyone:

There have been several reports about my alleged inappropriate behavior which deserve a response. I am deeply sorry for those who I have offended by my actions and how I have made certain women feel. If I crossed the line of decency or respectfulness in situations when I was drunk and under the influence, there is no excuse, of course. To be clear, while my conduct may have been inappropriate, I have never drugged anyone or engaged in that type of behavior. Nevertheless, I do not want to be the type of person who would let drugs or alcohol take command of his life and compromise how he treats people. Yet I have been this person and it’s time to put a stop to all of this. Create a world with one less inappropriate man.

Music Publicist Accused of Sexual Misconduct