In the midst of the “woke” era we find ourselves questioning a lot of things that were taken for granted, or simply left unquestioned, or just not questioned enough. An example of this has been the very recent Twitter squabble between singer Taylor Swift and Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) who claimed that Taylor didn’t write her own songs, or that her way of (co)writing was be taken less seriously, at which Swift rightfully retorted that Albarn‘s conceptions were highly outdated. Swift got a lot of support, but the “argument”, however, spotlights an issue that is still very relevant, even though the internet has been a game changer in many respects.
I happen to be one of the many women currently active in (niche) indie music on several levels: I sing, promote, design, publish, dj and even attempt at programming/producing/mixing and mastering at times. However challenging that is.
Ever since I started, I have noticed a lack of women in “the driver’s seat”, or overall production of music: the creating, the ship-shaping and distributing of the end-product. Basically all the stuff apart from singing, looking cute and (maybe) playing the guitar, which, oddly enough, is considered sexy (not in any way that will be incorporated in the anthology of virtuosi, of course). Even in the muso/music groups I run, or the collaborations with the loveliest of talented men, the camaraderie is strong, but there is a significant lack of women, let alone ones that actively comment or share music. The exception to the rule somewhat being the Twee/Indiepop scene and women in DJ-ing, it is and remains predominantly a male area. A recent study reported that only 21% of all artists are women, 12% are songwriters and only 2% of women are producers.
The role of women is often merely one of being put on a pedestal, but when they speak up and interfere in sections populated by mostly guys, they are often labelled as a bossy bitches, whereas the men tumble over praising each other for their knowledge and skills. Although there have been female music producers/engineers in the past (Linda Perry, Sylvia Massy, Catherine Marks, Mandy Parnell, Emily Lazar) and singers had had a strong “hold” on their product like Kate Bush, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Suzanne Ciani, and despite the fact that there are the new school of contenders helping to evolve a new paradigm, we still are, by and large, a minority.
In my own country, recently, our version of “The Voice”(talent show) has been suspended pending an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and even rape. Twentynine female singers joined forces and wrote an open letter against “The people who want you to believe that you need them to become or stay successful. Taking control of every aspect of your career, so that in the end you barely know who you are or why you ever wanted to get into music.” Their aim is more awareness and education, especially for men/boys in the industry.
And more awareness is also the idea behind this article. I probed some women that are (or have been) active in indie music about what might be the factor underlying the lack of women in the music industry? Or why they are not involved enough in the overall process of music making. Is it that women think the process that comes with music production is uninteresting, too technical, or is it because they don’t feel they are taken seriously when they do?
The answers range from long to short and vary in nature, but are all frank and unambiguous. Let’s hope this article helps to raise a bit of awareness once again. Fortunately, things seem to be changing slowly and gradually, which seems minor, but is quite a momentous thing over the course of history. After all, music “belongs” to all of us.
Disclaimer: This article is not meant to point fingers or cause a bigger rift. It is not meant to generalise or attack men. It’s is meant as an eyeopener to yet another issue that is firmly rooted in society and mostly carried out subconsciously. On both sides!
Clare Wadd (Sarah Records):
“That said, we still need many, many more for a critical mass, so, for instance, we no longer have festivals where if you took out the female names you’d have an almost blank page etc. etc.
My take is that the music world is a subset of the rest of the world, and everything that’s wrong with it. Music is often borne out of obsession, but girls growing up aren’t often allowed to be sufficiently obsessive, they’re expected to be rounded, supportive, helpful…
Then you’ve got the night-time economy, the potential for unsafe spaces, both inside and out, travelling at night, getting hassled, the need to fight your corner all the time… and what might seem like a great world to be part of for a young man might feel altogether more challenging for a woman. This ties into how society views and treats women, victim-blaming instead of trying to address male violence on women, all of that.
And then I was thinking too about the belittling and scorn and venom and bullying that we experienced at Sarah from the very male music press precisely because we were (part) female, with a female name, because we were girlie… and then we became so easy to put down because they didn’t know us… it’s what you see on social media so often now – sometimes it’s deliberate and sometimes it’s just stupid and thoughtless and ignorant, but it has the effect of silencing many women, making them stop – who wants to stick their head above the parapet, who wants to have to deal with the abuse and aggro on a day to day basis…
And because we were different, didn’t fit in with the established norms, the lads, the gang, didn’t play 5-aside football with the music journalists, all that stuff wasn’t open to me certainly, and you’re in a world where nobody cares really about being inclusive.
And then the bravery to write songs, to put yourself and your feelings and emotions out there in the context of so much bullying and belittling…
And of course the focus on what you look like, how you dress, women in music have often been expected to fit established norms of attractive, so much more than men have, so if you’re not confident in how you look… and there’s been a sense, very explicitly much more than a sense sometimes, that part of women’s role is decoration, visual and vocal.
There’s probably a lot more examples I could use, but my thinking is that if each of these factors causes a percentage of women to just not do music, or to stop doing it, it all adds together and each thing ends up reinforcing the other… and you just end up with a small number of women willing / able to put up with just so much shit.”
Helen McCookery Book (Helen and the Horns, The Chefs, Joby and the Hooligans):
“I don’t know if you’ve had chance to look at the book I wrote, but the reasons are really complicated: there is a strong feeling in the music industry that something that has (almost) always been the case must be right, so why change it? The music industry is really conservative, although it pretends to be so radical, and any change takes years to come into play. In a nutshell, I can say that tolerating or even promoting women producers is seen as OK, and even gets the person who’s providing that support a bit of a ‘cool’ vibe, until the point at which the female producer becomes competition for the guys. When the female producer outgrows her male mentors and teachers, and actually enters the marketplace as a serious production contender, that’s when the problems are most likely to start. These are not problems she can mention, because if she does, she is behaving just like a woman: being weak, in other words. If she is conventionally attractive, she only got where she is because of the way she looks. If not, she only got where she is because she is too ugly for men to be interested in her. There are some men who remain supportive to women they have encouraged, and they are to be commended for this. Unfortunately, there are still a lot of outdated attitudes out there. The music industry is competitive anyway, attitudes is fear of more competition: those woman producers might just be better than the male ones!”
Helen wrote the book “She’s at the Controls – Sound Engineering, Production and Gender Ventriloquism in the 21st Century (Helen Reddington/University of East London 2021) https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/shes-at-the-controls/
Amelia Fletcher ( Heavenly, Catenary Wires, Swansea Sound):
“When I was starting out, it was hard enough for girls to be taken seriously as songwriters, let alone producers. Also production was only really done in proper recording studios. Day rates were high so time was usually of these essence, leaving little time for experimentation or learning. The only way into production was basically to start as an engineer, helping out a producer. That just wasn’t something most girls thought of doing.
The best we could do was to try and tweak things in the studio to make them sound more how we wanted – usually the instructions were vocals down, less reverb.
Things should be different now. Anyone can produce great-sounding records at home with not much more than a laptop. There is lots of guidance online, lots of time to experiment and learn, and more acceptance that music can be produced in different ways. I love the fact that I can now produce records, design artwork, edit videos, all from my sofa.
I suspect the main blockage now is cultural. The main way into production is through making your own music. When kids are growing up, it still seems to be the boys that more likely to form bands and experiment with recording. Girls seem less inclined to do this, even though they love music, play instruments, sing.
But I don’t think this cultural difference is inherent. I put a lot of it down to a lack of role models. Female artists are now doing really well in the mainstream, but that music isn’t the sort of music most teenagers want to make. The more accessible, slightly alternative, music that excites teens – the sorts of bands that play at Reading Festival – remains depressingly male-heavy. I think the music industry has a serious responsibility to think harder about female representation at every level and in every category of music. If girls have good role models, and feel accepted in the scene, then they will participate and thrive.”
Mary Wyer (Even As We Speak):
“I think the reason is the same reason women aren’t in any other male dominated industry- and why, in Australia, one woman a week is murdered by a man who they know and nothing gets done about it. We live in a patriarchy. And women in music can sometimes play our part in continuing it – but when we try to break any mould we are discouraged or ridiculed or even attacked, so it’s not surprising many of us don’t push too hard. Even our own dear male bandmates don’t always get it.
When I was young, I wanted to be a sound engineer – but the important adult figures in my life, while they didn’t discourage me, certainly didn’t respond enthusiastically to my suggestion. Whereas when I bandied the idea that I could be a nurse or a teacher there was much approval. These things get in and I eventually became both a nurse and a teacher – but not a sound engineer!!! So, I try wherever I can with my daughter and other young people to encourage diverse options.
But I have to take some responsibility too. Once I managed to get into a band, I was more interested in being a performer than learning about the technical aspects of music making – and it has been to my detriment. It has made it hard to get the vocal sounds I want and to understand how to get a good mix in headphones when we record…and knowing how to record at home. And you have to develop a thick skin – I wrote songs…but I was mostly afraid to bring them to the band. Once when I did, I was told that some of the songs were dull and instead of working with that – either disagreeing or working out how to change them I just shut that part of me down. That’s on me.
After EAWS broke up in the 90s (not permanently in the end) I was trying to make sense of what had happened and what was going to fill the gaping hole I felt. I did an honours thesis where I interviewed nine women from the early indie scene in Sydney, who had inspired me so much back in the day. While their male bandmates were still in bands and generally lauded, many of these women were no longer in bands and their contributions to Australian independent music had largely been ignored in written histories. Their accounts described how, despite the notion of the independent music scene as a positive environment for developing musical identities, certain aspects of the scene challenged and marginalised the music-making practices of women musicians, making it difficult for them to sustain a career in music. Among these was one that particularly struck a chord with me – that if you became involved in a romantic intra-band relationship it could contribute to your sense of not being responsible for your own success and certainly not for the band’s success. Your sense of professional and musical ability can become displaced into feeling that your presence is only tolerated because you are somebody’s lover. And that if that goes wrong it can all be taken away from you. Especially if you aren’t writing songs. The good thing is that I took what I had learned from my thesis and recorded an album of my songs under Her Name In Lights. Two wonderful men helped me do that – Simon Holmes (miss you Simon) and my amazing husband Almond Cafarella, as well as Alison Galloway.
I feel particularly lucky to have been in EAWS with another woman. Anita and I have written and recorded together (Singing Bush) and shared many a hotel room on tour. We have wrangled home recording studios and laughed at ourselves doing it. Put glitter on each other’s eyes before shows and backed each other up when some sexist shit has happened. I hope we soon see more women in all walks of music life backing each other up.”
Anita Rayner (Even As We Speak):
“You may have seen a Tik Tok piece by KC Davis theorising that men have been socialised from birth not to think, look, feel or behave like women if they don’t want to suffer the punishment of shame and humiliation. By the time they actively start engaging with girls/women they already see them as inferior. Of course this is a generalisation and there are a lot of men who don’t think this way, but even they rarely stand up to the others because the opinion of other men is worth more to them than women’s opinion of them.
I see it all the time in guitar/drum/gear forums…as soon as a woman asks a question or contributes to a discussion, she is instantly patronised, made to feel stupid, or even abused publicly and through DMs. Of course there are ‘decent’ men reading all this but they rarely, if ever step in to support the woman.
In gig/recording situations I’ve watched countless times as a male sound engineers/producers direct all communication to a male band members…unless of course they fancy the female!
I remember reading once about how being a medical doctor in Russia was considered to be the most prestigious of vocations…until women started to become doctors. The prestige decreased, the pay decreased. Men don’t like women being in what they consider to be ‘their space’…the mere presence of women devalues the activity and the knowledge and expertise of the men involved in it.
While I’m forever hopeful that things are slowly changing, I’m mindful that for there to be equality in any industry, the scales of male/female participation have to be rebalanced. I don’t think that women aren’t interested in pursuing jobs in music production…the tough, focussed ones are there already…but the others probably just get intimidated and exhausted by the constant sexist battle and give up.”
Gretchen Mauchmar DeVault (The Francine Odysseys, The Blue Herons, Voluptuous Panic):
“I think the answer is likely pretty layered. Women in music come from all different vantage points and interests. So, for some, there may not be any interest in the technical or production side of music and that’s totally cool. But for those of us who are, it’s much like working in any other male dominated field (like tech). You certainly get dismissed and can be perceived as not being capable. Sometimes even when you’ve been on the production side, you are still only viewed one-dimensionally as the singer (even if you produced the track!). How many of us have stories of going to the music store and being asked if you’re there to get something for a boyfriend? Or similar stories. My guess is that many women are producing, it’s just that they may not be recognized as such.
I wonder if we could get some women together to share production tips. I’d love to learn more. I’m on some FB groups that are women producers, but I’m still hesitant to ask questions.”
Rosie Varela (EEP):
“I think there are many reasons why women participate less than men on the engineering/production/business aspects of the music industry. Historically it’s been a bit of a boy’s club, so there’s decades of catch up we red to do. But I can look to my own story to provide some possible insight. I’m my case, I spent many years working jobs that were consistently paid lower than my male counterparts. And for 18 years, I raised my son. So any extra money I might have spent on recording equipment, gear and production education just was not available then. So during those years, playing in a band was a way to still keep my toes into music while taking care of my responsibilities.
Today, the wage disparity still exists and so the economics of the music business can still be a challenge for women. A really cool and interesting thing happened in those years where I had to work non-music jobs though. I worked and learned business management , I went to film school, I worked in the education and tech industry as well.
So now, I’m my 50’s, and the funding and experience and knowledge of my work past have all come together to support creating and running a label and a studio with my partners. I’m finding it a very organic process and I feel well suited and competent because of all those years of working in business. I think if I had tried 20 years ago to create a label I might have been discouraged because the independent music model then was still very based on a model similar to how major labels ran the industry. And even though as women we still have a long way to go, I’m thrilled at seeing so many women self releasing their music because the tools of technology are way more accessible and way less expensive. Platforms like Distrokid, Bandcamp YouTube and internet radio stations and blogs have paved a way to market and promote music more easily too. I love that music and the business of music is something that can grow with us, through the phases of our lives.
At this point in my life, I’m so honored when I can help to mentor or educate or give tips to young female artists and producers and try to collaborate with them as much as possible. We all should be there for each other whenever we can, because when one woman succeeds at her dreams and goals, we all succeed. “
Krissy Vanderwoude (Whimsical, The Churchill Garden):
“Ok first of all, what a pompous prick Damon Albarn is. Not surprising though. This is definitely such a sad and disturbing reality. For me personally, I am wayyyy too intimidated by the technical aspects of production and don’t feel that I have the proper ear for it. For example, even when Neil (Burkdoll) or Andy (Jossi) send me a mix and ask about a certain instrument or how some of the instruments sit in the overall mix, I rarely ever have a strong opinion about it because I feel that it’s not my area of expertise. Not at all. For some reason I’ve never had a desire to pursue that avenue of music in any way. Overall lack of interest, doubting I’d be good at it and just intimidated by the technical, tedious aspect of it all.”
Rachel Love (ex Dolly Mixture, now solo):
“I was lazy before, relying on my husband to help me, so now I have to learn! It’s good to be in action and it’s easy to let things get in the way but I’m determined not to get stopped. I’ve written the next album, I just have to get it recorded now. I love your show by the way, great that you do so much x”