Musicians making sound moves to get the gender balance right

Women are under-represented in the Irish music industry, but a change is gonna come

 

A number of Irish initiatives are addressing gender imbalance in the music industry.

“Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times,” Björk told Pitchfork in 2015, relaying her experience as a female producer and musician throughout her celebrated career.

After winning a Grammy for best rock song last month, Annie Clark aka St Vincent spoke of the “systemic sexism” in the music industry. “As all systems of power go, you need a seat at the table,” she said.

At the award ceremony this year, Dua Lipa, who performed a duet with St Vincent earlier that night, accepted her Best New Artist award by saying, “I guessed we stepped up,” referring to Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s response to the Grammy’s backlash the previous year that “women needed to step up”.

The comments from Portnow (who is due to step down as president this summer) were indicative of the male-dominant industry’s lack of understanding of women’s experiences. But, the numbers are easy to understand.

A USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report on gender equality, released in January, examined 700 songs on Billboard’s year-end chart from 2012 to 2018 and showed that women make up 21.7 per cent of artists, 12.3 per cent of songwriters and only 2.1 per cent of producers.

Keychange

There are signs of change. As part of the Keychange initiative, 45 music festivals around the world including Brighton’s The Great Escape, Iceland Airwaves, Canadian Music Week and Ireland’s Hard Working Class Heroes have pledged towards achieving or maintaining gender-equal line-ups by 2022. Barcelona’s Primavera Sound went one further and achieved a 50/50 line-up gender balance for their 2019 festival, asking, “if half of our audience is female, why shouldn’t half of our line-up be so too?”

Promoters have begun to recognise that having a lot fewer women than men on their line-ups can be alienating and suggests to women, along with under-represented LGBTQ+ and minority musicians, that the same opportunities are not available to them. A number of Irish initiatives are laying the groundwork for the next generation.

Girls Rock

Girls Rock Dublin, a chapter of the organisation that started in Portland, Oregon in 2001, will put on their third summer camp aimed at 12 to 17-year-olds this June. The camp reserves places for under-represented groups such as LGBTQ+, those living in direct provision, non-Irish nationals and people with disabilities, and scholarships are available for low-income households.

After participating in the Girls Rock European camp in Sweden six years ago, Rossella Bottone had her eyes opened to the possibilities.

“At the conference, I wrote a song in 15 minutes with three people I had just met and played it five minutes later on a ukulele, which I had never played before. Those 15 minutes were enough for me to crack a well-consolidated belief I had about perfection being the only way, which is a weight a lot of us carry, especially women. Was that song perfect? No. Did it feel good? Yes.”

Bottone now co-organises Girls Rock Dublin and says that “music is our tool, self-esteem is our mission”.

The camp aims to do that by offering a welcoming environment where musical exploration is encouraged – “a week of self-discovery through music,” as Bottone puts it. Campers try out different instruments, form bands, write songs and perform them at the end of the week.

This year’s edition has been endorsed by the band Chvrches who donated €1 from every sale of their Dublin Olympia gig to the camp.

“When we play at venues or festivals and things, you pretty much never see female crews or female session musicians,” Churches’ Lauren Mayberry said. “This camp is really cool because it shows girls these are options for them. Those choices should start from the grassroots up.”

The feedback from the attendees suggested a 54 per cent increase in self-esteem, a 48 per cent increase in self-belief and a 33 per cent increase in social confidence. Twenty-seven per cent are now taking music lessons and a couple have enrolled in music colleges such as Sound Training College and BIMM.

Girls Rock Dublin brings in established women musicians to help inspire the campers and reinforce the idea that “if you see if, you can be it”. Artists such as Soak, Soulé, Wyvern Lingo, Elaine Mai and May Kay of Le Galaxie came in to offer some advice and encouragement.

“The main thing Girls Rock Dublin has taught me is the importance of visibility,” says May Kay. “It’s so important for young people to see a template for themselves in what they aspire to be. I’ve seen first-hand how incredibly nurturing and productive creating that safe space can be.”

Inclusive spaces

Inclusive spaces for learning is at the heart of a number of recent initiatives around addressing this issue. Hunt & Gather’s Glitter Tits DJ course last year was pitched at women and the queer community, offering an encouraging environment for attendees, and is planning to return in 2019.

Sinéad Furlong, who runs Mnásome, a platform for celebrating women in music through a website and events, is a musician who has experienced self-confidence issues on stage.

“Feedback often includes comments about my appearance; terms like ‘pretty’ and ‘sexy’ get thrown around. I’ve put on gigs before where I’ve walked into the venue with a man and it was assumed that he was in charge. I also had a guitar teacher who told me girls don’t normally keep playing because they don’t want to cut their nails.”

The Inclusion Initiative report on Gender Equality report confirms those biases. Forty per cent of respondents said their colleagues dismissed or discounted their work or skills. Meanwhile, 39 per cent have experienced stereotyping and sexualisation.

Confidence

Furlong says in educational settings she has lacked the confidence to share her opinions, or to try out production in workshops, presuming she knew less than her male peers about the subjects. That changed when she attended a Girls Rock Dublin live sound workshop.

“I was so much more at ease and felt I could take the information in. I was in a room full of women and I truly felt like I was among my peers. I made no internal assumptions about my abilities, and it felt like we were being spoken to as if we were all on the same level.”

Communities such as Gash Collective also offer a safe space for female-identifying and LGBTQ+ people to develop their skills in a DJ context. In an article I wrote for The Irish Times in 2017, Gash’s Ellen King, who makes music under the name ELLLL, said: “People think that women don’t want or have no interest in music technology, even in terms of sound engineering, production or setting up their decks.”

I asked King if that has changed.

“Yes and no,” King responds. “I feel like there are some people trying to be more aware and mindful of including womxn in these areas, and recognising that there are plenty of womxn out there are more than qualified and capable in these situations.

“However, there is still a certain demographic of people where the sexism is so ingrained, they genuinely see no issue with the way they treat womxn in these scenarios compared to how they treat men, ie condescending, rude, patronising et cetera. Unfortunately, this behaviour is still extremely frequent and prevalent within the scene.”

The use of newer terms like “womxn” (an inclusive take on the word) and cis (someone who’s identity corresponds with their birth gender) reflect the evolving conversation around gender and inclusiveness.

Joanna Bain, who along with Julie Hawk, started Self-Made, an initiative that hosts panel discussions about DIY musicians and mental health, is inclusive in involving female artists in the conversation. Bain says that is because her gender has affected her experience as a musician and the idea that she was “playing at a boys’ game”.

“I think a lot of this feeling comes from seeing the industry being run for the most part by cis males. I listened to plenty of female-run projects growing up, but my overall impression of the industry was that it was a very male infrastructure – from engineers and producers to label heads, and that I needed to find a place in it that I would fit.

“I think it has to be a different experience for cis males. When you see yourself reflected back in the artists and the people in charge, then there’s a certain sense of belonging already established. From the conversations I’ve had, it seems that women have to navigate a lot more uncomfortable conversations and shout much louder to gain this sense of belonging.”

Brands step up

Brands are getting involved in the gender in music issue. Smirnoff’s Equalising Music initiative, a three-year, global initiative to double female and female- identifying headliners at festivals by 2020, has run some Dublin workshops and events. Its latest activity is the Equalising Music Pledge, which is “challenging each and every person in the music industry to do one significant thing for gender equality in 2019”.

“The music industry is still embarrassingly lopsided when it comes to gender parity,” says BBC Radio 1 DJ Annie Mac, who is spearheading the pledge. “We are all acutely aware of the enormous contribution women make to this business, and yet there’s still so much work to be done to ensure they’re embraced and championed, both in front of and behind the scenes.”

Gash Collective’s Ellen King sees the development of initiatives such as Self-Made, Mnásome, Glitter Tits and Girls Rock Dublin as positive but telling in their requirement.

“It’s amazing that these support systems are available to people and they are making music more accessible, but it’s important to remember, if everything was equal already, and people were being fairly represented, there would be no need for any of these collectives, Gash included. There is still a long way to go.”

More info

Girls Rock Dublin takes place from June 25th to 29th. See girlsrockdublin.com/camp

Self-Made’s next workshop and panel Mind YourSelf: Mental Health and Music takes place at the Tara Building, Dublin 2 on May 25th. See weareselfmade.io/

Glitter Tits’ next course happens at the Bernard Shaw pub in Dublin 2 on March 10th.

Gash Collective celebrates its third birthday on March 8th in Electric in Galway. 

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