I’ve wanted to share some thoughts on this for a very long time, but wasn’t really sure what outlet to use or if my feelings on this subject were rounded enough (I’m still not sure of this). Now that I’ve used this website to share a few bits on other topics and also due to a fair few recent conversations I’ve had, I’d quite like to share it on here in the hope that it helps me make sense of my own thoughts and also shapes my approach to this issue in the future within the different projects that I’m involved in.
I think the fact I’ve been asked whether it’s difficult for women to get in to music by 5 different young women in the last fortnight has definitely pushed me to think about this in more depth. I can’t give a wide answer to this question and I want to explore it in order to support women and gender minorities wanting to begin a career in music.
I’ve grappled with the term ‘Women in Music’ for years, being very selective what initiatives I take part in, depending on how it’s framed. I struggle with the question I get asked a lot (mostly after guest lectures at educational institutions) “what’s it like being a woman in music?” and I worry often that we’re scaring women off from entering in to the industry because they will instantly think it’s a struggle that they do not wish to undertake, when the reality could be very different for them. Now that we are running a training programme at FUTURE YARD providing a gateway in to the live music industry, I’ve become more aware that I need to embrace this topic and explore it, rather than attempt to dismiss it. It feels like a good place to start is my own experiences. I do want to point out that other people’s experiences are probably vastly different, particularly those of musicians.
I want to use this as an opportunity to share some of my thoughts and hear from other people on this matter. I’d love to hear from women and minority genders on what they find encouraging and helpful when thinking about their career in music. Comments are open, DMs on MOSTDEFFO twitter and FB are open and also you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with thoughts and musings. When I’ve done this before I’ve ended up adding to the original article with plenty more stuff, so would be good to see this happen here, too. Plus, I genuinely want to hear what everyone’s thoughts are.
First of all, I fully believe we are all shaped by our own experiences. Our opinions, views and our idea of common sense are built on things that have happened to us and around us. We often follow the lead of the role models that appear in different areas throughout our lives and careers. With this in mind I wanted to share a few bits from my own journey that I think are relevant in my approach and also to reflect in order to kind of make sense of my own thoughts.
When I lived in Sheffield in my early twenties, my friends were a very musical bunch. Males and females both very passionate about their favourite bands/artists and active in the local music scene. I helped out at a club-night called Razor Stiletto that featured a wide array of performers that were not your usual four lads and guitars. Those on the stage and in the crowd were consciously encouraged to be themselves with no judgement, which made for an eye-opening experience each month. Away from this, it wasn’t unusual for pals to put their own gigs on and I had another friend, Lyndsey, that was assistant promoter at The Leadmill. I was obviously aware of the fact that there was little in the way of acts for young female performers to look up to, but I was thankful for artists such as Karen O and Brody Dalle for filling a stage with more presence than most of the front-men I’d seen. It seemed like a very natural route for me to start putting my own shows on. I had no one questioning my ability to do so, or if they were, I wasn’t aware of it. My ex-boyfriend and our friend Dan also launched a gig night at a similar time, and it felt no different for me to do my own. I did it on my own, often DJing in order to save a bit of money, which then provided me with a small reputation and I’d get booked to do other gigs around the country off the back of it.
I never felt like a gimmick, I never felt that anyone viewed me as anything other than someone having a crack at booking bands that they liked and having fun playing records that made their mates dance. It was clear, at first, I didn’t know what I was doing, I remember about four gigs in having to ask a mate in a band what a backline was, but it didn’t matter. I didn’t pay notice that I was a female building up a reputation as being able to do these things on their own until the last gig night I put on before moving to London to attempt to pursue a career in music properly. On that final night, a DJ duo who were a regular feature at the nights I would put on called ASBO A-Go-Go sat me down on the fire escape of the tiny venue we used to use and heaped some very unexpected praise on me, acknowledging the fact I’d built something up on my own and had inspired them and kind of paved the way a bit. I remember feeling compelled to dismiss what they were saying and underplay the whole thing, but I look back at it now and see that this is exactly what is meant by representation. If we see someone that looks like us doing something we want to do, then we are more likely to do it ourselves. For those formative years in Sheffield I felt safe to create an active role for myself in the local music scene because I was surrounded by people who never questioned my involvement and egged me on, plus I had my pal Lyndsey who was doing it as a proper job and was quickly head-hunted by Barfly to become main promoter in Liverpool when we were flatmates. she always encouraged me to follow my ears and to take my interest in music seriously.
My opinion of the wider music industry was that it was generally impenetrable. Not to women, but just to anyone that wasn’t connected. When I moved to London in 2008 I was never ever under the impression that being female might stop me getting my dream job, I assumed it was going to be down to not knowing the right people and possibly not being able to afford to work for free. I was never aware of programmes or initiatives that allowed people access to the industry like we have today. I just knew I had to keep going, keep creating my own opportunities, keep applying for jobs and keep building my CV and emailing people. Even though I may have viewed the industry as a ‘boys club’ based on reputation, I kept it in my head that this was caricature as I genuinely did not know very much about the inner-workings, back then.
In London I worked at The Lock Tavern in Camden where I was able to continue DJing and put gigs on. I did full-time internships at Domino Records (props to Colleen, Domino’s head of press who answered every question I asked with so much patience during a very busy Arctic Monkeys campaign) and One Little Indian Records whilst working full-time in the pub and I kept adding things to my CV to show that I was a fighter and pro-active. Offering to muck in on Field Day and other activity that orbited The Lock Tavern along with helping a band get some gigs.
After every bit of notable activity I would refresh that CV and keep researching and widening the net of who it went to. I eventually got my first job as an online PR at a traditional press agency, specialising in an area I felt comfortable in as I found lots of my music for my DJ sets on music blogs, therefore coming to this new job ready with an understanding of an area that my boss had very little in. I joined forces with a PR at this company called Leah and we would go and meet bands and their teams together to pitch our services. One day we came in from an unsuccessful pitch and our female boss told us that we didn’t flirt enough in meetings. We did not share these values and immediately made the decision to seek new opportunities (Leah has been at Warp Records ever since) and we’ve been the best of friends throughout, supporting each other and generally being big fans of each other.
I was quickly able to join a company that specialised in all things online, which was ran by two very different women (Sarah the business one who had capitalised on the fact that the music industry was behind on using the internet as an important tool and Leslie who was obsessed with independent music and also used to be in a band called Tits of Death that played at Razor Stiletto years earlier, she now works in the streaming dept at Universal Music Group) and a team that changed frequently, but was pretty consistently mostly female, including the formidable online press machine, Lorraine. This was pretty common in marketing and PR teams. I learned so much and built fantastic relationships across the industry that I still cherish to this day. I worked on many projects for different record labels, including Polydor where I worked closely with their Marketing Manager at the time, Liz. After a while of working together, I shared with her my ambitions of moving away from PR into a Product Manager role that involved overseeing strategy for building artists up and album campaigns within a record label. She encouraged me so much and helped build my knowledge and confidence in Product Management which led in to me moving to Rough Trade Records and taking that very role, putting me as the lead in building strategy for lots of different bands and artists. This shows the importance of mentorship. The difference it can have on someone’s career to step in and support them like this is just incredible. Of course Liz downplays her involvement in this, but she really was instrumental in building my confidence to become a leader.
When I joined Rough Trade Records which is part of Beggars Group (a large company that owns Rough Trade, 4AD, Matador, XL and Young Turks), I was encouraged to see that the workforce across the organisation was a real mix. The acts that I worked with felt diverse and I felt surrounded by lots of great women. Some of the male acts that I worked with were very mindful of the gender disparity within the live industry and actively looked for opportunities for female acts on their tours and also called out bad behaviour and worked to ensure that their shows were safe spaces for women to enjoy themselves. I remember having conversations with Andrew from Parquet Courts about them not playing ‘Stoned and Starving’ because it encouraged a really laddy reaction that they didn’t want to cultivate. I also remember him saying that Liverpool crowds were fantastic because there was always loads of women dancing at the front unhindered by unwanted attention, that stuck with me.
Over the many years of going to the gigs of bands I’ve worked with or with my colleagues, I’ve been mistaken as a girlfriend or a sibling (even recently a parent, but we won’t dwell on that) more times than I can count. I’ve been condescended to by security and I’ve had my AAA pass questioned for fear I was some kind of crazed fan and had to text a band member to come and get me. I’ve been on trips across the UK and Europe with acts and had representatives presume I’m an assistant instead of the person leading the project. I’ve had people presume I don’t know anything and ask the nearest male for information, before being reverted back to me. All of those things have been done by men. All of those assumptions made by men. All of those patronising moments supplied by men. I have dealt with these situations simply by trying to be as professional and in control as possible. When people have been unnecessarily rude to me when, now as an artist manager, I’ve arrived at venues with the band and asked a simple question, I’ve killed them with kindness and when I’ve called people out on their assumptions I’ve graciously accepted apologies and moved on.
The one thing I’m disappointed that I didn’t do enough of is calling people out on misogynistic comments made about other women for fear of creating a hostile work environment for artists I represent, which is something that has changed as I’ve got older and more confident in my experience. But the one thing I do question is would I have been more confident in calling stuff like this out earlier if I hadn’t been underestimated in those environments so much.
But this leads me to what I think is a main point. I don’t want to be labelled as a woman in music when the only thing that puts me in the category is the attitude of men. I don’t want to be reduced to my gender after forging my own, unique path. My friend Hannah put it beautifully a few weeks ago when she was complaining on social media about being spoken about as a woman in a band, she said her gender is the least interesting thing about her. I feel exactly the same. I find it hard to celebrate my successes if I feel that it’s despite my sex. In equal measures I find it difficult to accept opportunities for fear that it’s been offered to me to provide gender balance, rather than off my own merit. I’m getting better at this, but it’s often in the back of my head.
I have a personality trait that really does my head in. I can often feel that I’m being patronised or that people think I need simple things explaining to me. I can jump to conclusions very early on in this without much cause. I have to run situations by friends and colleagues before reacting to double-check I’m not seeing something that’s not there. I’m not sure if I’d call it a paranoia, but I often do think I jump the gun on this because of that feeling of being underestimated. I wouldn’t class it as imposter syndrome, but it feels similar. It’s like I’m expecting people to think I don’t know my shit and they can make a perfectly harmless comment and I will build that up in to them patronising me, it can make me feel defensive and also it can make me change my feelings towards them, too. I’m getting better at dealing with this mostly because I’m aware of it, but it does mean sometimes I’m compelled to not follow my own judgement, which is a pain in the arse.
Since moving to Liverpool in 2016 and working towards a very active role in the music scene up here, I appreciate fully the responsibility of being a visible woman. It’s a pressure I am hugely comfortable with as I think, like all those years ago in Sheffield, it encourages others to come and join in. To go, you’re doing what you love in your own way and maybe I can do that. I’m at a point in my career that I can confidently choose who I work with. I can pick those people that share the same values as me and I can talk about my career in my own terms, too. I am committed to forging my own path and not feeling swayed by things that others think I should do over what I want to do myself and I feel at this stage, with the help of my network here in Merseyside, that I have created a career that’s like a patchwork quilt of all the great things I want to do. I have role-models, still, both female and male. They span different industries, not just music.
I am grateful that there are so many initiatives, events and organisations that are supporting ‘women in music’. Specific funding pots, mentorship schemes and networks. I didn’t have any of that, but then I wasn’t aware I needed it. I went in to all this pretty blindly and I truly believe that I have not been held back by my gender. I worry that by creating this area of the industry for women to dominate comfortably and support each other, that we maybe aren’t addressing some of the issues around the attitude of others in the general workplace. By having all of these opt-in initiatives there’s a big bunch of people thinking, well I’m fine I don’t need to worry about it, or, that’s not for me that’s for women – when it’s possibly them making those assumptions I talked about earlier. Are we actually pushing women and minority genders back in to a position that they aren’t regarded in the normal work spaces because we are creating so many women-only opportunities? Or am I worrying unduly?
I’m fully aware that my attitude is shaped by my own experiences, so I’d like to hear what others think. I’ve always seen myself as an individual in music, but maybe I should embrace the ‘women in music’ title more.
What I Want To Know?
I’d love to know about your experiences and also what programmes and organisations you have found useful, encouraging and meaningful in forging your path in music.
I’d love to know about what has been helpful that can be shared with others to help them, too.
I’d love to know if you’ve been given wonderful advice or nuggets of wisdom about navigating the industry and your career.
I’d love to know who your role models are and why.