If you’ve been on the internet in the last week, you’ll have seen the image everyone’s been talking about. No, not that bloody dress – rather, the doctored Reading & Leeds lineup poster that highlighted the huge gender imbalance in play at the festival from music blog, Crack in the Road. The Guardian quickly picked up on it, pointing out that over 87% of this year’s lineup were all-male bands. Later, graphic designer Phoebe Summers created an alternative lineup poster, featuring all female acts, proving the point that there are plenty of commercially viable, female bands out there who could have appeared on the bill – they just didn’t get booked.
Ever since I started performing solo, I’ve been referred to as a female singer-songwriter and it’s made me cringe every time. I am indeed female, and yes, I do write – and sing – songs. But I’ve always been acutely aware that this description is one reserved for a minority: when was the last time you heard someone say, “Oh look! A male drummer… ” or, “I’m going to see an all-male band tonight”? Are music-making women so rare in 2015 that we still need to point out their existence? Is this a new phenomenon, women playing guitars?
In the few years I’ve been making music, I have been exposed to a lot of what I now know is sexist behaviour; some subtle without ill intent, some outrageous and clichéd. There was the casual, “You’re a good guitarist, for a girl” from some producers; the “I’ve already got a female act on this lineup,” from some promoters; and then there’s the “You’d be much more successful if you were willing to fuck people” from an artist whose show I opened for, as he put his uninvited hand on my thigh. There’s also the music management company I worked with who had the naked girlie calendar on the wall and the Denmark street guitar shop assistant who asked me if I was buying a guitar for my boyfriend.
Most female musicians have similar stories – my experiences are not out of the ordinary. What concerns me are the many men and women who feel it’s uncool to talk about sexism or to acknowledge that there’s still an issue. It’s becoming “last year’s problem”, along with bird flu … Some people feel that quotas, women in business initiatives, support groups and even the PRS grant for women in music highlight an issue that should no longer exist.
Of course, quotas are not ideal. I want to get a gig or a job because I am the right person for it, not because of my gender. However, as long as I, a woman working in the music industry, am at a disadvantage, I will not shy away from being the “token female” on the lineup. As Crack in the Road says, “Equal rights in theory but not practice are no use. We have not ‘solved’ the problem of gender inequality through passing laws alone; there needs to be a discussion about opportunities, access and visibility to bring about true equality.” Quotas do at least attempt to address this. Giving up on an issue because it’s not being resolved as fast as we might like is clearly not the answer. Progress is slow, but it is progress nonetheless. The more women take on executive roles within the music industry, be it head of A&R, festival bookers or production, the less of an issue sexism in music will become.
I talk to my dad about this quite a lot – he is a musician too and it’s interesting to compare notes. He also works with young kids on various music projects. He once asked me with genuine interest, “why is it that so few girls are interested in sound engineering and finding out how the recording software works?”
There are plenty of talented female sound engineers and producers: Trina Shoemaker (Emmylou Harris, Queens of the Stone Age, Sheryl Crow), Susan Rogers (Prince, David Byrne), Mandy Parnell (Bjork, Aphex Twin, Missy Elliott), Catherine Marks (PJ Harvey, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, Wolf Alice), Ann Mincieli (Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Nickia Minaj, Rihanna), to name a few.
But, given that in 2012, the Music Producers’ Guild said less than 4% of its members are women and the Liverpool Institute of Performing Arts claimed only 6% of the students enrolled on its sound technology course were female, it’s an interesting question to consider. Perhaps girls are conditioned not to show interest in music technology. When I was young, I was told that pink was for girls and blue was for boys. The adverts that were targeted at me were for toy stoves, Barbies, dream houses and ponies. Cars, chemistry sets, war toys and guitars were for the boys. Gender inequality is not solely a female problem. Young boys are being done an equal disservice by society’s ideas around gendered behaviour. It’s an accepted fact that children are deeply influenced by subtle marketing and conditioning. In fact, a new study published by the US national bureau of economic research confirmed that gender bias at primary schools has long-term implications. Our entire lives we are told what we can’t and shouldn’t do because of how we were born. If we have parents and other influencers who teach us otherwise, we are the lucky few.
Other defences against claims of sexism in the music industry include: “but the charts are full of women!” At times, this is true – and yet, only 13% of songwriters registered with PRS are women. Why? And of the plethora of chart-topping women, how many conform to a hyper-sexualised ideal and perform pop songs written by a team of male songwriters?? Don’t get me wrong, Rhianna, Taylor Swift and Ellie Goulding can wear whatever they want on stage, but the peddling of women as pounds of flesh (by themselves, their teams of their record labels) only serves to propagate the idea of restrictive gendered behaviour. What kind of girl are you? Cartoonish like Nicki? A good girl like Taylor? A bad grrl, like Ri-Ri? Look to gender-bending trailblazers Mykki Blanco, Planningtorock, Adore Delano and even little Richard (as early as the 1950’s) for artists challenging those gender binaries.
As the The Guardian rightly points out, “female” is not a genre, and the breadth and diversity of women’s work should be recognised and celebrated. But it’s not – too often we’re lumped together as sex-kittens, “good for a girl”, or, yawn, just another singer-songwriter. For every person who responded to Crack in the Road’s graphic, and Phoebe Summers’ gloriously provocative poster, claiming that the lack of representation on festival stages is not an issue worth discussing, just think about what the world would look like if only the Beyoncés and Swifts were given platforms to flourish? And think about this: two solo artists, both signed to major labels and booking agents. Both have released a debut album within the last year and have had major airplay and similar reviews. So you gotta wonder: why is George Ezra nominated for a Brit award and Rae Morris is still just his support act?