There has been a lot of discussion lately in the New Zealand press, entertainment and social media worlds, about the rampant and insidious sexism and misogyny in our music industry. I would like to pay particular thanks to Alex Casey and Duncan Greive of the Spinoff right now. Not only have they been doing a stellar job of supporting many women in exposing the revolting predatory and illegal behaviour of Andrew Tidball (Cheese on Toast) – at the extreme end of the spectrum – but also in providing a platform for women in the scene to tell it how it is for them in the industry in a much more mundane day-to-day kind of a way. This was all so familiar, Emily Edrosa.
Just as in any other sector of society, any corner of our many cultures or our own complicated personal relationships, in any work place or sphere of life at all. Sexism is at play.
I’ve got a lot to say on this topic and am so grateful that music and sexism has become a common topic of conversation around the traps lately. It hasn’t always been my best conversation starter. But some people are cooler than others, and these two are particularly outstanding – and were willing to talk to me.
So, here is a piece I put together in 2015. Hard times and adversity aside, there is so much goodness in the music industry, a lot of it from many industrious women. I want everyone to know how much harder women often have to work in order to achieve what they want. Let us all take a trip in these women’s shoes, and take a moment to ask ourselves ‘where are all the women in the scene?’ and ‘why’? ‘Should there not be more of them’?
Women and non-cis men are people, and they make music. Simple right? Hmm, not always. Please, enjoy this conversation as I did. There are some gems in it.
Melody Thomas and Estère Dalton talk with Flip That Script
(this interview originally appeared in ‘Freerange Vol.10: Feminism and Technology Wor(l)ds, July 2015 – get that article and the whole journal for free at Freerange Press)
Melody Thomas, Radio New Zealand broadcaster and journalist, met with producer and singer Estère Dalton and myself, a songwriter, writer and feminist, on a sunny, still autumn morning. As we converged in a Newtown kitchen from different corners of Wellington city, conversation quickly turned to the music industry. Melody recounts an article about Björk we’ve both recently read, detailing Björk’s constant battle to be recognised as the producer of her own music in the male-dominated industry. One question that she is commonly confronted with – ‘Who produces your music?’ – instantly reinforces gender stereotypes and downplays her abilities. Estère understands – she deals with the same assumptions about her music.
Flip That Script – What does feminism mean to you and what place does it have in your life?
Estère – To me it means equality of opportunity and respect.
Melody – It’s exactly the same for me. In my life, that practice is mostly to do with my daughter, raising her so that she is aware of those things.
FTS to M – What place do you see feminism holding in your professional life as a broadcaster and journalist.
M – Having a feminist base gives me a lot of courage when asking for what I want, not holding back and believing that I can do those things. Within the organisation at Radio New Zealand there are a few really inspiring women, and I get a real buzz knowing these women are there if I need them, to reach out and ask advice.
FTS – Research shows all the areas that wrap around music, broadcasting, media and publicity are horizontally and vertically segregated. Vertically you will see the powerful structures at the top dominated by men, down to the cleaners of organisations who are most likely to be women. Horizontally men and women congregate together in gendered areas, such as women more often being publicists, the pretty voice and face of organisations.
M – That’s interesting because one of the first things we were taught from the beginning at broadcasting school, when we are learning how to speak on radio, is that people find women’s vocal frequencies agitating to the ear – we are taught to lower our voices!
E – In respected news media, there is a common tendency with presenters for an equal ratio of men and women. I don’t know about behind the scenes.
M – Television is different though isn’t it, because all those women are really good looking, a nice conventionally attractive face, nothing too abrasive so you just soak up what they are saying.
E – You could say that about the men too, except for the older guys.
M – I don’t know – we were watching the news the other day and a particularly ‘interesting’-looking male New Zealand reporter came on, and it occurred to me that if he were a woman he might not be given the platform he has been. I also remember reading about a male news presenter last year, who wore the same cheap suit everyday as a test, because his female partner got letters daily about what she was wearing, mostly being criticised. It was a year before anyone noticed.
FTS – Estère, do you see feminism playing out in you life?
E – Definitely when it comes to being represented as a musician or producer as opposed to just a singer. That is something that I am very aware of and put a lot of emphasis on, or else I feel it will get washed away (being a producer). There are just so many more men sitting in their bedrooms, making music.
M – We have a friend staying from England, and I showed him your video last night, he said it was so cool to see girls play instruments.
E – It is so cool
M – Yeah, but I wish it wasn’t like that, ‘Wow look at that woman playing the guitar’.
E – Like seeing Sheep Dog Wolf play yesterday, and the female bass player, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
M – And a girl on a horn as well . . . fuck, I wish it wasn’t like that.
E – And there are gendered instruments – you’re more likely to see a girl on horn instruments. I would say that saxophone is middle ground.
FTS – When people talk about women playing instruments, it’s mentioned: ‘the female drummer’ and so on. On the one hand it’s good to draw attention to women playing, but should it even have to be mentioned?
M – It would be nice if we lived in a world where it didn’t have to be mentioned. But for the 10-year-old girl, I think it should be said.
E – Yes it needs to be emphasised. It would lead to more active movement towards the end goal if it is talked about and highlighted.
FTS – If you are in a band of female players, a ‘girl band’, and labelled as such, how would you feel Estère?
E – It depends on the capacity. If it was just a girl band because of having only women in it, then that is stupid – guys wouldn’t get that label. Only if there are five singers out the front, like with boy bands. Only if it is equal.
M – It’s interesting though, because it’s a great marketing tool, like you were saying in your TED talk that while the female musician thing really grates you, it’s also given you opportunities, a selling point, people want you in their magazine.
FTS – What do you say to the rise of home recording, and demystification of the recording process, meaning that women now have greater access to creating music without having to rely on boys clubs in studios? Could this be interpreted as being ‘re-segregated’ into a lower status of music production rather than being assimilated into the recording industry?
E – The world is much more open and easier to explore, so I don’t think the home studio is any less…
M – I think the rise of home recording has demystified the recording process for men and women alike, and that anyone who sees home-recorded music as lower status is trying to hold onto an old model that is increasingly redundant. If it sounds good, what’s the difference?
E – My question is how do men get to that position where they are sitting in the engineer’s studio producing music for other people? Because I want to do that! I think that studio production is seen as a more polished way of doing it, but it’s becoming more and more redundant.
M – With his first Unknown Mortal Orchestra album I’m pretty sure Ruban Nielson recorded a lot of his vocals at home into a dictaphone, and his second was all in a home studio too. Flying Lotus does it all in his home, although with heaps of flash gear.
E – But there are no female producers with his (Flying Lotus) status at that level. There are definitely more male beatmakers and producers out there. I think this is due to a lack of role models – women don’t really associate themselves as much with the beats/producer culture in comparison to their male counterparts. That being said, there are still some girls out there representing.
FTS –What is your experience of collaborating with others, finding people to work with?
M – I’m lucky with Music 101, we are mostly women. But interestingly, I sometimes feel very much like I am the only one looking out for myself, like there is this unnecessary competition. And I’m guilty of it! Another producer came on-board recently and I caught myself diminishing her and her work, and actively had to stop myself. It’s almost as if you feel like there are only so many places for women in the industry and you don’t want to give yours up. What a sad state of affairs that is! I’d be curious to know if men feel like they have to protect their place.
E – Good point, I’d say the same for me.
FTS to E – If there are three bands in a gig, and only one woman in the mix, she will stick out more, and get more relative criticism. Do you feel you have to work harder to get to where you are, because you are so visible as a beatmaker?
E – People are surprised by my beats, impressed by the beats. I really like making beats and I’m confident. I have very clear musical vision and I don’t really care what anyone else thinks in terms of that capacity. You need to hold on to that, you can be affected by things about musicianship, being a female. When I hang around with heaps of boys that went to jazz school, cause I don’t know any theory, I just retain my faith in my own musical abilities. I know what I like. I’m not going to let insecurity compromise that.
M – I am going to start working with a new presenter soon, a man who has years of experience, and I feel like I’m in way over my head but I’m just going ahead with it anyway hoping that I’ll pass the test.
E – I don’t think that guys feel like this too, none of this ‘I don’t know what I am going to do, or doing’.
FTS – Do you think that women are more uncertain . . . second-guess themselves?
E – It’s constructed that they would. Not only is it a reality they are given far fewer role models and are less encouraged, girls and boys are brought up in gender constructs, like going out and playing trucks and climbing trees. Females are encouraged to be analytical. I don’t think that same culture exists around men. Stopping themselves and starting again.
M – I’ve read somewhere that women are less likely to do something they don’t think they’ll succeed at, to even try.
FTS – What were you both interested in and encouraged to do as children?
M – I was interested in writing and music, I wrote stories all the time and played around on whatever instrument I could get my hands on (though we never had any at home). A big part of my confidence comes from growing up on a farm with a really ungendered upbringing. I don’t even remember feeling like a girl as a child. Jumping in rivers and rescuing lambs!
E – I liked to read and to make things, like sculptures out of old flower stems. I liked singing.
And with visions of Estère and Melody as lamb-rescuing, countryside-wandering flower sculptors, our interesting conversation abruptly comes to an end. My baby has woken from her nap. Her cries and our coos intermingle on my Garageband interview as chatter turns from the music industry to a cute baby.