What I really wanted to say about music criticism in Aotearoa…

A guest post by Anna Coddington

(Editor/Flip That Script’s note)- “As the New Zealand Music Awards of 2016 was running, a group of women in the industry were talking.  Facebook chat. We’re professionals.  We have babies. We were talking, because the music industry can be an uncomfortable place for women. 

The industry is simply over run by men. It’s hard to get a foot in the door, let alone a word in. It doesn’t matter whether you are an instrumentalist, a producer, a lighting-rigger, a manager, or a singer – you’re outnumbered. We’d realised that only one woman had ever won ‘Best Video’  since the awards inception, and not a single woman had been nominated since 2011 for that award.

It really is a boys club. So we were sending power vibes to Aaradhna, we hoped she would take the night out. And she did. Very calmly and succinctly, she explained that she would not accept her second award of the night for Best Urban/Hip-hop artist, as she was a singer – not a rapper (giving it to Onehunga based rappers SWIDT instead). And more importantly, she showed the award for what it was, the ‘brown musician’ award. Boom. Institutionalised racism called OUT.

So once again, the internet has blown up  – because women have stuff to say. AND sometimes, these women have been brown. I know, its shocking right. Who knew women were even allowed to express their opinions at all?

Another singer who experiences being lumped together with other brown musicians is Anna Coddington. As Aaradhna was laying it down at the awards that night and we were chatting, Anna brought up another pertinent issue, one which compounds the ‘brown-blindness’ – The seeming dearth of female music critics in New Zealand. We talked at length.

Then Anna wrote this. He mihi nui ki a koe e hoa – you speak for many of us.”

‘Recently, I was part of a panel for ‘LATE at the Museum: ‘The Music Machine’, a curated evening of discussion, performance and exhibitions at the Auckland Museum. Chaired by the lovely and knowledgeable Charlotte Ryan, the other panelists were musicians Chip Matthews and James Milne, and music manager Scott MacLachlan. We were charged with discussing, basically, whether musos give a shit about what critics think.

It seemed a potentially interesting discussion so, despite my 5-month-old baby induced sleep deprivation and inability to string a sentence together at the best of times, I signed up.

It was well received, “blew up my twitter for a minnit” and we covered a lot of ground in the time available.

What’s the role of a critic these days? Do musicians care what they think? Do listeners? Are they still relevant? etc. But as the hour started winding down I got a sinking feeling as I realized the issue that I thought was the most glaring, relevant and important was not going to be raised – unless I raised it.

In the last ten or so minutes I was trying to find a way to slip it in without straight up yelling over top of my fellow panelists, but no one else seemed to be going anywhere near it. “What is it?” You say. “WHAT?!”

Do a roll call of the first names of music critics in NZ, those you can think of who are writing today. The ones that spring to mind. The “main” ones for lack of a better term. I got:

Simon, Graham, Russell, Grant, Gary, Henry, Nick, Marty, Michael…

My list was short because it’s a small country and an even smaller industry, and like I said, I’m eternally tired slash lazy. Even still – the fact that they are all male and possibly (probably) all white was striking to me. Google the term “music critic” and you’ll see 15 images of white males, then a brown male, then more white males.

White males. They are great. I have two children with one. My Dad’s one. But to note that they dominate yet another element of our industry/society/life – is it surprising? No. Is it noteworthy? Well, it certainly is to a brown female. That’s me. And many of my friends.

I realize now, it was on me to bring it up that night but I missed my chance and immediately regretted it, and it’s been eating at me ever since. Happily though, I feel like Aaradhna and her delightful refusal of the “brown person” Tui at the music awards has opened a window for this kind of sentiment to be aired….

So why didn’t I say it on the night? Other than the fact that the opportunity just didn’t present itself between one hour and five people’s opinions’- I just couldn’t see a way to come out with it and not seem like a brown female with an axe to grind. It is intimidating to be the minority in the room and speak out on a minority issue – to be “that feminist” or that brown person “claiming racism”.

The opinions of white males are as valid as anyone else’s sure, but we all listen to music. Surely the lens through which it’s analysed in the media could be a little broader.

As Aaradhna pointed out, there’s a feeling that brown musicians get lumped in together. And brown female musicians – even more so. I’ve spent my pretty low-key career being compared to my famous brown female mates Anika Moa and Bic Runga. And I do get it – there are musical similarities and our personal relationships probably encourage it a bit, plus they are great and that’s fine. But I’ve not been compared in the same way to my famous friends who are not brown or female, even where I think there are some musical similarities. I haven’t really witnessed any of NZ’s male solo artists suffer the same fate. For example Liam Finn, Connan Mockasin and Lawrence Arabia aren’t exactly occupying different musical continents but they are (rightly) celebrated as individuals even with their ongoing collaborations.

matt-bomer-cheyenne-jackson-max-greenfield-wes-bentley-finn-wittrock.jpeg
Actors, not musicians, but you get the idea.

So is it really that us brown women fail to differentiate ourselves while the white men succeed? Or is it that the people publicly assessing these things are better at discerning between one group than they are the other? It’s not for me to answer those questions and they are only examples of course, but in an alternate universe where all the “main” music reviewers were female and brown (you can’t even imagine it, admit it!) I reckon things would pan out pretty differently.

pjimage2Above: The Koi Boys, wrongly identified as Sol3 Mio at the awards, and the real deal, right.

We recently had a prominent female music writer who was well-respected and even (gasp) well liked by musicians. She was criticized for not being brutal enough and giving too many positive reviews. I understand that if someone is only giving out A+s all the time, that mark loses its value a bit, but that wasn’t the case. It felt a bit like saying she needed to be more man-like in her criticisms. (If she had, no doubt she would’ve been considered a bitch but that’s another essay…)

I also heard of a woman who tried to get in as a music writer for a well-known magazine but the male critic-in-residence had such a fit, the suggestion was shut down.

The problem of a lack of women’s voices being heard is of course not unique to music criticism, or to the music industry.

The tendency for everyone to gravitate to a male voice over a female voice as the voice of reason and authority is everywhere. This happens at a subconscious level where it goes unnoticed aaaallll the time.

A woman who went through broadcasting school told me that one of the first things she learned was to lower her voice in pitch. Why? Why can’t a lady sound like a lady? (And for another essay again, why not a whole slew of interesting linguistic variation in our media being taken seriously?)

For the record, we do have female music critics (listed at the end of this post). They’re just not given the platform that the male ones are. And unfortunately, as Ellen Willis says in this article,

‘Female expertise, when it appears, is repeatedly dismissed as fraudulent….. and becoming a recognized “expert” (a musician, a critic) will not save you from accusations of fakery.’

At the end of the panel discussion the lingering conclusion seemed to be that music critics don’t matter these days. Maybe they do, maybe they don’t, but I think it’s important for music to have that space in the media, as music has been so severely devalued overall, that discussing it in these public forums is helping to hold it aloft as something actually worth paying for (yes everyone- musicians like to get paid for their work).

The Spinoff adding a new music arm to their website is great and I think Henry Oliver is a great choice for editor, but I do hope they introduce a wider range of voices to the chorus of humans opining about music, because- shit do I really need to say why?

Diversity comes in all shapes, sizes, colours, genders, sexual orientations, etc. There’s a big ol’ range of humans making music and an even bigger range of people listening to it so it seems strange to have such a small range listened to for comment on it.

So here I am- a brown female grinding my axe about a thing that it seems most people don’t even notice. Not my usual vibe to jump in at length on this stuff but I’ve seen a lot of mana wāhine lately speaking up on “the issues” and I feel like not saying this in the panel was shirking my responsibility as the brown woman in the room. Because of course I was the only one who felt this way. Of course it was on me to say it. And now I have. Kia ora.’

Āmene to that, and kia ora to you Anna!

If you are interested in changing the tide, and supporting women in the industry, you can do so! Here are some of the female music writers and critics in New Zealand. We all need to know their names and work:

  • Charlotte Ryan – Air NZs ‘The Pitch’
  • Silke Hartung – NZ Musician
  • Lydia Jenkins – formerly NZ Herald
  • Vicki Anderson – The Press
  • Melody Thomas – RNZ music 101
  • Kirsten Johnstone – RNZ, music 101
  • Yadana Saw – RNZ music 101
  • Emma Smith – formerly RNZ & formerly The Listener
  • Leonie Hayden – Spinoff & Mana Magazine
  • Briar Lawry  – RNZ ‘The Wireless’
  • Eliza Beca – bFM
  • Rachel Morton – RDU
  • Amanda Mills – NZ Musician & Audioculture
  • Aleisha Ward – Audio Culture & nzjazz.wordpress.com, NZ Musician
  • Laura Dooney – Dominion Post
  • Sam Vegar – NNZ Musician
  • Kiran Dass  – NZ Listener, NZ Herald, Sunday magazine, Sunday Star-Times, Metro, Landfall, The Wire (UK), RNZ & 95bFM
  • Claire Duncan – Pantograph Punch
  • Anna Loveys -NZ Musician
  • Danielle Street – Undertheradar
  • Ania Glowacz – Radio active & NZ Musician
  • Dee Muir – NZ Musician
  • Jennifer Sheilds – RDU
  • Pip Ormrod – Newstalk ZB
  • Ellen Falconer – RNZ
  • Frances Morton – VICE/ ex Metro
  • Courteney Peters – Gather & Hunt

And I know there will be more of you! Please mention yourselves/others in a comment

Here is another comprehensive list of women from all over the world, who write about music!

Their writing shines a bright light on other women in the industry, and brings a bit more justice into our world.

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13 thoughts on “What I really wanted to say about music criticism in Aotearoa…

  1. A very thought provoking read. I guess I’m adding to the problem, being a white male myself. I would like to mention that although you are right that this is the case in NZ, many of the overseas writers I follow are female, so hopefully this begins to set a precedent closer to home.
    If anyone is wanting an outlet I’m happy to welcome more contributors to write for my own music site – regardless of gender or skin colour.
    p.s. can I add Pip Ormrod to your list at the end of the article?

    Like

    1. Anyone can jive in willnotfade! I’ve added Pip. The list just keeps growing. The general consensus is not that there aren’t female music writers and critics, but that they don’t often hold the positions of most authority – that is the main point. The largest newspapers and, magazines and radio stations mostly have men at the helm of reviews, therefore they have a lot of influence. And your offer is awesome!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. If you are in you are in…if your out your out…and it depends if you want to be in or not…it’s been the same for years.. somethings just don’t change…me…Ive had my time in the sun….

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  3. Excellent read! As a female artist manager this is EVERYTHING to read. Thank you.
    Would love to add to your glowing list of females:

    Ellen Falconer – RNZ
    Frances Morton – VICE/ ex Metro
    Courteney Peters – Gather & Hunt

    Like

  4. Be the change you want to see in the world! Sorry I find this article so freek’n whingy! You’re blaming a sex and a race for getting off their ass an pursuing a career because other races and females are not? I’ve heard about females having to lower their voice for radio before and I think it was old male thinking that’s no longer valid. I love hearing happy woman voices on the radio. I think you’re thinking is just as bad as the issue that you want to exist. You’re telling me a woman can’t start her own music review youtube channel, website, social media in the world we live in today? Put in the work! Stop complaining! And be that change in the world!

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    1. Kia ora Yo, thanks for reading and writing back to us.

      Your response is comprised of a number of assumptions, and so I will start by making a few presumptions about you, as you haven’t said much about yourself. I can only draw conclusions.

      I do this because it is really good practice in debates and conversations to be up front and open about your standpoint/view points – these are constructed by the person you are, the background you have. Everyone has slightly different perspectives, this is a great thing. So, I am presuming that you are a man, and are not brown? Please do correct me if I’m wrong. I presume this because of the assumptions you have made about what it is like to be a brown female working musician, essentially, what it is like to be Anna.

      I conduct myself on this blog as if I am talking to someone face to face. I try very hard to say things I would only ever say in person. Some things you (can) know about me (if you you read the ‘about FTS’ section on my blog) are that I am a Pākehā women, a feminist and a musician – among other things. So Anna and I share a lot, but I am not brown. Therefore she is the expert in this instance.

      And now to reply to the points you have made.

      • It is so great you love hearing ‘happy’ women’s voices on the radio, so do I. But they can also be authoritative, inquiring, angry and persuasive – just some of the qualities of a good journalist, broadcaster or news presenter. And women have a lot to feel pissed off with in this world, and every right to express this. It is not whinging. And for the record this is most definitely a current practice, women are STILL being told to lower their voices. Anna said so in the post. She is not making this up. Also, women do not need to be told how to sound, that is how I take your comment ‘be happy, women’.

      • You have talked about race and gender/sex in very black and white terms, by making a very broad and sweeping statement that essentially white men just try harder. Not true. The point that this post made is that the industry has been dominated by white men for an age, and has become a white boys club, where men are most comfortable giving jobs to other men, and talking with other men – to the point that some men do not think women can have equal musical talent, skills, opinion or ambition. The fact you have made this comment at all, says to me that you are speaking from a place of privilege – you can’t possibly know what it is like to be in the shoes of a brown woman in the industry – so take their word for it.

      • It is not as simple as trying harder. Do you understand the word equity? This is different to equality, in that it takes into account the starting points of each person. If your starting point is pushing against the norm, or having less resources (in the instance of the music industry, this is contacts and $$$), or being a gender that is discriminated against – you have to work HARDER to even be noticed, let alone be given positions of authority.

      • Anna never said a woman can’t put in the work and start a blog/run a website etc (there are many many women who do, did you see the list of women at the end or open any of the links for further reading). What she did say, and what I also stand by is that women are routinely ignored. They don’t get noticed – or are actively shunned, because they are WOMEN. Not always even because of what they say (and sometimes because of what they say). And you’ve just done a really good job of not reading this post very well (therefore ignoring the points made), or at least not ‘hearing’ what Anna had to say. As much of what you have said in response fly’s in the face of the actual contents of the post.

      • I wonder why this is? What has made you so defensive? Is it so hard to accept that people different to you have a different experience of life? Another point that Anna made is that white men’s voices and opinions are just as valid as anyone else’s. She stated this very clearly. Rather, the issue is that women’s voices are not given equal weight. So here we are again, a woman has spoken up and you just attempted to put her back in her place.

      • Not this time. Anna IS being the change she wants to see in the world, she is working hard and taking action.

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  5. Well said, Anna. Over the couple of decades I spent as a music critic for the Listener it was always at its best when it alternated a male and female reviewer, which at various times included Debbie Gibbs, Jude Anaru, Ania Glowacz, Emma Smith and Kiran Dass.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Kiaora wahine ma for your view point on women and brown women in music. I was recently grieved…no…pissed off at a film festival awards night when last minute there had been an announcement made to include ‘Best Female Director’ finalists. that bit I like, the actual awards not so much, should also add that I used to take issue with women needing their own categories, then I spoke to more of my friends, both male and female, in the film industry and not, and it seemed that the way to get females to be recognised is to give them their own sections. Sweetbix, I’ll suck it up then and go yeeha for best female director noms. It was the second time I had been nominated. Cool, appreciate. Come prepared with a few words, in English and my beginner te reo coz I also realise I have to be the change and use my ancestral language more and in public. However the female director finalists and winner were announced in a section where you ‘don’t come up to say anything or accept’ thanks! Sorry what? Steam already forming. However, get to the final awards of the night, Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director…yep you can come up and speak. No women in Best Director category. If you ain’t gonna give it respect and equal opportunity then maybe don’t have it at all?! Afterwards a friend/slash organiser told me not to be too worried over it as this year had been a panic and lots was last minute with funding etc. Yep sure I acknowledge that but basically you’re telling a woman, yet again, to suck it up and be grateful for the nomination. I am fucker, but boy you better wait til next year when I demand we get to speak!!! xo Kia Kaha to you Anna

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  7. I’ve just discovered this post. I’m on the roll of music writers for The Spinoff, so I’m going to make the effort to write more.

    This all reminds me of a conversation I once had with a male friend, a music geek with a huge and initially impressive record collection. He casually mentioned that he didn’t have a lot of music featuring female vocalists because he generally didn’t enjoy the sound of women’s voices. Whoa.

    Another thing – a long issue I’ve had is the lack of women in the NZ Music Hall of Fame. Since the hall was founded in 2007, it had inducted five female acts and 15 male acts. And that’s including Toy Love who had one female member. As I’m fond of saying, the NZ music industry is male dominated, but it’s not *that* male dominated. But most impressively, the two nominees this year were women – Moana and Bic Runga. We’re getting there.

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