22 Jul 2019

What's it like being a woman in the music industry?

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 22 July 2019

Music critic Amy Raphael has spent time talking to women at the top of their game about their experiences in music.

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Photo: Hachette

Amy Raphael first wrote about sexism in the music industry in her 1995 book Never Mind the Bollocks: Women Rewrite Rock.

Now, some 20 years later she is revisiting the subject in her new book A Seat at the Table: Interviews With Women On The Frontline of Music.

She argues that the internet has changed the nature of the music business by giving women more autonomy. But the way women working in the industry are regarded is still pretty much the same.

You got people to cooperate and to really open up. Were you surprised by how many artists did?

With Never Mind the Bollocks in the mid 90s I was very lucky because I had a working relationship with Courtney Love from the band Hole, who was married to Kurt Cobain from Nirvana.

Because I had this existing, professional relationship with her, she agreed to do the book, even though Kurt Cobain tragically killed himself after she's agreed. She's an incredibly loyal person, and she kept her word and did the interview for the book, which was incredibly emotional because she was obviously still in mourning. It was quite shortly after his death. So that was the kind of first big hurdle.

Because she was such a huge name in the mid 90s, once I had her on board, it was easier to get Debbie Harry [of Blondie] to do the forward and Bjork to be interviewed and Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth to come on board. So the book kind of fitted around Courtney Love if you like.

What are the experiences that haven't changed between Never Mind The Bollocks in 1995 and now?

What hasn't changed is the infrastructure of the existing big music labels like Sony and Universal and so on. I know there aren't enough women in positions of power. There aren't enough women running those big record labels, there aren't enough women doing A&R (talent scouting), there aren't enough women signing female bands. And so the experience of a lot of the women in A Seat At The Table will be like Christine and the Queens being told by A&R people "I love what you do, but you should be sexier". I mean, how that is happening in 2019 is is flabbergasting to me.

So the infrastructure of the record labels hasn't changed, but the way people put music out has changed. One of the really hopeful things I took away from the second book was the kind of camaraderie that a lot of female artists now have from an online community, which just didn't exist before.

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  • If you look at some of the artists whose career has spanned both eras, we've got Alison Moyet who goes back to the 80s at least, Natalie Merchant, Tracey Thorn...  Is there a difference in what people were prepared to put up with then, and aren't now? And with some of the younger artists, are we seeing them prepared to put up with stuff now that wouldn't have been in the past?

    I think Natalie Merchant is very much her own woman and has managed to stick to her ideology, and she puts her money where her mouth is. She's very active in charity work in America and has been for a very long time, working with rape crisis charities and so on. And I think her experience is, that she was she was perceived to be a very cute, attractive woman in her 20s and 30s. And she didn't buy into any of that, which I just think is brilliant. So her experience is slightly different.

    With an artist like Alison Moyet she's found her voice since [then]. She says very specifically in her chapter:

    "People sometimes say on Twitter, Alison Moyet is not lovely. Why should I be lovely? Women are expected to be nurturing and loving, and I am these things, I'm just not those things in isolation. Loveliness is not a prerequisite for craft".

    This idea that women are supposed to be lovely is absurd. And I think that that's something maybe that she wouldn't have been able to articulate 10-20 years ago.

    That's echoed by what Kate Tempest, a younger woman says. That as a woman, the temptation is to go out onto stage and try to be liked. I was really shocked that Kate Tempest said that because she's so fierce. She's a hugely respected poet and singer in the UK, and I was amazed that she's struggling with that idea that she needs to be liked, because "that's what women do".

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  • Natalie Merchant and Tracey Thorn wanted, and managed to some extent, to stay true to the lives they wanted to lead.

    What about the machine? Are there examples of artists who became fully immersed to the extent of almost being at the mercy of the music industry machine?

    I'm kind of fascinated with Miley Cyrus. She has been famous for most of her life, pretty much from the age of seven or eight, grew up with a famous father, was on TV as a kid. Watching footage of her at Glastonbury, I wonder how much somebody like her controls the the music industry, or it controls her. And it's really, really hard to tell. The imagery she uses, the videos she makes, which are kind of soft porn, basically. Her gouging out overripe fruit and dripping all over her face... I'm really uncomfortable with that, that doesn't feel to me like she's controlling her image. She's making fantastic music, but it feels like she's been slightly eaten up by the machine that is the record industry.

    Tell us about the book's title A Seat At The Table

    I love Solange and [the book's title] was partly a reference to her 2016 album A Seat At The Table. There were a number of women I really wanted in this second book. And they were impossible to access, like Solange and her sister Beyonce, because they barely given interviews. When they do given interviews they give them to people they know. They control their brand almost entirely.

    But it was also this idea that women should be able to pull up a seat at the table of any record company meeting and be heard and be listened to and be able to get the kind of deals that they want, and not be told that they're not sexy enough, and not be told all sorts of ideology that I would have thought would have been left behind in the last century.

    Social media is a double headed monster. It gives artists a very direct connection in the release of their music, the portrayal of their image and their interactions with their public. It also brings some pretty nasty stuff. What did you learn not just about the experience of these artists, but how different it is to what male artists experience?

    I've interviewed plenty of male artists and I've never heard them talk about the negative aspects of the internet in the same way.

    Lauren Mayberry, who's in a British band called Chvrches, wrote a piece for The Guardian in 2016 about a particular video called 'Leave A Trace' that she'd made with Chvrches. In the video she wears a short mini dress and has slicked back wet hair. As a result of that video, she got trolled ferociously online. She got rape threats, death treats, I mean it was just horrendous, absolutely horrendous. And I cannot see that happening to a man, I cannot see how the there is a parallel story there. Those kind of sexual threats are really really horrendous for women.

    I also interviewed Jessica Curry who is an award winning classical composer and composes soundtracks for games. The gaming industry is even further behind than the music industry, maybe 10 years behind, and there are so many male game fans that were incensed that she'd done a soundtrack for a really popular game. She got the same as Lauren Mayberry, they were going to find her son, they were going to kill her son, I mean all these nameless bots were attacking her on Twitter. I cannot see that happening to a man.

    Are you seeing some artists balk at becoming part of the system and not sign to major labels?

    There is a brilliant woman in A Seat At The Table called Poppy Ajudha, an up-and-coming neo soul / jazzy singer in the vein of Amy Winehouse, who has decided not to sign to a label and puts out her own music and supports it on Instagram and Twitter. She's very political, she's gay, she's mixed heritage. She didn't want all these tags. She knew she would be sold as this "exotic, gay woman", and because she didn't want that to happen she's putting out her own music and very slowly building a following for herself. And it seems to be working. I mean, she's not earning pots of money. But she's getting some really good gigs and some brilliant appearances at festivals this summer. And it's really interesting watching her grow, seeing her little bit by little bit making a name for herself, without having this great big machine behind her.

    Of the artists that you did speak to, did most of them leave you with a sense that they loved what they did, and that they felt like they had sufficient control over the work is artists?

    Yeah, I think they've all got to the point of feeling like that.

    There's a very young musician [in the book] called Georgia who is an incredible drummer, She signed to a small London-based label called Domino who are hugely respectful and will grow her career very slowly. And she's got complete control over what music she puts out, and when she puts it out. And in a way, bizarrely, she hasn't got the the fan base that an Adele or a Beyonce have got, but she's got a similar level of control, because she's signed to a small label and not gone for big money.

    The women I chose to talk to are all in a good place at the moment. They're all kind of , fighting women... Look at somebody like Maggie Rogers, the woman who was at NYU, and Pharrell came in to give a master class, he listened to her song and was blown away by it, it went viral, and she got a record deal. You know, she's always going to be the woman who was "discovered" by Pharrell, but she's edging away from that as she does more and more of her own work. And that work is brilliant.

    How about the other aspects of the industry that don't feel like they have changed. Women in decision making roles and producing roles. Women in positions of power?

    Catherine Marks is a producer, and a couple of years ago she won not "Female Producer of the Year" but 'Producer of the Year'. And she absolutely loves her job, but she was mentored by men, and there are hardly any other women doing what she does. The percentages are so ludicrously low, they're in single figures. She would like to have other women in and around the studio so that she's not the only woman all the time. It's that idea of you cannot be who you cannot see. We need to somehow break the cycle of women thinking they can't be engineers, they can't be producers. They can't do a&r, they can't do those traditional male roles. And I think as soon as young women start realizing that they can take on those roles, everything will change.

    It's often been argued that you go to a festival and it can be 80 or 90% male artists, but today, with all the access to music that any of us have, is there still an imbalance and why?

    I went to Primavera Sound festival with my 14 year old daughter in Barcelona at the end of May. That was the first big festival to have equal or more female acts than male. I think it was 52% female acts and 48% male.
    And it's almost a case of what's put in front of you, because over three days, we watched maybe one male artist, and all the other artists were female, and it was incredible. You know, we saw Lizzo on the beach, we saw Miley Cyrus, we saw Janell Monet, we saw Deam Wife... It was this glorious celebration of women, but we weren't thinking "we have to go and see another female band". They were just there. And the audience is completely mixed boys and girls, the boys weren't sulking because there weren't loads of alpha males around.

    It's almost a thing of: If those bands are given the airtime on the radio, given space on Spotify, given column inches in newspapers or online, and we hear them and we see them, we will listen to them.

    I know it sounds incredibly simplistic, but having been to Primavera, I really believe the it's just a matter of getting that music out there and getting it in front of people.

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  • Is this gender gap in music listening a legacy problem?

    You know, as much as I listen to Patti Smith, I also love Bob Dylan. So what do you do with that?  I'm not going to not listen to Bob because he's a bloke. So, yes, this is a legacy problem.

    My daughter and her friends don't have any kind of snobbery about who listens to what, whereas when I was growing up, I was born in the late 60s, and we were tribal, you were a mod, or goth or punk, or post punk, and it was embarrassing to admit that you'd like pop music. Millennials would think that was absurd, and rightly so.

    Spotify doesn't have a tribal algorithm. People just choose what they listen to. Sadly, they don't listen to albums as much. They just have playlist after playlist after playlist. But those playlists are completely mixed up. From 80s music to 90s music to hardcore R&B to soul, neo soul and so on. And I love that. I lament the loss of the album, but I love the fact that the people who were born 20 years after me don't have that snobbery, basically.

    More to explore about women in music:

  • Breaking through: Kiwi women in the NZ Top 10
  • She will rock you: five Kiwi woman guitarists that rock
  • She will move you: NZ female producers that rule
  • Ten successful young Kiwi musicians