Spotlight on: Female Musicians!
Women in music are not a novelty. According to Oxford’s Women in Music Timeline, Byzantine women composed music as early as the 9th century. And, later in the 1970s, American musician Patti Smith demonstrated unambiguously that women can write brilliant rock songs and play thrilling guitar riffs – showing the world that women can be rock stars!
But despite this long history, women still need to fight for equal chances and respect.
In 2019 women are in fact not only underrepresented in the music industry but still have to deal with sexism and gender stereotypes. The latest news on American singer/songwriter Ryan Adams, who has been accused of exploiting young female musicians sexually, only proved once more that gender equality in music is an important and necessary subject to discuss.
Being exposed to a world that is full of images of hyper-sexualised pop stars and hysterical teenage groupies, it is considerably difficult for female musicians, journalists and managers to be taken seriously in the male dominated music industry.
Yet, there is some good news. Last year British music magazine NME published the results of a study carried out by the guitar maker Fender, according to which women “now account for 50% of the market for beginner guitar players in the UK and US“. However, NME added that women prefer purchasing their guitars online, as they feel intimidated in guitar shops.
Instrumental stereotypes are a thing, and no doubt many woman that have bought a guitar in a guitar store will know how. I mean, who would not feel intimidated by the condescending gaze of a male shop assistant, who’s lurking through the heaps of amps and guitars, sceptically watching you trying an electric guitar – just to grab the guitar himself later to demonstrate his “stunning” guitar skills or – to tell you, surprised, that you can actually play? I’m not joking – I experienced this scenario myself, and I’m not alone.
American researcher Mina Carson and her colleagues dedicated a whole chapter in their book “Girls Rock” to the absurd experiences of these guitarists. According to Carson it’s not exclusively amateur guitarists, like me, that feel intimidated in guitar stores but female professional musicians too. In her book she cites American singer/songwriter Emily White who sums it up quite well by stating: “Guitar stores are the worst, always. There were never any women working in them and still rarely are”. Having worked in a guitar store herself, Emily knows exactly what it’s like to be a woman in a man dominated world:
“It’s always that way – whether you’re playing or recording or selling or buying, you always have to prove yourself.” – Emily White
The global organisation Girls Rock! aims to put an end to instrumental stereotypes once and for all by organising rock camps for young girls, where they can learn to play rock instruments and form bands. As well as the organisers of rock camps, female musicians, sound engineers, producers, managers and music journalists, have been fighting for more equality and better conditions for years. However, stereotypes, objectification and reduction to their outward appearance seem unshakable and hamper many women’s careers in the music industry.
The problem is complex and it’s the result of decades of suppression, sexism and stereotyping.
Fortunately, women are having none of it. Feminists in music have been fighting to enhance women’s role in music for years. The 1990’s feminist punk movement Riot Grrrl was probably the first feminist association that utilised the internet to build up a network of fellow women who want to make a change.
Following in the footsteps of movements such as Riot Grrrl, women in the North East are also standing up for themselves. Having started as a blog, Sofar Sounds' Newcastle curator and musician Rebecca Gregson’s project North East Women in Music (NEWM) was founded in 2017 as a “reaction to the largely male-dominated music scene in Newcastle and the surrounding area, to challenge gender inequality, and promote more opportunities for women”.
As a blog, NEWM has raised awareness of local female talent, the sharply criticised issues of gender inequality and the disadvantages women still face in the world of music.
Focusing on the talent and skill of local musicians, NEWM has served as a starting point for discussions around women in music in the region. Rebecca’s blog has inspired new initiatives, such as Generator's WeCreate programme; a songwriting and talent development programme equipping women for a career in the music industry. It has also helped initiate local singer/songwriter Martha Hill's WOMEN ARE MINT festival, which showcases female musical talent from the North East of England.
And she's not stopping there, Rebecca told us that she’s currently working on a new business that: “will provide music industry opportunities for women in the form of mentoring, consultation, networking events and showcase gigs”.
Women in the North East are working together, developing projects and initiatives to enhance their situation in the local music scene. Projects like NEWM, WeCreate and WOMEN ARE MINT enable women to share their experience, find role models and build a strong network of like-minded individuals in music who aim to make a difference in the industry.
Being a sexism-free zone for promoting and discussing music that is written and performed by women, those projects are an important starting point to enhance gender equality in the music industry.
Watch out for more projects by North East women – they’re lush!
Also, if you want to be kept updated on the amazing things women in the North East are doing to enhance equality in the music industry, keep your eyes peeled for our new Spotlight feature on women in music...
Cover Photo: Martha Hill