“Culture does not make people. People make culture.”Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
By Caitlin Parker
The lack of representation of women in local music is a reflection of a broader gender imbalance in the UK’s music industry. As I scroll through ThinkTank’s website, the total number of women performing on stage until the end of the month is 3, compared with 54 men, and when I look at the O2 Academy’s there are no women performing for the rest of this month. This is a snapshot of the huge music scene in the North East; it is not intended as a criticism of either the venues or the performers, but it is a clear reminder that the issue is not limited to prestigious awards stages or artists with hundreds of thousands of followers. It can be seen much closer to home because the occurrence of gender imbalance is not limited to any industry or place: it can affect all of us. Then, surely, we can all affect it.
Although the industry is much wider than simply the question of who we see on the stage, a phrase that comes to mind is “You have to see it to be it”. Music is a unique form of culture in that it can connect people of all nationalities and genders, who speak different languages, or have opposing political views: it does not need translation to cross borders of all forms. Being at a gig is one of the few places that my love for the music is the most important thing about me in that moment – not my appearance, which is wonderful. (Although it is worth acknowledging that gigs can sometimes be yet another space where women find their right to freedom in a public space threatened through harassment and even sexual assault). That said, if music has such potential to create and influence these amazing shared spaces, why aren’t we seeing more women up there? Why, according to the Guardian, are there over three times more new male songwriters than female? As the Music Business Journal shows, why are 70% of sectors such as promotion, management and live music made up of male professionals?
Looking at these figures, surely it is no wonder that women have been, historically, less likely to pursue a career in music, when so many signs are telling them that it is a difficult, harsh industry for them to enter, where they risk being over sexualised and objectified. Molly Smith, member of local and all female band ‘RUNT’, described how she had “always been to local gigs and supported the local scene as well as the rest of RUNT before it formed, but you become accustomed to the lack of female figures… if we don’t have the platform, or the inspirational/ motivational figures to guide us…it’s easy to feel like an outsider or not good enough.”
To really understand this issue, we have to see it as part of a wider social context; Molly could have been describing the experiences of women in many different sectors: in politics, in higher education, and in the media, all facing similar kinds of obstacles. Therefore, it is important to remember that the music industry adds yet another to struggle for equal rights, with much of the deep rooted causes of these inequalities transcending the artists themselves. Hattie Collins, editor, freelance music journalist, and featured on the Woman’s Hour 2018 Power List In Music, emphasises the influence of historical structural bias as a factor in this male dominance of the industry: “If men are running the companies, signing the artists, producing the music, writing the music, they tend to sign other men to write records for, sell records for etc.”.
However, this should neither diminish the unique beauty of music nor leave us feeling as if achieving equality is too large of a mountain to climb. Only by seeing the music industry as open to both men and women to create; and by judging in terms of ability rather than gender, can we fully appreciate our potential to seek out both change and joy within it. The North East has such a cool, involved community, formed around music of all genres, in which local voices matter: Tits Upon Tyne is certainly evidence of that. Because the issue of inequality in music is also an issue of sexism: even stepping up to the challenges of everyday sexism progresses towards making things better for everyone, even when it may feel like a futile effort – the things that make up our daily truth as inhabitants of the 21st century may have seemed the stuff of dreams even to women ten years ago.
Furthermore, although there is still much to do, things are changing for the better. Support local female musicians and gigs, widen your listening wherever possible, and take inspiration from events such as this to believe that you can give music a go too. Encourage your female friends to pursue whatever they love: Molly says she’d “urge all girls interested or intrigued by the [music] scene to get involved, because it’s something else”. Hattie says that we should be aware of the industry’s history ; “Employ people who think differently to and look differently to you…Support up and coming acts and what you save by streaming music spend on seeing local artists on tour.”
I have included Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s quote at the beginning of this article because it’s a reminder of our own potential to influence the world around us; if we work towards adjusting our own mindset and having the conversations that may adjust the mindsets of others, culture will follow our lead. It does not take much research to find that there is a whole world of local female bands and artists out there, with women (and some men) who are working to stop settling for less.
It feels appropriate to finish with Molly’s words: “At the end of the day all that matters is when you step on stage and play the shit you created and enjoy the fuck out of it. But tolerance to intolerance only lasts so long; I think we all need to be more open minded about female artists and what they’re capable of.” Like the gigs themselves, change is not possible without the individual.