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After the likes of Joan Jett, Janis Joplin and Debbie Harry, why are women in rock still marginalised? Shutterstock

Harder, faster, louder: challenging sexism in the music industry

Triple J’s Hack program recently put together a snapshot of female participation in the Australian music industry. It showed a predictable picture of women’s continued marginalisation in all roles, whether as performers, songwriters, record company owners or on boards.

Only one in five members of the Australian Performing Rights Association are women, for instance. And 61% of the artists played on Triple J are male-only bands or male solo performers. Artist management is the only industry area with something approaching equal representation.

Courtney Barnett remains one of the only Australian, female rock musicians making a mark on the international stage. Rberr11 via Wikimedia Commons

Last month, the line up for the Australian “bush doof” festival, Strawberry Fields was announced. It was exclusively male. The news prompted a vigorous debate on social media (“Cool all-male lineup so far bros”, wrote one woman on Facebook,) reigniting discussions about the underrepresentation of women in pop music, and what can be done about it.

Fighting the canon

There are many subtle and complex reasons why women find staking a claim in music harder than men. One of these is to do with how the value of music is talked about, and who talks about it. The dominance of (white) men in music criticism is well illustrated by the title of Pitchfork critic Jessica Hooper’s 2015 book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic.

Male critics were particularly prevalent in the early days of rock and roll. And these men writing about music have tended to write about men making music.

Some male critics might explicitly think women can’t make good music and exclude them for that reason. For the most part, though, critics do what everyone does – they are drawn more towards music that they relate to because it reflects something about themselves and their life experiences, mirroring their understanding of the world.

This writing, in the 1960s, in particular, established the basis for the canon of popular music – the works that are considered the best in the field – which continues to have an impact today.

While there is no one agreed upon version of the popular music canon, one study examining many different “best of” lists produced by music publications at the turn of the century found they were very homogenous. The researchers reported that the songs in the list:

have a four-four time, very rarely exceed the time limit of four minutes, were composed by the musicians themselves, are sung in English, played by a ‘classical’ rock formation (drums, bass, guitar, keyboard instruments) and were released on a major label after 1964. The fact that nearly all musicians are white males from the USA … or Great Britain … is striking.

When The Beatles and the Rolling Stones were consecrated as musicians of value by critics in the 1960s, they created a blueprint for what would be thought of as valuable in the future. This means it is easier for bands that are similar to those bands already in the canon to be later included (think Nirvana, Radiohead). It also influences the practices of aspiring musicians.

The Rolling Stones are credited for pioneering 1960s rock music. via Wikimedia Commons

For women, questions of representation become important here – if you don’t see anyone like yourself being presented in the canon, it is harder to imagine you can make good music. Thus a male-dominated canon works to exclude potential future women musicians.

Those women who are successful are more often in the pop genre. Pop success often entails having a highly sexualised image, and is generally not taken seriously by critics.

Young women trying to break into music also have to deal with the way social spaces connected with music are often marked as masculine and policed by men in various ways.

Many women musicians have reported belittling and dismissive attitudes by men in live music venues, music stores and when learning music. It seems few female musicians have not been asked at one time or another whether they’re “with the band”, or if they’re just there to watch their boyfriend, or had their technical or musical abilities called into question.

The experiences shared during the second half of this talk by Jessica Hopper may give some insight into the way being around music is made hard for women.

Spotlight on social media

Recently, however, a new spotlight has been cast on the way ugly, and sometimes criminal sexism is embedded in the music industry. The renewed discussion of feminism in the 2010s and the existence of social media have given women new ways to call attention to the unacceptable behaviour of some men.

The most high-profile recent example has been the case of Ke$ha, who went to court to try to get out of her contract on the basis that her producer had sexually assaulted her. While Ke$ha lost this case, the fallout from it highlighted some positive trends.

After a failed court case, Ke$ha remains bound to her contract with producer Dr Luke. AAP Image

First, we saw other high-profile women in the music industry, rallying behind Ke$ha. While there were voices in the media accusing Ke$ha of lying for her own benefit, the support she received from women like Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift sent the message that if you speak up, you will be believed.

We have also seen how women speaking out can lead to others speaking up. Earlier this year, for instance, high-profile music PR executive Heathcliffe Berru resigned from the company he’d founded after musician Amber Coffman tweeted about his inappropriate behaviour towards her. Many other women quickly emerged to tell of similar experiences.

Runaways bassist Jackie Fuchs, meanwhile, released a memoir that detailed her rape by the manager of the band, Kim Fowley, when she was 16. This led to other women coming forth with similar stories about Fowley.

A protester in support of singer Ke$ha outside of the Sony building in New York. Reuters

These accounts paint a picture of men who had been serial abusers for many years, but who were protected by the culture of the industry. (It should be noted that this is by no means unique to the music industry; very similar behaviours by men in positions of power have recently also been highlighted, for example, in STEM professions and academia).

What has helped short-circuit the protection of abusers in these situations is social media. Social media allows for expressions of belief and support to be publicly performed in new ways. That the circulation of these stories is having actual consequences for men, who for decades have been protected by the homosocial nature of the industry, and the expectation that “girls” were one of the perks you got for being a rock star (or hanging on their coat tails), is important. There is the potential for a cultural change to take place.

This change is driven by feminist activism in the industry as well as by individual women brave enough to speak up about what has happened to them. There exists a long history of women musicians speaking out against sexism (see, for instance, women punks or Riot Grrrl), although lasting, widespread change has proved elusive.

In Melbourne now, the LISTEN collective is challenging sexism in the music industry. One project its members have pursued, led by the DJ Katie Pearson, is working with the Victorian government to change training for security guards in venues to ensure women who are harassed or assaulted are taken seriously and helped appropriately – something that in the past has often not happened.

LISTEN has also been helping women release albums on the LISTEN label and organise gigs. The end goal is to normalise the idea that women have a right to exist in music-related spaces – neither as accessories to men, or as a sexual prize to be scored (willingly or not).

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