Originally published on The Aural Premonition.

It wasn’t until two years ago that I fully realized how frustrated I was with the perception of women and their experience in the music industry. In a conversation one night with a fellow Minneapolis musician, I expressed my desire to one day be in a band, and his response was pretty much, “Well, start one then!” But if you get down into the realities of accomplishing this as a young 20-something woman musician, the question, “but how?” becomes a daunting and difficult reality. The fact that this was an overwhelming frustration at the time, and still is two years later bothers me more than I would like to admit. Yet the reality of the situation today is that a female musician’s experience remains remarkably more isolated and limited than any man’s.

Even when women accomplish the same feat as men, say, recording an album and getting it on the radio, they are still questioned disproportionately about the quality of their work or the reason for making music in the first place. While I was working in college radio as a student, one of my peers often came into the studio to chat while I spun tunes. One day he commented, “You sure play a lot of female vocals early on in your set.” I had no response, other than to say I aim for good transitions between songs and sets, so make what you will of it. But would he have pointed out in contrast, “You sure play a lot of male vocals late in your set”? Surely not. This said to me that he saw male musicians as some kind of norm, and female vocalists were different, that they were some kind of exception.

It’s the small things, like these comments in passing, that add up over time. Once you know how to look for them, they can be seen everywhere. Another male friend of mine explained once that he didn’t like listening to female artists’ music because he just doesn’t “connect with them” as much. What does that even mean? That there is something inherently ‘female’ about music that women make? Or that you can’t relate to experiences that are different than your own? I’ve never heard a women comment that she doesn’t like all music that men make because it’s a man singing, or because they can’t relate to who it’s coming from. Is this a simple failure to expand one’s personal tastes and boundaries? Or is this again the narrative that men are the norm and women are the exception?

All of these comments got me thinking about an essay I read while studying Art History in college. In 1988, Linda Nochlin published “Why Have There Been No Great Female Artists?” and confronted head-on the issues of gender discrimination that have plagued the art world for centuries. It explores in depth the idea of the “Genius,” and how social systems bind us in ways we are unable to see, and set up history to be understood in a particular way. Nochlin points out that even the way that questions are asked can frame answers that are untrue.

In her conclusion, Nochlin states, “…art is not a free, autonomous activity of a super-endowed individual, “Influenced” by previous artists, and, more vaguely and superficially, by “social forces,” but rather, that the total situation of art making, both in terms of the development of the art maker and in the nature and quality of the work of art itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions.” This entire essay could be read in the context of the current music industry, and with a few name substitutions, make complete sense.

So let’s make this point a little clearer: “the total situation of [music] making, both in terms of the development of the [musician] and in the nature and quality of the [music] itself, occur in a social situation, are integral elements of this social structure, and are mediated and determined by specific and definable social institutions.” So then it is essential to remember that music, like art, is not made in a vacuum, and is instead part of a complex social institution. And no one is an exception to this rule, or does not contribute to it. Even inaction is a form of action, just as ignorance is as powerful as knowledge.

Now, I don’t think we’re at a time anymore where the mainstream consensus in the music industry is that men won’t work with women or take them seriously, but the ripples of outdated and discriminatory systems remain, and those remnant effects throughout the national industry and local scenes are still hurting the opportunities of female artists. And it’s not just professionals within the industry who are contributing to this perpetuated narrative, this story that men have always made music and the women who do are some special exception. The answer to “but how?” starts much earlier than age 22, and by then the hierarchy is in place. In order to explain where my frustration began, things are going to get a little personal.

When my brother expressed interest in playing bass guitar in 6th grade, he got his own bass guitar. When I asked for a guitar in high school, I got a cell phone. For context, this was still in the age of flip phones, and relatively few people under the age of 18 had one. Owning a cell phone was useless: no texting and none of my friends had one. Although I love them dearly, my parents – and especially my dad, a talented guitar player – did not take me seriously in my request for an instrument. The response I received on my disappointment of a birthday was, “I thought you wanted a guitar book…?” It was only made worse when we spent the rest of my birthday picking my brother up from the airport after 3 weeks in Europe and going out to dinner for “my birthday,” where the conversation was all about (you guessed it) my brother.

I don’t resent my parents for not taking me seriously in my pursuit of guitar as a teenager, but it’s an apparent sign of the times I grew up in. In 2005, even the above average liberal, musical, and supportive parents listened to the gendered narrative of society when it said: “boys know what to do with a stringed instrument at any age, but your daughter – even though she’s very dedicated and decisive at age 15 – really wants a cell phone instead of the guitar she specifically asked for, trust me.” And so the part that hurts is not that they listened to the assumption of society, but that they didn’t listen to me instead. That somehow, their own daughter – at an age when she was taking college level tests and performing in more musical ensembles at school during one year combined than any other student – couldn’t speak loud enough to be heard, when somehow, their son – before his voice even dropped – came through loud and clear.

I learned an important lesson about my self-worth and personal desires from that day. The same lesson goes for most or all female musicians: if you do not advocate for yourself, if you do not promote your desires and a sense of interest and worth in what you want to create, it’s possible that no one will. So then, by age 20, my brother was a talented bass guitar player, touring in jazz bands and even learning upright bass in his own time. And at age 20, I was learning basic chords. And if this applies as an average to the experience of most young adults, it’s no wonder that all these guys end up in bands with their fellow male friends in high school and beyond, and women are left out of the equation.

Then, on top of the lack of opportunity to start young, there are women who are forced out of music at a young age. I experienced this through my best friend in high school, who at the time, was quite a talented guitar player. She and I were to be in jazz band together our sophomore year (me on keys), and she missed the first rehearsal of the season because of time constraints. She was promptly given a talking to, and advised to quit the band. Rather than giving a high schooler – who would have been an outstanding contribution to the band during the year – a second chance at a musical and personal growth opportunity, she was approached with hostility and dismissal. Perhaps this could have happened to a young man as well, but the fact that female electric guitar players at age 16 are so rare made it much more significant to witness. As they did not replace her in the band, the message they sent was harsh: “We’d rather have no guitar player than have you.” The point of high school jazz band is not to have a perfect jazz band, it is to teach students how to play jazz, how to be in a jazz band, and you can’t very well do that when you make a student quit.

The social precedent starts early, and there are many obstacles for young women that people don’t even realize they are making. But there are ways to build positive influences and opportunities for young women in music. Peer influence plays a huge role in what activities pre-teens and teenagers partake in, which is a driving force in why young men create garage bands with their friends and keep up the hobby well past high school, leading to more successful endeavors. My mom was aware of the power of peer influence, and when I was a kid, she was convinced that if I had more friends who played tennis, then I would enjoy it more and keep playing longer. But her strategy was flawed: she tried to force me to be friends with the people who already played tennis (who I barely knew), when I already had great friends (who did not play tennis). What might have worked was getting my current close friends interested in the sport, and doing something new together based on old friendships. Girls don’t necessarily need to befriend boys and other girls they don’t know well who also make music in order to stay interested and grow in it – they can inspire current friends to pick up an instrument and join in something new to build on current friendships together. If it has worked so well for boys, why not for girls?

Another strategy to alter the current social paradigm is for more adult female musicians to be recognized, to be highlighted as examples of success and talent. Yet we must be careful through this method not to further embed the narrative that women are the exception, that they are different in some way. It is also unfair to put extra pressure on current musicians just because they are female, to be something they are not. The issue is not where women are now: it’s where women are not. And the pressure should not be put on all current practicing female musicians to be something more than they already are, but to all musicians to help build a community which fosters more opportunities for women than they have now. 

Success and longevity as a musician is really not about skill or talent, not about ability or creativity – it’s the social setting, the community around it, the people who create opportunity and invite collaboration, that determine the long-term fate of music makers. And female role models in the music industry are so important not because they say, “you can do this,” but because they say, “there is a place for you.” Young women today don’t doubt that they could learn to play the drums, that they could be a great drummer – it’s whether or not they feel they ever have reason or inspiration to ask for a drum-set.

We’re stuck at a point where opportunities for women in music are expanding, and many people contributing to this advancement, but at a limited pace. In order to be an even somewhat well-known musician today as a woman, it feels like women have to pick from a list of options. Here is my version of that unwritten list:

1. Form an all-female band in your 20’s: be called “an all-female band” in every photo caption and publication. Be assumed to be lesbians. No one knows where or when you learned to play instruments (especially the drums or bass guitar). Usually be of the punk or hard rock variety. Be critiqued with phrases like, “It’s truly a triumph for a group of women” (Warpaint, Consequence of Sound).
2. Front a group of male musicians who support your otherwise individual endeavor. Play lots of solo gigs without them just to make sure people know the band is really your project and not just your voice.
3. Form a band with your boyfriend and be the next cute indie guy-girl duo. Be the singer. Have a following based entirely on how cute of a couple you are.
4. Form a band with your brother or cousin or best friend and be the next cool indie guy-girl duo. You are probably the more important voice of the two. Everyone just assumes you’re a couple.
5. Meet a male producer and create lyrics and melodies to sing over his beats.
6. Do the solo gig hardcore as a multi-instrumentalist with loopers, pedals, and rely on yourself for almost everything. Trade musicians in and out of your project as needed or desired. Your touring band probably changes every album.
7. Play a unique instrument, such as the cello, violin, or French horn, so that people will ask you to be in their band, because they need someone who plays that instrument.
8. Be that girl who plays acoustic guitar and sings at the coffee shop.

My point is not that being a female musician who fits into this list is a bad thing – there are hundreds, if not thousands, of brilliant musicians who fit into all of these categories. But while it includes a heavy dose of sarcasm, and it’s not complete, this list points out reoccurring themes, such as: female musicians should sing. They aren’t regarded as highly if they don’t work with men. They must be independent and assert themselves as legitimate musicians whenever they have the chance. Their appearance is highly emphasized. And music must be taken seriously. In the end, it just doesn’t sound very fun or supportive, but instead, isolated and limited.

In order to change a system, we must recognize how it functions. But how? The point is not to refuse to work with male musicians or producers, or to see them all as something perpetuating a cycle that limits opportunities. The point is for everyone, and especially men, to recognize and be aware of female musicians all around you: to ask them to join, to collaborate, to contribute, to share, to be a part of something. To start a high school rock band with you, to buy them their first drum set or guitar, to invest in lessons, in workshops. Be a mentor, be a teacher. Suggest audio engineering classes. The point is not to assume they can’t play an instrument, not to assume they would be a singer, not to assume they can’t produce stellar beats. For women to stop seeing each other as competition to be cut down, but peers and colleagues to be raised up.

The fact it’s 2015 and this essay is as relevant as it was when I first planned to write it two years ago frustrates me. The fact I’m even writing it frustrates me. Women in music today should be taken seriously and included fluently in the music industry not because we are people you care about, or that we have great contributions to make to modern music, or because we are different, but because we are the same: we are musicians. And there is a place for us.

Women and the Music Industry

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Kelsey Simpkins
There has never been a better time to be in love with indie music and the musicians who create it. I write about and share what I discover because I find it difficult not to.