- 04 Apr 19
With high profile allegations making headlines around the world, it looks like the music industry’s ‘Time’s Up’ moment may finally have arrived. We talk to Irish musicians about sexism, representation and the everyday experiences of women in the business.
On February 15, Irish singer and actor Steve Wall took to Twitter to share some epically controversial views about sexism in the music industry. Responding to St. Vincent’s recent interview with Rolling Stone, in which she discussed “systemic sexism” in the music world, Wall remarked: “I have never witnessed sexism in the music business. In fact today’s biggest stars are women and many powerful women work in the industry. Let’s be realistic here. What’s she on about?” Unsurprisingly, The Stunning frontman’s choice of words kicked off a fiery Twitter discourse about the experiences of women in music.
“It’s this kind of defensiveness that we’re up against time and time again,” Wyvern Lingo’s Karen Cowley says of Wall’s tweet. “Denying that something exists just because it hasn’t happened to you or your loved ones first hand is a serious case of tunnel vision.”
The timing of his comments was also unfortunate. Two days previously, The New York Times had published an article in which several female musicians accused American singer-songwriter and producer Ryan Adams of sexual misconduct and emotional abuse.
Although Wall ultimately apologised and retracted his original statement, the conversation it sparked has brought many pressing issues to light. Among these are several stories of what is commonly referred to as “everyday sexism” – a deeply rooted societal phenomenon that women in the industry often have no choice but to tolerate.
Choice-winning musician Julie Feeney recalls not being taken seriously earlier in her career, and being criticised for her assertiveness.
“I would have a very specific way of wanting my instruments set up at a show,” Feeney says. “People thought I was a control freak. They would try to compare me to Madonna – because they said she was a control freak too. Why should it be strange to have a specific way of wanting your music to sound? I don’t think men would get the same kind of doubt, or be called those names.”
Several musicians have also reported more overt acts of misogyny. “I felt very uncomfortable, and I felt that I couldn’t say anything about it,” Cowley says of one inappropriate occurrence involving an older man in the industry. “I was young at the time, and I definitely believed these people to be in positions that could damage our reputation or career. Ireland is so bloody small.”
“We also had a producer say some awful stuff after we had worked with him,” she continues. “There was alcohol involved, but it was really shocking. There’s a slimy underbelly which we don’t want to know exists. But it does.”
While the music world has often been associated with a somewhat hedonistic lifestyle, the recent high profile allegations against Ryan Adams and R. Kelly have illustrated the long overdue necessity of a #MeToo movement in the international music industry.
Canadian singer-songwriter Jessie Reyez is just one of many female artists to have spoken out about her experiences with sexual harassment in recent years. Her harrowing track ‘Gatekeeper’, released in 2017, was written from the perspective of a powerful figure in the music industry: “We are the gatekeepers / Spread your legs, open up / You could be famous / You know we’re holding the dreams that you’re chasing”. Reyez has since claimed that the song was written about Grammy-winning producer Noel “Detail” Fisher.
Maeve Molly McKernan of Dublin rock duo Vulpynes feels like more needs to be done to address the sexual harassment and misconduct allegations, and to facilitate disclosure.
“These men are predators,” she says. “I couldn’t enjoy Ryan Adams or R. Kelly’s music knowing the hell that they put women through. I think it’s quite important that people boycott them. If we don’t, we’re just accepting it as the norm.”
Of course, sexism and misogyny are not the only problems the music industry is facing in regard to women. Representation remains a critical issue. Indeed, Cowley remembers being intimated by the male-dominated music world as a teenager.
“There weren’t as many girls being encouraged to play rock band instruments,” she says. “All my ‘70s rock heroes were men. It’s like that brilliant campaign for women in sports: ‘If she can’t see it, she can’t be it.’ The same is true for music.”
Organisations and projects around the world are looking for ways to combat this lack of representation. Back in August, we spoke to Garbage’s Shirley Manson about her work as an ambassador for Girls Rock London, which she described as “an initiative to encourage women, trans and non-binary people from all socioeconomic backgrounds to make and become involved in music.” As Manson acknowledged, “We’re beginning to see a change in terms of there being more representation and opportunities, but it’s not happening fast enough.”
Girls Rock London is part of a global music project that also includes Girls Rock Dublin – a summer camp that Karen Cowley describes as “really positive and important.”
“These sort of initiatives get criticism from men sometimes,” she tells us. “But it’s hard to explain the discomfort we encounter to a man.”
One project tackling gender inequality at festivals head-on is PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative.
“We have a pledge that festivals can sign up to, so they can target reaching a 50:50 gender balance by the year 2022,” project manager Jess Partridge explains. “Over 150 festivals have signed up since we started a year ago. It’s constantly growing.”
Hard Working Class Heroes was the first Irish festival to sign up to the pledge, joining the likes of BBC Proms, Bestival and Iceland Airwaves.
Getting women to the front of stages is one thing, but gender equality in behind-the-scenes roles, like production and sound engineering, is proving to be an even greater difficulty. In January, the Annenburg Inclusion Initiative in Los Angeles published their second annual report on gender and race in popular music. In a study of 700 popular songs from 2012 to 2018, only 2.1% of producers were women.
“Unfortunately, we’ve never worked with a female producer,” McKernan tells us. “I can think of maybe two female sound engineers that we’ve encountered, across hundreds of gigs, which is really disappointing.”
Internationally, projects like the Recording Academy’s Women in the Mix initiative are attempting to address the gender imbalance in these positions. Ariana Grande, Cardi B and Justin Bieber are among the hundreds of industry figures who have pledged to now consider at least two women when hiring sound engineers and producers.
The Dublin chapter of She Said So, a global network of women working behind-the-scenes in the music business, was also launched last year. The organisation hosts skill-sharing workshops and seminars across a range of industry topics.
While these initiatives are making important strides in the fight against sexism and underrepresentation in the industry, it must also be acknowledged that support from male peers is a crucial part of the process. Keychange’s Jess Partridge finds that male musicians, given their bigger platform, often have an even greater responsibility than the event organisers to fight for gender equality.
When The 1975, an all-male band, won the BRIT Award for British Group last month, they used their acceptance speech as an opportunity to call out misogyny in the industry.
“They’re not going to be accused of doing it for self-interest in the way women are,” Partridge says. “People accuse women of wanting preferential treatment. Men have that, and they need to show that they’re allies in a very real way – whether that’s by questioning people, or by giving up their spot in a place where there really isn’t gender equality.”
It’s equally important for female musicians to build up strong bonds and support systems of their own.
“Women shouldn’t feel like we’re pitted against each other,” McKernan says. “We should be supporting one another, putting on gigs together, and offering each other support slots. Saying ‘there’s only room for me’ is buying into the misogyny.”
So do our musicians have any words of wisdom for young women starting out in the business?
Julie Feeney says, “being assertive is definitely a good idea. Women can’t take any undermining of their position in their work.”
“Stay guarded and be careful about who you work with,” McKernan urges. “If something does come up that makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to speak up about it. If you ever feel like something doesn’t feel right, it’s because it’s not.”