Creating Spaces — Women’s Experiences Within The Music Industry
With the rise of the MeToo movement and several recent, highly-publicised cases across the entertainment industry, it could reasonably be argued that progress is being made toward creating a fairer, safer space for female musicians. Few, however, would argue against the belief that there remains a long way to go.
The surest way to understand the true state of affairs it talk directly to those with lived experience of the matter in question. With that in mind, I spoke to several female musicians whose work covers a broad span of genres and who are at different stages of their careers, about their personal experiences within the music business.
Fiona Ross is an award-winning jazz singer-songwriter, pianist and composer, who served for many years as Head of the British Academy of New Music, where she trained, among others, Ed Sheeran, Rita Ora and Jess Glynne. Ross began her musical career very early, performing in clubs from a young age.
Fiona Ross: When I was fourteen, and this was back in the day when people didn’t check ID, I managed to get myself a gig at a pub in London. I was thrilled. The landlord offered to drive me to the train station after my first night. We arrived and, as I took my seat belt off, he reached over and tried to kiss me. I pulled back and asked what he was doing. He explained that if I wanted to gig there again, then there were expectations, and that this is the way the music industry worked. I told him I didn’t want to kiss him, got out of the car and never had a gig there again. I grew up with the perception that this was the normal and how the industry works, with my mother also telling me stories about the famous Hollywood casting couch.
I wonder if, over the course of her career, Ross has seen any significant improvement?
Fiona Ross: This type of behaviour still happens, not as much, but the big difference is most women feel more supported in reporting this type of behaviour, calling it out and finding allies. I absolutely must point out I know many, many incredible, supportive and respectful men in the industry, but we are all still fighting to be heard and respected in many areas, not just the music industry. I still have people asking who writes my music and being surprised when I say I do — is this because I am a woman? Perhaps. The same thing happens when people ask who is the producer for my work — is the presumption that a woman does not produce?
This last point is echoed by Mwasiti, a Kenyan-born R&B/Afropop artist who is just beginning her professional journey.
Mwasiti: As a woman, people assume you have a lack of experience, especially when it comes to negotiating about a project. Making the video (for her debut single) was hard, as I felt like what I wanted was sidelined and my timescales ignored. Male artists were given priority over my project. Having a strong opinion is frowned upon in the industry, so far as I’ve experienced. It’s not as professional as other fields which is quite frustrating.
I ask my interviewees if they think that women within the music industry are more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse than men?
Fiona Ross: That’s an interesting question. I think that certainly used to be the case, because there was no recourse for women, nowhere to find support. When I was teaching, I had many, many young women come to me excited that they had been approached by a music producer who wanted to meet with them to talk about working together. Some of those were valid and some were not, and when you are first starting out, it’s hard to work out who is legitimate until it is too late, but now that these issues are discussed more openly, support is there, and women can get advice.
Moroccan flamenco and jazz singer-songwriter, Karen Ruimy has a rich and varied background, starting out in finance before turning her world on its head to pursue spiritual and musical endeavours. She is quick to affirm that women are indeed more vulnerable.
Karen Ruimy: Yes, like everywhere, but the music industry has always been a place where talent was exposed to manipulative power. Artists are always vulnerable as they come with their talent and usually no power nor money, they are easy targets.
Rachel Davie Lee, another upcoming R&B singer with a multi-cultural background (Lee was born in Jamaica and is of Scottish/Guyanese descent) works as Compliance Officer for an offshore Trust company by day but takes her creative life very seriously. Whilst she acknowledges that men, too, can be victims of exploitation, she agrees that women more often find themselves in such situations.
Rachel Davie Lee: I have interacted mainly with males in my experiences within the music industry to date, whether they are musicians, producers or managers. Whilst most have been positive experiences, I have been in situations where I felt compromised. There have been a couple of cases where someone has navigated a working relationship with me, or claimed to appreciate my “talent” for artistic purposes, and then expressed a personal interest or made some kind of move in a short space of time. I wouldn’t necessarily jump to describe these incidents as “harassment”, however they undoubtedly made me feel awkward and made me question their priorities, as well as the viability any serious professional outcome going forward.
Ghanaian-Swedish Afrobeat/dancehall artist Aurelia Day has largely avoided such issues.
Aurelia Day: My experiences have been fairly mild, and that’s mainly because I’ve chosen to work with non-men, people who identify as women, in everything from my band to music producers, promotion manager, personal manager, label, designer, even live shows. I have really worked on finding women to work with so I could avoid be harassed. It hasn’t been a clear mission to do that, it has also been just because I wanted to contribute to the broadening reputation of women and non-binary people in the music business.
Aurelia is, however, very aware of problems endemic to the industry.
Aurelia Day: They don’t teach us that it’s not normal to experience these things…going into the studio and there’s a bunch of men there and they look at you in a certain way because they find you attractive, and they comment on that, because they think it’s their prerogative, and you get very aware of what you’re wearing. I’ve been privileged to grow the courage to speak up. And I know other people who have been in the studio and who have experienced worse — the person has grabbed them or tried to force themselves on them.
My next questions concerns the online world. Social media has opened artists up to direct contact with the public. That can be a wonderful thing, but I wonder if female artists face particular challenges in this area?
Fiona Ross: Well, I have to say that sadly, abuse and negative feedback is something we are supposed be used to in the music industry, irrelevant of gender. The expectation is that we just have to put up with it because of our line of work. While I do believe men also face this pressure, I think for women, there is perhaps more intensity. I know that I, and I know I am not alone in this, will get sent photos from men, of certain parts of their body. These are from men that I don’t know that follow me on social media. This is a huge topic for women. I am aware that every time I post a photo of my shoes, for example, I will get sent a completely inappropriate comment or photo from a man. Every time. And yes, I could avoid this by not posting photos of my shoes, but should I change who I am because some people have clear issues? The bigger question is why do some men think that a photo of some shoes, in a public forum, is actually an invitation for sending inappropriate messages and photos? I also feel there has been a worrying shift over the past few years in people thinking it is acceptable to be nasty online and just be well, mean.
Karen Ruimy: The online world brings the best and the worst. You can promote yourself directly, which is a great freedom, nut you have to be so strong in yourself when random people throw awful words at you, They might be educated but they have no normal behaviour with a computer!
Rachel Davie Lee: I have not experienced any significant online abuse or negative feedback, fortunately, but this could be because I have not yet reached that level of establishment, and also I have been pretty cautious in how I market myself online to date, intentionally keeping my artist profile quite low-key. That will have to change if I wish to gain more exposure, and it’s not a nice feeling to contemplate what that could open up, but at the same time you can’t remain in hiding in today’s online world.
I wonder if any of my interviewees have noticed any significant improvement over the last few years?
Fiona Ross: Yes, a huge improvement although there is still a long way to go. Conversations are happening, people are reflecting on what is appropriate and what is not and what do about it. But this is a massive mindset shift for some people, and this will, sadly, take time. While for some, confidence in speaking out has grown since the #MeToo, for others it is still a concern that speaking out would have an impact on reputation or career.
Aurelia Day: The only thing I’ve seen improve is people having courage to talk more, to speak up. That’s probably step one of ten, if I were to put it into context as to how little we’ve gone. That includes a lot of other injustices in the world. Similar to racism, we have so much further to go. It’s structural, it’s industrial. I’ve also seen the negative side of this, men creating a counter-narrative.
Rachel Davie Lee: I would say that #MeToo has certainly increased the visibility of victims in the entertainment world, which can only be a good thing. However, I also think you have to keep in mind that #MeToo doesn’t replace the justice system or due process. I’m not in favour of the #MeToo mantra “believe all victims”. I’ve observed some of the high-profile cases and I’ve been a little sceptical of how some of the evidence was handled in order to build a case or secure a conviction.
I finish by asking what advice would my interviewees give to any young female artist starting out?
Fiona Ross: Goodness, so many things, but I think a key element I always tell young women, is to know their craft. And by that, I mean know everything you can about what it is you want to do. Yes, be technically outstanding in your instrument, but understand the business side of things, how to read a contract, what your rights are, how to market yourself, how to look after your money. At the end of the day, I like to believe that people will respect you if you know what you are doing. And importantly, reach out to other women. The power of a female collective is something quite incredible. There is no need to do any of this on your own.
Karen Ruimy: Be yourself, get your talent out and let the dogs bark! Be strong. Your talent is needed.
Mwasiti: Stay true to yourself and speak your mind when uncomfortable. Ignore the criticism, especially if your gut tells you what you are doing is right. Research, a lot!
Aurelia Day: Don’t be afraid to search for women, non-binary to create a safe space for you. I would say that’s a good strategy, to arm yourself to face that ugly world out there. Look harder, work hard to find people that are not men and hire them. Really go into your business structure and see what is really happening. Educate yourself.
Rachel Davie Lee: Trust your instincts and never lower your own personal standards!
I leave the final words to Fiona Ross, who makes a valid point that men need to be involved, as much as women, if progress is to continue.
Fiona Ross: Change is happening, but it will take time. It is vital that men are involved in these conversations. I saw a fascinating Facebook discussion where a group of men were discussing whether it was okay to compliment a women’s looks any more. Some men, said that no, you can’t do that any more, whilst other were saying if it is just a compliment then surely there is no harm. The discussion then evolved into whether they would complement other men, and what the difference was. It was an incredible conversation, and wonderful to see a group of men discussing this issue with honesty and a genuine desire to be respectful.