An early morning cup of tea with a couple of my female co-workers – one of whom is a trained sound engineer – ended up turning into a deep and lengthy discussion about the gender politics of the music industry; specifically why women tend to be under-represented in the world of electronic music production and technology. It’s a question I’ve been reflecting on lately, (in the gaps between writing posts), noticing the patterns within my own writing, and the dominance of men in many of the events I write about.
The proliferation of relatively cheap music production software, as well as the ease of distributing music through online platforms, should represent a democratisation of music-making. The days of requiring large amounts of expensive analogue equipment and access to studios to produce an album are long gone. With even the most rudimentary studio set up, it is now possible to write, arrange and mix your own tracks entirely from your bedroom. Despite this, the realm of electronic music production, music technology and DJing, appears, on the surface at least, to be an overwhelmingly male-dominated domain. Soundgirls – a website and forum dedicated to supporting women who work in the field of audio – estimates that only 5% of the workforce of that industry is made up of women.
These gender discrepancies are more marked in certain genres than others. Within soul, jazz, Rnb and Garage, for example, there are arguably just as many noted female vocalists as male. Yet in the world of electronic music production – without underplaying the successes of artists such as Bjork, M.I.A, Ikonika, Laurel Halo or countless others – women remain in the minority. A case in point: online music journal Fact Magazine runs a regular feature called Against the Clock, in which producers are tasked with creating a track from scratch in ten minutes. A cursory glance at its roster of feature artists reveals a vast over-representation of men.
Why should this be the case? One of my colleagues felt that electronic music production leant itself to traits more typically associated with men – a fixation with gadgetry, obsessive single-mindedness – and that many forms of electronic music were laden with the sonic imprints of testosterone.
However, my sound engineering co-worker pointed to the social factors that tend to exclude women from fuller participation. Not only are there fewer women than men at all stages of the design, production and use of music technology and software, but the environments in which these technologies are used – studios, mixing/mastering suites, live music venues – become de facto men’s environments, leading to a self-perpetuating cycle of women’s alienation and exclusion, and in which they are not encouraged to participate. She spoke of how she is often patronised by older male sound engineers, who are often fiercely protective of the niches they have carved for themselves in the highly competitive industry. Also, despite the relative ease of promoting music through online platforms, she suggested that women were less likely to use these platforms than men, and generally felt less confident in their abilities.
A further reason for the paucity of women in the world of electronic music could be to do with the politics (or lack thereof) of electronic music scenes themselves. With the brief exception of the politicisation of rave culture around the time of the 1994 Criminal Justice Act, which criminalised the subculture of raves and free parties, most sub-strands of electronic music have been fairly disengaged politically. Unlike some more politically engaged forms of music such as punk/hardcore, the hedonist impulse behind much electronic music culture has not allowed for much discussion of gender. Without discussions about who has access to technology, and attitudes within the world of sound and music technology in general, the assumption that electronic music production is a male domain shall remain.
However, the internet by its nature always offers alternative spaces in which to have these discussions. Bristol, with it’s ever-fertile creative scene has already seen the launch of Bristol Women in Music a platform’ to raise awareness of the roles, issues, and successes of women within the music industry’ this year. September will also see the launch of a youth record label – Saffron Records – which aims to support young women from the city to access the music industry.