The Gender Play Gap
Memories are elusive little sneaks - always dodging and diving out of reach just when I need them. Sometimes though, if I play the music I was listening to at the time in my head, the memory reappears – it’s basically like I’m Sherlock Holmes and instead of having a mind palace I have a mind Spotify, only significantly worse. Anyway, this method really came into its own recently when in a moment of Netflix binge induced brain-death I scrolled through my entire iTunes library from the most recent addition to the first ever. It was like flicking through a photo-album, each song reminding me of a different time spent with friends, going to gigs, revising for exams. I could piece together a little narrative of my life going back to my early teens. But when I scrolled back up to the top, I noticed something. I was using my collection of artists’ work to look back at my past self, but there were barely any artists who even resembled me. Where were all the women?
Things weren’t always this way for me and my music collection. In a pre-iTunes world, my main point of access to music was my Sony tape player, and through it the Spice Girls taught me that men have ‘got to give’, Billie Piper sang that girls can ‘do anything we want’, and from B*Witched I learned that nobody should ‘think they’re bigger than me’. Basic? Yes. Trite? For sure. But give me a break, I was 9, I wasn’t exactly reading bell hooks back then. These women were singing messages of female friendship, strength and self-love, and all while rocking halter-necks and hair mascara. In pop, women ruled all.
In a tragic turn of events my tape player later joined The Patriarchy and ate all of my All Saints singles in what I can only assume was an MRA act of protest. The CD player was in, and so were boys, and not even Ginger Spice stood a chance against Charlie Simpson from Busted’s eyebrows. ‘But what about the Union Jack dress?’ I hear you ask. Forget about it. To 11 year old me the sex appeal of a thousand Union Jack dresses was held in one of those thick black slugs. I would listen over and over to their debut album, singing along to songs like Britney, in which Busted drool over everyone’s favourite 90s starlet with charming lyrics such as ‘Trackin' you down on the internet, coz I ain't seen you naked yet’. Adorable.
While my problem of eschewing girl bands for boy bands at the age of 12 can probably be chalked up to skyrocketing hormone levels, the next stage can’t be explained away quite so easily. So began the age of iTunes. I no longer got my music fix from Mizz and Top Of The Pops. These were the days of Kerrang! and Rock Sound. I scoured these magazines from cover to cover, and spent my weekends in HMV buying the albums I’d read about. I went to gigs with my friends. I took pride in being the female minority in those crowds. It was a badge of honour, and the badge read ‘One Of The Boys’.
You most likely don’t need me to tell you that that kind of thinking isn’t ideal, and I have a theory about where, for me, it originated. First to the magazines I was reading: in Kerrang.com’s list of ’50 Best Rock Albums of the 2000s’, only Paramore’s Riot featured a woman; of the last 130 issues of Kerrang!, 18 feature a woman on its cover, mostly in the background of a collage of multiple artists; and of the last 85 issues of Rock Sound, only 11 women have made it onto that hallowed front-page. Next, the shows I was going to: in the years I went to Reading Festival (2007-2010) 9 out of 113 Main Stage acts had a woman in the band. That’s less than 8%. I learned as young as 14 that boys got the best-selling albums, the cover-stories, the headline gigs, and made it onto to the Main Stage line-ups. If you were a woman and an artist in the scene, the odds were stacked against you. So too was this the case if you were a female fan – it’s not cool to have a young female fan-base. Little wonder that I was dissociating myself from my gender to try to fit in with a scene I loved, but that didn’t have much space for me. Even as my musical tastes changed and I became less interested in Funeral For A Friend and more interested in The Smiths, The Cure, Smashing Pumpkins, music by men dominated my database.
Over time, the pool from which I drew my musical inspiration grew. PJ Harvey exists, it turns out. So does Bjork. Shirley Manson, Brody Dalle, Courtney Love, Fiona Apple, Karen O and Florence Welch, when I think of you I imagine the hands pressing together emoji. The one that no one knows whether it’s two people high-fiving or one person praying. It’s both, okay. It’s both. During this period I started telling my parents that one day I would headline Reading Festival. I had women role models (not you Courtney) and I wasn’t afraid to use them. I became a more learned woman, and in turn became aware of an enormous pool of learned and talented women. Or maybe it was the other way around. Did anyone ever get to the bottom of that chicken and egg situation? What a mess.
Anyway, things were and are incrementally looking up. 4 out of 10 of Forbes’ round-up of ‘The World’s Highest Paid Musicians of 2015’ are women or have women musicians in the band. Adele headlined Glastonbury this year, while Florence + the Machine took the top spot the year before, and in 2014 Beyoncé dominated the Pyramid Stage. In an interview with Broadly, the alt-rock band Savages were asked what it’s like being a woman in a band in 2015. They responded with understandable disdain that being asked in 2015 what it was like to be a woman in a band was like being asked what its like to be a woman eating a sandwich, i.e. irrelevant and bemusing.
Sadly though, things aren’t all that simple. Being a woman eating a sandwich can actually be pretty bad, especially if you happen to be caught doing it on the tube. So can being a woman in music. Yes, Adele, Florence and Beyoncé all headlining in the space of four years at Glastonbury is good, but they’re three women out of a total seven who have ever taken the top spot at Worthy Farm. In 2014 the Independent recorded that across Isle of Wight, Glastonbury, Latitude, Reading and Leeds Festivals, V Festival and Bestival, solo female artists comprise on average less than 16% of the total acts playing. All-women bands make up less than a quarter of that figure at 3.5%. By comparison, all-male bands occupy nearly 43% of the acts on the six festival line-ups. Amazing, powerful women might top the charts and the rich-lists, but the remaining 99% are still being road-blocked.
So what do we do to close the gender play gap? Thankfully, there are women out there already tackling the issue by taking matters into their own hands and running all-women festivals, promoting all-female DJ line-ups, playing in all-women bands. In doing so, they work to redress the balance. They give greater exposure to a huge variety of women musicians while creating a community of like-minded people who might have previously found themselves excluded from the discussion, particularly in terms of gear and tech. However, the ideal is of course a world in which a line-up consisting exclusively of women is a non-event, so much the norm that comment on the fact of it is unnecessary. What the journey through the annals of my iTunes showed was that because I didn’t think there was space for me, I didn’t give space to other women musicians. When I learned that there was space for others, I in turn began to carve out a space for myself. As women we need not only to occupy space in bands or in a studio booth, but also as promoters, pluggers, music-writers, managers, radio-presenters and, just as importantly, as listeners, readers, and fans. The more space women take up in those roles, the more space they’ll create in turn. I don’t wear badges anymore - they’re locked away with the photos in which I have a side-fringe - but if I did mine would read ‘One Of The Girls’.
Find Anna on Twitter at @annaerichmond