Exploring Music and Gender


Glasgow Royal Concert Hall

Celtic Connections

 20 January 2017 

 Panel: Rachel Newton, Jenn Butterworth, Sandra Kerr, Lisa Whytock, Sue Wilson, Mikaela Atkins

 Rachel Newton (RN) opened the meeting by recalling the events that led to it being convened. Recently she had pointed out on Facebook that, in the Live Act category at the Scottish Trad Music Awards, only 3 women were included out of 39 musicians in the category. This post, combined with an earlier outing detailing the time when a festival organiser had turned down The Shee for a booking on the grounds that ‘they already had a girl band’, drew a lot of comment and a desire for further, public discussion.

 Lisa Whytock (LW) echoed RN’s experience, recounting a recent occasion when an organiser queried why he would take Fara when he already had booked Rant, despite the fact that the only thing the two bands had in common was their all-female line-up. Sue Wilson (SW) invited everyone to turn the situation round and imagine an organiser saying ‘we’ve already got an all-male band.’ LW found that this kind of discrimination was common, and frustrating, given the amount of talented female artists around. RN admitted that The Shee self-identified as an ‘all female’ band in their early days, but expressed disappointment that this should still be a novelty as far as festivals were concerned. Their take on it was that, since there were fewer women instrumentalists in bands at that time, they were celebrating the all-female nature of the band.

 As a way of challenging the poor represenation of female artists the question of quotas was raised, something that, for Mikaela Atkins (MA), was bound to cause concern in a field, the arts, which liked to imagine itself to be gender-blind. She is in two minds about quotas, because they might be seen as undermining the principle of making booking choices based on artistic integrity.  

 LW was for quotas. She recalled that when Active started there were only five women working in the music industry in the whole of the UK. As a response to this she decided only to employ women in the agency, 100% of whom have gone on to careers in the music business.

 Returning to the general question of discrimination RN stated that it had been difficult to bring the subject up, not least because she didn’t want the discussion to be perceived as being about ‘slagging off men’. Jenn Butterworth (JB) agreed that raising the topic is daunting. She felt that she had to continually confront the question of whether her concerns were in her own mind. If she were male would her career be in a different place? And yet the fact that her concerns were not in her head was reinforced by real-life encounters such as people expressing their surprise at the quality of her duo with Laura Beth Salter (because it was two women) and frequent comments congratulating her on ‘playing like a man’. RN backed this up: ‘The Shee are often told, “You guys have balls!”’ MA pointed out other aspects of terminology, particularly the widespread description of female musicians as ‘girls’.

 LW said that, with more women performing now than before, agents have a responsibility to look at the gender balance as they add artists to their rosters. However, they are restricted by having to reflect what festivals are wanting to book. If there were quotas festivals would have to programme a certain number of women, which would mean that agents would have to taken on more women. SW said merit still had to come into the equation. LW agreed.

As a teacher in higher education Sandra Kerr (SK) is interested in what happens in the period between young women learning music skills and entering music careers. There are more women than men on the folk course at Newcastle, but that is not reflected in the make-up of the scene. There is no doubt that the expertise is there. What enters young women’s heads about the way they think they’ll be perceived, what kinds of sacrifices they’ll have to make, what they’ll be allowed to do, what kind of pressures will present themselves when they start to think about marriage and children? SK came through the women’s movement in the 70s and acknowledged that one thing they got wrong was promoting the expectation that women could have everything. It is so much harder for women to do so than it is for male musicians. MA gave the example of a woman musician on tour talking with male musicians and crew. The guys were talking about going back to the partners and families they had left behind to go on the road, expressing shock when the woman said that she was going to be doing the same thing.

SK: ‘I’m the only mother on the panel!’ She pointed out that patterns of family and community have changed so much since she was a young mother when she could draw on help from her own immediate family. Now families were much more scattered, and women had to rely more on substitute family networks when trying to work. Touring is the killer. LW confessed that she was horrified by comments from some other agents. One said they wouldn’t invest in women artists because ‘they’ll only get married, have babies and give up their career.’ She maintained that the female programmers that there are have to positively discriminate.

SW mused that feminism had become a dirty word in the present day, arguing that the fact that women were apologetic about raising issues is a problem in itself. MA responded that the reluctance might reflect a sense that, if women could not do the issue justice, they were doing it a disservice. RN took heart from the number of people who had come, and from the number of men in the audience. She noted that, while she may have been daunted about openly addressing the issues in the past, she now felt she was at a stage in her career where she didn’t have to worry so much. She felt that there was still something in the culture that discouraged women from speaking out, that they didn’t want people to hear them in case they gave offence.

Returning to the question of encouraging young women, SW felt that the numbers of girls attending fèisean presented an opportunity to boost confidence. SK agreed that the issues were not as widely discussed in educational settings as they should be. She also reported that female students were telling her about overtly sexist language and attitudes among male students. These issues needed to be talked about more on courses. She detected a mood for change and declared, ‘I don’t give a stuff who I offend any more!’ Why should young women apologise for being skilled, clever, focused, intellectual?

SW observed that there was a view that liberal attitudes were implied by participation in the scene. ‘I’m a folkie therefore by definition I’m a feminist.’ However, it’s not just the music that’s traditional, but a lot of attitudes. RN commented that that brought up questions about tradition and conservatism.

LW pressed her theme that the gatekeepers in the scene were more guilty than individual musicians, while acknowledging that things were better than they used to be. Celtic Connections is practically run by women, although the leadership, as with most of the festivals is male. She could only think of three festivals in Scotland that were run or programmed by women, and struggled to think of any in England (other than Hartlepool). For her that remained a key issue.

MA mentioned that she had recently recommended a list to a friend who’d asked her for any upbeat music she should listen to, and realised that the list she had made, without being conscious of it, was all-male. She felt that the male bands needed to cast their nets a bit wider. Their not doing so was probably unconscious, but that made it all the more insidious. RN pointed out that the early announcement of this year’s Cambridge headliner showed no female artists at all. (‘Outrageous!’). JB felt that women had to prove themselves more, which was echoed by LW, who had had to work harder and acquire more extraneous information than a man would have to. ‘You have to be 200 times better.’ There was an irony in that, despite this extra effort, there was a noticeable discrepancy in fees. Women bands were offered less money than male bands.

The discussion was opened to the floor, and Jen Hill outlined some of the thinking behind the Songs of Separation project, which involved ten female musicians, partly as a response to the marginalisation of women musicians in the scene, but also with a view to exploring issues such as image, which plays such a part in the mainstream music industry. She recounted that, despite her pedigree in music, she was finding it hard to get taken seriously in some circles, and even in some circumstances to get paid. She confirmed NK’s observation about there being more overtly sexist talk among young male musicians. What she wanted to see quite simply was a community where people supported each other. LW agreed with the need for mutual support, citing her own informal networks as an important source of solidarity. RN brought up an example from Sweden, an organisation called Equality and Plurality on Stage (EPOS – which ran mentoring programmes and was forming an international network.

Annie Donaldson (‘an unapologetic feminist’) felt that it was positive that traditional music was waking up. The issues had to be seen in the wider context of gender inequality in society. On the question of quotas she said that ‘they work’.

Gillian Frame felt it was worth asking why festival bookers behave the way they do. If they weren’t booking all-male bands what would take their place? What qualities are programmers looking for? What were audiences’ expectations? Is the sound that women musicians make what they want? RN added that it was worth asking why women aren’t playing in-your-face, dancey music. Was that because that kind of music is inherently masculine?

Another problem addressed by JB is what is seen as the non-visibility of role models, particularly full-time musicians over 40. A student had recently told her that there were none, and when JB reeled off a list, the student confessed that she hadn’t heard of them.  MA’s new project, the magazine And For Her Next Trick, is specifically aiming to tackle the low profile of women in the music business, highlighting musicians, tech support and administrators. SK applauded this move as showing the value of women’s work in folk music and the arts in general.

From the floor, Esther, a festival organiser from Todmorden in Lancashire, responded to several points. She picked up on a previous theme, asserting that university is too late a stage to address what needs to be addressed. In response to RN’s point about the masculine or feminine nature of the music, she pointed out that girls were steered towards particular instruments. There was no inherent gender characteristics in the instruments themselves. On quotas she pointed out that in Scandinavia quotas operate by law. Here, Arts Council England has made diversity an issue, and it could be that funders can bring pressure to bear on the ratios of women and men involved in organisations they fund. She encouraged more women to get involved at board level in organisations, and noted that, despite being faced with the same constraints, women toured more in theatre than in music. She encouraged the setting up networks, private places to vent about sexist attitudes, and concluded by pointing out that the number of sure-fire headliners was dwindling, and of the few remaining, hardly any featured women.

Matt noted that in the mainstream music business the sexist stereotypes of women being restricted to roles like sexy front women and groupie still obtained. He felt it was ingrained and a big thing to challenge. Selling quotas to men was going to be a hard sell. For a man like himself, who was happy to describe himself as a feminist, it was positive that conversations like today’s were happening. MA acknowledged that it was challenging for men to join the debate, and to overcome their defensiveness over their inherent power and privilege. RN noted that we should all check our privilege.

Cait Lennox made the point that the discussion had been very binary hitherto and that there was considerable crossover between masculine and feminine behaviours. It was not simply a matter of pretty = feminine, and exciting and driving = masculine. RN agreed that there were other gender issues beyond male and female.

Carol, a mature student at the University of the West of Scotland, noted that 90% of the people on her songwriting and sound production course are male. She felt that in a lot of cases it is women who are doing the interesting stuff, but that audiences are conservative and don’t necessarily want to hear it. She advised that mentoring is not just for young people, and said that, while role models were well and good, they needed to have the capacity to pass on the experience and wisdom that they had.

Conrad Molleson agreed that we should be looking at populating more boards with women, and that people in influential positions should be more mindful of this. He pointed out that quotas work in Scandinavia because the need to tackle sexism was much more implicit in their culture. As a step towards considering quotas he felt that better information and harder data about gender distribution on festival bills was needed.

LW saw the need for an in-depth study, and offered to bring the question up at Creative Scotland’s Traditional Arts Advisory Group. Once the statistics were available, they might surprise people and prompt them to take action.

Mairearad Green cautioned that the attitude of women other than just promoters and bookers had to be taken into account.

Aidan O’Rourke argued for more imaginative, braver programming. Festivals didn’t always have to finish with loud, fast music for jumping about to, for example. LW said it was chicken-and-egg. If you don’t book female bands in headline spots people will not be exposed to their music  and adjust their taste and expectations accordingly.

RN drew the meeting to a close, and was warmly congratulated by all for her initiative in making the event happen.