From San Francisco’s Women’s Audio Mission to Brooklyn’s Powrplnt, women across the country are using education to reverse industry sexism.
French DJ collective These Girls Are on Fiyah (TGAF)
At the Lower Eastside Girls Club, an organization that provides educational programs to lower-income young women in New York City, class is ending. "Get ready for DJ Stacia!" someone yells. The room erupts in cheers. An endearingly awkward tween girl with a ponytail and glasses focuses on her Pioneer controller as the other girls crowd around.
The girls are midway through a seven-week DJ workshop taught by WBAI DJ Baby K (AKA Kelly Webb) and DJ Reborn at the Girls Club's sleek $20 million building, which opened in October 2013 and houses everything from a high-tech science lab to a planetarium (all of the Girls Club's programs are free). The studio where class is happening would be the envy of any professional DJ: it includes Serato units donated by Pioneer, PUSH controllers and Ableton Live, an S5 and Komplete 10 Sound Production Suite donated by Native Instruments, and a ProTools mixer used by their in-house radio station, WGRL.
Back in the classroom, a chilled out piano intro plays over the PA before a beat and vocals kick in. After a few false starts, DJ Stacia transitions into another track. More cheers. It's not the greatest mix ever, but no one really cares. When she finishes, the next DJ is quickly announced by a volunteer MC, and any errors are forgotten. It's time to mix.
Women have been DJing and producing music since the tools to do so have been available, and many of electronic music's earliest pioneers were either female or gender nonconforming. Yet in 2016, women are still badly underrepresented everywhere from festival lineups to annual DJ rankings and club rosters. In DJ Mag's notorious Top 100 poll, for example, women consistently number in the low single digits. An analysis by The Guardian last year showed a dismayingly low number of female performers on UK festival line ups, and Coachella was criticized for the scant women on their 2015 lineup. But things may be changing—Coachella was praised this year for a better balanced lineup, while feminist DJ groups like Discwoman are bucking the system by creating their own festivals that spotlight female-identifying talent.
"People say girls are not interested in technology. It's just bullshit, you know?"—DJ Kelly Webb
Recently, tired of waiting for industry insiders like promoters or bookers to close the gender gap, a number of female producers, DJs, and artists have taken it upon themselves to help other women develop the skills they need to break into the industry. Meanwhile, more established institutions, like the Lower Eastside Girls Club and Women's Audio Mission are also organizing electronic music classes and workshops for young girls and women. This new wave of educationally-minded activism represents direct action by women to right the power imbalances that still plague the music industry, while making specific skills like production and DJing accessible to the next generation.
When I visit the Girls Club, the girls in Webb's weekly DJ class are honing their skills for a party they're performing at the following week. Webb, who is also the director of the Girls Club's Sound Studio where their DJing, production and radio classes take place, tells me that she's trying to fix what she believes is the root cause of low numbers of women in DJing and music production: the lack of accessibility to resources and female role models for girls who want to learn these skills at a young age. Webb also points out that DJing is not just a way for these girls to express themselves creatively, but a lucrative skill. "You can put yourself through college DJing," she explains. "It's a very viable career now."
Wide-eyed with excitement, Webb says that the last party they threw was a huge success. "I thought they would [dance], but the girls were all rushing the DJ booth," she recalls. "They wanted to see what was happening, like 'what's that? How do you do that?'" "People say girls are not interested in technology," Webb continues, "It's just bullshit, you know?"
If the Girls Club is a vital incubator for young girls interested in electronic music, then organizations like the Women's Audio Mission (WAM) is where these girls go when they've grown up. The San Francisco-based nonprofit was founded by City College of San Francisco professor Terri Winston in 2003 as a "direct response to the economic and social inequity that women face in music production and the recording arts," according to their website. The program has since grown into a formidable resource for women who want to forge careers in studio arts and recording, with 1,200 students in workshops across the country every year and 5,000 online members, according to Winston. WAM has also increased the percentage of women in the university's audio department from 12 to 43 percent. "That was the highest that anyone had seen, at least in the country, probably globally," Winston tells me over a phone call.
"It really changes the conversation when you see men looking to women as the experts."—Terri Winston
Winston says the organization's extensive resources, such as a job board and equipment rental service, are available to musicians of both genders. Male recording artists like R.E.M. and Radiohead have also used their studio in the South of Market district of San Francisco, which, according to Winston, is the only one in the world built and staffed entirely by women. "It really changes the conversation when you see men looking to women as the experts," she says. "The fact that they're ok with that, coming from women, is a huge shift."
In addition to organizations like the Girls Club and WAM, a number of grassroots initiatives started by young women in cities around the world have also sprung up to change the industry's gender imbalance.
In 2015, Brooklyn-based artist Angelina Dreem opened a permanent studio in Bushwick housing her organization Powrplnt, which provides free digital arts workshops to kids in New York. One of Powrplnt's offerings is a recurring All Girls Ableton class, where the female producer FIN teaches female-identifying people of all ages the basics of electronic music production.
Dreem believes that classes like this will help end the tired stereotype that women are less competent or uninterested in technology. "There's still very much the idea that women are the performers and men are the producers," she says. The benefit of all-female workshops, she continues, is that they provide an environment where women are allowed to be novices—where it's OK to mess up. Entering a male-dominated industry can be intimidating for novice female producers, but at Powrplnt, "you don't have to worry about those micro-aggressions," Dreem explains. "Creating a safe space is essential for changing the culture."
UK producer E.M.M.A recently announced a similar effort. Her free workshop for women on March 19 will be taught by herself along with the female producer Ikonika, and male producers Dexplicit and P Jam, at Radar Radio's headquarters in London, using donated software provided by FL Studios. In the two weeks since the announcement, she's received more than 450 applications for what was meant to be a one night class. In response to this massive interest, she's now planning to expand the event into a weeks-long series.
Over the phone, E.M.M.A explains that she started the program after feeling frustrated with the dominant ideology that female producers represent a minority group in the dance music industry. "If we build a group of women who are creative and want to learn and have that passion, then we're no longer a minority," she says defiantly. "That's the answer."
Even though the programs started by E.M.M.A, Dreem and others are extremely promising, there is still plenty of work to be done when it comes to changing society's deeply-entrenched biases about women and technology. Scott Fisher, the Communications Manager at Image-Line Software (the company that own FL Studios, which donated software to E.M.M.A's classes) tells me that only 3% and 7% of Image-Line's users are women.
When I ask him why these numbers were so low, he responds with a depressingly common explanation. "I think the whole music production space is really male dominated because of that natural affinity that guys have for technology," he says. "It's a bit like with computers as well. Women are looking at computers like 'what can i do with this?' Men are going, 'oh look a computer! how can I pull that apart and mod it and what can i do with it?'"
When I question him on this point, Fisher doubles down, insisting that all he was doing is "looking at numbers." "You walk into a room, it's 90 percent men, 10 percent women, it's got to be for some reason," he argues. "In fact [the number of Image-Line's female users] is probably less than that because a lot of mothers buy our software for their sons."
What Fisher may not understand is that the reason for this gender gap is not biological difference but institutionally-enforced sexism. Recently, several successful female producers have spoken out about the ways they have been discriminated based on their gender.
"Creating a safe space is essential for changing the culture."—Angelina Dreem
In Bjork's interview with Pitchfork last January around the release of her album Vulnicura, she shared her own struggles to be taken seriously when starting out. "I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You're not just imagining things," she told Pitchfork. "It's tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times." In the July 2015 issue of Fader, Grimes similarly spoke out about the sexism she faces as a producer. "Going into studios, there's all these engineers there, and they don't let you touch the equipment," she said. "And then a male producer would come in, and he'd be allowed to do it. It was so sexist. I was, like, aghast."
For his part, Fisher seemed to genuinely support E.M.M.A.'s efforts, saying, "it's really great to see women taking the initiative to involve others in the more technological side of music." Still, the inherent biases even among people who are ostensibly allies to female DJs and producers goes to show why female-focused workshops are important. As more women are trained as producers, recording engineers or DJs, this new wave will become industry gatekeepers and ensure even more women are equipped with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in the industry.
E.M.M.A. was not discouraged by Fisher's comments, taking the numbers he referenced as a challenge to overcome. "I think it's really interesting to get the stats on the user base," she wrote me in an email. "However, the [reaction to our program] shows the demand is there."
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