Text and translation by Jessica Sligter. English version edited by Alison Hugill. Norwegian version published in FETT Magazine in June 2016.
I’m preparing to go into the studio to start recording a new album. Months of research and writing come to a head. Musical and textual themes I’ve been developing in my work throughout the years provide a focus to the endeavor. Minimalism is always on my list, but I haven’t yet felt like I’ve nailed that. How does one actually establish a minimal, concise musical expression?
Minimalism is a high-risk game — there is so little substance to serve as a legitimation of your work. It seems to me one would need to feel very ‘safe’ to engage in such a challenging expression. So what is needed to feel too-cool-for-school confident? How can I achieve these circumstances in a recording studio?
Similar to many female colleagues, my work is eclectic and doesn’t fit comfortably into an established musical category. This comes as no surprise. Those genres are the manifestation of a history of male dominance in the music world (with the exception of hiphop, the result of producer Sylvia Robinson’s genius). When our expression is at odds with the existing delineations, it can be seen as a testimony of increased gender-equality in the industry. Increasingly, female (and other genders except cis male1) artists are finding out what 1 works for us, manifesting it, and by doing so impacting the musical landscape. What attracts me to editing and minimalism is precisely the urge I feel to concretise my artistic expression. Going from A to B, however, is easier said than done.
The music industry today is still a fragmented, schizophrenic landscape when it comes to gender. For example, with my mixed gender ensemble I will now move into the all (white, straight, cis) male space of the recording studio. What a strange shift. By now, a lot of women have gained access to this space intermittently, as artists. And though many of us record part of our albums ourselves at home these days, the studio remains a zenith of high quality sound and an important social junction in the music environment.
The music world likes politics best when it’s directed outwards, and its own workings are left unscrutinized. But art doesn’t exist in a space external to politics. As Hito Steyerl writes: “art is not outside politics, but politics resides within its production, its distribution, and its reception”2. If we want to understand and affect our experiences in the music industry, we have to take a closer look at the politics at work there. Connecting labor and gender, Kathi Weeks notes that “work (…) is a site where, at a minimum, we can find gender enforced, performed, and re-created.”3
Largely embodied by a particular brand of small talk (the exchange of knowledge about, and display of loyalties towards, certain gear, music, colleagues), the reproduction of conditions and relations is particularly dense in the recording studio. This is not only because the conditions are so extreme: female recording technicians and producers are extremely rare, making for a deeply engrained role division in terms of gender. In addition, the social sphere is the primary site for reproduction in the music environment in general (this is especially true in the world of popular music). Social interaction and reproduction of labor are thus deeply embedded in each other, and the stakes there are always high.
How do these elements influence our ability to achieve that ‘refined nonchalance’ in the studio? Or, as Bourdieu puts it: “the self-certainty which accompanies the certainty of possessing cultural legitimacy, and the ease which is the touchstone of excellence”4. Research shows that besides sheer numbers, in particular, the presence of a woman in a leadership role causes women to experience higher ‘social safety’. Their participation in conversation rises exponentially. In that case it seems obvious that we need more women behind the knobs in the studio. But measures to achieve this so far haven’t had significant results. Perhaps the social side of the matter isn’t taken seriously enough?
The music industry’s lack of transparency causes organisational initiatives to have a hard time getting a grasp on its inner-workings. Even in Norway, a society making concerted efforts in the prevention of gender-segregation and -discrimination, parts of the music business see their outdated demographics and power dynamics largely unchallenged.
Whereas the ‘creative workforce’ itself makes more headway towards gender-equality, the infrastructure of the industry remains firmly dominated by men. Labels, booking agencies, venues, their bookers and sound technicians, studios and their technicians, record producers, reviewers: the female presence in this ‘hardware of the industry’ is unreasonably marginal.
Yet in art, infrastructure is everything. It is access to (quality) infrastructure that makes a good musician into a working musician. Working in a landscape which functions like a social minefield however, puts female artists at a general disadvantage.
All artists deserve a ‘fair chance,’ no matter their gender or gender-expression. The problem of gender segregation in the music industry needs to be addressed at the level of infrastructure. Updating the software is pointless if the hardware remains outdated, right?
The studio would be a good place to start. Today, a studio space ‘safe’ from gender-pressures is a luxury almost exclusively reserved for straight cis males. If cultural legitimacy is something that is socially constructed within spaces, a space can and has to be opened up that can facilitate this for all genders. Until I record and mix a record in such a space, how will I ever know the swagger I can have?