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?

1 Cis = a person who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth
2 Steyerl, Hito. “Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Postdemocracy” in Are You Working Too Much? Post Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art, E-flux journal (2011): 37.
3 Weeks, Kathi. The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Duke University Press Books (2011): 9.
4 Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction; A social critique of the judgment of taste. Routledge (1979): 66.

This August we were invited to  Pop Kultur 2017 where we met an amazing crowd of people who helped us start work on writing a new rulebook for the music industry. What you are reading here is only the first step: We would encourage all of you to give us some feedback and ideas to help us with this – it is still very much a work in progress and we need your help to improve it! The workshops were led byMelissa Perales, Caoimhe McAlister and Mirca Lotz from We Make Waves and songwriter and artist profiler Jovanka von Wilsdorf, the press manager and curator Sandra Passaro and the singer-songwriter Kristin Amparo – a big thanks to them for their great input!

We continued our work by invitation of VUT Music Industry Women at Reeperbahn Festival – so today you can read an updated version – thanks again for everyone who came and discussed with us!

Writing A New Rulebook For The Music Industry

Gender equality is only possible if men and women work together to bring this about – inclusion is important. Things can only change if those in power (ie men) help to change the status quo. Unfortunately, reaching equality quotas still seems to be necessary, as society in general has not made enough progress in the past on its own. Every publicly-funded project should adhere to a 50:50 quota. Remember to also check your own quotas when it comes to recommending or hiring people.

Talk to other women about your experiences in the workplace – the “good” stuff as well as the “bad”: Your achievements will help to encourage others. Speaking about the challenges can also help transform feelings of being “helpless” or even “ashamed” into something more positive and empowering, should a similar “bad” situation arise in the future.

Get feedback – dare to ask for help and make good use of available networks. You don’t need to know everything yourselfmoften it is more the question of who do I know that I can ask for advise! Take your own work seriously and be proud of it. Make yourself aware of your self worth – don’t give up before you have even tried! Confidence is a key component to being a good work partner, ally or mentor. 

Make sure you get credit for your work (also remember to give credit to other women’s work when it is due). Women still tend to end up on the “thank you” list, even when important work has been done. History is what gets written down! We need more female role models. We also need to be visible as role models in order to inspire the next generation.

Learn to take criticism (and use it to improve yourself) but don’t take any sexist bullshit. As Sexism is still a big problem in the workplace, solidarity is very important. In any stressful situation, look for an ally or be someone’s ally! Stand up for one another and speak out especially if you’re in a position of influence. Bad habits will only change if people are called out on their bad behavior but always do it in a constructive and respectful way. At the same time, never stop looking at your own work and behavior, keeping in mind that no one is perfect and we ourselves also need to be aware of things that we can improve.

Language matters! We should be aware that the everyday use of certain labels can have an enormous impact on society. Try to avoid labels such as fe/male or beautiful (instead of talented for example) when referring to artists, as these have no real relevance to the artist’s work, but are rather outside constructions that take the focus away from the important things. Open up a discourse on these matters. Don’t try to beat people down with arguments, rather try and make them understand by pointing out different meanings and viewpoints, or by asking them about  their own views.

Education is important – educate yourself about the topic and help others to do so too. Try not to be condescending, but rather be supportive of people who are trying to learn more about these issues. Be supportive of young(er) people just starting out. Make aware and be aware – try to be fun about it! Listen to other people’s experiences.

Look at the history of Feminism, why is it seen the way it is today? Think about how can we change how it is often perceived as a negative position, to a positive one. And always keep in mind: complaints do not create change, focus on the strategies for change instead!

Last but not least: Let’s all help in creating a safe(r) space(s) for everyone!