Opinion

5 reasons why feminist music events are necessary

sad-grrrls

The last few years have seen discussion of gender diversity (or lack thereof) in the Australian Music Industry become more prominent in our discussions of the industry as a whole. This year, for International Women’s Day, Hack on Triple J crunched the numbers on women in the music industry and came up with the digits that supported what women have been saying for decades – Music has an issue with being a Boys Club. But we’re also seeing an increase in the number of Feminist Music Events that aim to buck the trend.

In 2016 alone we’ve already had Earopund Women’s Music Festival in Sydney, Athena Festival in Perth and Transgenre in Melbourne. LISTEN also put on regular feminist music shows in Melbourne, Chicks with Picks in Newtown is a monthly music event that has a strong following of regular supporters, One Brick Today put on DIY Punk Shows, and the last few years have seen a number of smaller feminist events such as Grrrls To The Front Fest (Syd), GRRL FEST (Melb), Wom*n Speakout (Syd), The Ladies Live and Sexual Violence Won’t Be Silenced (Syd), and many, many more.

But with every feminist push for activism (especially in the digital age), comes the comments section. The rally cries of men everywhere who insist that ‘it’s not that bad’, ‘there aren’t enough women at shows because there just aren’t as many women in bands’, booking agents who insist ‘we only pick based on gender only on talent’ and my personal favourite, ‘Shows that are all female are just as bad as all male shows REVERSE SEXISM you’re part of the problem’ and so on and so forth. I just recently announced the line up for the second annual Sad Grrrls Fest through my DIY Record Label and Booking Agency,Sad Grrrls Club. So for the sake of answering the questions that will inevitably be asked, here are my five good reasons that feminist music events are necessary in 2016.

1. Women and Non-Binary People Are Underrepresented in Almost All Areas of Music

The The Triple J Hack Statistics from this year revealed a number of useful facts for demonstrating how much women are underrepresented in contemporary Australian music. They noted that only about 1 in 5 of artists registered with APRA are women. Likewise, only 20% of Independent Record Labels that are registered with AIR are managed by women. Their radio airplay statistics showed that artists with at least one woman made up 39% of those played on Triple J. And when it comes to music festivals, an average of around 30% of acts on Australian music festival line ups had at least one female.

This is a good place to start, but there are also a few things worth noting. For one thing, the statistics about airplay and festival line ups do not count the overall female-to-male musician ratio. The statistics are based on “acts with at least one female”. This would, for instance, include a group like San Cisco, and the Dandy Warhols both bands made up of 3 men and one woman. If we calculate the percentage of individual women to men, then a festival like Laneway Festival (one of the best by the Hack numbers) was only 15.7% female (not 38% as Hack reports by their criteria) with only 15 of the 95 musicians billed being female (this includes Grimes, although she has often identified as being non-binary).

The other thing worth noting is that all available data on gender diversity in the music industry is rooted in the gender binary (the idea that male and female are the only genders). Given that the vast majority of forms used for data collection only use these gender options, it means that non-binary musicians are erased almost completely from any mainstream discussion of gender diversity.

Feminist music events provide an alternative for people who are tired of the lack of gender diversity on most show line ups. It’s worth noting that almost none of the feminist music events I mentioned earlier are exclusively non-male*. Generally speaking, these events simply feature acts with at least one female or non-male artist, which means that there are male performers included too, as part of bands. Events like Transgenre put the emphasis on including and celebrating non-binary and gender non-conforming musicians too. Feminist music events are necessary as they represent the underrepresented musicians in the industry.

2. They’re Safer Spaces for Marginalised groups of people

Here’s the thing – there is a big problem in a lot of music communities with audience members being unsafe. This can take a lot of forms: Harassment or fear of harassment, dangerous moshing and risks to physical safety, overhearing or being targets of transphobic, homophobic, sexist, racist and other forms of bigoted speech or behaviour, and in a lot of local scenes there is a serious risk of victims of sexual or emotional abuse running into their abusers.

The level to which a person feels unsafe at a show can vary hugely, but the risks are very real. Physical assaults and sexual assaults against women and trans/non-binary people can and do happen. Perhaps of more concern though, is the number of people willing to defend perpetrators of these attacks in whatever form. This means that people with known histories of violence against women, sexual harassment and rape, and transphobic or homophobic behaviour, are often allowed back into the music community both as performers and in the audience.

Feminist music events will often have safer spaces policies of some description, an understanding that any kind of behaviour that makes others feel unsafe will not be accepted at the event. At the very least, the types of people who do engage in unsafe behaviours tend to be put off by the notion of a ‘feminist’ show and on the whole have no interest in showing up. Audiences and performers alike also tend to be less accepting of casual bigotry and more likely to call it out, stepping up in defence of others.

In my personal experience, knowing a show has a feminist background tends to relieve a lot of the anxieties I have about attending gigs – I know I will probably not be questioned for wanting to use the disabled toilets (generally the only unisex/genderless toilets available), I know I’m probably not going to run into my abuser and I know I will probably not have people making assumptions about my gender (and even if they do, I can simply correct them without having to go into a long and exhausting conversation about what non-binary genders are and how ‘they’ pronouns work). The weight that this knowledge lifts off my shoulders is immeasurable, and indescribable to anyone who has not been in a similar situation.

3. All Male Line Ups Are Still Way Too Common

I recently got in touch with two all male line up bookers. One was a 15-band line up, the other was 7 acoustic solo performers. Both the event managers said something along the same lines – “it’s not something we set out to do, this was just the performers that we knew”.

As an event booker, I make a conscious effort to always put on gender diverse line ups, but this is because I can see when I am not being represented (and when women are not being represented). The issue here is that when men are involved in booking shows, they tend to not notice the gender diversity of the bands they’re booking. That’s not a criticism of individual bookers per se, it’s just the beauty of privilege. If you are a part of a privileged group of people, the issues of marginalised groups aren’t as obvious to you because they don’t affect your day-to-day life. Men don’t notice all-male line ups because it doesn’t affect them, whereas a non-male might be constantly struck by the lack of women or non-binary people on lineups.

Lack of diversity in all kinds of media is most visible to those who are not represented, because when we watch people perform, we look for things we can relate to and people like us. If you are, say, a young girl with an interest in hardcore and metal music, for example, you will very quickly notice a lack of women in bands of those genres. If you can’t find people like you in the community, you internalise the notion that you don’t belong in that community. And if you’re never seeing women on the stage, you accept that women don’t belong in bands.

Feminist music events prove that non-male performers, and the bands that include them, can make amazing music. They send the message that women belong on the stage and in the bands. The more prominence given to events like this, the more awareness of the bands performing there are. So with more events showcasing gender diverse performers, there becomes less and less excuse for booking agents ‘not knowing performers’ to make their shows gender diverse.

4. We Still Have To Call Them ‘Feminist’ Shows

An all male line up is not called a show “celebrating male talent”. An all male band is not called a “boy band”. A male audio engineer is simply called an “audio engineer”, music made by men is simply called music, bands made up entirely of men are called bands, and all male line ups are just called shows. On the other hand, all-female bands are called ‘girl bands’, Gender diverse shows are ‘feminist’ shows, and on it goes.

What happens here is that music made by non-male musicians is seen as an oddity. Men making music with other men is ‘normal’, anything other than that means that gender is obviously a key indicator. And while a lot of non-male musicians choose to use their gender as a key part of their identities as musicians, the issue is that when this is forced upon artists, it contributes to the trivialising of music made by non-males. If music made by men is the norm, then anything other than that is lesser in some way.

This is an idea that is echoed by prominent non-male musicians all over the world. Triple J’s Hack quoted Courtney Barnett as saying, “I just get a couple of [comments like] ‘you play guitar as good as a man’, just casual, sexist comments… I have to kind of say things five times, or ask the same question five times. Whereas I know even the guys in my band, or my manager ask it once and not be questioned.”

Grimes, in a tumblr post from April 2013, said, “I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized. I don’t want to be molested at shows or on the street by people who perceive me as an object that exists for their personal satisfaction. I’m tired of men who aren’t professional, [as well as] accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if I did this by accident and I’m gonna flounder without them. Or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology. I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers”.

Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino also wrote an open letter about her experiences: “Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for and indebted to the support of my fans and colleagues who very much value my identity as a musician, and specifically as a female musician…. In interviews, if someone asks me a question like “So how does it feel to be a female rock star who plays guitar? You really don’t see many female rock stars with guitars” (this is seriously a question that I was asked by a male journalist in Toronto once), I say things like “That’s a completely false and ignorant statement, and this interview is finished.” (I got up and walked out. I’ve never felt more badass in my life!).”

And of course, the amazing Bjork has been standing against sexism in the music industry for thirty years, and still sees her contributions treated differently to those of her male colleagues; “I did 80 percent of the beats on ‘Vespertine’ and it took me three years to work on that album, because it was all microbeats — it was like doing a huge embroidery piece, Matmos came in the last two weeks and added percussion on top of the songs, but they didn’t do any of the main parts, and they are credited everywhere as having done the whole album. [Matmos’] Drew [Daniel] is a close friend of mine, and in every single interview he did, he corrected it. And they don’t even listen to him. It really is strange.”

Basically, non-male musicians, no matter how much they are proud of how their gender informs their music, are pretty tired of having their music treated as ‘lesser’ than that of their male counterparts.

5. Like All Live Music Should Be, They’re FUN!

I know there are people out there who like to think of feminists as killjoys, and feminist shows as places where fun is banned and hairy punk women listen to music intently and respectfully. The beauty of a feminist show is that everyone there actually feels free to have fun. People of all walks of life turn up, creating some of the most diverse crowds I’ve ever seen and had the pleasure to interact with. Dancing is done without fear of judgement, singing along is done loudly and proudly, performers jump into the crowd and join in the fun without fear. I’ve seen people openly weep when a song has moved them to tears, and seek hugs from strangers for comfort. This is the best thing about feminist music events. They allow people who may otherwise be hindered by fear or lack of opportunity to share in the greatest joy on earth – music.

I’ve seen some of the happiest people I’ve ever seen at these shows I’ve been to. I’ve experienced some of my own happiest moments there too. When fear in other live music situations prevents you from participating fully, the joy that comes of being safe to enjoy music is one of the purest, most incredible forms of joy I think anyone can experience. Music has the incredible ability to touch lives, and live music is the purest expression of this. Everyone has the right to experience this joy in their lives and feminist events give this opportunity to everyone. And at the end of the day, that’s all this is really about.

*I make the distinction with Sad Grrrls Club policy between the term ‘female’ and ‘non-male’. I feel that non-male is the most succinct way of including everyone who has been marginalised on the basis of their gender – women, non-binary, genderqueer, genderfluid, agender, gender non-conforming and other genders that are often excluded from this discussion. I acknowledge that trans and gay men also experience unique forms of disadvantage and marginalisation, and that there are many other intersections of privilege that means some men (transgender, LGBTQIA+ men, men of colour and Indigenous men, disabled men) also experience disadvantages when it comes to representation in music and other forms of media.

Check out the line up below for the Sad Grrrls Club Fest in Sydney and Melbourne and follow them on Facebook and Twitter & Instagram facebook.com/SadGrrrlsClub: @SadGrrrlsClubAU

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About the author

Rachel Maria Cox

Rachel Maria Cox (RMC) is a non-binary singer/songwriter, and the founder and manager of Sad Grrrls Club. They are based in Sydney and Newcastle, NSW. They enjoy sleep ins, memes, animals, and dismantling peoples' preconceived notions of gender.

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