* Disclaimer - this research is about women in the music industry (often abbreviated as WIM in this article) and focuses on producers, beatmakers, sound engineers, and sound designers.
Between 2 and 5%. That’s how much, or rather how little women are represented in music production according to a study by USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. But how to actually read these numbers? Not many women are passionate about this aspect of the music industry? Not many women are given the chance to take up projects related to producing and sound engineering? Or simply not enough visibility on those who do? This article is not going to offer the exact answer to these questions, but will surely give you some more insights on the topic.
The lack of representation of women in music tech fields is part of the bigger issue, regarding the lack of representation of women in the music industry as a whole.
There are certain stereotypes, related to activities and occupations which are considered to be appropriate or rather inappropriate for women, in terms of abilities, skills, and even the actual desire to get into something.
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These stereotypes not only make it harder for women in tech fields to be taken seriously but also might be the reason why a woman wouldn’t even consider the opportunity of taking up a technical activity in the first place. And this is exactly due to the lack of more representation and visibility for women in tech fields, including producing, beat making, and sound engineering.
Fortunately, nowadays not only are there more and more amazing female producers and sound engineers, but also more organizations and initiatives, which offer support, training, and opportunities to women who would like to get involved in those aspects of music.
We at Stereofox decided that we want to be part of the community which raises awareness about this topic. That's why we started our own initiative with the aim to support women in the music industry.
So far, we’ve featured some awesome producers and beatmakers, we’ve published several interviews and we’ve set up our own playlist called Beat Queens, focused on female-produced chillhop, lofi and instrumental hip hop music. This editorial is another way to address the WIM-related issues. We hope to start a conversation and inspire more women to be open to explore music industry fields, beyond those traditionally considered ‘suitable for women’. We also believe that showcasing talented women in music will inspire the upcoming generations and help them find empowering role models.
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We conducted small qualitative research, interviewing some of our favourite female beatmakers. They shared their perspective on what it is like to be a woman in a more tech-related side of the music industry. The aim of the survey was to collect the perspectives and insights of these women, based on their personal experience and point of view. Sharing this information is a way to make people more familiar with the issue. This is a step that is hopefully going to contribute to the conversation around this topic and fuel the much-needed change.
Here are the producers, who took part in our research:
All of them are producers/beatmakers, some are also instrumentalists or singer/songwriters. Their educational backgrounds vary from music theory and sound engineering to sound design for TV/Radio. Some of them have already established their names and are recognizable, others are still rising. Their experience in the music industry ranges from 3 to 15 years. They represent 5 continents and very diverse music scenes. With that being said, let’s get to business.
Stereotypes VS. Reality
How does a woman start tinkering around with buttons and knobs?
Just like anyone else… out of curiosity, as a means of producing a beat on which she could sing/rap, or because her family is also involved in music in one way or another way. There is no actual evidence of a woman who caused a fire just because she wanted to explore some Volca Keys. Instead, there are quite some names, who paved the way and proved that a woman is just as capable of being music tech-savvy as a man is.
Sound engineers and producers like Emily Lazar, Suzanne Ciani, Sylvia Massy, Sonia Pottinger, Ester Dean, Fatima Al Qadiri, Delia Derbyshire, Linda Perry, Wondagurl who are behind hits from bands and artists like Sugar Hill Gang, System of a Dawn, Red Hot Chili Peppers, P!nk, Christina Aguilera, and Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Florence + the Machine, as well as movie soundtracks.
And some names you would for sure recognize: Imogen Heap, TOKiMONSTA, Missy Elliot, M.I.A., or Grimes.
So why is there still such a stigma around women, involved or even simply interested in music tech? Here is what one of our respondents, Rebecca Mardal, shared in terms of how she started producing:
“I never thought I could produce myself, despite having completed several courses in music production, both at the British and Irish Modern Music Institute in London and at the Liverpool Institute For Performing Arts. Being a guitarist first and foremost, I instead focused on providing other producers with samples and loops, and trying to get other producers to produce around my music. Despite them being insanely talented, and some famous names in the game, it never came out the way I imagined it in my head. So I figured that the only way to achieve that was to actually do it myself.”
This might be an example that the lack of representation is subconsciously preventing women (whether they already have some tech knowledge or not) from being more confident about what they could achieve and that they can become as good as other male producers. But when Rebecca realized that no matter how skilled or talented others were, they couldn’t do it like her, because only she knew what exactly she had in mind. This triggered her to simply do it on her own.
Even though producing is a pretty technical field, it’s still a form of art and it’s supposed to simply give you the tools to express yourself - your soul and vision. Therefore, the level of technical capability is not always as important as having something to say and being passionate about it, because the first can be learned, the second - not.
The story of Jeia follows a similar pattern. “I started because of my deep love for music, I continued because I witnessed the powerful healing impact of music… I felt “called”. I’m a very logical person but I can’t think of a better explanation for that. Why music production: I’m in love with the technical aspect of it. Music production lives in the intersection of art and engineering. I also love working with artists/singers/songwriters, and I love sitting down with them and making their idea/concept of a song a reality.”, shares the Canadian-based artist.
Here’s what Miyuki Kuzuoka had to share when it comes to getting into music production:
“When I graduated in Radio and TV, I started working at a TV Station in São Paulo and after a few years, I started working directly with audio in post-production. At the beginning of the pandemic in Brazil, I was off work due to a health problem. So I was inside my house 24 hours a day. Thinking about others at this difficult time (knowing that many people were having anxiety and depression crises) as I already had some old equipment, I decided it was time to try to produce my song or should I say ours?”
Which leads us to the question: what happens once a woman realizes that the tinkering actually appeals to her? And what affects her decision to move further with this or keep it as just a hobby?
First of all, it depends on how strong the passion is. And the passion itself often depends on how much producing allows you to express yourself. With our diverse selection of respondents, we discovered that most of them already had experience with playing instruments, singing, or rapping. However, producing turned out to be something that allowed them to be more independent and able to deliver their own sound on their own terms. So what was once curiosity, turned into a passion. That’s no big news though. What is more interesting is what happened after they chose to get more professional with producing and how the reactions they received affected this decision.
Stereotype Equals Stigma
You can imagine that a female producer could face a lot of prejudiced opinions and comments. People are not used to girls, interested in music tech and when they see one, they sometimes misread the situation. As Rebecca shares:
“I've worked part-time in a guitar store where most guys/men just scoff if I ask if they need help with anything, but then I see them walking over to my male colleagues asking questions. I've constantly been asked if I need help setting up my amp and pedalboard when playing live because people assume I'm incapable. All that changes as soon as I start playing though. It's like I've then proven myself haha...You constantly have to prove yourself to gain the same basic level of respect that I see guys getting.”
Unfortunately, even in 2021 women often have to double-prove themselves and work harder in order to convince everyone that they are capable of handling all those technical stuff as competently as a male would. They receive unsolicited advice or comments. They are either not taken seriously or fetishized and sometimes even assaulted.
“I’m gonna say this bluntly: sexual assault, multiply times, cities and events... I have been taken advantage of in more ways than one. It's been hard dealing with this, also being judged by older crowds who are stuck in their ways and don't want to see the scene grow. The guys need to step up for us women and get these predators out of the scene.” (SADIVA)
If you’re in such a situation you can either back down and give up or strive to get so good at what you’re doing that nobody could doubt you and your skills. Funnily enough, sometimes when you’ve actually done something of quality to prove yourself, people might doubt if it’s really you who did it. Something which happened to Jeia:
“The most annoying reaction I got was “Did you really produce that without any men helping you?” Lol. It is funny and infuriating at the same time. It fuels my effort to make videos of me producing live because it’s kind of like a giant middle finger to those questions and stigma. Like, yes, I’m a woman and I do this better than most of you - as do my other sisters in production!”
That's not the only time one of our research participants had such an experience. Saaaz elaborates:
“One notable time was when a performance video of mine was reposted by an Instagram account which was quite established in the beatmaking community. 50% of the comments said my sp404 performance was fake because they couldn't see the wire/ it plugged in (it was plugged in there are just multiple ways to record audio and power the sp404) and because of that the performance wasn't real. Now this wouldn't have been so distressing if it wasn't so many people, and alongside this, I'd never seen anything like it in the time I'd followed the page for all the boys who were reposted, there were those who had their sp404s unplugged using battery power etc and recorded their stuff outside with no interface etc and had no comments like this. It was so bad the page had to leave a statement on the post discouraging the negativity. It was pretty frustrating at the time, but as I've come to accept this aspect of the game (though I'm trying to change what I can obviously) I saw the controversiality as a positive that at least my creations were impacting people enough to polarize them. You gotta reframe these things so you can keep at it, yanno!”
And of course, we don’t mean to state that there is a wall of evil attitude out there. In fact, our respondents shared that there are a lot of positive and supportive reactions towards them being female producers:
“Some people were very supportive and others were misogynistic and abusive, which made me uncomfortable but it also pushed me harder. Now it's all positive; a lot has changed but we still have a long way to go.” (SADIVA)
“Mostly positive but occasionally get misogynistic comments. I have always wanted to/will always pursue music regardless. I think in the beginning it was hard to get recognition but I was persistent and when I started to breakthrough I've had a lot of amazing opportunities.” (Gnarly)
And these positive comments are probably one of the reasons why they didn’t give up, which highlights their importance. In addition, the negativity they were facing, helped them to grow and become better..because they had to. Otherwise, they could simply accept the huge amount of resistance and turn to something else. Instead, they chose to toughen up and keep on doing what they love. And with this, soon they realized they wouldn’t need to prove only themselves on a personal level, but also represent WIM on a collective level and make it clear that women in the tech music field should be taken seriously.
Representation Turning into Responsibility
“I've definitely had moments where I felt I was being mistreated or even more so not taken seriously because of the fact that I am a woman, and at times that can get frustrating. Especially when I was starting out, but now I tend to not care as much. I just want to prove that we females are here to stay in the music industry.” (Nydia)
IzaBeats adds on, “I believe that to a large extent this causes admiration from people, especially from girls who haven't produced yet, so I work hard and as professionally as I can so that I can be an incentive for more girls to enter this world.”
In other words, being a female producer means that you are faced with numerous challenges while representing and being responsible for how people will perceive all women in the music industry. Because if you mess up, it will be ‘oh, she is a woman, so it’s ‘normal’ to mess up kind of thing:
“Another good one is that one time when I fucked up in a gig, and one dude was like “oh that’s okay she fucked up - she’s a woman. That’s understandable”. I mean, if I fucked up, I fucked up. Call me out. Don’t try to be a saviour or play nice…because of my gender?” (Jeia)
And that shouldn’t be the case. All people, regardless of their gender or identity, need time to improve and get better. But for that to happen, there needs to be a safe space, free of judgment and preconceptions, so that a mistake wouldn’t signify way too much than it should.
Challenges Lead to Growth
Is it harder to be a woman in the music tech and producing industry than to be a man?
The music industry is a tough game to play for anyone: rejection, people not liking your music, getting your music out, label abuse - these are some of the issues everybody faces. Many don’t even pass the ‘starting out’ stage and quickly turn to something else.
To claim that this game is tougher for women, would be a pretty one-sided statement though as things happen to be much more multidimensional than that. Like with everything, there are both negative and positive aspects. Being a woman turns out to be useful in certain situations, other times it might bring a rather undesired outcome. Sometimes being a female producer might open doors, but at the same time it could restrict access to certain important areas:
“I think it's definitely harder being a woman in the music industry when starting out. Before you find your foothold. One of the pros is that it's easier to be discovered and to get support. I've had an artist who initially hit me up to work solely based on the fact that I was a woman, which later grew into a great working relationship. But that does not always weigh out the cons of having to deal with so much negativity and obstacles.” shares lost.mindd.
“I think it's both. I've dealt with rejection for the sake of me being a woman, but at the same time, I've sometimes gotten the job because I am a woman. The hardest part, which I think really discourages a lot of girls starting out, is that guys just don't take you seriously.” (Rebecca Mardal)
“I think there’s pros and cons to it. On one hand, I don’t think there’s enough representation for us and we’re left out of a lot of opportunities because of how oversaturated the scene is with men, on the other hand being a woman can bring us attention but not enough to really make a difference in my opinion.” (Nydia)
“The pros of being a female producer is you stand out, even if you're not trying to. There are less of us and the industry responds to women quicker because of the possible sexual aspect of it from male fans. There's nothing wrong with using that and trying your best to work hard as an artist with everything you're giving. The cons are people sometimes don't respect you, or even think you're faking the things you make. I've seen a lot more scrutiny for female artists than men at a higher volume. There is definitely still some prejudice.” (Saaaz)
“I think it's harder in a lot of ways. Many labels and lineups are still all-male (mostly white) rosters. It's harder to be taken seriously as a woman and especially as a woman of colour. Men will generally support other men, it can feel intimidating for women in mostly male environments like the music industry. I find it's only men that give unsolicited advice in regards to music production/industry despite me having a formal education and many years of experience in the industry. There are however a lot of female-led organisations that are making huge moves supporting women in music.” (Gnarly)
“Being an LGBTQ+ woman and immigrant, I have to do 2-3x the work to achieve the same result as most people. That’s just the truth. And the financial aspect is challenging - we really need to be strategic about everything. It’s just tough. Period. It is still hard for women in general, but I feel like we are starting to be seen more and more.” (Jeia)
So how do female producers deal with that and find a way to unlock the next level, regardless of the obstacles in the outside world? Apparently, what starts as pure passion and love for music, needs to transform into something much more solid in order to withstand the challenges of this quite unfriendly environment. Growing and toughening up becomes essential for female producers if they want to survive in this rather hostile environment. This is why most of them master several skills and try to keep on getting as good as they can be just like in the case of Gnarly
“Being a woman and being really good at a niche thing like finger drumming has, for the most part, worked in my favour because it's unusual to see someone like me doing what I do and doing it well so more organisations are keen to work with me which helps representation and I hope inspires more women and women of colour to pursue music.”
IzaBeats adds on,
“I believe that a music producer nowadays needs to be a professional who dominates several areas, including composition, music production, mastery of a musical instrument, music technology, relationship with the public. So I believe my biggest challenge is to master all these areas!”
What appears to be holding them back, they learn to use it as fuel for their development. Which is dope. But not everyone has that kind of mindset. Being an artist is in fact often connected to having a rather fragile mentality, lack of confidence, anxiety, etc. - one of our respondents actually pointed out that she got into music as a way to cope with her PTSD. So, as much as it’s nice to see people overcoming challenges, a much friendlier environment is still something to aspire to. Starting with reducing the prejudices towards women in the music tech field. Then, how to make a change happen?
More Visibility Would Inevitably Lead to Normalization
- Giving credit to women.
- Women, learning from each other; women supporting women; men supporting women;
- Mutual respect;
- Normalizing all-female events;
- Giving more opportunities to women;
- brands and labels being inclusive of women in music and celebrating/showcasing them.
These suggestions popped out throughout our research. In other words, the change, as per usual, can’t happen, if it takes place on only one level. And things are pretty much interconnected. Recognition and support should come from key players from the industry itself, but also from its representatives, especially if those are male. Better visibility of women in music tech would normalize their presence in this area, which will transform and hopefully eliminate the stereotype. This would not only result in less discrimination but also would attract even more women to the field and naturally increase representation. You get the idea - it’s all about getting the wheel to start rolling. And I believe it has already started, we just need to push harder.
As written in this editorial intro, we at Stereofox as a team are united to not only share good music but make sure that all talented female producers and beatmakers get the spotlight they deserve. This is an ongoing mantra and an important part of our mission going forward, not just with the playlist or this write-up, but the things we do on a daily basis.
While it’s not a one-off thing or just one initiative, one of the main things besides doing our research and this piece is the introduction of our brand new female-only beat playlist, curated on all major DSPs. The plan is to showcase the talented and skilled female producers and build a selection that offers the listener a soothing and chilled experience. We will update the playlist regularly, so feel free to send us more female producers via social media or by joining our Discord server.
Support Leads to Growth
Another awesome and noteworthy example, contributing to the change, is the fact that there are currently a lot of organizations and platforms which support female producers, DJs, and sound engineers. They create that safe space, which we mentioned above, for women to feel more confident when exploring and learning. They also come up with different ways and initiatives to support women, raise awareness and improve the way WIM are positioned in society. We already mentioned Chartmetric’s initiative Make Music Equal. We’ll add a few more initiatives, platforms, and organizations, which do their best to support women in the music industry in various ways:
- Amplify her voice
- She is the music
- Women in music
- Music production for women
- Women’s Audio Mission
- We are moving the needle
- Turn It Up
- Girls Make Beats
- Women Produce Music
- Femme House
- Peak Music UK
Wisdom Tank - Advice from the Female Producers
And as we said, women supporting women and women learning from women is truly crucial. This is why we asked our respondents for a word of advice, which comes from their personal experience and ability to cope with difficulties.
Here is what they had to say to all women who want to get into the music tech field and become producers, beatmakers, or sound engineers:
Shut out the noise, and just focus on you and your sound. (Rebecca Mardal)
Go for it, do it and you're gonna know if it's right for you. (SADIVA)
Find yourself a group of fellow producers, beatmakers or engineers and support each other. (lost.mindd)
Don’t worry about play counts or social media too much. Focus on growing relationships with people that love and support you. And above all, make music because you love it. The rest will fall into place over time. (Nydia)
Be persistent and consistent, not everyone is going to like you or what you do so be undeniably yourself and become good at whatever you want to do so that the opinions of others won't matter. (Gnarly)
Don't be afraid of what others will say or think. Do what you believe in! (Miyuki Kuzuoka)
GIVE YOURSELF A PROPER CREDIT. You can give yourself proper credit AND be humble at the same time. It’s not an “either-or”. (Jeia)
Focus on you and your sound: Never stop studying, try to be better every day! (IzaBeats)
Just do it. Just fucking do what you wanna do and don't care about the fact there are a few less of us, ask for feedback but also take everything with a pinch of salt as there are some people out there who genuinely have an issue with your music because of your gender. Link with other girls in the community, we're all really supportive and just want to grow in numbers. Keep pushing with it, keep trying, reframe any hurdles you have positively and constructively to improve yourself. We can bring it just as much as the boys so let's show them how it's done! (Saaaz)
We believe that all these wise words could be applied to anyone and that makes them even more special. Because progress comes in unity, not separation. So no matter if you’re a woman, a man, or non-binary, we sincerely hope you found this wisdom tank as inspirational as we did!
We Are the Change
The world we currently live in has proved to be full of both obstacles and opportunities. We all know that facing setbacks on the way to achieving our goals is inevitable. However we’re in control only of certain aspects of the whole process and sometimes no matter how hard we work, there are things that are beyond our efforts. Humanity has a long way to go, in order to diminish the importance (and relevance) of one’s gender/ethnicity/skin colour/sexual orientation, etc. when it comes to one’s position in society and one’s equal start. The topic of this article is only one example of the ways we tend to weigh up one another, based on characteristics other than one’s actual personality and qualities. We’re glad to have the tribune from which to address this particular topic, turn more eyes towards it and hopefully make an impact of some sort. After all, there are different ways to make the change happen, as it’s a transition, which consists of both smaller and bigger steps. But the first and most important one is simply acknowledging the problem. Spreading more awareness about it with our initiative is our way to bring more people to exactly that stage.
Lastly, big thanks to all producers who took part in our research and helped us get a better insight into this complex topic. Thank you Rebecca Mardal, SADIVA, lost.mindd, Nydia, Gnarly, Miyuki Kuzuoka, Jeia, Iza Beats and Saaaz! Your work is an inspiration and proof of what a Beat Queen is capable of!