NOTE: The term ‘women’ is used throughout to mean all women (trans, inter-sex and cis) and as well as non-binary people who are comfortable in a space that centres the experiences of women.
International Women’s Day offers a moment for reflection. Its heritage is of collective action. Initially, International Working Women’s Day was about campaigning for women’s rights and recognising women as workers, both in the home and in production. Reflection is something many people in music have had ample time for of late and in our pre-post-pandemic moment, as the music industry stands primed for reignition, what better time to review accessibility. I caught up with musician Ella Harris from the exciting electronic trio PVA to discuss her experience of the industry, opportunities for change, and how solidarity for women in production is perhaps more relevant than ever over 100 years later.
Like most people in the industry, Ella’s career was borne out of a love of music. She regularly attended shows and promoted small DIY gigs across London, so making music felt like a natural progression. Ella lamented how the further they progressed, the more distanced she felt from the inclusive DIY ethos she’d started out in and instead how exposed she felt to the inequalities that are so deeply ingrained in the professional industry.
'I don’t want to be sexualised. I didn’t give my consent for people to message me out of the blue or portray me in that way.’
‘I’ve really experienced a lot of microaggressions being a woman playing music. No one explicitly comes up to you and says you shouldn’t be here, you’re a woman, but there’s a feeling that you have to fight an uphill battle to validate your creativity and your role. There’s a constant need to prove yourself as a musician or someone working in the industry.’
This struck a chord with me. The sheer lack of visibility of women across music industry spaces reflects an exclusionary culture and sense that your very presence tacitly demands justification. This feeling of illegitimacy is then compounded by the narratives other people write you into, rooted in gender-based assumptions. I have always found it difficult to articulate this, as drawing on explicit examples risks sounding bitter or overly-sensitive, but Ella really aptly summarised the experience when reflecting on their first single release.
‘When our first single came out, I was really happy and it was all very exciting when we were starting to get press. I noticed, being a talk/singy style of vocalist, [like many contemporary acts] I had the word ‘sexy’ thrown about a lot in reviews and people messaging me. It made me feel uncomfortable because I don’t want to be sexualised. I didn’t give my consent for people to message me out of the blue or portray me in that way.’
Indeed, despite the number of singers identifying as men who have a similar delivery style, between us we couldn’t recall one reference to them as sexy.
The extension of this is that women exist in these spaces as products of a masculine world: Ella reflected, ‘women can be in music now if they're the hot girl, or radical activist’, but they exist as exceptions to the rule; functioning as objects exoticised, rather than normalised.
As a result, the barriers women face in the industry are great. This ‘uphill battle’, as Ella described it, isn’t just ‘exhausting’ for artists, it is evident across the sector. Technical roles in sound and production are still regarded as a boys’ club and that can be overwhelming and daunting for anyone else interested in those jobs. We have shared the same experience of walking into studio settings and being the only woman in the room and indeed the building.
Ella was keen to emphasise how positive her experience was working with a male producer, and in my work, I couldn’t have asked for a more holistically brilliant collaborator than our producer Burke Reid. But the disparity reflects deep-rooted inequality, and is depressingly evident in statistics. Forbes reported last year that less than three percent of producers identify as women.
‘I feel like you have more trust in a label if there are people there you can identify with.’
The potential impact of having more diverse workspaces is evident. ‘I feel empowered when I'm in the same space and creating with women, in a way I didn’t even realise I could’, Ella tells me. ‘Our sound-technician and manager are women, and I think having them on the team does make a real difference.’
A musical polymath, Ella shared how she too has taught herself the basics of production, and how the process was relatively intuitive once you grasp the key principles. She described how beneficial this is for her creative process and ability to showcase work.
Whether it’s sound and production or label management, it’s crucial that we champion other women to increase their visibility. But issues surrounding representation are by no means limited to gender and as Ella rightly explains, ‘We need to ensure the industry is accessible for people of colour, trans and non-binary people, and build truly diverse spaces.’ The UK Music Diversity Report (2020) found that people of colour represented only one in five senior positions in the industry. Ella mused, ‘I feel like you have more trust in a label if there are people there you can identify with.’ This principle is pertinent across all roles in the sector, not just at an artist/label level.
In real terms, as Ella suggests, that requires better education and the ability to ask ‘stupid questions’. Driven by this need, Ella has set up a series of free workshops taking place in March via her charity label, Group Therapy.
Alongside manager, promoter, activist and my general music industry hero Tash Cutts, Group Therapy was established last year to raise money for charities supporting those hit hard by the pandemic. In partnership with The Route, the workshops aim to demystify parts of the music industry, from music video production to mental welfare, they’ll be hosting talks and Q&As with tips to get started. This is just one tangible means of affecting change at an industry level. By creating inclusive spaces and inviting free and open conversation, we can start to redress some of the key barriers to access and ensure ‘it’s not such an uphill battle to start in the industry if you’re not a white man’.
As the sector groans back into life with the dizzying prospect of summer festivals back on the cards, this is the perfect opportunity to take stock. Recapturing the IWD spirit of early 20th Century activism, through campaign and conversation, let’s visibly celebrate and champion diversity across all roles in the sector and ensure ‘people don’t have to feel like they’re constantly fighting to have a place. Instead, they can focus on making their music or working the jobs they enjoy.’ As Ella so aptly closed, ‘love of music is why we’re all here at the end of the day.’
Happy IWD, love Al.