Breaking Into the Boys Club
Austin is weird. Sometimes this is a good thing. Sometimes it’s a bad thing, and sometimes it’s hard to tell which of the things it is. “I always felt like Austin was the strangest mix of conservative and liberal, so while I'd be rubbing shoulders with someone who I thought wasn't sexist, I'd hear some weird micro aggression or outright sexist comment about my abilities as a musician, engineer, or person in general” said Livvy Bennett, front person, lead guitarist, and songwriter for Mamalarky.
Austin is widely referred to as “the live music capital of the world” and it’s pretty true. You can make the decision to go see live music any night of the week, and you’ll find some pretty impressive and cheap options all over the city. But walk into just about any venue and you’ll notice a trend: men and not just onstage. No, look at the photo pit, the soundboard, the stagehands, and the roadies.
They’re all dudes aren’t they? But why?
“People tell men they can do whatever they want, and they are allowed to do whatever they want” said music writer Emily Treadgold “nobody told me I could do this when I was younger.”
Treadgold and her online publication, thenewnine, cover music all over the country. She just recently came back from a trip to the California desert where she covered Coachella in all of its dusty and sweaty glory. She works hard, and it’s paying off. But her work ethic is part of the reason she has problems with the Austin music scene, “here it’s almost cool not to care. It’s not cool to have ambition.”
It’s already harder for women to get published or acknowledged. Add on a stigma about hard work not being cool, and you have a recipe for a scene full of straight white cisgendered men.
“There are like, 5 female photographers that I would see regularly at shows” joked Jenna Million who has been photographing concerts since she was 16, “other than that it’s basically just a bunch of dudes.”
It’s not all bad news according to Mariah Stevens-Ross, bassist for Sailor Poon and street team manager for Margin Walker, “It is better than a lot of cities, but just as the rest of society, we still have centuries of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. to work towards dismantling. The festivals I've closely worked with have been very active in giving women and other minorities the platforms they deserve.” Though she did go on to say that they’ve had maybe five live sound engineers who were women in the “three years and hundreds of shows I’ve played.”
There are a lot of venues that make a concerted effort to be inclusive. Cheer Up Charlies and Hotel Vegas host “female fronted” showcases or themed nights where all the bands have women in them. But these are small clubs with a max capacity of about 200 to 400 people depending on the stage. Also two venues out of more than 250 live music venues in the city is not a very good percentage (it’s .8% if you don’t feel like doing the math yourself). While there are likely more venues that fight for inclusion (Barracuda, Sidewinder, and Mohawk were just a few that Million remembered being inclusive spaces from her time interning with Margin Walker) it should be everywhere.
The problem isn’t just a lack of representation. It’s also how women are treated when they do make it into these circles; “I have men explain how my gear works, easy guitar concepts, basic music theory to me constantly...It's frustrating that I've gone to college to study music and have been playing instruments since I was literally 3 years old, and yet still people assume I know nothing about it” lamented Bennett whose band is now based out of Los Angeles.
Stevens-Ross, had similar stories, “It's pretty common that we get sound guys on the road who assume we don't know anything. I've gotten screamed at for making simple requests, like using a DI instead of a mic on my bass amp. Luckily this doesn't occur so much in Austin, but it does happen occasionally. Men assume we can't carry or set up our own gear, know about our own musical influences, or god forbid, park a tour van.”
These kinds of micro- and even macro-aggressions make it hard for women to feel welcomed in the community. It’s hard not to get discouraged when you have a man standing in front of you questioning your every decision, wondering if you have any idea what you are doing. Music isn’t something only men know how to do. Guitar, drums, and bass are just as easily played by women. Sound engineering is not too complex for the female brain, neither is booking, photography, or writing.
As for inclusion in the media, “If you can’t find a place that takes you seriously, make your own. That’s what I did” said Treadwell. She started thenewnine after the previous music writing blog she worked for went under, and she was having a hard time finding work. And if you’re going to make your own space, invite other women in to fill it with you.
That’s exactly what Million along with fellow concert photographer and friend, Tess Cagle, did. They created the Ladies Music Club when they both returned from their adventures outside of Austin, Million from London and Cagle from New York. They wanted to build friendships that revolve around the thing they are most passionate about, music. It started with a simple happy hour at Mohawk, and now they have moved on to hosting their first panel on May 14th at Cheer Up Charlies, which is aimed at helping women who are freelancers or are starting their own business. Originally it was just for women in music media, but they decided to make it less formal more of a “book club, but for music” as Million has become fond of saying.
"if you’re going to make your own space, invite other women in to fill it with you."
It’s still more than just creating your own space, it’s also fighting to be seen as an equal. Treadgold, who is a small but fierce blonde woman, experienced this as she was getting started and has taken steps to fight the “dumb blonde” stereotype, “It was so hard to get publications to listen to me. I look dumb. I understand that. I combat that by being smarter than anyone else. I read one biography per week. I can tell men more about the musicians they love than they know, and I can quote verbatim things from their biographies.” She calls this her “Dolly Parton Act”. You can be pretty and act dumb, but you still have to be smarter than all of the men, or you won’t be taken seriously.
When it comes to the next step to creating a more inclusive music scene here in Austin, Bennett said it best, “If you book a bill with no women or POC or LGBTQ folks, you aren't trying hard enough! If you only listen to bands that are only white men, maybe do some exploring and asking yourself why you "prefer" that sound, consider the fact that it's likely been conditioned into you by what the mainstream media, and even INDIE record labels, put their money and resources into!” It’s not hard to find talented girl bands. It’s not hard to find bands with people of color or LGBTQ+ representation. Venues and booking agents just need to make it a consistent priority.
But don’t just stop with bands. Hire more female sound engineers, give girl roadies a chance, have a woman be your stage manager, let that lady into the photo pit.
It’s about time we break into this boys club, don’t you think?
From the author:
I've been attending shows in Austin for around eight years now, and the lack of female representation has gotten better, but not exponentially. I wrote this as a feature-length article for my magazine writing class at my university. I wanted to explore the different parts of the Austin music scene by interviewing women in different fields and having them tell me their stories. The message is to call out the supposed "liberal and inclusive" city of Austin for its lackluster attempt at inclusion and to call for more: more women, more LGBTQ+, more POC.