Musical Personae- Engineering social change in the studio
Performance artist Jo Carol Pierce has a rap in her music/theater piece “Bad Girls Upset By The Truth” in which a young girl attends church and receives a message from Jesus: “Don’t you ever even worry about keeping that beat. Just let the beat keep you.” The setting is somewhat more complicated — funnier and sadder — than it reads on the page, but it resonates to the extent that it captures a passive acceptance of the expectations Pierce and I grew up with in the 1950s.
I once asked her if there was one thing that most heartened her about the progress women have made in our lifetime. She answered without a moment’s hesitation: “Women’s basketball!” For me, it’s always been women drummers. Not only do they keep the beat, they drive the whole band with it, more powerfully and in greater numbers in every generation.
Still, in the music industry, women are far outnumbered by the other gender. Exceptions prove the rule; most of us would name the same handful of label owners, for example. There are top women in every aspect of music, if you look hard enough. As for fans, a look around your favorite club or record store could tell the story, or you could go with the Americana Music Association’s 2005 poll indicating that its audience is about 70 percent male.
Certainly there have been noble efforts to remove barriers to entry, or to make girls better climbers. RockRGirl, the erstwhile magazine “Supporting a Woman’s Right to Rock,” had a decent ten-year run until the fall of 2005. The magazine’s annual conference in Seattle drew speakers and performers from all over the country.
The Institute for the Musical Arts has devoted two decades to building women’s confidence in their performing skills, via workshops for all ages and summer camps for girls including a session on studio recording and production. Launched in Northern California in 1986, the IMA now owns a 25-acre facility in Massachusetts, with a performance space that seats 200 and a full production studio large enough to hold an orchestra.
And, of course, there was Lilith Fair.
Still, the disparity persists, and I noticed it especially at TapeOpCon 2006, held this year in Tucson. The conference annually attracts several hundred mostly indie music producers and sound engineers and their suppliers.
I wandered cluelessly among the panel talks and lectures, passionately delivered in what was, to me, the utterly foreign, and overwhelmingly male, language of production and engineering. The consumption lust for the whizbangs on the exhibit floor, by contrast, was inspirational. On the way home after the first day, I bought two pairs of shoes and a bottle of new nail color (Perfect Cherry).
The next day, a woman drummer stood like a beacon in the maze of the conference schedule. Rachel Blumberg of Portland, Oregon, band Norfolk & Western (and formerly of the Decemberists) drew me to TapeOpCon’s Pot Luck Studio, where Steve Albini was holding forth on ways to mike her drums. The room was packed to the door with attendees, except for the third of it that held an assembly of gear to rival that of the Starship Enterprise.
Tweaking and futzing over the buttons, switches and dials was a bevy of girls in blue shirts, members of the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM). I was so transfixed by their maneuvering, I stopped pondering that Albini was thinner and better-looking than I’d remembered.
WAM women had been entirely responsible for specifying the gear for the studio, and for setting it up in preparation for the conference. It was their job to configure the equipment according to the specifications of a constellation of star engineers — a different setup every 30 minutes for two days. These women were in charge in a way I’d never contemplated.
WAM founder Terri Winston has been contemplating it for years. As head of the Sound Recording Arts program at City College of San Francisco, she got curious about why, although she’d been a recording engineer for twenty years, there were still so few women going into the business. She estimates that only five percent of the industry is female.
Winston set a goal that women would represent 50 percent or more of her students, and, through trial and error, she achieved and maintained it. When everyone wanted to know how she did it, she founded WAM to share her techniques.
The first step, she learned, was to introduce the subject in a setting that women found comfortable, surrounded by women students and faculty, to get them over their trepidation about engineering. “Eventually,” Winston says, “our job is to really be the boot camp and toughen them up. There are a lot of things that can go wrong and it’s a very physical kind of business to be in.”
But she adds, “In the beginning we have to get them interested in it, and give them some sense of confidence that they can do this.”
Men, too, participate in WAM training. “They love it,” Winston says. “I think it changes their perception of what it means to learn this and how you can learn it in a way that’s not super-competitive and aggressive.” (This raises the question of whether, instead of WAM toughening up women, someone should work on softening up the men.)
Since its founding in 2003, WAM has expanded to include job placement and workshops for young girls. Plans for a WAM studio include a childcare center. “That would maybe revolutionize the whole industry,” Winston says, “because men would bring their kids.”
But WAM’s potential is even greater outside the industry. “I think if you see more women involved,” Winston suggests, “you’ll see a radical change in what’s represented in popular culture.” So WAM continues to chip away at the barriers, pursuing its mission of “Changing the Face of Sound.” Never mind its nail color.