THE LONG HAUL: How to Be a Feminist Musician
Rachel Baiman, left, and Sierra Hull support each other and other female musicians. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Baiman)
This month, with the celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month, we all take some extra time to celebrate the female experience and the amazing women around us who support and inspire. The Nashville music community is full of such women, and I have been lucky to befriend many talented and generous female collaborators and colleagues who have been a constant source of support and troubleshooting over the years. It’s no secret that the music industry is incredibly male dominated, and being a woman-identifying musician comes with a unique set of challenges and experiences, made easier among friends who can understand what you may be dealing with.
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion of female representation in music, on the radio, on festival bills, etc., and some promoters and DJs have taken it upon themselves to try to play or book at least 50 percent female or female-fronted acts (imagine that!). As women make up more than half the population, this doesn’t seem like it should be a huge stretch, but it has taken until now for this discussion to even take hold. If you’d like to see some glaring examples of this problem, you can simply peruse Instagram accounts such as @bookmorewomen and @linesupswithoutmales that show festival posters without all-male acts listed.
This is an important issue, and I truly appreciate everyone who is working on representation, but I want to take a bit of a deeper dive into the nitty-gritty of the female musician’s experience and suggest some ways that musicians, not just promoters, can be better feminists for their own community.
1. Hire sidewomen, female engineers, producers, and crew. The term “sideman” says it all! In my experience, the focus on female representation often leans heavily on female singers. For example, a female singer-songwriter booked at a festival might, and often does, show up with a band of four or five males. As a result, festivals that attempt to book at least 50% female-fronted acts often end up still having 80-90% males on stage over the course of the weekend. I think this is a problem that is seldom addressed in these conversations about representation, and musicians, this responsibility is on us!
If you’re a bandleader (female or male!) who has been vocal about the gender imbalance in the industry, and you’ve never hired female musicians, sound engineers, or crew, then you are part of the problem!
As somebody who works as both a side person and a bandleader, I know it is much harder to get work and be taken seriously as a female instrumentalist than as a vocalist. As a society, we accept that females can be great singers, despite not giving them equal airplay. Female and male singers even have their own categories in the Grammys. (Why? No idea.) But the point is that nobody really questions if women can sing. But female instrumentalists pose a direct challenge to society’s patriarchal ideas. When’s the last time you saw a female soloist slay in a male-led band? It’s a rare thing to witness, and I’d love to see that change. With growing awareness, and more female-fronted bands being booked, let’s make sure that those sidewomen are getting more work, too!
Some of the worst sexism that female musicians experience comes from condescending, predatory, and controlling producers who make women feel that they can’t accomplish anything on their own, and sound engineers who assume females can’t use their own gear. There’s an easy fix for this: Look for and support female engineers and producers. Female producers and sound engineers are even less common than female musicians, and if we, as musicians, support these amazing women, we can not only help to fix this imbalance, we can also make our experience that much more comfortable by working in a mixed-gender environment where our ideas and skills will be respected and empowered.
2. Female musicians, tackle your own gender bias. Let me preface this by saying that there are tons of male “musicians” who have no idea what they are doing, no idea how to play their instrument, be in a band, or use their gear. But there are so many fewer female instrumentalists that we are always going to be judged as representation of our entire gender.
As women, we are brought up to think asserting ourselves is the same as being full of ourselves, and that taking a solo is showing off. We aren’t taught to use gear and to get comfortable fixing things that break. We need to expect the same things of ourselves as we do our best male counterparts just to be seen as equal to our worst male counterparts.
So, learn how to be a solid instrumentalist, learn how to solo, learn how to use your gear so you can communicate effectively with a sound engineer. Don’t lean on a male colleague to do something rather than learning to do it yourself. And don’t listen to the voice in your head that tells you that you aren’t good enough or that the guys in the room know better. They only learned by doing, and you can too.
3. Female musicians, put yourself forward for jobs that you want, and ask for the money that you believe you deserve. As a bandleader, I’ve been able to witness some interesting differences between hiring men and women. Almost every man that I’ve hired for a gig has negotiated with me on money, asked for more per gig or if it could just be a bit more for the whole tour. Not a single woman that I’ve hired has done that. And you know what? When those men ask me for more, they often get more. The other interesting thing is that I’ve had numerous men put themselves forward for jobs that they wanted out of nowhere: “Hey, I’d love to play drums with you sometime,” etc. Women, who live with a constant fear of being seen as rude or arrogant, seldom say things like that. I would love to see my female colleagues asking for more and better paid jobs. The experience of being a bandleader has definitely made me more confident in this regard. You will be respected all the more for it, and you will pull all of us women up with you!
Here’s to all the amazing female musicians inspiring, supporting, and teaching me every day. Remember, anything men can, women can do bleeding!