Gender Inequality in the Canadian Music Industry
Sitting across the table from Kyla LeBlanc, a local electronic artist known as Kytami, and her ten-year-old daughter at The Guild in downtown Victoria, I thought about the impact music industry stereotypes have on young girls. LeBlanc is an electronic musician and violinist extraordinaire—an unlikely combination of classical and electronic influences. “Do you want to go into music when you grow up?” I asked her daughter, Cypress. “No,” she said shyly, “I want to be a figure skater.”
Girls are now growing up in a society where hyper-sexualized depictions of women—in advertising, music videos, and popular culture generally—are commonplace. In the music industry in particular, it’s clear: sex still sells. But what are the effects of this on young girls and their ideas of what it means to be a woman in today’s society? We talk a lot about pornography and the desensitizing effect it has on young men, but what about the effect these constant images have on the minds of young women?
“Sexuality is a big part of it,” said LeBlanc. “I really do think there’s a double-standard in the business, because you’re supposed to portray yourself as a sexual being, but maybe not really be one.”
Music is a lens through which to study culture. In the last few months, there have been countless articles written suggesting that 2014 was the year the music industry reached ‘peak ass’—that is, the year we saw more butts in music videos, hip-hop lyrics, and pop culture than ever before. Has the sexualization of the music industry pushed more women away from it, particularly if we already consider women to be a minority in popular cultural discourse?
The problem is that women have never really had a music of their own. Women are as much a minority in the music industry as they are in other entertainment industries, such as the film industry or the video game industry. The rise of electronic dance music, or EDM, over the last 15 years has only made the problem worse. And much like there aren’t very many well-known female film editors or video game designers, there aren’t a lot of women working behind the decks in the music industry as prominent DJs and producers.
Indeed, a quick count of the Wikipedia category for Canadian electronic musicians revealed that out of a total of 106 artists only 13 were female as recently as 2013—that’s just over 12.2%. However, this is beginning to change, as more female DJs and producers are now beginning to emerge.
Vancouver producer Tenley Horsman was walking with her older brother, Chase, one day when she decided to start producing her own electronic music. She was an engineering and computer science undergrad at UBC; he had just gotten out of sound engineering school, and had recently started producing music professionally for Premium Beat, a website that offers royalty free music to companies and individuals. Tenley was interested in producing some beats of her own that she could eventually sing over and turn into songs.
“You should do that, I think you’d really like it,” Chase had said to her, “There’s a science to it.”
Tenley had always been good with numbers, and had played piano her whole life, but only started writing and singing when she was 17. Now, at the age of 20, and recognizing that most of her peers in her engineering and computer science classes were male, she saw music production as something she could excel at.
“There are just no female producers out there really,” Chase had said to her. “It would be cool to try to do something different.”
“I notice that there’s just not a lot of girls out there who produce their own stuff,” Horsman said in an interview a few months later. “It’s always like they’re featured on a song or they wrote it but it was produced by someone else.”
Chase had helped her to get cracked versions of Logic Pro, a Mac program for audio production, a bunch of plug-in applications, and had shown her the basics, and before long, Tenley was experimenting with the software on her own.
“I use Ableton now, but I started on Logic, and that was great, because I had a lot of help from Chase,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been able to do it without my brother, really, because he gave me all the supplies to do it.”
A few months ago, she started posting some of her downtempo, synth-washed tracks online under the name Lüthian, which have since been garnering quite a bit of attention on sites like Hype Machine and from independent music blogs. Her most recent track, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara,” has now been listened to over 100,000 times on SoundCloud.
“If one person likes it that’s cool, and if a thousand people like it that’s awesome,” she said about her rising popularity. “I don’t want to get too wrapped up in [the numbers].” She says she hopes that if something good happens people will know it was her who did everything, “or at least that I tried to do it,” she said.
Tenley’s unique sound, and light and airy vocal style draws comparisons to Grimes, a Canadian artist and producer who has been outspoken on her views on feminism in the music industry, and whose forthcoming album due later this year promises to be a major popular music statement from a female electronic artist.
“I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living,” she wrote on her Tumblr back in 2013, in what has since become a modern manifesto for feminism in the music industry. “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if I did this by accident and I’m gonna flounder without them. or as if the fact that I’m a woman makes me incapable of using technology,” she wrote. “I have never seen this kind of thing happen to any of my male peers.”
Music industry stereotypes can be pervasive. Björk is one of a number of recent major artists to speak out on the industry’s tendency to give production credit to a man over a woman. On her latest album, Vulnicura, she worked with a young male producer named Arca. They co-produced the album together, but everywhere in the media, Arca was credited as the producer.
“I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times,” she told Pitchfork in January.
She compared her own album to Kanye West’s Yeezus, suggesting that there is a difference in the way that they’re talked about because he’s a man.
“I have nothing against Kanye West. Help me with this—I’m not dissing him—this is about how people talk about him. With the last album he did, he got all the best beatmakers on the planet at the time to make beats for him. A lot of the time, he wasn’t even there. Yet no one would question his authorship for a second,” she told Pitchfork.
She said that she learned the hard way that if you want to become successful as a female artist you have to pretend that men had the ideas.
“I come from a generation where that was the only way to get things done,” she told Pitchfork. “So I just have to play stupid and just do things with five times the amount of energy, and then it will come through.”
“I definitely can feel the third or fourth feminist wave in the air, so maybe this is a good time to open that Pandora’s box a little bit and air it out,” she said.
Memphis DJ Lorin Vincent (aka DJ Saturna) said she has been in a number of situations where men have been given credit for her work. She said that she attributes a lot of that to producers and DJs not fully understanding the copyright laws for sampling or using a part of someone else’s track in a song—laws that, according to her, were already in place long before the rise of EDM.
“I’m glad that there’s more access for anyone to DJ,” she said in an interview over the phone. But at the same time, she said there have been a number of times when she’s felt cheated for her music, or it has been used or sampled without compensation.
“I’ve had a male producer use other women in a video of my song, and lip synching my lyrics,” she said. “I’m happy to see more women taking complete control of the business of their art, but I do not see enough progress in producers (mostly male) in the electronic realm taking the singing and songwriting elements of music seriously.”
She said that there is a problem in the way female artists—singers particularly—are listed as the featured vocalist on a track rather than the songwriter.
“Almost all producers try to list me as “featuring Saturna” when it should be “& Saturna” with equal songwriting credits,” she wrote in a following email.
The problem of credit is one that can be seen as affecting electronic artists and female artists more generally. An article published by Slate Magazine in January called “It’s Not Just Bjork: Women are Tired of Not Getting Credit for Their Own Music,” pulled quotes from M.I.A., Solange, Taylor Swift, Bjork, Grimes, Imogen Heap, and Neko Case, suggesting that “Perhaps the strongest evidence of just how pernicious and pervasive these stereotypes really are is that even women fall victim to them.”
Certainly, it’s an easy trap to fall into. “Everyone is judged and sorted into preexisting categories. Man with guitar: songwriter. Man at a mixing console: Producer and mastermind. Woman with a shiny outfit: pop star” (Wickman).
However, there are real figures underlying our assumptions, and these persisting attitudes might be causing some women to not want to go into careers in music because they feel like the only way they can do it is by flaunting their sexuality.
A recent report published by the online network “female:pressure” called FACTS 2015 counted the number of female electronic artists present on festival lineups, in clubs, and on label rosters worldwide. The survey found that at electronic music festivals in all countries, only 10.8% of the artists listed as playing were female, and in Canada specifically, only 9.4% at major electronic festivals Mutek and New Forms. Similarly, in clubs around the world only 9.4% of DJs were women, while on label rosters the number was almost double, at 18%.
While the survey admits that “counting in this manner is not statistically precise,” it is indicative of a wider trend and is “symptomatic of a broader problem across many sectors and in society” (female:pressure). The numbers published in the survey are also some of the only ones that exist—the Canadian Ministry of Labour currently holds no records on gender inequality in the Canadian music industry, and neither, it seems, does SoCan, a telling point of how far we still have to go before we can reach true gender equality.
Colleen Eccleston is a UVic professor and popular music theorist, who regularly teaches courses such as “History of Rock and Roll” and “The Beatles,” and is currently also teaching a course on rock divas. She is also an established artist in her own right—a folk singer-songwriter who has worked in the music industry and toured with her band, The Ecclestons, for over 15 years. She sees the way the music industry has gone over the last 15 years as being pretty bleak.
“It seems to me that the stereotypes are getting even more rigid,” she said in an interview. “The industry is polarized between big, big money and the individuals on the internet.” She sees female sexuality as a marketing technique. “A lot of women end up being packaged, I know that, as artists,” she said. “Sex always sells.”
Eccleston talked at length about Madonna, another popular artist who has recently spoken out about this issue.
“Sexism: you can’t be sexy and intelligent,” Madonna told Pitchfork in March. “Nothing has changed. I mean it’s fine if you want to go out there and twerk, but the landscape is limited. If you try to embody too many different human aspects in your work, or if you have too many references, people get confused. I see a lot of people getting pissed off at Miley because she kind of just acts like a dude—but if she were a dude, no one would say anything,” she said.
“Madonna was interesting, because she took that idea and said, ‘Okay, you want sex? I’ll give you so much sex that you won’t know what to do with it,’” said Eccleston. But she worries about the message that sends to young girls. “What does it mean when you’re teaching females that that’s what being female is?” she said. “I guess I have more hope for art.” She wonders whether we’ll still be listening to artists like Madonna 50 years from now, and believes that nothing like The Beatles can ever happen again. “Music is culture,” she said. “To hold up music in reverence to the human experience… it offends me. Things are pretty bleak. What is art? And what role does art have in saving us as a species?”
Alison Wood is a former UVic student and local DJ. She sees the electronic music scene in Victoria as being incredibly male-dominated.
“At first it was kind of hard because I had doubts that people were actually into my sound and my mixes for what they were, rather than the fact that I’m pretty much the only female DJ in Victoria,” she said in an interview. “But since that point, especially having my girlfriend is helpful because no-one’s going to hit on me when we’re both standing there, so then people just start seeing us as a DJ.”
She said that since she’s started doing back-to-back sets with her partner her experiences have been generally quite positive. But there are still times when she feels she’s treated differently because of her gender and her sexuality.
“Like I’ll be setting up my equipment and the sound guy will come over and assume that I need his help or that I don’t know what I’m doing,” she said. “Or like trying to help me carry my stuff.”
She said that she feels as though she’d have very different experiences if she were a different person, though.
“If I was super girly and wearing dresses… I think I would have different experiences,” she said. “There’s those DJs that exist, even like Paris Hilton, like literally no-one cares what she DJs, she’s just hot shit and they want her to play in their club,” she said.
The phenomenon of model DJs is one of the most shocking examples of gender inequality in the world of electronic dance music as well as the use of female sexuality as a marketing tool. Model DJs are essentially DJs—usually conventionally attractive women—who are paid for their looks alone and not for any kind of musical talent. In other words, they are not really DJs at all but rather models pretending to DJ while wearing revealing outfits and flaunting their sexuality—and they can be found in clubs, at massive festivals, and even in clothing stores.
The emergence of electronic music over the last 15 years has, to a large extent, had a detrimental effect on the feminist movements in music that developed out of the 70s and 80s and culminated, to some extent, in the riot grrrl movement of the 90s. Now, fifteen years on, we’re beginning to recognize the current cultural moment as in many ways excluding or lessening the voices of minorities—such as we have seen in the last year in the U.S. through the lens of hip-hop. Electronic music and the role of female DJs and producers within it offers a lens through which to view the current cultural moment, which many have suggested is exhibiting the qualities of a third or fourth wave of feminism.
One of those people is Ian MacKenzie, a prominent filmmaker and new media activist known for his previous work on Occupy Love (2012) and “Reactor” (2013), about post-Fukushima Japan. MacKenzie is exploring this idea of the emerging paradigm, the next wave of feminism, and female sexuality in electronic music in a new film called Amplify Her that will be premiering on the Super Channel in 2016.
“What we’re seeing with a lot of these emerging female artists is they’re able to bend music, or infuse it, into a deeper connection with life—most spectacularly, I think with Bjork, in particular her previous album, Biophilia,” he said over Skype. “That’s something I think could only have come from a female, or a woman that’s deeply connected with the feminine.”
The film explores this idea of the rising feminine through the intentional festival scene in places like Burning Man and Shambhala. Specifically, it follows four or five women in their daily lives as they grapple with the male-dominated culture of electronic music, as well as their own sexuality. For MacKenzie, electronic music is a Trojan horse for studying feminism in this new cultural moment.
“I think the scene is a little more open to a deeper understanding of the feminine, and masculinity, and that it feels less threatening than for instance shaking up the social structure or political circles,” he said.
One of the artists the film follows for a time is Victoria’s Kytami.
“It’s difficult,” LeBlanc told me. “I have a child. There’s a lot of guys that can go out on the road, because touring is a huge part of getting yourself out there and representing your music, you have to tour,” she said. “I think it’s more common that guys go out and do that, even if they have children, and the wives or mothers stay at home and hold the fort down.”
Indeed, one of the main themes that’s emerged out of Amplify Her, as well as my own research, is motherhood, and the problem of what do you do when you become a mother and you’re doing this type of work? Mothers are also judged on their ability to be caregivers and that’s not always possible when you’re on the road.
“You have to have a really supportive and liberated and understanding guy to be the one who stays at home,” said LeBlanc. “And I think that’s rare to find.”
Rebekah Farrugia is the author of a book called Beyond the Dance Floor: Female DJs, Technology, and Electronic Dance Music Culture. She was able to sum up the problem in her opinion in just a few words.
“The overwhelming majority—nearly all—of the top income earning EDM DJs and producers are straight white men, and for women, they are now expected to conform to and embody traditional beauty standards to make it in this environment,” she said via email.
“This has everything to do with DJs becoming our modern day rock stars and the devaluing of DJing to some extent and the conflation between models and DJs,” she said. “This is commonly what happens as more women enter any profession.”
Perhaps the solution is in education, and encouraging girls from a young age who show an interest in music production, or any other technical discipline for that matter.
“I don’t know if girls just aren’t encouraged to be that way from an early age as much, there’s more emphasis on, like singing is a more viable option, dancing is a more viable option, but actually being a producer, I don’t know why, or maybe it just doesn’t innately appeal to many girls,” said LeBlanc.
What’s clear is that we need to change the culture and its persisting stereotypes and attitudes towards women’s ability and female sexuality in order to achieve true equality. Only then can we pave the way for more women to become DJs and producers, and express themselves creatively through music.
Artist names (in order of appearance):
Boucher, Claire. “I Don’t Want to Have to Compromise My Morals in Order to Make a Living.” G R I M E S. Tumblr, 23 Apr. 2013. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
Hopper, Jessica. “Interviews: The Invisible Woman: A Conversation With Björk.” Pitchfork. Pitchfork Media, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.
Makers, Trouble. “Female:pressure.” Female:pressure. WordPress.com, Mar. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.
Rachel, T. Cole. “Interviews: Pop Sovereign: A Conversation With Madonna.” Pitchfork. Pitchfork Media, 2 Mar. 2015. Web. 05 Mar. 2015.
Wickman, Forrest. “It’s Not Just Björk: Women Are Tired of Not Getting Credit for Their Own Music.” Slate. Slate Magazine, 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 30 Mar. 2015.