Embedded in the process of creating ‘Make the Grade’ and its accompanying video has been a spirit of consultation –  of talking to people and trying to understand better the issues that it raises.

The song is sung from the point of view of a condescending, pseudo-seductive perpetrator of sexual misconduct and was inspired by a series of articles in 2020 detailing horrendous behaviour by men in the music industry and the realisation that people I knew and trusted were engaged in this behaviour as well. In recent months there’s been an even clearer spotlight placed on these issues and as the song was getting closer to being released I decided that I wanted to better understand what was going on.

I contacted four female and genderqueer identifying musicians – colleagues, friends, collaborators – and asked them a series of simple questions about their experiences of being a women in music. Embarrassingly I don’t think I’d ever asked anyone I know that question before. Embarrassing because I knew people were having negative experiences that I would never have and that for much of my musical life when people volunteered their stories I felt uncomfortable and distressed.

Check out Darling James (aka this author’s) clip for ‘Make the Grade’:

I wanted to help, I just didn’t want to really know. I wanted things to be magically better. In other words, I was complicit. 

The musician’s I spoke with were Brooke, a singer-songwriter and singing teacher, Anne, an Avant-garde electronic music composer, Amy, a punk rock/hip hop singer, events professional and educator and Jessie, a singer-songwriter/composer and session bassist.

All had had non-performing roles in the music industry as well: gig booker, radio show host, events, live sound engineer, publicity etc..

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Do you feel your experience of the music scene/industry has been distinctly shaped by being a woman? 

Jessie:
Definitely.

Amy:
I mean, 100%.  It has shaped who I form bands with (and who I’ve kicked out of bands), who I share bills with, who I tour with, which festivals I’ve had a better chance of playing at and even how I’ve been hired outside of music (my first real soundy gig was as a diversity hire).

Brooke:
Yes, I think in positive and negative ways. There have been opportunities offered to me because of my gender and plenty of positive, inclusive experiences with femme musicians and communities.

I have also felt extreme pressure regarding my physical appearance and “attractiveness” and have often felt that this has hindered my career, despite my ability and hard work. There have been many presumptions about my knowledge and ability because of my gender and a hell of a lot of mansplaining in my life. 

Anne:
Yes. I was about 7 when I was introduced to the realities of being a girl/woman in the music industry. I, as a 7-year-old, was told, to my face, that there was no way I could play a character in a school play because I wasn’t pretty enough. 

If the answer to the above is yes, at what age or stage of your career do you remember understanding that your experience was and would likely continue to be different from men in the same industry?

Brooke:
I remember being told in high school by a male friend that it didn’t matter how good I was at guitar, I would never make it as there were no female guitarists in the world. I was 16. He admitted I could play rings around all of them but told me it didn’t matter. It progressed from there and my understanding has changed and morphed over the last 25 years. I learnt to try and ignore it and push through of course, but it has always stayed with me. 

Jessie:
I think initially I thought it was an advantage to be a woman in music, at that time, it felt like there were only a handful of female folk artists so it was easy to get shows and people (usually men) were always willing to help, it took me a few years in to realise that that help more often than not came at a price.

I’m a little bit embarrassed by how naive I was in that regard, and how long it took for me to realise when it was happening. By default, my interactions with men in the industry are now treated with a guilty until proven innocent formula, which is pretty sad.  

Anne:
A lot of sexual assault at gigs and sexual harassment from people in a position of power over your career. Being told, “you’re pretty good… for a girl”. Never being taken at your word. Expected to carry the organisational and emotional baggage if you’re in a band. Being the capable one, and therefore given those extra loads and having to shoulder them because if you drop the ball you lose your financial security and potentially everything you’ve worked for.

Being expected to obey and kowtow to men in positions of authority. Only seeing hypersexualised versions of women in the music industry for most of my life. Getting paid less or having to fight to be “worth” the same amount. Having to be inordinately better as a musician to be recognised at all and then play dumb so that you’re not intimidating to fragile egos in order to minimise negative consequences from becoming skilled. Being excluded from participating “with da boys”. The credit for your hard work is given to the nearest male.

Becoming too old to have any value to the system by the time you’re 25. Rewarded or punished for following or bucking the societally imprinted expectations on all of these. 

Amy:
As an out and vocal queer teenager I was always very aware of gender, so I would say I understood the difference from my very first gig; a high school battle of the bands where my band consisted of the only women performing at the event.

It was like this for my first few years out gigging, where my bandmates and I were always the only women on stage for the night.  Being isolated in that way meant it was always just about the music for us and the connections we made through performance. We certainly weren’t getting invites backstage afterwards with the lads.

What are some experiences or attitudes that surprised or shocked you at the time?

Amy:
I think the most pervasive one that I experienced was the “women don’t gear” or “women don’t tech” attitude.  No matter how sweet my guitar rig was (and how shit my singing was) I would always get the same comments “wow what a voice! You should ditch the guitar though!”.  This expressed itself most damagingly when the sound guy would come on stage and start changing the tones on my amp or the knobs on my pedals.

Jessie:
That how I was being measured up against other musicians, often had nothing to do with the music I was playing.  

Brooke:
I used to be very upset when it was assumed I didn’t know how to read music, write charts, understand what kind of strings to put on my guitar etc. As someone who trained very heavily as a young woman, I was always shocked at the presumption.

Working in guitar shops, buying strings, I was often blatantly challenged about what I knew. I have learnt to not be so upset by it these days, but it still irks me that my gender carries an assumption of knowledge and ability.

Anne:
The only thing that shocks me is when someone else is shocked at my experience. For most of the women I know, this is normal. 

What examples of attitudes or behaviour continue to present themselves from men in the industry that frustrate or anger you?

Jessie:
Cisgender male sound engineers explaining to you (without being asked) how to sing properly, how to roll up a lead, how to set up your pedal board, where to buy a power supply from…  I’m so open to learning and I quite often will ask questions but there’s a certain type of sound guy stereotype that is infuriating. 

Brooke:
Often the male musicians I work with in the industry are actually amazing and I don’t notice my gender around them. Maybe I have chosen well or maybe I’m just lucky! There is the occasional one that breaks those rules and of course when they do, it’s pretty extreme and disappointing. I do encounter mansplaining when it comes to sound engineers a lot, often telling me about my own gear or dismissing my requests for what I need on stage. The “just sing/play louder” retort drives me CRAZY!! 

I have had the occasional comment on my appearance, my weight, my outfit but I tend to not work with people like that for very long. I also feel I have been overlooked for opportunities at times due to my appearance, which is heartbreaking. 

Amy:
I think coming from a very guitar focussed – and also a professional AV tech background – I still find a lingering assumption that women just Know Less about anything technical in music (whether this be gear related or even music theory) and this means women who persevere in the industry often create techniques for proving themselves in order to join the inner circles. 

We talk a lot about “toxic masculinity” in the sense of the hyper aggressive man-baby king-hitting someone at the club. But a precursor to this is men who assume their truth is the only truth, their knowledge is superior knowledge.

This plays out between men as well and I’ve no doubt it’d genuinely suck to be a man, having to always front and flex like this.  As a woman though, this positioning can be quite damaging to your ability to speak up or trust yourself.

Anne:
I’m really fortunate that I’ve managed to get myself into a position where I’m not as frequently treated terribly anymore. But it’s still a thing, even after entering academic circles – being talked over, ideas taken and revoiced by a guy, credit being handed over to someone else for my hard work, smarts, or creativity. I’m lucky that instead of getting so worn out by it that I give up, I fight back still.

It’s not easy having to stand up for yourself and constantly be ready for a fight or to smooth someone’s feathers because they wouldn’t take your word. And I worry that I won’t remain resilient forever. To be honest, the most frustrating thing is when older, successful women who have worked so hard, fought so hard to be as successful as they have the right to be, go into tower defence mode (like gatekeeping, but from the ivory tower and with no positive spin).

It hurts more when you know that they know how hard it is and how hard you’ve worked to get to where you are and you see them giving the guy the easy treatment and you’re grilled and tested to see how serious you are. 

Researcher Jeffrey Crabtree says that the music industry still acts like the “Wild West” and that hegemonic masculinity has been particularly hard to shift. Why do you think this is?

Jessie:
We grow up in a society where masculinity is glorified and I think that is really hard to shift when that is all you know. I also think there’s a lot of insecurity and ego present which often manifests in toxic ways.   

Amy:
I mean, name me an “industry” that isn’t ruled by the patriarchy?  Interview a woman in construction, politics, higher education, finance, IT, engineering, fine arts, real estate, it’s all the same plight. Maybe the only difference in the music industry is that women and people of colour and women of colour simply CAN’T be silenced or denied their right to the throne. Talent cannot be denied when it hinges on a human’s physical attachment to their own vocal chords and fingertips. 

So to answer your question?  Yes “hegemonic masculinity” is particularly hard to shift. It’s hard to shift in music, it’s hard to shift everywhere. The principles of masculinity – aggression, greed, pride, competitiveness – are the things that underpin all of western civilisation and music as an industry is one of the few runners in the race that is – at least in some small ways – desperately trying to break new ground and establish higher egalitarian standards. 

Brooke:
I personally feel we have years of stereotypes and assumptions to overcome, from both an industry and an audience perspective. The sexualisation of femme musicians is a massive problem in our industry that we may not be close to seeing the end of. The romanticising of youth and fame is also an issue, we need to be looking to Carol Kaye and similar musicians who have carved long, successful and musically inspiring careers. These are the heroes we need to be celebrating with the next generation of musicians and changing the idea of success.

Anne:
The rich guys up the top are rich guys. Mostly white. They benefit directly from the structure in many different ways, why should they change it to benefit someone other than themselves?

Researcher Caitlin McGrane notes that violent harassment of women online is now an epidemic. Do you think this is true in the music industry (either from within the industry itself or from the public directed at female performers etc)?

Brooke:
I definitely think this is an issue from society and the audience. The demands on femme artists and the judgement of their weight, fashion, love life is unbelievable. The right to comment on and feel entitled to femme bodies is a social issue and we have a lot of work to get past this. We are making progress though, with far more body positivity messages in the world and femme empowerment.

Anne:
Yes. The music industry is a microcosm of general society but with added hedonism, desperation, unhealthy work-life boundaries, relationships, and structures, and a historically troublesome power structure. I think it was in one of Dr. Bianca Fileborn’s papers (she specialises in gendered violence in evening entertainment situations, e.g. nightclubs, bars) that the statistic was something like 95% of women have been sexually harassed in some way.

The normal figure you hear is 25% of women have been raped or molested. That’s of the reported numbers. Less people report than the official figures show. If the internet is just real people with the cover of anonymity, why would they put the gloves on if they don’t fear any repercussions? I’ve been assaulted at too many gigs to remember and been told to just “let it go”. 

Jessie:
I do think people are quite often more critical of women, and I really can’t figure out why this is, or maybe I’m just projecting…. I do think cisgender men seem to voice their opinions more easily, I assume purely because most of the time no one has ever told them not to! 

Amy:
The internet simply publishes and exposes the male violence towards women that has always existed.  A woman is literally murdered in Australia every single week from their male partner. 

The violence is real; like alcohol doesn’t make a rapist, a keyboard mixed with anonymity doesn’t make a bigot. I think the reason we now see the online harassment of women as being at “epidemic” levels, is that there are simply LOTS OF WOMEN ON THE INTERNET NOW.  And more so, women who are being vocal, being authentic, being empowered AND being supported by their peers. 

This is true both inside and outside the realms of the music industry.  In the same way talent and truth cannot be denied in the heart-wrenching vocals and poetry of a woman who has overcome, the internet has allowed all kinds of female talent to find an audience and gain traction.  Of course, this all must feel like a huge threat to men who hate women.  I mean: we’ve reached a critical mass! The workload on sexist trolls right now must really just be so incredibly overwhelming.

A lot of men want to contribute more actively in creating change around these issues. We hear regularly that challenging other men who behave poorly in the workplace, at the pub, on public transport etc. is helpful – and this is an important message. What else do you wish men did more to assist? What about things specific to the music industry?

Brooke:
I believe that we should all speak up if we see people being mistreated, not necessarily on social media because arguing with trolls is a waste of time, but definitely in person. Musicians and industry professionals should support each other from any kind of bullying or harassment and that goes for any gender.

Respectfully supporting femme musicians in difficult situations is essential for spaces to be safe and equal. I would also like to see more femme talent respected and held in high esteem and shouted from the rooftop. Particularly technical ability rather than just talent or charm. 

Jessie:
I do think it helps for men to read more literature, listen to women talk and just be a bit more aware of the obstacles and challenges that women face, even right down to getting home from a gig – catching an Uber is a simple venture for most men, but not always for women and non-binary people. I do think we’re particularly blessed in our Melbourne bubble and sometimes I forget what it can be like, but I definitely have noticed a shift.

I definitely think women and nb are finding their voice more and more each day, and this comes from a place of us getting louder and sometimes! from men choosing to listen… If only we could extend this notion to politics and more..

Anne:
Include us on your projects too. If women are more visible, more normal, more treated as just other humans and not a brownie point, maybe that would help. There’s not really any other easy, practical, free, grass-roots thing I can think of. We’ve been trying to tell people our experiences ‘til we’re blue in the face. Listening isn’t enough. 

Amy:
RAISE WOMEN UP! CREATE SPACE FOR WOMEN!  This can be so simple and SO EASY.  I used to be the only woman in a production team of 12 men. 

At our meetings it was impossible for any of my ideas to be heard, and the only ones that ever made it through were when they were stolen by the guy next to me. This was until one man in the room took it upon himself to stop the conversation after I was spoken over and open the space for me to repeat myself. He also made a point of naming my ideas. 

After a decade in the industry I can’t tell you how shocked I was at how effective yet simple this all was. Look around at who isn’t getting an opportunity or a voice, look around at whose safety is under threat and who is being shrunk or belittled.  One sentence at the right time can change the course of someone’s life.