profile of MattShea

Does Australian indie music have a problem with gender bias?

This week at TheVine sees the latest edition of Group Therapy, a semi-regular column that operates as a music industry Q&A – a missive we send out to a great many people in order to gauge their feedback on a particular issue.

Previously on Group Therapy:
What is the value of recorded music?
Why aren't you going to Splendour this year?
US hip-hop industry reacts to Chris Lilley's 'Angry Boys'
Does Aussie hip-hop have a problem with racism?

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triple j found itself at the centre of an internet shitstorm last month after conducting the national youth broadcaster’s ‘Hottest 100 of the Past 20 Years’ poll. The final results of the vote – run like any other Hottest 100 but covering twenty years of music rather than one – turned out to feature just nine female artists or female-fronted bands.

Within days the local press was awash with op-eds asking how the poll could turn in such a skewed result. What did it say about the culture surrounding music in this country? Were the results a reflection of just the triple j playlists or a wider problem? And what could be done about it: were quotas the answer? The controversy came after a ‘Hottest 100 of All Time’ poll in 2009 that featured no female artists at all, except for two Massive Attack guest spots – Shara Nelson on ‘Unfinished Sympathy’ and Elizabeth Fraser on ‘Teardrop’.

For his part, triple j Manager Chris Scaddan quickly penned a defence of the station, pointing out that triple j’s 2012 playlists contained 29 percent female lead and co-lead vocals, with 36 percent of artists including at least one female member.

But at TheVine we wanted to know what Australian female musicians think. So we dialled some numbers, reaching out to both experienced artists and relative newcomers – as well as a couple of Australians who now ply their trade overseas – and asked the following question:

Does Australian independent music have a problem with gender bias?

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Clare Bowditch (Solo Artist - Melbourne)

I think the stupid thing with the Hottest 100 ‘20 Years’ would be to blame triple j for it. We’re the ones who voted. Of all the radio stations that are national, the only ones that have supported independent female music in any way are the ABC stations, and that includes triple j.

20 percent of Australian songwriters are female, 80 percent are male. They’re the stats related to APRA registration. Does the industry have a gender problem? I can’t speak for the industry but in my experience, I knew I was an anomaly coming into it as a career: I was a 27-year-old woman with a child. When I looked around, I didn’t see anyone ahead of me who blazed that particular trail. It wasn’t for the fact that women weren’t making amazing music; they always have, of course. But you weren’t hearing them on the radio, you weren’t seeing them signed by record companies.

I think I was lucky to be part of a generation of women who ten years on have been able to build long-term careers for ourselves with our independent music. And that’s thanks to changes in technology and because the gatekeepers changed. Where traditional record companies twenty years ago said there were no markets, now there are. There are still people who want music that sits outside of that very narrow box of what it is to be an attractive female.

I don’t know if the triple j results surprised me, but what I do not want to see ever again is a poll done in Australia that does not include a single Australian female. Never again! That for me felt like the kind of poll that my older brother’s best mates were voting for back in the day. But it’s just one poll, and it can’t capture what’s amazing and subtle about art. If you really believe that the value of your creative contribution is based on a number on a poll that strangers vote for, then you’re fucked. Because you will never be satisfied.

Australian music content quotas are something that I take quite seriously. But I don’t know if gender quotas in music are necessarily as useful as they would be on a company board, for example. I hope the conversation moves on from things like gender but right now that poll is weird, the last one in 2009 was weird. It’s saying something, but get on and make the music anyway.

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Bertie Blackman (Solo Artist - Melbourne)

I haven’t encountered gender bias specifically. It’s interesting: there are less females in bands in music – it’s definitely a male-dominated scene. But I like to think about situations like these and go from all sides of the argument. I’m a spiritual person and believe things exist as a symbiosis of everything. I’ve released four records and toured for ten years around the world and Australia, and it’s definitely a thing. But it’s never bothered me, specifically. But I think the lack is in female-fronted bands. There are a lot more female solo artists.

I had a manager early in my career who was quite sexist in the way that he’d say, “You’ve been putting on weight. You need to dye your hair blonde.” All that kind of horrible stuff. It was frustrating and hurtful in a way; I look like me and I don’t look like everyone else. And as much as you try not to be, you are sort of a sex symbol as a female artist. If you look at all the successful female artists, they’re either damned sexy or grotesque in a sexy way. Female sexuality is a pretty powerful thing because we kind of exude it in a very different way to men. You’ve just got to treat that responsibly and respectfully.

But it’s such a difficult one, because it’s all about what you like, really. I’ve been in the industry for a while now and I’ve never felt like I needed to stand up for my femininity. But I do hope with all these discussions that they will spark some deeper surveys and educative documents and research. The 29 percent figure from the Js seems about right, but it doesn’t feel like enough.

Then again, I don’t think there should be a quota. It’s a really hard thing and goes under that whole idea of censorship for me. What triple j has is very powerful and I guess the fact that their poll upset people is a good thing, because it gets people talking. But then I’m sure they know and respect the power they do have.

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Seja Vogel (Solo Artist, Sekiden, Regurgitator - Brisbane)

I think a lot of things like ‘girl bands’ still have titles and so on to do with gender. No one ever says it was an “all-male band”! But I definitely think things have changed a lot since I started playing music. There are a lot more women who think they can do it and the technology has made it easier to get around the gatekeepers. When I play with Regurgitator now it’s very rare that I’m the only girl.

I remember one of the first times I ever played with Regurgitator back in 2007 or something, there’s that line in ‘I Sucked a Lot of Cock to Get Where I am’ where they say, “You can get what you need / Just get down on your knees” and I remember someone in the audience pointing at me during that bit and it really upset me. But after a while you just don’t look at people during those bits. You just look at the band. You just learn to deal with it.

There are other stories where I got ‘duded’. I was watching The Grates play a sold out show at The Forum, and this guy chucked a can in a bin, looked at me and said, “I’m gonna fuck Patience tonight!” And I’ve never wanted to hit someone so hard. He had seen her purely as an object and it made me really angry. But then I also remember going on tour with Magic Dirt when someone yelled out, “Show us your tits!” And Adalita got him thrown out. I was a teenager and that was the coolest thing I’d ever seen.

These days I still get a little bit of the gender stuff. People will ask who did my backing tracks or who produced my record and they don’t really see me as being technically talented or minded. That doesn’t happen all the time, but I definitely want to prove myself sometimes and tell people that I’ve been playing synthesisers for more than half my life and that I know how to program things.

The Hottest 100 ‘20 Years’ result definitely surprised me. But it depends on who’s voting on the poll, how many women are voting, why they’re voting, and so on. And the 29 percent figure? That’s not enough. In a perfect world it should be 50 percent. But then the whole thing shouldn’t really matter. It should just be, “That’s a great song.” It shouldn’t matter whether there’s a woman or a man singing. And as long there are heaps of woman out there who are identifying as strong female artists, then that’s all that matters. I’m not convinced there should be a quota either – as long as the decision makers are being rational about it.

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Kat Frankie (Solo Artist - Berlin)

I don’t know about gender bias. For me, I never felt like there was a problem with the industry side of it. I made unhappy music and I think that might have been a problem sometimes. But I’ve never experienced any nasty sexism or any subtle sexism. I’ve never noticed anything.

But I wasn’t at all surprised by the Hottest 100 ‘20 Years’ results. I read that the Hottest 100 of All Time in 2009 had no female artists, so this is actually an improvement. I read Chris Scaddan’s defence that 29 percent of their songs on 2012 playlists were by females, but that’s just like saying 71 percent of your songs were performed by men. And you tell me you don’t have a gender bias?

We have a similar problem in Berlin but we don’t have any radio stations for people to get mad about so it doesn’t come out so blatantly. I’ve had several young women in Germany come up to me after shows and say things like, “Normally I don’t like female singers but I liked your show.” That breaks my heart. And it’s because they’ve grown up listening to male music.

One solution over here has been something called Ruby Tuesday Rock Camp. It encourages girls to pick up instruments; to try a goddamn drum kit. It’s two weeks in the summertime and they learn songwriting, they learn about rehearsing and putting together a show. It’s just to get girls to start rock bands. And the point is that when young girls don’t hear women on the radio, it doesn’t enter their heads that it’s for them. That’s the fundamental problem.

And this is probably why triple j, as the youth broadcaster of the nation, needs to be a little bit more responsible, and instead of saying that there’s not enough good music by female artists – which I’ve actually had someone from triple j say to me, which is even more heartbreaking – they need to help create those role models, so in ten years we have awesome female bands. You don’t want to tell them what to do but I feel they’ve got to be a little more proactive and serve young women better.

Quotas are politically loaded. But yeah – you know what? Fuck it – they should have a quota. They need it. They’re a government radio station; they should be democratic. Why not? When the management is saying that they don’t have a problem with gender bias, no change is going to come from within the organisation. And if he doesn’t really understand why people are outraged, he’s going to need a little bit of assistance, I think.

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Laura Imbruglia (Solo Artist - Melbourne)