Where are the women to rock the music industry?

Amy Winehouse, Lily Allen and Florence Welch have towered over pop music in recent years. So why, asks Fiona Sturges, does the backstage arena remain almost entirely dominated by men?

Friday 25 June 2010 00:00 BST

One of the biggest talking points in music over the past few years has been how well the girls are doing. Since the rise of Lily, Amy, Florence and co, women have, we are told, been wiping the floor with men when it comes to making clever, catchy, too-cool-for-school pop music.

Putting aside for a moment the myriad females who continue to be signed as little more than eye candy, and who are objectified on album covers and in music videos in a manner that sets the cause of feminism back 40 years, then of course one has to concede that this is good news.

Here is a bunch of apparently independent, innovative and firmly in-the-driving-seat ladies who have found a new level of success on their own terms. But does a handful of successful women topping the charts really point to a new equality in the music business?

Look behind the scenes and a different story comes across. Clearly, the industry is made up of more people than those who write and perform music. There are the record label employees, the agents, the managers, the public relations companies and those working in the live arena. There are the studio staff, the session musicians and the music publishers, not to mention the many affiliated industries, from radio stations to music magazines, which depend on a thriving music scene to keep them afloat.

In my 13 years writing about music I have found myself overwhelmingly outnumbered by men both in print and at music events, from gigs and showcases to music conferences. Although the male-female ratio has improved among music writers in recent years, the most cursory glance at almost any music publication, particularly heritage rock mags such as Mojo and Uncut, reveals that male writers still significantly outnumber female ones. The implication seems to be that the serious business of rock and pop appreciation is still a male obsession even though the female audiences for rock concerts from Lily Allen to Lou Reed very clearly illustrates otherwise.

The gender divide is thrown into stark relief in the live arena, where audiences are, broadly speaking, equally divided between men and women. Yet backstage it's still almost exclusively a male domain. Storme Whitby-Grubb, former tour manager for indie rock bands including Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, We Are Scientists and Maxïmo Park and co-founder of Little Touring, a London-based tour management company, notes that out of the 300 or so backstage crew members whom she has worked with throughout her career, and these include tour managers, production managers, guitar technicians, sound engineers and lighting designers, only 20 are women. Of the hundreds of tour managers currently working in the UK, she knows of only 10 who are female.

During her eight years as a tour manager, Whitby-Grubb dealt with every aspect of the live arena, from budgeting, accounting and transport of band and equipment, to set-building and the hiring and firing of the crew.

"It's the kind of job where it's important to be organised and to be business-like," she explains. "You have to be pretty hard-nosed – when a band or crew spot a weakness they will take advantage of it – but it's not just about throwing your weight around. It's about keeping people happy and dealing with massive egos, and for that you have to be quite human and have a degree of empathy. You also have to be able to multitask. It's traditionally a male role but these are things that women are good at."

Whitby-Grubb concedes that the lifestyle might be off-putting for anyone, male or female, looking to sustain a long-term relationship or start a family. "Without wanting to generalise, I think women want more from their lives than sleeping in bunk beds and hanging around in venues. There is no balance with the touring lifestyle. You're away 24/7 for around 250 days of the year. It seems like a desirable lifestyle but it can grind you down. I quit in 2008 after a year touring with CSS. I realised I couldn't do this forever. Now I have an office, I have fresh milk in my fridge and I'm not living out of a suitcase, and my quality of life is all the better for it."

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Asked if there have been occasions when her gender has worked against her, she replies: "Absolutely. There were a lot of blokes who found it hard taking orders from a woman. And it can be pretty daunting when you walk up to the venue and there are 12 big blokes standing there by the truck looking at you suspiciously. In my experience it's best not to make an issue of it. You get sexual comments all the time and you just have to be crude back. I can give as good as I get."

An executive from a major label who has asked not to be named backs Whitby-Grubb's picture of a live scene dominated by men. "Practically the only females you meet on the road are the catering staff," she says. "It's often a very blokey atmosphere and there have been times when people are swearing and remembered that I am in the room and then apologised as if I should be offended. I once had a horrific incident with a band member who thought it was OK to push me up against the side of a tour bus. You go along thinking that you are being respected for the work you're doing and then that happens."

Whitby-Grubb paints a better picture for women working within record companies, particularly in the promotional departments, estimating TV and radio pluggers to be around 80 per cent female and publicists to be divided 50/50 between men and women.

But even so, she notes that working in the music industry as a whole can be problematic for women hoping to balance jobs with a family life: "There's the late-night gigs and the phone calls at one o'clock in the morning. You don't get paid overtime and you're expected to work weekends. That's just the nature of the job."

The issue of family life is one that frequently raises its head when it comes to women in the workplace. In an ideal world, the issue of balancing work with childcare would be just as applicable to men as it is women. But, as it is, with women still taking on more of the parental responsibility, the evidence suggests that the music industry makes it especially hard for women to maintain their careers and raise a family.

With the exception of EMI records, which has a female president, the top jobs at major labels are generally taken by men. A survey published last year by Creative and Cultural Skills revealed that 66 per cent of people working in the record industry are male. Clearly, even in this supposedly creative and progressive industry, a glass ceiling exists.

Independent record labels don't seem to fare much better. Two months ago, the Association of Independent Music (AIM) held a meeting entitled Women in Music & Entertainment in which Jeannette Lee, co-manager of Rough Trade, the artist, management business and label behind such iconic bands as The Smiths, Pulp and The Strokes, lambasted the industry for failing to recognise and reflect the female talent behind the scenes. She remarked that she has, over the years, been frequently mistaken as her business partner Geoff Travis's secretary.

Last month, a similar symposium was held by the music charity PRS for Music Foundation, designed to explore the gender gap in music. The panellists included Alison Goldfrapp, Kate Nash and the writer and broadcaster Miranda Sawyer.

"The debate was really to confirm that there is an issue," explains Vanessa Reed, executive director of the charity. "The statistics tell us this already but we really wanted to hear it from the horse's mouth. The debate focused particularly on those who create music, particularly the composers and professional songwriters, and one phrase that sticks in my mind was that it's an obstacle course for women, whether dealing with the challenges of maintaining a family life or battling with the broader assumptions being made about women, that they are expected to be the fronting performers rather than the intelligent composers behind the scenes."

Which brings us back to Amy, Lily and the new generation of women supposedly making great strides for equality in music. Symbolically, it's clear that they are a good thing, helping to boost the numbers and giving confidence to younger women looking to forge careers in music.

But look closer and you'll find a whole host of male co-writers and producers, from Greg Kurstin (Lily Allen) and Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse) to Paul Epworth (Florence and the Machine) and Steve Booker (Duffy) guiding their careers. Their success is hardly a resounding victory for feminism then; more a small step forward for women in an industry that is still clearly living in the dark ages.

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