By Jane Dickerson, Contributor
Concerts were one of the few redeeming factors of the years leading up to college. Growing up on the border of Cleveland, I was exposed to all kinds of shows and venues. Cleveland was a place that, like Athens, seemed to be fairly inclusive for non-male musical artists. However, despite these assumptions, this was not always the case.
On one instance, I remember a female opener playing for a vaguely memorable surf-punk band. Naturally, the audience was filled with self-proclaimed “bros” drinking cheap beer and trying to rock ironic Hawaiian button ups. Not even half way through her set they started chanting for her to strip. Though she kept brushing it off, it shook me as an audience member. I remember asking myself, “Would this happen if it were a man on stage? Is the venue a factor?”
It is irrefutable that women are not represented nearly as much as men. In Nashville, one of the music capitals of the United States, women account for only 5% of music producers. Nashville isn’t an outlier in this. This is a sweeping issue affecting the core of non-male musicians in multiple ways.
Women face a substantial amount of adversity. To be a successful artist as someone who identifies as a woman, or as anything aside from a cisgender male, there are many preconceived, patriarchal notions of how one should present themselves. The skill level one must obtain to achieve recognition is also set at a whole different high.
Many women who play music feel harsher judgment based on skill and technique. Megan Fair, also known as Space Buns Forever, calls attention the idea that whatever a man does musically, a woman must do with more technical skill to establish respect.
“I busted my ass as a drummer in middle school and high school to try and outdo the boys… It was really stressful and unhealthy, frankly, because even when I was blowing the dudes away, I never felt good enough,” Fair details.
Often women who release more emotionally driven music are disregarded as “not serious musicians,” which is both disrespectful and incredibly damaging. Fair goes on to describe how it took her years to try to move out of that mindset and to put out songs that she felt showed personal growth without fearing judgment.
“I think that now that I’m playing in a lo-fi, poppy style it gives me the space to be more vulnerable and honest about what I’m really feeling and who I truly am,” Fair says. “I can present as feminine or masculine depending on what feels comfortable that day and I don’t feel freaked out or judged for my choices. It’s been really empowering.”
In a pivotal conversation, Fair talked with fellow musician Kelly Lotz of the band Petal. “It is so important to share what I have to say, what we all have to say, as women,” Lotz says, “It just doesn’t matter what people think.”
The conversation between Fair and Lotz contained a very important message to young women in the music industry: Regardless of how “good” or “bad” they are in the eyes of other musicians, particularly men, the music they create music is very subjective. They should feel comfortable releasing their projects while saying what they want to say.
Ashley Rhodus, a rising Athens folk artist, talks about her experience with her project, Wished Bone with Brian Kupillas. Touring with a man allows Rhodus to have a unique perspective on how men and women are treated side by side in the music industry. Rhodus felt that the scene in Athens isn’t extremely exclusive, but mentioned a few locations she’s visited while touring that were.
“Sound guys often talk down to me and the people taking care of money usually gave it to Brian. I still get surprised looks when I go on stage by myself. There are a lot of assumptions,” Rhodus claims. “When we played in Florida I felt my gender the most. The problems were never really felt through the audience. If anything, it was felt through the structure of the scene itself .”
Perhaps Athens serves as an exception on experiences of women in the music industry, but perhaps it serves as an accurate outlook on the permanent changes that are happening. Madeleine Toerne, another female folk artist from Athens, seemed to have a very positive input on her experiences. She spoke on the level of difficulty in regards to booking shows, claiming that sometimes she felt it was almost easier being a woman because people were searching for more diversity.
“The greatest part about emerging in the Athens music scene is that people, regardless of gender, want other people to succeed and to produce good work” said Toerne.
However, it’s not only in small, open-minded music scenes that female acts are starting to gain respect and traction. Things are beginning to turn around in some huge ways that must be acknowledged. In fact, some women are changing the music industry. Katy Perry was the highest earning musician of 2015 and female musicians are also using their fame to push equality. Acts like Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have created images based on LGBT acceptance and feminism. Many have also donated money to charities supporting these causes. Though the acts mentioned could all be criticized on how they use their influence, it’s still considered progress, and that is huge.
It is perhaps in these artists’ existence and refusal to hide that change will slowly occur. Fair, who sees plenty of reasons to critique the scene, also seems to be dedicated to helping contribute to the solution.
She says, “I made up all these explanations of why it wasn’t perfect or good enough to share because I felt like I’d be making all women look like amateurs if I shared my music. But I’m realizing more and more that that’s so unfair, and my art is just as valid without the approval of men.”
Toerne, Fair, and Rhodus all provided a semi-hopeful outlook, but also were able to have a critical view through their experiences as women in music. These perspectives can serve as an advantage in continuing improvements on our local scene and the mainstream music industry as a whole. Women’s role in music serves the same purpose as men: to inspire, create, and express.
“Women are powerful and creative,” Toerne says, “and because of them, I think and write about the world in new ways .”