> Supporting Gender Diversity in Music - SNACK: Music, film, arts and culture magazine for Scotland

Supporting Gender Diversity in Music

Dream wife

Readers of last month’s edition of SNACK magazine, and anyone with even a passing interest in what’s generally classed as alternative music, will surely be familiar with that issue’s cover artists IDLES: a band who have created a fairly successful niche for themselves as the sensitive men of the UK music industry.

Often praised for their political lyrics and manifesto-like albums, IDLES are keenly concerned with social justice. Hand-in-hand with this picture, however, goes the controversy in which they regularly find themselves entangled: the accusation that their actions do not always live up to their words. IDLES are divisive, quite clearly.

One criticism levied at the band is the lack of diverse talent with whom they choose to work with; the bands IDLES tend to book as support acts on tour are overwhelmingly white men. Gender diversity in the music industry has long been an important discussion and there are many questions to be asked regarding how artists, management, promoters, and publications can encourage diversity in a practical way.

Recently this conversation was rekindled by an NME article in which IDLES casually mentioned that Nadine Shah was ‘too expensive’ to book as a support act. Shah quickly addressed this on Twitter, stating that IDLES had only offered her ‘a few hundred quid’ for the gig. The British music industry has a long history of undervaluing the time and talent of female artists – as we move further into a digitally literate world, can criticism on platforms such as Twitter begin to effect real changes to this system?

Creating change by making noise can seem daunting, but IDLES are a good example of how criticism should be responded to appropriately; following this incident, the band acknowledged that they could be doing more to uplift the female artists around them. The support acts announced soon after for their upcoming Brixton dates, for instance, is a female focused line up including Cate le Bon, Anna Calvi, Big Joanie, and Jehnny Beth, amongst others.

Nadine Shah
Nadine Shah

Women like Nadine asserting what they believe themselves to be worth within these spaces – and addressing publicly the times they are sold short – is clearly a high-profile and effective way to bring attention to these issues and influence change.

There are, of course, many bands that have made it their consistent and continuing mission to support female, trans, and non-binary young artists throughout their careers; Dream Wife are a good example of an established band trying to critically address the gender gap. They are vocal about the need for wider inclusivity – not just for performers but in all aspects of music.

On their latest release, second album So When You Gonna…, they worked with an all-female production team. This decision was a response to massive gaps in production opportunities, as evidenced by many recent studies. These gaps are clear to see: the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that 96% of music producers in the top 100 charts were male. As a band, Dream Wife also highlight how the issues surrounding gender inclusivity in music are far wider than cis men and cis women fighting for space; there is a whole spectrum of gender identities side-lined by these discussions.

In 2019, Dream Wife released a mixed collection of tracks by their tour support acts. The digital mixtape ‘Alice Go – Tour Support Reimagined’ includes songs not just by women, but also non-binary and trans artists such as Queen Zee and Bobby Kakouris. All proceeds from this collection were donated to support Girls Rock, a volunteer-run organisation which encourages girls, trans, and non-binary kids making music.

Bobby Kakouris (they/them) had this to say:

‘I believe that practicing feminism in music is more important than pursuing conventional success. For a small artist like me, this stance could cost me a career – when you are starting out, being very picky about who you work with and what gigs you book can be detrimental. But for artists who already have a platform, there is no excuse not to actively practice feminism wherever possible. This is why I really appreciate what Dream Wife are doing and think other artists should follow their lead.’

Bobby Kakouris

New artists like Bobby should have the right to be picky – to play gigs in safe and inclusive spaces. It is the responsibility of the people who hold influence in their industry to ensure that those industries are as safe as possible. Often the marginalization of certain acts becomes the fault of gatekeepers within small venues: people who find themselves in a position of power and can cater environments to their personal taste.

According to the Glasgow Accountability Network, there are numerous accounts of discrimination, harassment, and abuses of power that have taken place within much loved venues in the Scottish music scene. The network aims to protect the community of Glasgow’s music scene from damaging individuals and has written open letters to a prominent Glasgow music institution, asking for the removal of specific harmful people employed by the venue. It is clear to see that when venues are reluctant to take responsibility for the safety of those within their space, there are often smaller communities dedicated to holding them accountable instead.

The more venues to take chances on new, diverse performers and the more bands who follow Dream Wife’s lead, the more inclusive live music can become. In my opinion, IDLES have made a good start: by responding to critics with meaningful actions rather than defensive statements, they show themselves to be actively trying to practice the social values they preach in their lyrics.

They have begun to join Dream Wife in carving out opportunities for marginalised artists. Although, it could be argued that IDLES’ response is motivated less by the desire to support gender diversity and more as a form of damage control. It is hard to say whether this is a genuine statement or simply a PR response to being called out. Whatever the truth, that is for their audience to decide for themselves.

Lauren Mayberry, of Glaswegian band Chvrches, spoke to SNACK back in 2019 about the importance of creating chances for young girls in music. Chvrches (like Dream Wife) are involved with raising money for Girls Rock:

‘I don’t know the reasoning behind how funding is given out or denied, but I think it’s a very valuable thing. We all complain about festival line-ups but change needs to come from the top down and the bottom up. It’s really about empowering young women and telling them they are allowed to be in those spaces.’

lauren mayberry chvrches
CHVRCHES (image credit Danny Clinch)

The idea of being ‘allowed’ into certain spaces is an important one to learn – young creatives often feel discouraged from pursuing opportunities within music because of their marginalised gender identities. Girls Rock actively encourages young people between the ages of eight to sixteen to engage with a supportive community of musical female, non-binary, and trans peers to begin to gain confidence in an industry dominated by cis men. However, the organisation is largely volunteer-based and relies on funding. Some of this comes from Creative Scotland’s Youth Music Initiative, as well as donations from interested parties, bands and the public.

Organisations like Girls Rock are incredibly important to the future of the arts industry, but with Boris Johnson’s Tory government greenlighting ever-increasing cuts to the live music industry’s funding – and their recent callous (in)action to the plight of those working in the UK’s arts sector – programmes like this are in danger. It is becoming incredibly important, now more than ever, for existing bands, managers, promoters, festivals, and arts supporting publications to do all they can to help bridge the gender gaps in music. Whether it be by supporting the artists around them, helping sponsor programmes for young artists, or simply beginning by acknowledging that there is always more that we can learn and do.

This article was first published in the October 2020 issue of SNACK magazine. You can read the full magazine below on your smartphone, tablet, or pc.

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