BAN BAM: Talking Music

Ian Patterson By

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As musicians, both Bottone and Barratt have experienced frustrations at the hands of the media. Bottone plays in the feminist queer trio Fierce Mild. "Every time we were interviewed after we released our EP there was always a question about the female music scene, which is not even a thing. What is the female music scene? So we were associated with other bands just because they were also all-female, even though we had nothing in common."

For some people, says Bottone, the all-female line-up of Fierce Mild is perceived as a strength, particularly for promoters putting together all-female or queer gigs. "It's just a shame that people associate a lot of other concepts with seeing all-women on a stage, because this doesn't happen with all-men and it needs to change. It's not just the women's job to change that, it's a cultural change that needs to come from different angles."

Barratt shares an example of a not uncommon experience with the media, relating to a press release she put out for her ten-piece band Interchange. The press release said nothing about the band being all-female, emphasizing simply that the band members were all award-winning musicians and composers. "Every single journalist took out the 'award-winning' and inserted 'women.'

Barratt explains that her decision to put together an all-female band of outstanding musicians in the first place was one born of frustration. "The world I work in will never invite them to be part of big bands and will never invite them to be featured," Barratt reflects. "They're all fronting their own ensembles so I had to be pro-active about making it happen because I would go for another thirty years and never have the opportunity to work with them."

Panel 2: Key Changes

The second panel, moderated by Aoife Concannon, presents Angela Dorgan (Director of First Music Contact and Hard Working Class Heroes), Ellen Cranitch (Musician, Lyric FM broadcaster and Galway Jazz Festival) and the author. Themes discussed centre on the impact and importance of media, presenters and musicians in addressing gender imbalance.

Concannon gets the ball rolling by raising the question of whether or not a fifty-fifty balance between male and female artists at a festival should be automatic or whether the process should develop naturally, and the dangers of token female representation.

Dorgan mentions that the Hard Working Class Heroes—an annual showcase festival of emerging Irish popular music bands, and an industry conference—had an equal 25-25 split between male and female bands at its fifteenth edition this September past. The bands are selected by a panel of international judges purely on merit and this is the first time in HWCH's history that there has been a gender balance in the line-up of bands.

A conscious policy of gender balance is, however, strictly adhered to for the conference side of the festival. "We always make sure our industry speakers are fifty-fifty. We also make sure we take women who are in leadership roles in the industry."

In recent times a number of major Irish pop festivals have come in for criticism for the imbalance in their programming policies, though Dorgan acknowledges that the situation has improved over the past half dozen years or so. "It's from people calling them out. They are repeatedly being called out in the media. We've been calling them out for years on the lack of Irish bands in their line-up and that's working and now we're calling them out on gender balance."

Immediately after HWCH's historic fifty-fifty split of male/female bands Dorgan went to every music promotor in Ireland to deliver the message: "There's no excuse. 'They're not out there' is no longer an excuse."

Actively highlighting the issues is the necessary first step but criticism, says Dorgan, is not sufficient. "I do believe you have to offer solutions."

One strategy that Dorgan's team have employed when a festival's line-up is conspicuously short on female artists is to organize a music trail of female/female-led bands at the same time. "Our way of calling them out is putting on an all-female line-up to show in the media and to them that the talent actually is there and they're missing out."

Whilst the worlds of popular music and jazz share many of the same gender issues the pop music industry is arguably far better at championing its female artists. There are many more of them for a start. Should jazz festivals programme equal numbers of male/female bands? As an aim, absolutely, however long that takes. However, any band, regardless of genre should only be booked by festivals on merit. There's no place for tokenism, and besides, as Dorgan points out, if a band is not ready for such a large stage and the exposure it can bring then one poor performance can destroy its confidence.

Jazz still has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality but there are definitely signs of a turning of the tide. Forty years ago, it would have been difficult to name a single jazz festival whose Artistic Director was a woman. Today that picture has changed, with many festivals, directed, programmed and managed by women: Atsuko Yashima (Tokyo Jazz Festival); Trude Storheim (Vossajazz); Jun Lin Yeoh (Borneo Jazz); Nadine Deventer (JazzFest Berlin); Lynette Irwin (Brisbane International Jazz Festival); Ros Rigby (The Sage Gateshead); Jill Rodger (Glasgow Jazz Festival); Anne Erm (Jazzkar); Sandra Lim Viray (The Philippine International Jazz & Arts Festival); Tina Heine (Jazz & The City); Indre Jucarte (Kaunas Jazz Festival); Anna Linka (Bohemia Jazz Fest); Ceyda Berk (Izmir European Jazz Festival); Michaela Mayer (International Jazz Festival Saalfelden)—this list is in all likelihood incomplete but serves as an indicator of how the jazz panorama has changed.

It doesn't necessarily follow, however, that having a woman holding the reins of a jazz festival automatically equates with gender balance in the programme, or for that matter, in the audience. Some jazz festivals seem to have a greater gender balance in their audiences than others, though the question as to why is not easy to answer. It's an area that would require proper research.

The audiences of jazz festivals that are proliferating throughout Asia often exhibit a striking gender balance, which may be because they don't feel the weight of jazz history—the predominantly male narrative of European and North American jazz. Jazz festivals in Asia are perhaps more relaxed and open environments.

For Ellen Cranitch, the old days in Dublin of predominantly middle-aged male jazz audiences are almost a thing of the past, with at least half the audience at the Galway Jazz Festival 2017 made up of women. "It was thrilling to see," says Cranitch. "There is a hunger for it in places where there might not have been complex, interesting, challenging music before. I think that weight of history is being lightened."

If indeed jazz is breathing a new, more enlightened air then Dorgan believes that women are the engine for change. "It's not that jazz needs to lose its history to attract women, it's women dragging it out of the weight of its history."

The media has an important role to play. "The juggernaut of male music comes down the road at you and it's very difficult to ignore it," says Cranitch. "With women's music it is out there and it's up to us to go and find it." Recently, Cranitch and her fellow presenters at Lyric FM quietly went about programming an entire day of music by exclusively female artists to see if anybody would notice. Nobody did, which was complete vindication of the content and quality of the music.

The general consensus of both panels is that there is no quick and easy solution to gender imbalance in music. The issue needs to be addressed from multiple angles. Societal change is required, and in light of the increasing numbers of male public figures being called out for abusive or inappropriate behaviour towards women maybe a sort of tipping point is being reached. Conversations on gender equality, misogyny, sexism and what constitutes normal behaviour are taking place everywhere.

"Probably the most frustrating thing when you talk about women in music is that it feels like it's unbreakable, until you then see the conversations happening recently and the collective consciousness," says Dorgan in reference to women coming out in the media to face down male abusers. "It's like the whole world went 'Erm, do you know that thing that's been going on for years? We're done with that, thanks.' Now is probably the most positive time this conversation could happen."

When Concannon invites questions or comments from the floor Bottone raises the question of access to music. "Access to music creation and performance can be very different if you're born a guy or a girl. There is no reason why access to music should be different, based on your gender and we need to change that."

A number of ideas for positive action/practises are shared. Bottone argues for unconscious bias training in music schools and colleges, presenting similar gender-focused talks at regular festivals, and holding women-in-music networking events for women musicians. Dorgan urges female musicians struggling to get gigs to promote their own gigs, set up their own festivals and self-organize. Cranitch stresses the need for those in positions of power—organisations, programmers and media to present female musicians without making a fuss about it. "Program it until it's normal," she says, "and there are no more questions asked."

Photos: Courtesy of Moira O'Reily



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