can we really fix music’s diversity problem?
While the current debate around representation of non-men in music is bogged down in issues of tokenism, the real problem isn’t about skills — it’s about opportunity.
Image via Thump
Last month Strawberry Fields faced criticism when their first lineup release was made up entirely of men. Things escalated when a meme depicting their logo wearing a fedora was posted on their Facebook page, sparking a heated discussion around the representation of women and gender non-conforming (GNC) artists on lineups. In the comments section of the image, debate raged for days over the organisation's responsibility, the treatment of non-men in music and what, if anything, needed to be actioned.
Full disclosure, I made and posted that meme. At the time, it felt like a tongue-in-cheek (albeit provocative) way to bring attention to the issue and cheer up those non-male artists that felt rejected by the powers that be in music. Because for many of those people, seeing that list of male names next to a photo of a glitter-adorned girl dancing sent one message: You are not welcome to play at our festival. You're only there to dance along.
That Facebook post quickly bled into a wider public conversation that saw the director of the festival, Tara Benny, offer a personal response. In a heartfelt statement, she spoke of the many women within the organisation and the supportive environment in which they are able to grow; a rare thing in the music industry that of course deserves praise and support. On reflection, perhaps my choice of hat was a little harsh.
But as commendable as their organisational environment may be, the festival repeated a clear message: They had selected those artists based on "merit" alone. Their response left little room for interpretation, suggesting that there were simply no women or GNC people who were good enough to be included.
The argument for "merit rather than tokenism" is not new. As well as being popular with Liberal politicians, it was used by Novel's Let Them Eat Cake when their 2016 lineup consisted of only three female artists out of 45 acts. It's the idea that artists are selected based on their music alone, regardless of race, gender or sexual identity. Sounds fair, doesn't it? The problem is, the theory requires an environment where everyone has an equal opportunity to be selected. That does not currently exist.
The argument for "merit rather than tokenism" is not new.
One barrier is a distinct lack of role models. Looking at gender diversity, not only are women and GNC people frequently absent from line ups, they're absent in the media too. DJ Mag's recent 25th anniversary edition featured "25 pioneers" of dance music — all men. That too, they argued, was based on merit and to include women would have simply been "tokenism." The lack of visibility is just as apparent for LGBTQIA+ folk and people of colour, and even more so for people whose identity intersects with more than one of those marginalised groups.
In the opening to Blood Orange's Freetown Sound, Ashlee Haze explains the significance of visible black female artists:
"If you ask me why representation is important, I will tell you that on days I don't feel pretty, I hear the sweet voice of Missy singing to me 'pop that pop that jiggle that fat and don't stop get it till your clothes get wet', I will tell you that right now there are a million black just girls waiting to see someone that looks like them".
The lack of visible people of colour and queer identities in dance music adds particular insult to injury when you consider the history of house, disco and techno: it came from queer and black communities in Chicago, Detroit and New York.
Even the visible, successful, critically acclaimed non-male role models we have are treated differently to men. Look at the repeated false assumption made by the music media that Matmos, the man credited on Björk's album Vasertine, produced the entire album, despite repeated clarifications from both artists that Björk had in fact done almost the entirety of the work herself.
Even the visible, successful, critically acclaimed non-male role models we have are treated differently to men.
When you look beyond this lack of visible, respected, role models, things get more sinister. Ask marginalised groups in music how they are treated, like Pitchfork Editor Jess Hopper did, and you will hear stories that range from constant "casual" sexism and racism, to male sound engineers intentionally messing with female artists' sound. Even more frightening are the countless reports of sexual harassment and assault, often perpetrated by men in positions of power and influence. The devastating story of Kesha, allegedly psychologically and sexually abused for over a decade by her producer, is not a unique one. Her record label's attempts to force her to continue to work with a man she calls her abuser speaks of the lack of support women have.
Despite these obstacles, there are still many very talented female, GNC and ethnically diverse artists, yet they continue to be overlooked. This may be due to the widely documented harmful effects of stereotypes. The existence of unconscious bias is so widely acknowledged that major Australian companies now use recruitment systems to remove identifiers of race or gender and increase equal representation. In the 80s, blind auditions were introduced in orchestras to address the problem of gender bias. The simple act of the candidate being hidden behind the screen meant that women had a 50 percent higher chance of reaching the final stage of the audition. The practice is still used today and women are now better represented in orchestras than in almost any other musical setting.
Stereotypes don't only affect the way people treat marginalised groups. They also create internalised psychological barriers such as imposter syndrome and stereotype threat, which prevent minorities from seeking out opportunities.
Whilst these barriers are many and pervasive, there is so much that can be done to overcome them. The first step is acknowledging the problem and starting the conversation. Booking artists comes with numerous complications and sometimes achieving the diversity you'd like isn't possible. However, using your platform as a festival/label/artist/venue to publicly state "Yes, there is a problem and we want to do something about it" is very powerful. The recent examples of statements made by Spilt Milk Festival and Boiler Room are testament to this.
There are already impressive local organisations leading the way in fostering diversity, such as LISTEN, Alterity Collective, Cool Room, DJ S'Cool, Book Club, Girls Rock and Sad Grrrls Club. Internationally, groups like Discwoman and Nap Girls Int'l are challenging the status quo. Ultimately, a diverse range of artists not only brings a diverse crowd, but also a diverse musical point of view, creating a much richer musical experience for everyone. And who wouldn't want that?
Text Kate Pern
Image via Thump