By Sarah Wilshaw-Sparkes

What are women’s experiences as they forge careers in the music industry? Is it a land of milk and honey, or do the same old challenges rear their heads?

We set out to explore this and other themes at the inaugural “Women doing the Business” seminar in late October with a panel assembled from women in the New Zealand music business. “Women doing the Business” is a new series of free events, hosted at the Seafarers’ Club – keep an eye on Seafarers’ events page for more opportunities to hear from women in diverse industries who are doing great things, sharing their experiences and lessons learnt.

Moderated by Tania Dean, who is the repertoire executive at NZ on Air, the panel comprised two women on the business side, and two on the performing side of the music industry:

  • Kim Boshier, managing director of Sony Music NZ for the last six years, and the first (and so far only) woman to run a major label in New Zealand or Australia
  • Janine (J9) Russell of Noise PR, who develops bespoke PR campaigns for musicians and bands, particularly those who are independently released
  • Ladi6, a multi award-winning hip-hop artist and singer-songwriter from Christchurch with three albums, all  independently published
  • Boh Runga, whose band Stellar was one of New Zealand’s highest selling acts; she continues to write and sing in her solo career and has also developed a line of jewellery based on her love of NZ’s birds.
Women doing the business

Marisa Fong, Professionelle’s Chair, introduces (from left) Tania Dean, Kim Boshier, Janine Russell, Ladi6 and Boh Runga.

Is it harder for women than men in this industry?

Kim’s success is cause for celebration but remains unusual. As one panellist said,

Why is this industry all run by men? Is it cultural? It was the same in the UK when I worked there: the men were in charge and they had a team of women working for them and making them look awesome!

Kim acknowledged that when her big opportunity came, she didn’t put her hand up for it. Instead, she was offered it, and she had to believe in herself in order to accept the role. She reflected that the pattern of working hard and waiting for good results to be rewarded is an ongoing issue for women.

The musicians on the panel felt that the mainly-male nature of music company mangement extended to their performing world, too, despite the number of female lead singers and musicians gradually rising.  Being in the minority, even among lovely men, grew wearing after a while:

Almost everyone around you, from stage hands to stage managers, is male, and you spend months on the road with men and the talk is all about male things. I needed two girlfriends to come on the tour with me for a change from that. I needed a different kind of conversation. Emotional, not technical.

What are the challenges you face that men don’t?

Kim reflected on the challenges we often write about at Professionelle: unconscious bias from men and women alike; the unavoidable facts of biology; the lack of role models;  and the difficulty of breaking into informal networks that “the boys naturally gather in and that we are left out of.”

Unconscious bias, based on our shared sterotypes about how women should behave, is one reason for the well-worn story that the same behaviours can be approvingly labelled ‘aggressive’ in a man and contemptuously dismissed as ‘ball-breaking’ in a woman. This led to mention of the short Nicki Minaj clip (especially from 1:30 in) which she describes how easy it is for a man in the music industry to demand things in a studio or a photo shoot, and how hard it is for her to do the same. He’s the boss. She’s the bitch.

In the performing world, the pressures on women are different to those on men in other ways, too. Female artists come to music because they love the songs and the writing. They’re not signing on as models and actors. This pressure to do so much more than the core music is the same for men, and can be a cause of real stress for them, too, but the crucial difference for women is that they aren’t allowed to have an ‘off’ day:

Female artists are held to a different standard than men. We’re expected to look great all the time. No one cares if the guys look like they’ve been drinking for three days!

This evoked the reply,

We can get treated with kid gloves, too, like we’re not so tough. Treated differently because we’re women. We’re actually tougher than people think! It took me a long time to find my voice, even with my band.

Advice for coping?

One of the panellists said she has been called spiky and aggressive. How does she cope?

My skin has grown thicker over the years. I want to do the best job I can.  If it gets me called a bitch sometimes, I don’t care. I’m old enough now, I’m over it.

Another piece of advice echoed what we at Professionelle believe in strongly, namely figuring out what success means for you:

Do the music because you love it yourself. And define success in your own way. Work out what makes you happy as a musician. If it’s making loads of money, fine. If it’s getting an award, fine.

The value of seeking out feedback also came up.

Don’t just ask your friends and family what they think. The chances are they’ll be kind and tell you what they think you want to hear.

Get out and do gigs, because the audience reaction is a really fast way to get feedback on your songs. If they tune out and start talking to each other, you’ll know!

What’s the health of the music industry?

We heard that, thanks to streaming, the 17 year decline in recorded music revenue has finally turned around. Investment is possible again, but where there were seven global music labels, only three remain.  That long term decline has also led to live music becoming a much bigger feature of the industry than before.

New technology and social media mean artists anywhere can release music independently, without the backing of a label. You can be fifteen years old, and creating music in your bedroom, and if you have followers on SoundCloud and you hit the mood of the moment, you can make sales.

This led to a short but lively debate between Kim and J9 on the value of a recording label in marketing artists to reach a big audience. Could an indie really make it without the heft of a big label promoting them? One thought not, and the other reckoned yes, with the right kind of PR support…

The parallels between book publishing and music industry releases were striking for me (I’m an independently published novelist). On the one hand, independent releases allow creative people to bypass the traditional gatekeepers, but that leads to the challenge of discoverability in an overcrowded market place. Yet, global markets for music and books alike are growing, thanks to far greater choice – and to more authentic voices getting airplay.

It’s the music, stupid

The panel agreed that the music buying public wanted authentic music, straight from the artist, not filtered through a stylist. Lorde was seen as a good example. Before she brought out her unique blend of Goth-emo-R&B no one would have thought it could be successful, yet it has proved to be wildly popular.

Authenticity meant writing songs that were personal and written for the artist, not the public (“else I’d have to do a survey of my fans, wouldn’t I?!”), but that nevertheless resonated widely:

You don’t write for your fans, but your music speaks to them. It’s the human connection, giving a voice to our common experiences.

They all agreed that focusing on what mattered – the music – was vital, rather than focusing on being famous.  And it was the excitement about the music that has kept them going through thick and thin, whether they were on the perfoming or on the business side of the industry.

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