‘A Systemic Problem’: Canadian Bands Sound Off on Female Representation in Music
I love Canadian music. And if you’ve followed my blog or my YouTube channel, you already know that about me. There’s such incredible music being made in that country, and I do everything I can to introduce my pals in the US and elsewhere to the brilliance and talent that Canada has to offer. I find such joy in turning someone on to, say, Land of Talk, or July Talk, or Young Galaxy. I have a series on YouTube devoted to expanding the audiences for the fine talent of our northern neighbors, and I do a fist pump when someone in the US or Europe tells me that they bought an album based on my recommendation.
There are some truly excellent music festivals in Canada as well, and I often choose to drive hours and hours north to attend those over their US counterparts. My favorite festival is the Wolfe Island Music Festival, held every August on Wolfe Island outside Kingston, Ontario. Virginia Clark has created the perfect festival: national and local acts coming together in a quiet town with a mellow, happy crowd of music lovers. And she does a great job of balancing the acts. Of the six headliners for the 2017 festival, three are women or female-fronted bands.
But you don’t have to be in Canada to enjoy its many talented musicians. If you’re in the UK May 18-20, check out Canadian Blast at The Great Escape Festival — three days of official showcases from independent Canadian artists. There are some top-notch artists performing, and eight of the 20 Canadian Blast acts are either female solo artists or female-fronted bands.
That’s nearly half, which is much better than some North American festivals. Pitchfork recently studied the lineups for several festivals and found that only 14% of the overall performers were female. 12% were mixed-gender, but that doesn’t mean they were female-fronted. Canadian Blast is a welcome change.
I recently interviewed some of the artists about their participation in this festival and female representation in the music industry. I even got to ask them about vinyl — and I’ll post an article about that on Friday.
Not surprising to me, one band didn’t appreciate the focus on the gender of the band members. It’s been a battle that many artists have fought for decades. When Sleater-Kinney was on the rise, they were constantly asked questions like, “How does it feel to be in an all-girl band?” No one asks a band of dudes what it’s like to be in an all-male band, as Carrie Brownstein has pointed out more than once. So I completely understand Like A Motorcycle’s frustration with my questions about female representation. Bands should just be bands. Not “female” bands. I get that.
But I do feel it’s an important topic in a broader sense, especially with the current conversations about gender disparity in the festival circuit. A mostly female punk band isn’t anything new or groundbreaking; rather, Canadian Blast comes really close to closing the gender gap, and that is new and notable.
Q: How important to you is fair or equal representation for women in the music festival circuit? Does it inform your decision whether or not to participate in a festival?
Hannah Georgas: I think it’s important because there are so many females making incredible music. I listen to a lot of female-fronted music. A lot of times, I don’t know exactly everyone that’s going to be on the festival bill. The main thing that informs my decision of why I choose to play a festival is whether or not I’m a fan of the festival itself.
The Avulsions (Samantha Renner, Joanna Graves, Brianna Whitmore, Josh Rohs): I appreciate when festival organizers recognize and respond to the systemic discrimination that exists by making an attempt to represent diverse artists (both women and others generally underrepresented in music). Genuinely caring about that seems to result in some of the better lineups overall.
Mauno (Nick Everett, Eliza Niemi, Adam White, Scott Boudreau): We think about fair representation for women in music quite a bit, and strive to have female-identifying artists on our bills. It’s hard to have a say in larger festivals we are asked to play and when those festivals are already striving for equal representation it’s really great. Mauno is Eliza’s main project and outlet so being able to share what we create in larger festivals is important to us. That being said, we try to strive to have more female-identifying musicians on stage and in other bands we play with, but that can be difficult in today’s indie music climate.
Mozart’s Sister (Caila Thompson-Hannant): Well, generally I really hope that women are able to make their own stories in the music industry. The more women who are able to break through and gain fans and acclaim, the more young women will see those examples and know that it’s possible. The festival circuit seems to be the way more and more people are seeing live music, so yes, I think it’s very important to have lots of representation from women. It’s a pretty hard thing to enforce but it is interesting how public opinion has so much weight on programmers now. It will be interesting to see if that changes anything in the future.
Youngblood (Alexis Youngblood, Malcolm Holt, Bruce Ledingham, Louis Wu, Pascal LeVasseur): Equal representation across the industry is so incredibly important to myself and the band. We actively make an effort to work with more badass female producers/engineers, directors, agents, and photographers across the board to give more opportunity to the amazingly creative women out there. With regards to the festival circuit, there’s still a long way to go. It’s tough at this stage for us to turn down opportunities that could help us reach a wider audience, but if we ever played a large festival with limited to zero female headliners I would certainly question the festival’s ability to conduct themselves in a fair and responsible manner and possibly decline the offer. If a festival can fill a billing of 50 bands that are all white dudes with tight ripped jeans and a baggy t-shirt, then here’s a lot more space out there for diversity, instead of having the one or two token “girl bands.” (Can I also mention here that a girl band is just a band — there’s no need to call out the girl part anymore.)
Bad Pop (Catherine Hiltz, Chris Connelly, Aaron Klassen): It is important to me – I definitely notice if a festival or showcase has made an effort to support and feature bands with women, or work with women promoters, agents, PR firms, and sound techs. Playing festival after festival with nothing but dudes would feel lonely and frustrating, but I wouldn’t back out of a performance for that reason. In fact, I would find it more important to play if there are fewer women. It sure is refreshing when there are other women working, however. Aside from visibility and the obvious imbalances, women have different experiences in the music industry than men – period. There is a powerful solidarity in that. It is important to connect with folks who understand what it’s like to feel unwelcome in the industry in which you have made your career.
Mo Kenney: It’s very important to me to have equal representation for women in the music festival circuit. Because I am a woman, I think it’s only going to help if I play festivals where women are currently under-represented. Turning them down would only contribute to the problem.
Beliefs (Jesse Crowe, Josh Korody): This is something that is important to me, and something that as I’m scrolling through acts at a festival, I really pay attention to. Often you don’t know what the female representation is going to be until you’ve already been confirmed to play, but it’s something I’ll pay attention to at a festival and will talk about with peers who may be asked in future years. We recently played Iceland Airwaves, and it was a rarity to see an act that didn’t have a female performer in the band, right down to the headliner being PJ Harvey. My warmest moment was when I ran into the sound tech who had mixed our monitors the night before, I had thanked him for treating me equally as a woman on stage and his reply was perfect. He simply stated that he’d heard that sound techs in other places treat women differently, and in Iceland, “we don’t do that here.”
Port Cities (Breagh MacKinnon, Carleton Stone, Dylan Guthro): I feel so lucky to have a team made up of mostly women (management, publicist, etc.). As a band, we all think it’s very important to have equal representation at festivals, and we try to “practice what we preach” and think about equal gender representation in everything we do. That being said, declining an opportunity because there’s not an equal gender balance would only result in one less woman being on stage.
Like A Motorcycle (Michelle Skelding, Kim Carson, kt lamond, David Casey): Hey Vinyl Hysteria, Hot Dave here. Frankly, I’m uncomfortable with the ceaseless objectification I’ve been experiencing being in the band Like A Motorcycle. I’d like to take this opportunity to shine a light on the dark conditions I work under. They make me sit down to pee. Too often they tell me I’m a “pretty little thing” and they’re constantly accusing me of eating too many cheeseburgers. “You’re not good enough to be in a boy band,” they whisper before I fall asleep. “Know your role,” they viciously scream across the stage. Yes, I’m a boy. Yes, they’re very powerful and beautiful women. But someday, maybe they’ll see past my appearance. Perhaps they will judge me with their ears. Maybe even someday they will refer to me simply as “Dave.”
Q: What are your thoughts on the current representation of female musicians and producers in the Canadian music scene (festivals, award shows, releases)? Do you feel that the Canadian music industry has made greater strides in gender equality/representation than the United States or Europe?
Hannah Georgas: I have always felt like it’s a more male-fronted industry, and I do think there’s a lot of room to grow. I think we are making progress, and I’m noticing more and more great women making music. It’s comforting for me working with females on the business side, and I gravitate to it. I need more of it in my life.
Youngblood (Alexis Youngblood, Malcolm Holt, Bruce Ledingham, Louis Wu, Pascal LeVasseur): In Vancouver, I surround myself with men who respect and value women and their creative contributions without any hesitation, so sometimes I feel like I’m in a bit of a bubble. It’s only when I leave my community and see what’s happening (particularly in rural areas and at the higher level of big companies) that I feel there’s more acceptance and priority for men, and that female artists still have to work twice as hard to get respect and prove themselves.
With that being said, in Canada we had a recent uproar about the JUNOs being skewed to favour male artists over women. I have met the director of the JUNOs and I will say that he is an absolute supporter of women, as well as the majority of the organizers are women, so they were in no way purposely excluding women from the awards. I believe it’s a systemic problem that needs to start with teaching equality at a young age and giving young girls the confidence to charge headstrong with their decision to be whoever they want to be and not apologize for anything. To have opinions and take up space!
Beliefs (Jesse Crowe, Josh Korody): I’m not sure comparatively with the US; I’d say with Europe, no. I think that it’s certainly been a bigger conversation in the last couple years and that I’m positive things will change to become more equal, but for now it’s still a bit of a boys club.
Mozart’s Sister (Caila Thompson-Hannant): It’s all dependent on location and particular to scenes in those places. In Montreal I find there are more female producers and artists than in other Canadian cities … although the scene does go through ebbs and flows with regards to that. It’s pretty hard to say if it’s better in Canada than in the US or Europe. I just did an Asian tour (Shanghai, Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Seoul, Bangkok, Singapore) and I met 6 women in all … It was actually way more than I thought it might be, and higher than the average in the US/Canada, for sure. I think where we really need women is in show organizing and booking. That aspect is still really dominated by men and can really influence what prospers and is heard and celebrated.
Bad Pop (Catherine Hiltz, Chris Connelly, Aaron Klassen): It’s funny you mention awards shows: Canada had an embarrassingly problematic host at this year’s annual national music awards ceremony who made terribly inappropriate, misogynistic, and objectifying jokes. Both the engineer and producer of the year categories did not have a single woman nominee. There are numerous musicians, engineers, producers, sound technicians, and industry folks in Canada who are women, non binary, and trans folks. There is plenty of discussion concerning inequality in the music scene, and women/nonbinary/trans folks are organizing powerful communities that support and empower each other. I can see pressure for festival bookers, promoters, and labels to make an effort to include and support women. I have absolutely noticed more visibility in the business and at shows – there is progress, definitely. That being said, there is still an obvious imbalance in the industry as a whole. I think there are plenty of folks who choose not to work with women or book women musicians, producers, or industry professionals based on assumptions that women are less talented or less capable. There may also be plenty of folks that genuinely don’t believe this, but don’t actively seek out or support women in their scenes. Unfortunately, that is an essential part of fostering talent and creating more equal representation.
It’s hard to compare this to scenes in the US and Europe, but I can’t imagine it’s very different… aside from there simply being more people in those countries and therefore more women in general working in the industry. I believe the ratio still exists, however. Things are moving in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.
Mauno (Nick Everett, Eliza Niemi, Adam White, Scott Boudreau): Although it’s difficult, we’ve seen a huge increase in female-identifying and fronted groups over the past few years, especially in our hometown of Halifax, Nova Scotia. This goes for behind-the-scenes roles as well — bookers, organizers, sound people, and producers. It’s still an undeniably male-dominated scene and industry but recent changes have been really inspiring. We’ve noticed this in Europe and the U.K. as well. Lately we’ve been working closely with a rad woman, Ellie Ball at our U.K. label, Tin Angel, and are about to start a tour opening for Laetitia Sadier. We’re really stoked and proud to be supporting a female-fronted project. It is important to us.
Like A Motorcycle (Michelle Skelding, Kim Carson, kt lamond, David Casey): Rest of the band, here (kt, michelle & kim). In all seriousness, it’s really frustrating that the majority of our interviews focus on our gender. Until recently, our band was four women and over the past six years the title ‘girl band’ went from being a source of pride to title we were quite eager to shed. Although, even with Dave joining the band, we haven’t. Yes, we are women. We are feminists. We are all lesbians. But, these are just a few pieces of our collective identity and it’s eternally frustrating to have our art constantly sensationalized because we’ve got six tits between us. We also all pick our noses but we don’t categorize ourselves as a ‘nose picking’ band. We would rather speak to our art and music. We acknowledge that things aren’t easy for women in the music industry but guess what – things aren’t easy for women in any industry. Sexism doesn’t stop at the door when you pick up a guitar. You need to plow on doing what you’re doing and demanding the respect that every human being deserves. Anyone who looks at you as a FEMALE musician or others you in any way because you’re female is a walking piece of garbage and they don’t deserve your time or energy unless you’re spending it knocking their teeth out. Women are killing it in the music scene, on an international stage, and it would be really nice if eventually we were all just labeled musicians. Not female musicians. Not gay musicians. Just fucking musicians.
Mo Kenney: I think the music industry is still a male-dominated industry, but this discussion has been happening a lot lately and is shedding some light on the issue. I think there’s always more that can be done, but it’s nice that the conversation is happening. I can’t speak to the situation in Europe or the States.
Port Cities (Breagh MacKinnon, Carleton Stone, Dylan Guthro): Parts of the music industry in Canada can still be a bit of a boys club, but many festivals and award shows are aware of this and trying to have more diverse lineups. Canadians are progressive, and I think most people in the industry recognize that having equal representation just makes sense in this day and age.
The Avulsions (Samantha Renner, Joanna Graves, Brianna Whitmore, Josh Rohs): We are nowhere near the very reasonable goal of parity, and that is more a symptom of a much larger problem within our hierarchical society. I think we are at a point where participation in music by women is trending positively, no doubt as a result of a conscious effort made by smaller organizations with this mandate. I see that locally anyway, that women are being actively encouraged to take up musical instruments with some real results. But I don’t think this flows as well all the way up to the top, where women are less commonly seen in active roles even when they are present. I don’t know if I can really comment on how this differs regionally because these music scenes are so varied and interrelated that geographic location isn’t necessarily even a relevant way to group artists of some scenes. As I mentioned, the work that some people/groups are doing is encouraging but I don’t want to suggest that the current state of gender representation is acceptable or that our work is anywhere near over with.
Canadian Blast will be held May 18-20 at The Green Door Store (Lower Goods Yard, Brighton Train Station, Brighton, UK), which will be called “Canada House” for this event. Participating artists are: Altamedia, Bad Pop, Beliefs, DSG Samurai Champs, Hannah Georgas, Harrison Brome, Hello Moth, John K Samson, Like A Motorcycle, Mauno, Mo Kenney, Mozart’s Sister, Pierre Kwenders, Poor Nameless Boy, Port Cities, Royal Tusk, The Avulsions, The Wooden Sky, and William Prince Youngblood.
A special “Canadian Night at the Museum” event May 18 will feature a reception and additional performances by some of the artists, including Poor Nameless Boy, Altameda, Port Cities, The Wooden Sky, William Prince, Mo Kenney, and Hannah Georgas. This performance will take place at the Brighton Museum, Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton, UK.
TGE has made two relevant Spotify playlists to promote this event:
- Female Acts of Canadian Blast @ The Great Escape 2017
- Full Lineup of Canadian Blast @ The Great Escape 2017
Canadian Blast is presented by Music Export Canada, a brand of the Canadian Independent Music Association.