Women are making headway in dance music, both through mainstream and underground roads, but a recent report from THUMP highlights that there’s still much to be done.
THUMP examined 2014 festival lineups, noting the number of actual female performers on the bills for Electric Daisy Carnival, Electric Zoo, Mysteryland USA, Spring Awakening, Ultra, Movement, and Mutek Montreal. Out of all, EDC had the smallest – just 2.71 percent of all performers were women – and Mutek the greatest (9.57 percent).
As well, THUMP’s data didn’t just stick with dance music; instead, analysts looked at major genre-spanning festivals that have DJs and electronic performers on the bill and found that percentages fluctuate. Coachella’s ahead with just 20 percent of its lineup being female performers, and Electric Forest, with 11.3 percent, just edges out the fully-electronic events.
Along with these factors, THUMP looked to see just which performers were on the bill, with major festivals often pulling from the same group: Nervo, Krewella, Nicole Moudaber, Anna Lunoe, and Maya Jane Coles.
But while THUMP finally puts numbers with the assumption that few women can break into dance music, either as a DJ only or a DJ/producer, the figures don’t tell the whole story: Mainly, what’s holding women back?
The Technology Catch 22
It’s not that women are completely absent from dance music, underground or mainstream EDM. It’s just that they’re frequently relegated to singing roles. Heyreverb, in an analysis of women in dance music, pointed out that such a relationship existed from the days of disco – such as the producer-singer partnership of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer – to early house music tracks using female gospel singers.
But this relationship didn’t stop with house. A cursory understanding of dance music history shows female performers in the singing roles of freestyle acts, such as the proliferation of girl groups like Expose, Sweet Sensation, and Company B at the end of the ‘80s; as the “face” of countless Eurodance groups, while the producers tended to be men; and EDM producers frequently seek out recognizable pop stars to do the vocals.
The trend, as well, continues to the more instrumental side of electronic music. Just look at synthpop and electro acts like Ladytron, ADULT., La Roux, and Yaz as prominent examples.
Yet, interviews with female producers or DJs point to a self-defeating prophecy, of admitting that women (erroneously or not) aren’t “into” technology. For instance, Reid Speed, in a YourEDM interview, talks about associating production – and you might as well include DJing in with that, these days – in with nerd culture – itself advocating acceptance until a female-bodied person with the same interests enters the territory.
“Producing complex dance music is hard, and the act of nerding out in front of a computer simply does not appeal to as many women as it does men,” she said. “There are plenty of women making serious moves, and plenty being recognized for the moves they are making. I’m not sure there is an urgent need to change this, but if there is, women will be the change we want to see…”
Kito, an act signed to Diplo’s Mad Decent, revealed a similar experience to MTV: “You sweat, you’re writing beats all day. It’s a nerdy guy thing. You spend so much time just engineering and mixing a track. I think it just interests guys more.”
But even when women take the production track, interviews from those successful in the field reveal they can’t simply make middling music – they have to add something extra. With popular female performers, such as Maya Jane Coles, Nervo, JES, Cassy, Goldfrapp, Grimes, and Krewella, this further includes singing and songwriting, on top of production or similar software and instrumental skills.
Kito, when it comes to performing behind the decks, explained this phenomenon to MTV – first the doubts before proving to not just be sufficient but better. “I wanted to be as good as the boys. Better than the boys,” she said. “When I was DJing, whenever I got gigs, men would say ‘she got a gig because she’s a girl!’ And when I finally did the tracks that caught people’s attention, the male producers would say ‘oh my God you’re schooling the boys!!’ And I would just say ‘oh man, not this comment again.’”
But being better just isn’t enough – and even prominent female producers have had run-ins with male fans who still don’t believe they can use the equipment. Fiona Fitzpatrick, of Rebecca & Fiona, told USA Today: “We’ve been doing this since 2008, and this man tells us, ‘This is the play button,.’ Everyone has to take responsibility for equality to happen. The men have to give women some room.”
It’s Harder to Get Gigs
No one says it’s easy to be a DJ, but interviews, with both the performers themselves and promoters, indicate a reluctance to feature female performers on the bill.
To Heyreverb, DJ Rap speaks about using her brother to get gigs by phone, and then later showing up herself at the club, only to be treated as a sex object.
Gary Richards, known for HARD, talked about putting together a female-centric event in the fall – but later revealed that, because of a lack of audience interest, he’d have to pay all performers less. “The thing is I can’t pay them as much
But while you hear and see local scenes with their own prominent female performers, like like DJ Jenny LaFemme in Detroit and Margot Lox in Los Angeles, major festival promoters continue to speak about having a smaller talent pool.
Adam Russakoff, Ultra Music Festival’s executive producer, admitted this in a USA Today interview:”I wish there were more choices, but I wouldn’t book a woman simply because she’s a woman. I wouldn’t insult a woman by doing that. We book based only on music, not gender.”
Although singing or being promotion flier eye candy appear to be two widely-accepted roles for women in dance music, the past few years have brought to light a few female performers rising to prominence in subgenre scenes: Nicole Moudaber and Nina Kravitz in techno, Lady Faith in Hardstyle, Audrey Napoleon in electro, and DJ Rap in drum ‘n’ bass.
But while some female DJs have long-standing careers, such as bass music tastemaker Annie Mac or DJ Mag’s only ranking DJ in the early 2000s Lisa Lashes, being well-known in a subgenre gets you just to a point. During a time when the highest echelon of mainstream dance music blends trance, house, dubstep, and electro, being known for just one sound means you hit a wall in terms of exposure.
Just look at Moudaber compared to someone like Fedde Le Grand: Although both are Carl Cox protégés, Le Grand’s underground-meets-mainstream blend of house gets him to the main stage, while Moudaber continues to be a techno tent attraction only.
Any woman employed these days – in dance music or another field – has likely been given contradictory career advice. It’s “Lean In” but “Be Likeable.” “Negotiate” but “Make sure it’s the right time to talk.” “Be assertive” but “Watch your tone.”
Digital DJ Tips claims that dance music is no different when it comes to women having to wade through and make sense of contradictory advice. The result is performers who have good skills but always underestimate and under-sell themselves; successful performers, like Nervo, always giving credit to their collaborators and mentors in interviews; and having to break through an established network of male performers, one in which established male DJs will frequently select a male up-and-comer to assist and promote.
For evidence, just look at interviews featuring Nicky Romero and Afrojack – two David Guetta protégés – and compare them to Nervo’s similar answers. Why is it acceptable that both Romero and Van Der Wall have moved on with strings of successful singles, but the Nervo twins – also Guetta protégés as songwriters for “When Love Takes Over” but who’ve now achieved an equal level of mainstream prominence – continue to pay career debt whenever a journalist asks a few questions?
Still, even with the many obstacles facing female DJs and producers, those who’ve made it seem hopeful. “It’s a numbers game,” Lunoe said in an interview this year with USA Today. “The more girls get in, the more girls will go up. In the next 10 years, there will be a big change.”