Discrimination, Assault And Everyday Sexism: Women Talk About Working In Australian Music

"I was backstage at a gig and a completely wasted venue rep asked me which of the band member's girlfriends I was. I was backstage because I worked in the band's management."

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This weekend, Melbourne Music Week kicked off with a huge immersive experience at the old Royal Women’s Hospital. Actors dressed as hospital staff and priests roamed the corridors entertaining punters under rave lights alongside a bill of secret performers. The following day the space transformed into a musical roller derby — an homage to the original NYC block parties full of local hiphop acts and what was presumably the entire wig and spandex stock of every costume shop in Melbourne.

But amidst all this celebration is a strain of something more serious.

Over the past year especially, the music industry has been plagued by stories of systemic sexism. Speaking to PitchforkBjork told a heartbreaking story about how invisible she’s felt over the course of her celebrated three decades in the industry. “Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times,” she said. After her various over-hyped Twitter beefs, Nicki Minaj detailed the different prejudices she’s faced as a woman of colour for The New York Times. Australian writer Anwen Crawford explained the challenges inherent to the highly-codified world of the female rock critic in The New Yorker. Best Coast singer Bethany Cosentino slammed a sexist review that focused on her looks and fashion choices, and was then forced to defend herself against online backlash for it. Chvrches Lauren Mayberry rallied against similarly misogynistic treatment in the media, before taking to simply yelling at annoying men in her audience.

Speaking at Brisbane’s BigSound conference, music critic and former Pitchfork editor Jessica Hopper tried to explain the roots of such frustration. “In the music world, there is a hierarchy that places men — and especially male artists — up at the top,” she said. “People subscribe to that.”

Obviously none of that is new. The fact that men enjoy certain privileges women do not is not at all exclusive to the music world; however the fact that it’s now being routinely addressed by such high-profile figures is not nothing.

“Somewhere between Beatle-mania and Beiber-mania, we’ve lost sight of the capacity young women have to anticipate, sustain and add cultural value to the experience of music,” Hopper said. “We need everybody to show up for women.”

In response to all this, comparatively sombre corners of Melbourne Music Week have been devoted to furthering the conversation. Saturday’s Face the Music conference featured a now-annual event called Hens In The Cock House where keynote speaker JD Samson, Music Victoria’s Cassandra Pace, AIR’s Joanna Cameron and more discussed the measures needed to ensure women receive the respect and support they deserve. Cameron, in fact, is one of the creators of One of One: an online community founded earlier this year to highlight Australian women’s achievements in the industry; a positive space for them to be heard.

Later this week, local collective LISTEN will also be taking over a space for this purpose. They’ll be hosting panels and performances on Friday night in an effort to “encourage more equal participation in the music industry”. “LISTEN exists to spark and cultivate a conversation around women’s experiences in the Australian music industry,” the event description reads.

To get a feel of exactly what that conversation includes, we drew from the exceptional wisdom of Jessica Hopper. Before her BigSound speech, Hopper made an open callout for distressing experiences. “What was your first brush with the idea that you didn’t ‘count’?” she wrote on Twitter.

The response was immediate. Thousands replied to the initial tweet with many more emailing and sending stories in DMs. These were fans made to prove their worth through bizarrely gendered rituals, artists marginalised by male bandmates or backstage staff, and industry professionals who routinely endure small acts of discrimination with a forced smile.

“Witness what is happening around you,” Hopper said while noting the responses at BigSound. “Witness what women are up against. Ask the women you know about their experiences making music, playing music, performing and attending shows. Listen to their answers.”

With that in mind, here are some more responses we received when making a similar callout from Australian women in this scene — the same ones who may be roaming the Royal Women’s Hospital with you this week.

For sadly obvious reasons, they didn’t want to be named.

What It Feels Like To Be A Woman In The Australian Music Industry:

“After years of working in the music industry as a photographer and writer, holding solo exhibitions and having my work published and commissioned, I still get referred to as a groupie. The men who have less experience, however, get called by their professional titles.”

“I have to constantly deal with sexual harassment and inappropriate questions and comments from male clients. They think that because I look after their advertising, they get a free pass to be vile. As they are paying us, it does mean that I can’t anger them or stand my ground in fear of losing their business. Advertising is just glamorous prostitution.”

“I became involved with the DIY punk scene, repping the bands and acting as part of a street team. It came out that a prominent organiser and artist in the scene was both a domestic and sexual abuser. Myself and one of the victims spoke up against the deafening silence this revelation was met with, and we were ostracised, threatened and humiliated. I met with a bandmate of his to discuss this who said, “It’s fucked. I’d join you [against the abuser] but we really need a bassist”. The two of us left. But now this is public, he still plays shows around Melbourne. His close friends claim to be feminists but still bring him into lineups.”

“I was editor of a music publication and published a tongue-in-cheek joke about a company which advertised with us, in line with our tone and with the company itself. One of the men in charge of the company called me and screamed for five minutes before saying, “Hey little girl, you just lost your company tens of thousands of dollars. I’m going to call your boss now and tell him it’s because he hired a little girl”.”

“I was backstage at a gig and a completely wasted venue rep asked me which of the band member’s girlfriends I was, then asked if I was a groupie. I was backstage because I worked in the band’s management.”

“A big tour promoter always calls me “sweetie” whenever he rings me to complain.”

“There are still at least a handful of label reps who I could name (but won’t) that, when I’m in a meeting with them alongside a male colleague, they won’t address me directly but defer to whatever man I’m with. This STILL happens.”

“When I was music editor at a magazine, the general manager of a big touring festival called me “girlie” (as in a noun, instead of my name) via email.”

“I once was asked by an A&R rep for a big artist to send “a good looking girl” to interview the artist as he would respond best to that.”

“I was backstage at a festival doing media and also hanging out with a band I knew. We were meeting bands, managers, whatever, and there was someone there who works at a music outlet. He turned to me and said, “So whose girlfriend are you?” I told him I was a journalist and he immediately reeled back like, “Oh no way, I thought you looked familiar!” That was literally ten minutes after having a 40-something dude come up and try and touch me while I was on my own.”

“I was asked in a job interview at a music publication if I had a boyfriend. I said no. I was then asked when I might want children. I said I didn’t know. I was then asked if I might want children in, say, the next two or three years. I realised the only option was to tell him, ‘No’.  But it’s a question men would never be asked.”

“I was sexually assaulted in my sleep by a co-worker and I cannot report him as he holds more power in the company, and no one will believe me because they see us as friends. Also, If I make a claim against him it will haunt me for the rest of my career. I can only pretend it didn’t happen.”

“For years, despite my experience and time in the industry, I was rarely (if ever) invited to speak on panels at industry events until my male boss started actively suggesting me in place of him or alongside of him. My contemporaries — all male — were consistently reached out to, and while I don’t think it was intentional it was a reality. For some time I had no female contemporaries.”

“I was walking alongside a well-respected male figure in the industry at a music conference. I had met him the night before, and thought I’d use the opportunity to pick his brain and learn from him. I mentioned I was hungry and he replied ‘go and eat, you’re so skinny you need to put some weight on you’. It might sound like I’m making a big fuss over this comment but I was so taken aback by it and was so angered by it afterwards and kept thinking to myself — if I was a man would he have commented on my weight?”

“When I was young and doing work experience, my boss made a pass at me. He was more than twice my age. He texted me while sitting in the room next door to me something totally inappropriate. The next week he offered me a job that I declined. It was a great opportunity gone to waste and hard to say no to as I was only starting to build my resume. But looking back, I’m glad I was smart enough to make the right choice.”

If you’re a woman/marginalised person in the music industry, get in touch and we’ll keep the story updated.