Turning the TablesWomen DJs Take on the Techno Boys’ Club

Illustration by Cindy Echevarria

LILY ACKERMAN GLANCED UP FROM HER DJ EQUIPMENT and peered out from behind the Plexiglas that separated her from an afterparty crowd that refused to let Halloween end. The sun was well over the Golden Gate Bridge, but day was indistinguishable from night inside the gilded lounge. Rhinestones and crumpled feathers littered the dance floor as the previous night’s getups sloughed off their woozy owners. With one hand on a vinyl record and another on a volume knob, Ackerman noticed a young woman swaying in front of the DJ booth, mesmerized by the mixer’s illuminated dials.

Without a costume of her own, the young woman looked exposed and out of place. She hooked her fingers over the top of the Plexiglas to steady her weak knees, clinging to the booth in what appeared to be a lucid dream state for nearly 30 minutes. Ackerman tried to monitor her as closely as she did the delicate records spinning atop her turntables. And then, between mixes, she saw that the young woman’s spellbound expression had changed to one of terror: A towering man completely concealed by a black cloak and ghoulish mask loomed over the woman. He rammed her against the Plexiglas repeatedly, pinning her between his body and the booth. The woman’s gaze fixed intently on Ackerman’s as she mouthed two words into the fogging Plexiglas: “Help. Me.”

Ackerman hurtled out of the booth, abandoning her records to plant herself between the victim and the man in the mask. She pulled the woman into the translucent cubicle, which was already a cramped space for one—smaller still for an artist using vinyl, a craft that requires more space than the laptops or flash drives used by most current DJs. The assailant attempted to follow, but the DJ grabbed a velvet cordon and clipped it behind her and the victim, delineating a firm boundary. It was too loud to talk, so the women remained in the box—one deftly switching out vinyl records, the other sipping gingerly from a water bottle.

Ackerman is no stranger to anxiety in her late-night workplace. Last February, an unhinged partier punched her from behind at a trendy club in a gentrifying San Francisco neighborhood during an event she’d organized with her music crew, Diacritic. With pins and needles shooting down her leg, the DJ whipped around to face her attacker, whose bloodshot eyes darted behind lopsided glasses to avoid her gaze. Ackerman’s screams thundered over the minimalist beats, and the man fled.

After eight years producing and performing in the hyper-competitive techno industry, Ackerman knows she can’t afford to let down her guard—never mind her hair—on the job. And she’s not alone. Discrimination and harassment against women plagues the techno-music industry, from hostile dance floors to scarce performance opportunities for female DJs in a nightlife world ruled by men. Women in techno have been groped, slobbered on, and belittled. They’ve been sexualized, tokenized, and patronized. They’ve been disrespected, blackmailed, and underpaid. In interviews with more than a dozen female DJs, agents, and promoters, all shared episodes of discrimination and the sense that their stories added up to a larger problem, one that reaches the highest levels of the electronic music industry.

At this year’s Grammy Awards, Amelia Meath of the electropop duo Sylvan Esso was the only woman among 10 nominees for Electronic Album of the Year. The Black Madonna was the only woman to make the top 20 cut on the most recent Top Global DJs poll conducted by Resident Advisor, an online music magazine and the de facto authority on all things techno.

Since emerging from “the underground” and catapulting into the mainstream when the Grammy’s began awarding “Best Electronic/Dance Album of the Year” in 2005, the lucrative electronic music industry has favored a homogenous DJ elite. The reigning names in techno—mostly German and British men—stand at odds with the genre’s queer, Black roots in Detroit and Chicago. Charlie Kronengold, a Stanford professor who specializes in 20th-century Western music, notes that techno was pioneered in urban gay bars in the mid-1980s. “The stylistic flexibility that gay clubs allowed gave early DJs options they wouldn’t have had in straight clubs,” he said. “DJs could play more eclectic and experimental things.” It was here that artists first began mixing sensual disco and funk records with a futuristic range of noises from a new electronic instrument called the synthesizer.

The parties were young, Black, and flashy, recalls Bill Brewster, an early techno devotee and the author of the 2014 chronicle Last Night a DJ Saved My Life. “Kids fetishized very nice Italian clothes, and played an unusual mix of Europop, left-field electronic records and funkedelic,” he said. Techno quickly spread to Europe, and in the decades since has gradually trickled into the global mainstream as a more candy-coated version called electronic dance music or EDM.

Gone is the freewheeling rave culture of the 1980s and 1990s, when thousands of people swarmed abandoned warehouses to attend word-of-mouth, multi-day parties where unknown DJs could play for hours. In its place, a far more regulated party industry arose, with gatherings and festivals strictly controlled by a handful of influential—and mostly male—promoters and producers. As more and more venues across the country shut their doors in response to police raids, opportunities for today’s DJs increasingly hinge on connections with the industry’s elite.

In July 2017, an interview published in the German music magazine Groove ignited a public discussion about the cult of techno bros. “It’s unfair that female DJs are so heavily promoted,” said Konstantin, cofounder of the renowned Berlin-based electronic music label Giegling. He claimed women are “worse at DJing than men are” and advised them to lose their “female qualities” and become “manly” to find success.

Konstantin’s views were already well known among his peers, and his labelmates Dustin and Frauke moved swiftly to distance themselves from his comments. Meanwhile, women in the industry responded on Instagram and Twitter. “Konstantin has said this verbatim to our face,” tweeted the Brooklyn-based collective Discwoman, which represents female DJs. Honey Dijon, a trans woman DJ who is vocal about race and gender issues, added in an Instagram post, “He’s not the only one in the game who thinks this way.” The Black Madonna, known to fight misogyny in the techno community, tweeted, “Last week Konsti said and I quote ‘You’re a feminist? You might not want to be around me. I’m a chauvinist.’” Though Konstantin later apologized for his comments, the conversations were a reckoning for the industry. Though the techno boys’ club has long been the butt of feeble jokes among fans and musicians, women in the industry are now coming together to combat the status quo.

In summer 2016, Reem Abdou was fed up with the limited opportunities she faced in New York’s close-knit electronic music scene. Though she’d been DJing professionally for less than a year, she drew buzz across the local party circuit for the vibrant palette of tribal sounds she used throughout her dreamy sets. Once she mastered the challenging suite of audio software, turntables, and mixers, Abdou found that DJing is mostly a combination of taste and intuition. Both came naturally: A former intern at NPR’s RadioLab, Abdou was practiced at using sound bites to weave stories and drive emotions, not unlike what she strove to accomplish through her music. And the sensitive, perceptive affect she’d honed as a yoga instructor allowed her to read audiences with ease.

But despite stellar feedback from partygoers, recurring gigs remained out of reach. Abdou’s breaking point came on a quiet afternoon at a rooftop party in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where a friend too sick to perform tapped her as his substitute. (Venue names are not included in this article, to protect artists’ relationships with management). In the waning sunlight, Abdou spotted the party’s well-known promoter across the roof and waded through a crowd of nonchalant hipsters to touch base about the change of plans. The conversation lasted seconds. After sizing her up—she was all smiles and eager excitement—the promoter scoffed. “This isn’t practice time, bae,” he said. Like so many women eager to make their mark on the electronic music industry, Abdou left the party without ever setting a finger on the decks.

The incident inspired Abdou to launch her own party where women would not merely be tolerated on lineups, but celebrated. In October 2016, she gathered genre-bending musicians and poets, tarot readers, energy workers, painters, and performance artists that she called Collective BAE—a reclamation of the infantilizing term used by the party promoter that afternoon on the roof. Collective BAE follows the lead of similar global women’s groups like Shesaid.so Berlin, TGAF Paris, and Work in Progress Toronto. Fueled by the global #MeToo movement and a mounting disgust at techno’s systemic misogyny, members of these groups are carving out space for themselves by throwing their own parties, booking and mentoring one another, and refusing to stay quiet about their startling experiences.

“The power of booking and deciding who you’re going to work with makes all the difference,” said Mo Kudeki, a San Francisco DJ who grew tired of relying on male promoters and club managers to book. In early 2017, when Kudeki was close to giving up on a stalling career, a cheeky page called TechnoClam (it has since changed its name to Noctuary) popped up in her Facebook newsfeed. It belonged to a woman named Alex McGeagh, who started the website as both an outlet for her grievances with chauvinist club culture and a platform to recommend female and nonbinary artists who came to town. Kudeki invited McGeagh to grab coffee, and within an hour they’d formulated a plan: Bring Noctuary off the web and into real life by throwing branded parties celebrating “the not-dudes of techno.”

Women in techno have been groped, slobbered on, and belittled. They’ve been sexualized, tokenized, and patronized. They’ve been disrespected, blackmailed, and underpaid.

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“I was itching to get back into the music scene, and so excited to be working with a woman,” Kudeki recalled. She felt valued by McGeagh for her sharp technical abilities and her music’s wide emotional range, whereas previously she’d often felt like a token on all-male rosters. (“Promoters would approach me and say, ‘We want a woman.’”) With so few spaces for local female artists in the city’s elite lineups, catty behavior by women competing for recognition by the men in charge had become the norm. With Noctuary, McGeagh and Kudeki set out to offer an alternative. They established some protocols: Always hire a local newcomer as the opening act, and fill the rest of the lineup with predominantly women, nonbinary, and queer artists. “Basically anyone who isn’t a white man,” McGeagh said, chuckling. Selling tickets isn’t their first priority, but each of their namesake parties have been packed, with ticket sales nearly doubling from the first to last event.

Their parties, as the duo sees it, are opportunities to put power back into the hands of women, starting with a fair system for negotiating pay. Typically, a promoter and an artist will reach a deal through ping-pong negotiation, a back-and-forth power game that shortchanges smaller acts. In San Francisco, the going rate for a one-hour set by a local DJ can range anywhere from a near-zero cut of the bar tab to a flat rate of $300. In her experience working with local female DJs, McGeagh has found that they often quote prices near or under the standard rate of $150 to $200, though there have been times when they’ve asked for far less. “It’s not just that women are underpaid. They’re also under-asking,” McGeagh explained.

When she books local artists, McGeagh simply asks them to name their price. “They feel empowered, and it allows them to actually make some money,” she said. “And then they’re really interested in playing for us because we didn’t try to negotiate them down.”

Securing a paid gig with a well-known promoter like McGeagh can help an inexperienced DJ make a name. Not only do these opportunities provide the exposure and visibility necessary to build an artist’s brand, they also offer coveted opportunities to work with top-shelf equipment. “The club is where you practice,” explains Eugenia Puglisi, an emerging San Francisco DJ who played Noctuary’s first party. “It’s where you refine your technique.” Because a professional-grade DJ setup can cost thousands of dollars, most amateurs rely on laptop computers and USB sticks to pre-plan their sets before playing at a club. Equipment availability can cause cycles of success or failure, depending on how many gigs DJs score, and therefore how much they practice. For Puglisi, persistently showing up led her to befriend McGeagh. Now she counts herself among the lucky ones whose career gained momentum with the help of allies. “Having a supportive community around me has been so important.”

Besides providing opportunities for women to play, paying them fair wages, and creating an environment where they feel safe partying, McGeagh also wanted to foster an inspirational space for the artists themselves. “What a lot of people don’t realize is that DJs also have to feel comfortable to play their very best,” she said. “When they see something wrong happening in front of them on the dance floor, it takes away from what they’re capable of.” Sexual harassment in clubs and bars is endemic, and McGeagh remembers life before Noctuary as one dance-floor violation after another.

“If I wasn’t getting harassed, it was one of my friends, or I saw it happening to another woman,” she said. “I wanted to feel safe on the dance floor, and I knew the best way to change that was to do it myself.” At her events, McGeagh is all business. She pulls her hair into a slick ponytail and keeps her face free of makeup. She’s always sober, and you can usually find her patrolling the room with her arms crossed over her chest and her Noctuary hoodie tied around her waist, looking for anything out of place. (“Alex watches her parties like a hawk,” says Lily Ackerman). But not all harassment happens bluntly or publicly; female DJs are also marginalized in slower, quieter ways. As with so many “pipeline problems” for women in American industries, the alienation of potential DJs can start early, often well before they are aware the genre exists.

“Electronic music is a technical field. And for a long time, technical fields were dominated by men,” says Collective BAE’s Reem Abdou. “To really solve this, we’re going to have to have better education, and we’re going to have to have women in business, behind the scenes, making decisions at the top level.” Recognizing this problem in early 2017, the Red Bull Music Academy, sponsored by the energy drink, began holding monthly workshops at its London studio to bring together women DJs, sound engineers, and producers. The event, called #NormalNotNovelty, provides a space for women to get familiar with software, provide mentorship, and network for gig opportunities.

Ackerman—who holds a Ph.D in Chemistry from Cal Tech and a law degree from University of California, Berkeley—is no stranger to navigating stereotypes in STEM fields or higher education, leveraging her past experience with sexism as she battles music-industry stereotypes in the techno scene. “You have to be so confident and so tough to endure this industry,” she said. Last December, Ackerman and her then-boyfriend, a fellow DJ, played back to back at a holiday party at a cherished historic bar storied for its karaoke and drag nights. The two of them twirled behind the decks, enjoying the cheery night and each others’ company, until a man in festive Christmas garb leaned over the equipment and asked Ackerman, “Are you in training?” Taken aback, Ackerman gasped, “What?” Yelling over the spacey rhythm of Manuel Tur’s futuristic soul track “Ela,” the man leaned in again to ask the same question louder, to which a horrified Ackerman yelled back “NO!”

“People aren’t used to seeing two DJs behind the decks. And of course because I am a woman [with] a man, the assumption was that I must be training under him,” she said. There were times when “poison” like this drove Ackerman to do everything in her power to ensure she played perfectly. During an intense stretch in 2015, she was putting aside 16 hours per week to practice sets that lasted an hour. “I couldn’t give any evidence that women were in any way worse than men at DJing,” she remembered.

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As more women give voice to their experiences behind the decks, Big Techno is finally taking notice. That includes Resident Advisor, the online music magazine that conducts the annual Top 100 Global DJ poll. For 11 years, RA watched as the wildly influential list became the site’s most-read content every year, shaping who headlined festivals, how much DJs got paid, and who remained relevant—inadvertently creating a cycle in which the same names appeared on the list year after year. “At best, the lists misrepresented the reality of the scene,” RA wrote in a November 2017 statement announcing the site’s plans to discontinue the poll. “At worst, they helped to reinforce some of [the industry’s] harmful power dynamics, which still favor white men above everyone else… To continue running these features would be to diminish the vital contribution [talented women] make to electronic music.”

A few months after the announcement, 45 music festivals and conferences across the globe signed a pledge with the Performing Rights Society’s Music Foundation to achieve 50/50 gender balance on their lineups by 2022. Catherine Britton, a DJ known as Cassy in the underground music world, was the first woman to make RA’s list; ranked eighth in the world in 2007, she appeared on the list six more times in  the 11 years it was published. Despite this, “I hated those polls from the get-go,” she says, calling the men at the top of the list “a small club of people basically all pushing each others’ agendas” who’ve “known each other for years.” She believes appearing on the list was once an important achievement for DJs on the verge, but is also relieved the polls have run their course. After all, the underground is now aboveground, and the polls are less of an avenue for new artists to gain chops, and more of a system that cements the position of the old guard.

She’s also, after years of experience at the highest levels of the industry, fed up with being boxed in by her gender. When people call her the “best female DJ,” her response is always the same: “What does that mean? Why am I not the best DJ? I don’t want to be the best female DJ.” Cassy believes referring to women in techno as female DJs rather than simply DJs reinforces the stereotype that a woman behind the decks is atypical. “I’m not doing this because I’m a woman and I’m not doing this because I want to push any gender issues,” she said. “I love music and I fucking love DJing and I want to mix records until the day I die.”

Still, the forces behind Noctuary and Collective BAE believe that though talent can speak for itself, progress and disruption within the industry are more likely to happen when women team up. At McGeagh’s most recent party, in February 2018, she spotted a man hovering over a local DJ named Anna. The ever-vigilant host watched the young DJ flinch away from the man’s probing hands and dodge his face as he moved it toward hers. McGeagh stormed over and pulled the man toward the door. “That behavior isn’t allowed at my party under any circumstances,” McGeagh yelled. “You have to go. Now.” The man had a European accent and pretended not to understand, shrugging in mock confusion and refusing to budge. “I wasn’t afraid,” said McGeagh. Then the man waved over three friends to flank him. Repeatedly, McGeagh told them they had to leave. She was gesturing to the clearly marked exit when her male friend stepped up behind her. He pointed to the door and, finally, they left.

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by Jordan Huelskamp
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Jordan Huelskamp is a New York-based writer who wants to follow you on SoundCloud.

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