Why Is the Music Industry Still So Sexist?

From left: Kill Rock Stars President Portia Sabin, Bitch Media Online Editor Sarah Mirk, and She Shreds founder and editor Fabi Reyna.

A few months ago, my mom was cleaning out the garage and came across my high school CD collection. She mailed me the treasure trove and as I flipped through the albums I loved as a teenager, I noticed something alarming: There were absolutely no female-fronted bands in my collection. I owned four Weezer albums, but not a single record by a female artist. Looking back, the dude-heaviness of my collection was unintentional and undeniable. I wasn’t a kid who sought out music—I listened to whatever bands came across my radar. At the time, I didn’t notice that the bands who were heavily promoted, who were touring, and who were talked up in mainstream news were overwhelmingly male.

Though technology has made creating and releasing music more accessible than ever, the music industry is still male-dominated in myriad ways. From local punk gigs to national festivals, women are underrepresented onstage and in positions of power behind the scenes. But lots of music fans are working to change that. Recently, I had the pleasure of talking with three amazing women in the music industry: Portia Sabin, the president of indie record label Kill Rock Stars; Mindy Abovitz, founder and editor of female drummer magazine Tom Tom; and Fabi Reyna, founder and editor of female guitarist magazine She Shreds. This conversation was featured on the podcast The Future of What. During the discussion, we talked our musical inspirations, the impact of female musicians being overlooked, and  about why change in the music industry continues to move at a seemingly glacial pace.

This conversation, moderated by Portia, can be heard below or you can read the abridged and edited transcript.

PORTIA SABIN: So I invited you all here today to talk about representations of women in the media, because I think that this is an issue that is evergreen, unfortunately. I wish that it would stop being something that we have to talk about, but we do. And I kind of want to start with you, Fabi, because you started this the most recently. So She Shreds is about three years old, is that correct?


PORTIA: So tell us what caused you to start the magazine.

FABI: Well, let's see… I've been playing guitar since I was about nine years old, and I was the kind of kid who lived in a small town. Every time I went to the grocery store with my mom I would go to the magazine section and look at all the magazines. I think, originally, it stemmed from having those stereotypical, basic struggles with being called out for being a girl and playing a guitar. Or not being given opportunities — lead guitar opportunities weren't for me, they were for boys — and just not really seeing myself in guitar magazines. I felt that way but it wasn't until I went to Girls Rock Camp here in Portland when I was 13, that I realized that this community of women was really awesome and important. As I continued going to the Girls Rock Camp, I just kept asking myself why aren't these women — why didn't I know about them before, you know? I didn't really know that women played music until I went to the Girls Rock Camp, and so after that I just knew that I wanted to have a voice in that fight. I started booking shows when I was 15 and they were always very women-focused, and then I just moved into this magazine thing not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I mean I think that different things like Tom Tom Magazine and the Girls Rock Camp and Bitch Media and everything helped me feel like this was something that I needed to do regardless of not knowing how to do it.

PORTIA: Mindy did you have a similar experience, is that why you got Tom Tom started?

MINDY: I would say my journey was similar in that Rock Camp was highly influential for me. Riot grrl was really influential for me because I was 14, so I was around when the riot grrl movement was happening, and I pretty much started Tom Tom because I wanted to change Google search results. I didn't exactly want to have a magazine. I wanted to introduce all of these incredible women that I knew in New York City and beyond to the freest form of media and the widest reaching form of media, which at the time was Google. I, similar to Fabi, am a feminist. I've been playing music forever, I've been setting up shows, and then have been recognizing the massive lack of women role models in the media as first an innocent consumer of the media, and then as an empowered person who realized I could be a part of making the change, instead of just this victim of shitty media. Initially, I set out to provide really nice imagery and stories about female drummers online. That just snowballed into a magazine, and that I still feel really driven to produce a piece of printed media that you can hold in your hand. The economy behind print magazines is still very powerful to me. Though, as I do this, and the longer I do this, I realize there are lots of ways to reach people.

Tom Tom magazine

The fifth anniversary issue of Tom Tom.

PORTIA: I love one thing you said: “an innocent victim of bad media.” I think that's a really great phrase, and I wanted to bring Sarah in on that. I have this great quote from the official mission statement from Bitch Media, which is: “Bitch Media is dedicated to providing and encouraging an engaged, thoughtful feminist response to mainstream media and popular culture.” I think that's actually incredibly critical. I think it's what all three of you are working on. They did it in a very concrete way, by actually starting responses—throwing new stuff into the popular media. What would you like to add to that?

SARAH: Well I think what both Fabi and Mindy really hit on is the power of representation in our media. That, like Fabi, when you were growing and you'd go to look at the magazine rack and you look at the guitar magazines and it's all dudes in all of those magazines, that maybe you thought, “Oh I guess there's just not a place for me here.” And Mindy, when you Googled “drummer,” and all that came up were male drummers, that's an issue with representation. I think when we're growing and are young, we think it's maybe just us. Like, “Oh I'm the only one that notices this,” or, “Maybe there aren’t any good female drummers,” or, “Maybe there aren’t any good female guitarists.” What you start to realize after living in this world for a while and consuming more and more media is it is not just a one off situation. What we're seeing across our media is a pattern of discrimination and exclusion, specifically of women and specifically in music, of lots and lots of really talented women who don't get the same kind of recognition, credit, praise, and attention that male musicians do systemically across the board. That's why still today, if you open up a copy of Guitar World, or if you Google “drummer” — unless you Google “female drummer” — you're still probably going to see mostly men, because women just across the board are less likely to be booked at festivals. [They] have to fight more to get that kind of attention and respect and seriousness for their work, and to get the kind of acclaim that is more easily lauded on male musicians. That's not just a case-by-case basis where this person's talented and this person's not. What I'm talking about is the pattern.

FABI: One thing I just recently learned by talking to someone [from] a company that creates “experiences” at big metal festivals — they emailed me because they found 50 percent of the audience at metal festivals are women, but only — I searched their big festivals and their lineups, and most festivals didn't have any women actually playing, but the ones that did only had one or two out of the 300 performers. Which is crazy, which means that if 50 percent of the audience is women, then they're only seeing women on stage once out of the entire festival. Which is crazy to me!

SARAH: And what's the impact of that, I guess is what I would wonder. If you're a woman in the audience, what's the impact of not seeing a woman on stage? Maybe you're less likely to become a musician yourself, maybe if you are a musician you think, “Well, you know, I'm never going to be able to get to that point.” It's really inspirational, I think, to be able to envision yourself in a role on stage or on TV or in a magazine.

she shreds magazine

PORTIA: Fabi, I have to ask you this, how old are you?

FABI: I'm 24.

PORTIA: Okay, that's what I thought. So I'm 20 years older than you are. Just for the record. [laughs] I started playing drums at 21. When I started playing drums, it was the exact same scenario: no representation of women in media. I had no idea — I mean, I knew because I loved rock ’n’ roll that there were women drummers out there. I knew that there were women bass players and singers and guitarists. But that was because I actually knew those bands and I had gone to see those bands and had done my own research because that was before the Internet. You had to actually go and do research to find those things.

SARAH: You read a book about it maybe? [laughs]

PORTIA: Yeah I read a book about it. It was print, you know. [laughs] It's just interesting to me that we keep having to have this conversation, and that’s—but it's clearly systemic, right? It's actually continually perpetrated, and I'm wondering why that is. This is just speculation on our parts, but does anyone have a thought about why that is? Do people really still think that pictures of men sell better?

MINDY: I just wanted to add that Bitch and Bust were around when I was a kid, and those two magazines definitely led the way for me. I went straight to the record shop and then the magazine shop and bought them. Then everything else, like you're saying—systematically these women and girls [left] out of empowered roles in terms of representation, and leaves them to be ogled or be viewed or whatever in other ways. I wanted to say that I'm finding that potentially the reason for this is people not taking responsibility. Particularly media makers, or festival curators or label owners, managers, and everyone—and this is true of every kind of injustice we have around the world—everyone's really good at finger-pointing and saying “Well, this isn’t me, it's just the way it is,” or “It's them, not me.” One part of what I've been trying to do is to empower people to make small changes in their own companies and in their own — giving them tools to make money, because we're in a capitalist society—to think of us as a potential market—has been a main strategy. I think, and I'm just going to say “guys” right now, but I think the guys are really good at leaving women out of the media. At least in empowered positions because it doesn't so much occur to them the impact it has on us when we are left out. It's just easy for them to do what they've always done, and to put their friends in the pages of these magazines or in the festivals. I don't know if that's too broad sweeping for people listening to the show or for you guys but that's what I keep landing on: that we're all really good at helping our friends, and people who look and sound like us, and we're not as good at stepping out of our comfort zones and pulling up people who historically don't have the same representation or opportunities. That's my reason for why we're continuously left out of everything, and specifically the music industry, or why other people who have historically been left out of everything continue to be. I think it's going to take a lot of intention and concerted effort and help from people like us, who are really righteous, offering our help to people who are otherwise blind to it, or couldn't care less. I just wanted to say that.

FABI: To add to that, I think that for me, it's always been really difficult to relate to those women-focused communities. Other than the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls — but in the music industry. The first year I went to NAMM (National Association of Music Merchants)—and don't get me wrong, I really love the different types of representation. I think that they all add to the message. But I don’t relate to something like pink and glittery guitars. You know? That's not me.

PORTIA: Can you tell us what NAMM is?

FABI: It's a huge convention where all of the music manufacturers go and talk business and it's basically just four floors of every person in the industry ever. Yeah. And it's amazing. But, what was I saying? Oh yeah, so you know, for She Shreds one of the biggest things that we want to do, is to create, or introduce, this aesthetic of introducing women in the same way that men are introduced. And also welcoming everybody, like showcasing these women and talking about the industry, and telling men and boys that you can pick this magazine up too. It's just a different take on the music industry that hasn't really been represented before.

SARAH: There are two real things I want to key in on there. One is that there is — I think why change is so slow, which is what you're saying Portia — like “It was like this 20 years ago, why hasn't there been a revolution?” I think part of it is that we’re seeing discrimination in every level of the industry, and in every level of our pop culture. So from a music standpoint, it's not just like Guitar World is sexist. It's like, the people who own all of the music magazines have been running it this way for a long time. The people who book shows, the people who own the theaters, the people who run the concerts. This is an entire system of making money and of selling music that's built around being male-dominated, and that is really hard to change because there are so many different levels to it. Especially what Mindy was saying, about how nobody really wants to take responsibility for it, and I think that what's important there is that there’s always the excuse of like, “Well we book what sells,” or, “We put on our page what sells.” When you reiterate what’s already popular, it’s a cycle that feeds on itself. If you're only reiterating what's already out there that’s the male dominated industry and so it takes work to change. It takes work to go out beyond the bands that are already popular, or the five friends you already know, or the guys you already heard to find those bands that are under the radar or aren't getting enough attention. It takes work to change the systems of the way that you find and book and hire bands. For example, Fabi told that story about the metal festival, realizing that 50% of its audience was female. That took work for them to be like “Wait a second, we should survey our audience and see who's here.” Now it's going to take even more work for them to be like “Okay, how do we get more women on stage,” if they actually decide to follow through on that. That means pushing their bookers to find new bands. That means do more work on their part to not just book the bands of been booked at other festivals. That means reaching out and really having to look for bands because they're not the ones that are already getting all the awards and all the attention. It's hard to change but the rewards are so great because there are so many bands and people that are being left out of the scene right now.

MINDY: One of the main things that I have been consistently telling anyone in the industry who's willing to listen to me, particularly the drum manufacturers, is that the more attention they serve this underserved population of people, namely female drummers, the more rewards they'll get, like you were just saying. You pay a little bit of attention to people who have gotten none, and they will give you back so much. Then you can grow this market that has been, until now, completely ignored. From a business perspective, women and girls are the number one fastest growing market in the music industry. With a little bit of effort from the industry as a whole, every single moving part of it, women will be invited in for the first time ever and actually get decent representation across all of the moving parts in the industry.

FABI: That is the progress that I feel like we're seeing now, that hasn't really been shown before — is that the actual decision-makers that are creating these advertisements and that are shifting the way that the guitar industry of the drum industry look are actually paying attention. At least in my industry, they’re consciously trying to make a difference. They’re consciously asking, “How can we include women? How can we create a community?” or, “How can we be a part of a community that gains the trust of these people that have for 30, 40 years been ignored?” That's a really, really interesting thing that in research I haven't seen before.

SARAH; I think the people who grew up being pissed off are now in positions of power, hopefully within the music industry. So hopefully we'll see some more change. Like Portia, 20 years ago, when you started getting mad about this, you weren't the president of a record company.

PORTIA: That's true.

SARAH: And, now you are in a position where you're a decision-maker. We're seeing that kind of across the board. People who grew up with this on their radar, or who grew up going to rock camp or who grew up thinking about these things, are now hopefully the ones who are starting to get control at companies and are starting to become professional bookers themselves, and are starting to try and change things themselves. But it's hard to do completely from the outside of the industry, when you're just like “Hey, you guys should put more women on the page, okay bye!”[laughs]

FABI: It also takes an audience though — the people that are reading the magazines and the audience have a huge impact as well because they need to demand that content. They need to demand that this exists, that Tom Tom exists, that Bitch exists, that She Shreds exists, because ultimately we're the ones pushing the people, we're the ones pushing the advertisers, the instrument manufacturers and calling them out.  We're on the same newsstand as them, like, right next to them. On the one hand [there] is this guitar magazine where the woman is half-naked seductively holding this guitar. And then there's us, which is this powerful representation of this woman, and a reader just snapped the photo and put it on Instagram and it went viral. It was just this juxtaposition of old views and sexist traditions versus contemporary ones.

PORTIA: Mindy, what about Tom Tom? How are you guys doing?

MINDY: Yeah, and I just want to say that I'm not going to paint a pretty picture at all. It isn't easy. It's really, really, really hard, and I think the only reason we're around still is because of the people who believe in the project. [We] shouldn't be around. One of the other drum magazines’ publishers told me a few years ago, “I don’t get it, you shouldn't be able to exist.” And he's right, we shouldn't be able to exist, except for what Fabi was saying earlier which is the demand. But because of the print condition right now, and because the drum industry isn't racking in dollars either—and to try to introduce essentially a brand new market — which shouldn’t be a brand new market — but to introduce a brand new market and fund that market is also a completely uphill battle. In my mind, the longer we survive, the easier it'll get. But our challenge is to basically become a part of people's consciousness, which we have not been. That is an enormous challenge. It's not easy. Every day, every week, every month is very, very difficult. I wouldn't recommend anyone do this, unless they felt like they had to, which I do feel like I have to do this. It's really nice when people say “Congratulations that you're still around,” but we're really still around because we're fighting every day to be around. [We’re] basically just an army of women drummers and women drummer supporters who want to see this easier for anyone else who wants to pick up the drums, or do anything in their life, and been told they can't or haven't seen anyone else doing it. We're growing all the time, which is part of it. I guess it's like a chicken and egg thing. It's like, in order to grow we need to work really hard, in order to work hard we need to grow. I don't know how to explain that but it isn't like it's just happening very organically. It's happening because we're all working and fighting. Yeah. that's that. I didn't explain that very well. [laughs]

FABI: Totally, exactly.

MINDY: You hear me, Fabi?

FABI: Mindy explained it perfectly. It's such a huge struggle to convince people. Up until last year I couldn't convince people that this was a real market. They wouldn't believe me. They were just like “We historically haven't seen it, so go find somewhere else to try and get money to exist.” This year, it was the complete opposite. In my head I was like, “Oh cool, now you guys see it, now it's time.” Print is one thing that we do, and we do it three times a year so that we have room to book 20 or more shows a year, and a festival, and SXSW shows and media — we're really pushing our website. Print is one way to do it and it's really important, because [of] people who live in small towns or anyone who only digests media through physical magazines and newsstands. It’s just really important to see us in newsstands next to every guitar magazine so that people know that there is an option for women to be a part of this industry. But it's certainly not our only outlet.

PORTIA: I remember when I took over Kill Rock Stars in 2006, over 50 percent of the bands on the label were female-fronted or had women in the bands, which was incredibly unusual for a record label, and still is incredibly unusual for a record label. But at the time it felt totally normal. One thing we have to fight against, besides being seen as a cause, is internal apathy of the community where the community is like, “Oh, this is totally normal, so everything is just going to continue along and everything is fine.” We have to say “No, it's not fine, we have to keep fighting. We have to keep working on this.” I remember there was a magazine called Sassy when I was in college, which was amazing. It was run by women, it had a wonderful tone. That magazine was read happily by me, by my guy friends who loved music, everybody was very much like, “Oh yeah, this how the world is, it’s cool, and we love the Breeders and we love, you know Moe Tucker and we love, you know, whoever was playing at the time.” Yet, it was like, “Oh ok, well we've arrived. We're cool now.” But that was 20 years ago. We haven't arrived. We hadn't arrived and we weren't cool.

MINDY: The injustices that exist in the media and overall around the world — in all of our lifetimes we won't see the end of them. I plan to continue to fight against any and all injustices for the rest of my time. Seeing this slow moving feminism trickle and then go away and then come back in the music industry, I think if all of us on this radio show kept working on this until we're 80, we'll still have work to do on it. I was also around during the riot grrl movement, and I felt like things would be so much different now today. They'd be so much better. I took that for granted, and knowing that it's not that way, I just, I think change is really slow, and if we're all in it for the long haul, we'll see something actually change, ideally. That's the goal.

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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