You might not have heard of ERIN TONKON’s name, but you have definitely heard of some of the albums she’s helped to produce, David Bowie’s Blackstar being one of them. Paving the way for women and young people in the technical side of the music industry, Tonkon is an inspiration for anyone whose plan A, B and C is following their dreams into record production or music in general.
Speaking to me on the phone over 3,000 miles away in New York, Tonkon recalls how she started on her path to becoming one of the most interesting people in producing and engineering. “Since I was 16 I always knew that I wanted to produce and engineer but I didn’t have any music industry connections,” she tells me. “I started learning about recording and music studios when I was in high school. From there I did some internships at local radio stations and then interned at Sony in New York.” Most people would think they had hit the jackpot there, but Tonkon explains how the industry is much more cut-throat and complex than being set after bagging some work experience at a top record label. “It’s an industry that’s very beneficial if you know a little bit of everything. Knowing how labels work, how strategic marketing works, knowing how to do radio promos and how the radio world interacts with labels. It all taught me how to be well rounded and learn a bit of everything. So when I’m sitting in a production room now talking with an artist about their fears and dreams, I know what they are talking about and where they are trying to go.”
Her big break came when she was given the chance to work with renowned producer Tony Visconti in New York. “I went back to college and got into NYU which was a dream come true. I was 22 at the time and the other students were fresh out of high school, so when I was looking for internships my teacher was like ‘You need a mentor, you’ve done all the internships’. So he asked me to dream big.” Dreaming big resulted in an internship with Visconti, who was top of her list of people she idolised and dreamed of working with. It was this that led to the chance of a lifetime to work with David Bowie, on what turned out to be his final piece of work.
Like a lot of industries, music or otherwise, there is unfortunately still that divide between men and women, and she notes how it has definitely been an issue in working her way up the ladder. “I don’t know what it’s like being anything other than a women in the industry, but my experiences differ vastly from my male colleagues’. I am so grateful to Tony because me being a woman was never brought up, until he had to stand up for me because someone was being inappropriate or assumed I was his secretary.”
“Having Tony and someone like Bowie giving me his blessing to be part of his record gave me the confidence that I needed and I still have to tap into it today,” she continues. “The world is changing, but I had to learn how to get a tough skin.”
“It’s not just women, it’s people of colour, transgender people; the music industry is white men, that’s it. Not to make gross generalisations but we could really use some diversity and people who think differently. I can’t wait until the day I am no longer a female record producer. It doesn’t make a difference ultimately, we are making music!”
As someone who appears to have literally done it all to get to where she is I’m curious as to what advice she would give to young people trying to get into the industry. “Try and get into a working environment.” She says intensely. “When I first started I was cleaning toilets and making coffee but then I started getting into the studio. You just need to keep showing up.”
“I never had a plan B, I knew this is what I wanted to do and the people who make it are the people who don’t give up.”
Erin Tonkon appears In Conversation at Sound City+ on Friday 3rd May.