Through their campaign for gender equality – BOTH SIDES NOW – Brighter Sound are laying the foundations for change in all aspects of the music industry. Their next step sees them collaborate with Stealing Sheep.
In October 2017, around the publication of a new biography, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, The New Yorker published a long essay on the life and career of one of the greatest songwriters of all time. In it, the writer and poet Dan Chiasson offers a fascinating insight into Joni Mitchell’s work and her time as part of a scene of which she consistently resisted the expectations and categorisations.
Amidst a deft analysis of her standing in the annals of popular music, Chiasson implores that “Men often wanted Mitchell to be a wife, a muse, a siren, or a star. Instead, they got a genius, and one especially suited to deconstructing their fantasies of her.” Still having to put up with these presumptuous categories, even the author of the biography, David Yaffe, complains of being rebuffed when initially interviewing Mitchell, lazily describing going on to ‘win over’ her, the “strong, resilient, defiant” woman.
Flipping the trope of the male gaze, Mitchell, ahead of her time, puts John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing into action, unpacking a male-centric view of the arts in which women are the subjects of great art, not the creators of it. In her songs, the dons of the scene Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan (in her words, a “perverse little brat”) and playwright Sam Shephard, amongst others, become the difficult muses, her encounters fuelling what she is perhaps known best for – her unparalleled lyricism. Mitchell’s legacy – as her work did in real time – contends with the expectations of the men around her, but their antiquated labelling could never suffocate her. The categories that Chiasson plucks out – wife, muse, siren, star – are just a handful of the numerous restrictive labels and burdens placed on women who practice music or the wider arts. The representation of women artists, in turn, is just one part of wider conversations taking place about gender equality in the music industry. One such programme pushing the agenda forward lends its name from the title of one of Mitchell’s most preternaturally visionary and devastatingly perceptive songs – BOTH SIDES NOW.
Set up by music charity Brighter Sound, Both Sides Now is the Manchester-based charity’s flagship campaign for addressing gender equality in the music industry. Taking on a different meaning entirely from Mitchell’s tormenting love song, Both Sides Now hinges on a demand for a sea change.
It seems at odds with the times that the core of the music industry should remain relatively unperturbed by the recent #MeToo movement that, co-opted by Hollywood, has pushed debate around the gender pay gap, sexual misconduct and gendered violence to the front of newspapers, Twitter feeds and public consciousness.
If you had any doubts about how ingrained gender inequality is in the music that we consume, the Billboard Power 100 List, which ranks the most influential individuals in the music industry and is considered the go-to list of its type, included just eight women in its 2017 edition (though Billboard insist on publishing a separate list specifically for industry women). For 2018, women make up 17% of the list, though there is only one woman in the Top 25 in a standalone role – four more share a billing in an otherwise all-male team. A recently published report by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that from 2013 to 2018, women made up a paltry 9.3% of Grammy Award nominees. The documentary Play Your Gender points out that less than 5% of music producers are female.
Away from the boardrooms and award ceremonies, you see gender inequality at every level of the snaking industry hierarchies – splashed all over festival line-ups, behind the scenes in venues and studios, in music shops, in music publications, in pay packets, in the subconscious of women who are socialised to doubt their right to a place in the industry at all.
When Brighter Sound began to offer creative residencies, they found that on average only a quarter of applicants were women – even for those residencies led by female artists. “We decided to trial doing a female-only residency to see what would happen and we were inundated with applications from women. The feeling that the residency is meant for them really shone through,” Lucy Scott, programme manager for Both Sides Now, tells me.
“Just one really good aspect of the residencies is the space and time it creates for artists to think about their craft.” Operating across the North of England, Brighter Sound have worked with artists across multiple genres on both open-to-all residencies and residencies that are for women and non-binary, cis-gendered, and trans artists only. Artists as diverse as Shiva Feshareki, Beth Orton, ESKA, DJ Yoda and Anna Meredith have spearheaded these week-long workshops where musicians collaborate with one another and develop their work alongside more established figures.
With 2018 being the centenary of the first women being able to vote in the UK, a conversation developed with the Liverpool-based STEALING SHEEP to run a residency in the city that would commemorate this landmark anniversary and celebrate the work of the Suffragettes. Issuing a call out to female percussionists in the region, the trio announced that they would be creating a Suffragette Tribute.
“They’re such a creative and exciting band – you can see it in the way they present their imagery and their artwork – but you can also hear it in their music,” enthuses Lucy about Brighter Sounds’ choice to work with Stealing Sheep. “I think that the artists they work with are gonna get so much out of it, working with these amazingly creative people and thinking about their own work differently.”
“It’s just a real honour to try and do something artistic with such a big message… It’s quite emotional as well, because you want it to be from the heart,” says Stealing Sheep’s Becky Hawley when I meet her and Lucy Mercer to discuss their plans for the project. Acknowledging the inequalities in political participation that still exist today across the globe, these injustices remind us that 100 years ago, it was still only certain women in the UK (over the age of 30 and with property rights) who were allowed the vote – and, more crucially, that there is still so much to be done to achieve gender equality across the globe, and across various spectrums of intersecting inequalities. “It’s this thing which we all generally accept, just standard human rights which we see as being normal, even though there are a lot of inequalities in our culture still – especially in other parts of the world.”
The residency will take place at Invisible Wind Factory at the end of April. Ambitious in its artistic vision and scope, Stealing Sheep will be working with students from Edge Hill University to get all the participants into costume, then spending five days with the drummers learning the rhythms and the choreography. Culminating in a procession at Liverpool Sound City (co-commissioned by the festival, Brighter Sound and Edge Hill University), the performance encompasses the drummers and dancers as well as map projections of work by surrealist LA-based artist Tyler Spangler and illustrations by Stealing Sheep’s own Emily Lansley. A streamlined version of the Tribute will tour a number of festivals over the summer, including End Of The Road, Festival No. 6 and Head For The Hills. Taking up a loud and flamboyant space in society – quite literally reclaiming the streets for their Sound City procession – Stealing Sheep are hoping that the legacy of the Suffragette Tribute will encompass more than just the performances.
“Women are much harder on themselves… it’s there in the subconscious, isn’t it?” says Becky. “This is the opposite of that in action, loads of women being powerful and relaxed around each other, and not feeling intimidated. Cos nobody’s testing you, you’re gonna hopefully be in a safe place. And also, a space to experiment and be wrong sometimes, and that’s fine too.”
“I’d like people to feel more capable of doing things, I’d like for them to feel they’re included in something” Lucy Mercer adds, drawing upon her own experiences with the band. “I think something we’ve individually struggled with over the past seven years is a lot of doubt, and self-belief as well. So, if I went to a workshop, especially full of women, I would like that feeling of achievement… that sense of working together and being part of something, and for it to be an enjoyable experience.”
As well as their creative residencies, the activity that falls under the Both Sides Now umbrella encompasses every aspect of the industry – from facilitating debates with industry leaders and changing education in schools, to providing industry apprenticeships and traineeships. “With the programme we want to look at the artistic side but also the careers and getting into the industry,” Lucy Scott informs me.
For Lucy Scott, gender equality in the music industry would look like “mixed boardrooms and mixed decisions makers being from diverse backgrounds – and not just gender diversity but also diversity of socio-economic background, ethnicity and sexuality as well.” She pauses, then continues, “I think for public-facing events and shows – so for instance, panel discussions and those ‘get into the industry’ style events that people do for emerging artists – there would be 50:50 representation on all of those panels and masterclasses. If you walked into a practice room or studio or venue anywhere in the world, you would see girls and boys playing instruments. What else? Festivals would feel really exciting and for people in the audience, you’d feel like you were seeing people you could relate to on stage.”
Both Sides Now’s Open Space events have asked this question of participants in a series of discussions across the North. At the Liverpool Open Space, I recall feeling frustrated with how the attendance was heavily skewed towards female participants, because the gatekeepers of the industry are so often male – and because men stand to benefit from feminism and greater gender equality in general, if not at least because tired and unrealistic conceptions of masculinity mesh together to encourage poor mental health.
“I don’t think you can have any conversation or initiate any kind of change or any kind of evolution without all voices being involved,” agrees Lucy Scott. “With the artistic residencies I think it’s really important to create a space for women to be creative and to develop their artistic practice. With the process of applying and coming forward, just creating that safe space has really had an impact on the number of applications we’re getting for women, and on our other Brighter Sound residencies and throughout the programmes we run. But with the discussion and campaign side of it, it’s absolutely essential that male representation should be a thing. It feels counterproductive not to have men involved.”
It’s evident that changing attitudes to gender in the music industry will run concurrent with changing attitudes in wider society, and this means getting more men comfortable with feminism – and getting everyone more comfortable with the idea that we don’t need to foster different expectations for girls and boys, or women and men. Encouraging children to pursue what they’re passionate about from school age, and providing positive role models from across the gender spectrum, is one way of removing the limitations of gendered roles from future generations, and that’s just what Brighter Sound are doing.
“We’re developing a music education resource that will go into primary schools and secondary schools and be taught as part of their school music lessons. We’re working with an organisation called Charanga who create resources for teachers and they’re used in 90% of primary schools and 70% of secondary schools nationwide.”
Lucy Scott also informs me that as part of Both Sides Now’s ongoing activity, there are plans in motion to host artist residencies that are specifically for 16 to 18-year-olds, and that they’ll be launching a series of traineeships and apprenticeships focussing on backstage, industry and business roles, again open for anyone identifying as female, trans, non-binary or cis-gendered to take part in. Gender equality isn’t going to happen overnight, but Both Sides Now is laying the foundations, to create tangible, long-lasting change in the music industry – championing artists, encouraging collaboration, dismantling gender roles and giving women the opportunities and resources to carve out their own path in the music industry (and give other women a leg up while they’re at it).
Stealing Sheep bring their Suffragette Tribute to Sound City on 5th and 6th May.