Eve Machin is one half of Where Are The Girlbands?, an online platform dedicated to highlighting the community of femxle musicians and artists operating in Liverpool. After a tumultuous and sobering few months for musicians, Eve asks whether the indefinite hiatus on live music will open space for conversation and eradication of previous microaggressions aimed at womxn in the music industry.
One August afternoon a couple of years ago, my bandmate Ella and I were sat at our usual brainstorming spot in Leaf on Bold Street, struggling to plan our next gigs for the summer. Off the top of our heads, we couldn’t imagine any line-ups where we would find ourselves on the bill with a similar style to us; most of the gigs we’d been to recently had been dominated by similar-sounding, four-piece jangly pop boy-bands. Not that we don’t love that classic Liverpool sound; we just felt pretty embarrassed to admit that we couldn’t name more than two Liverpool acts that included a woman.
And of course, this issue is everywhere. It was further brought to attention in the autumn of 2019 after music blogger Lucy McCourt tweeted a graphic of the 2020 Leeds/Reading Festival line-up. The poster reveals that, after removing artists without a femxle member, only 20 of the 96 acts remain. Soon after, The 1975 frontman Matty Healy declared that the band would only play at events with a 50/50 line-up, following the PRS Foundation’s gender pledge initiative, Keychange, which over 150 festivals subscribe to. This has been met by much controversy and accusations of tokenism; a gender-balanced line-up seems to value gender over talent, and at the end of the day, good music is good music.
Esme Grace Brown’s previous column for Bido Lito! describes perfectly how booking ‘female-fronted’ or ‘girlbands’ for the sake of it is patronising and diminishes genuine talent. The issue lies somewhere deeper than just having balanced line-ups; encouragement, empathy, and a bit of respect would help achieve genuinely fair representation, and so festival bookers and promoters would have a bigger pool to choose from, naturally restoring a balance. Really, it’s not about satisfying a statistic, but rather integration
The meeting between myself and Ella got us thinking about the reasons for this lack of representation. And so, WHERE ARE THE GIRLBANDS was born. It started off as a project in the form of an Instagram account; we began seeking out local musicians to feature on the page, and Ella – an artist by trade – provided a little illustration. We wanted to create an online community of femxle creatives, almost as a kind of reassurance that more were out there.
You might be thinking: “I see plenty of women playing music. There’s nothing wrong with the Liverpool scene; it’s a very inclusive place.” And you’d be right. In fact, we were met with immediate backlash, saying that our aims undermine all the work womxn already do. But our name is purposely ironic; we’re aiming simply to improve representation and create a space where womxn can be celebrated, because it’s never easy.
There are all sorts of underlying issues that result in subconscious microaggressions that affect femxle musicians daily. We’ve been posting weekly polls on the account to hear people’s opinions; one week, we addressed whether musicians had ever felt discriminated against for their gender, and received countless anecdotes. Being asked if you need help lifting kit; ignored when talking about sound engineering; being told what to wear at gigs; being mistaken for another band member’s girlfriend, despite carrying an amp and guitar. To be honest, I even think it starts at school; from lads dominating practice rooms, to parents having their girls play the flute and boys thrashing the drum kit. Before we jump to conclusions and think that 50/50 line-ups will solve the problem, we need to look at why this subconscious behaviour manifests itself in the first place.
I moved to Cambridge two years ago for university, and was immediately struck that there wasn’t an obvious music scene to get involved in, despite the abundance of organ recitals and choral evensongs. This year, I’ve set up fortnightly gigs at different venues in the city, making sure they’re free, accessible and have a jam element at the end so people can meet and play together in a friendly atmosphere. But even at my own event, the same subconscious sexism gets to me; the stage is usually dominated by men, especially during the jams, where I speak to women in the audience too shy or uncomfortable to get up and perform. Myself included. At the last gig, I told the guys on stage to wrap up jamming as the venue was closing. After being ignored twice, I had to get my male friend to tell them to get off, to which they immediately responded. It’s frustrating knowing that although this isn’t overt sexism or harassment, it’s still not a level playing field.
We’re also not entirely focussed on promoting womxn and challenging the issues they face in the music scene; in order to be truly heard you have to engage with men, too, because otherwise you’re just preaching to the choir. The involvement of men is just as important as the involvement of womxn because you want them to be engaged in these kinds of discussions. We Are The Girl Bands? is inclusive and open to address class, race, sexuality, disability and more. We’ve also talked to people about venues and space, age gaps in the music scene, collaborations with visual artists and cliques. The account has become a kind of hub for news on gigs, events and opportunities; a platform where musicians and creatives can go for promotion or encouragement; a network for promoters to seek out artists, and, above all, a community – without the artists themselves, the page wouldn’t exist, of course.
So is it important to have femxle-focused organisations like ours, or is it patronising? We try to keep the conversation as inclusive as possible to all genders. Organisations like Bitch Palace and WeWantWomen do fantastic work to promote and empower femxle musicians. In a recent interview with Merseyside punk band Rival Unit, they expressed their appreciation for the events these promoters put on: “There’s definitely a different atmosphere. Particularly with WeWantWomen; they want female artists, most of the crowd know what they’re coming to see… a lot of the people who do go to these events are people who want female artists to be at the forefront… nights like [these] are important for getting women onto that ladder [when starting out]. It’s a really tough experience.”
In light of everything that’s gone on over the last few months, the future of the gig scene is obviously uncertain. With the closure of legendary venues like The Zanzibar and Sound – which supported so many local musicians, first-timers in particular – support for local businesses matters now more than ever. In a post-Covid-19 world, it’s up to the consumer what the gig scene will look like to a certain degree. After this pause, is it time to reflect upon and reassess issues on the scene – or will womxn continue facing the same issues? Will there be a new hunger for live music once it can resume – and how can we make sure that womxn are part of it?
Sometimes I’m a bit sceptical about how we come across; I feel like a lot of the work I do in both Liverpool and Cambridge seems to carry a big ‘Feminist Agenda’, but really I just want womxn’s place on the scene to be normalised and more integrated – sometimes it feels like it’s either belittled or over-exaggerated. At the same time, it’s clear there is a need for an accessible space or community outside of what’s presented to womxn on the scene.