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Emily Gonneau: What being a woman in music is really like

“Women are judged on the basis of our gender before we utter a word or thought,” says the artist manager & Unicum Music founder

By

Emily Gonneau

It has to be said: the progressive stages of acceptance leading to the writing of this specific article have taken me very much by surprise and are nothing short of an initiatic journey.

After many stops, starts and twisted circumvolutions, I became aware of the impossibility to treat the topic any other way than sincerely and personally. It was also the only path I was deeply reticent to tread because it being so close to home, so ‘out-there’, I was exposing myself to being shouted into silence by the usual suspects: a horde of people online I don’t know but ever-ready to disqualify my own voice and deny me the legitimacy of my word on a topic they are ignorant of, just because I am a woman.

Yes, I am a woman in the music industry. And? Well, it makes a difference. A big difference actually.

It’s feeling between a rock and a hard place when you have to promote a female artist according to standards you wouldn’t want for yourself, for a first. It’s having to compose with a biased system in which the male gaze prevails in pretty much everything. It’s having to manage the glass ceiling your (female) artist hits when some guy somewhere, not the most honest or competent, has decided to portray her as “difficult” and “aggressive” just because she was being assertive and confident in where she wanted to go.

An increasing number of female artists are speaking up against the everyday sexism and double standards they face (Nicki Minaj, Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry, Lily Allen, and many more) and that’s a wonderfully inspiring trend to see.

But the whole industry will not change the way it portrays women and female artists in particular until a majority of our male-dominated industry contributes to either avoid the reproduction of sexist/misogynistic stereotypes; or (more realistically), more women populate the music industry’s ‘behind the scenes’ talent, at all levels, not just the lower ones.

We desperately need more women artist managers, record label execs, publishers, tour/live promoters, brand execs, start-up founders and entrepreneurs because the current status quo only perpetuates criteria for competence and success that imply late nights out away from your kids, talking the talk and dazzling artists into thinking music industry folk should be expected to stand on call 24/7. Look no further: it’s a freedom of life and lifestyle that only men are really allowed in our current societies.

What is the difference when you’re a woman working in the music industry, but not as an artist?

Not being in the limelight has some advantages (hopefully, this article won’t change that): luckily, we aren’t expected to flash our breasts countless times in a video for people to remember our song or listen to what we have to say. We don’t have the press naming and shaming us on the world stage when we’ve had a bad hair day or gone for a swim in the sea with an imperfect yet real body. We are also spared the flood of vicious, hateful, deeply violent comments online that female artists get every single day (cf. Chvrches) because we aren’t in the limelight. Last but not least, we still have the right to our privacy meaning who we date, marry or parent with is not widely covered by… anyone at all. And thank bloody goodness for that.

No, as women ‘behind the scenes’, we face other issues. Our problem is how we battle daily to stay apparent in this business, to not be dismissed as irrelevant in comparison with our male counterparts on the basis of fallacious beliefs which all stem from widespread prejudice about what women are intellectually and physically capable of doing. More often than not, the arguments justifying these preconceptions are based on hazardous biological notions so rampant they have become ‘knowledge’. As a result, we women are judged on the basis of our gender and our bodies before we utter a word or thought. How comforting.

 

Being a woman in the music industry really is quite an experience…

- It’s attending countless professional meetings as the only woman in the room with all other participants making sexist jokes as a systematic preamble to any discussion while watching you closely to see if you’ll laugh along or flare up like a ‘typical’ woman

- It’s hearing a label head openly explain to his A&Rs that his masterplan for a successful female R‘n’B artist’s new album release is to pay her a mandatory facelift and boob job. Otherwise, she’s doomed (said artist is usually no older than 23)

- It’s seeing female colleagues labeled as ‘whores’ because they made out with male colleagues at the office Christmas party and ‘attention whores’ if they complain about it. Women always lose out in the reputation game

- It’s realising the only ones who got promoted in a team of people you worked with six years ago are the men

- It’s seeing one of the rare female A&Rs in the industry get belittled and malevolently portrayed as a drunk. Her previous track record obviously wasn’t enough for her boss, who stole her achievements and systematically ‘forgot’ to include her in email loops and meetings

- It’s having threats of physical violence shouted at you by an incompetent self-proclaimed label owner, utterly scandalised you actually expect him to do what he legally committed to after he tried to rip off an artist you manage

- It’s being told “Product manager in this industry is a man’s job” as you integrate an all-male team of 15 people. (May I suggest implementing testosterone checks for all team members upon entering the building every morning? The company’s whole future apparently depends upon this)

- It’s being briefed army-style on your first day by the label head about the golden rule: “You mustn’t ever sleep with the artist.” (Oh dear, I was grossly mislead on the level of fun I was going to enjoy. How unfair we can’t all behave like animals!)

- It’s being let in on the company gossip by a female colleague with a well-meaning wink informing you that Exec x-y-z thinks you’re “super hot” and wouldn’t mind “bedding you”. (You flatter me. May I suggest updating my job description to include a list of all the things I am apparently expected to accomplish without the help of my brain?)

- It’s being advised by your immediate boss that the best way to secure a solid future for yourself is to get impregnated by a rich artist you work with because “he likes you”. (A more than welcome “only kidding” sadly never followed)

- It’s the panic attack you get 3 days after the happiness surge of learning you are pregnant, and then wondering how you are ever going to reconcile two very different lives of company owner and mother

- It’s the fear that builds up before having to break the news of your pregnancy to a male artist with whom you work with and the lucid understanding it’s the very thing that instantly disqualifies you from ‘taking care of’ said artist. (Darling, I’ll give you a hint: you’re 30 years older than future-human-being, but if you really want to compare yourself with him or her, my pregnancy might not be your biggest life issue)

- It’s the number of people who tell you how to do your job despite you founding your own company years ago; or who advise you to “mother” the all-male 20-something band you manage.

 

And so on and so forth. Think I’ve had it rough? Oh no I haven’t. I’ve had it really easy, actually.

Because I’m not alone. I’m lucky to have an amazing husband who supports me and my career choices, who does his all so we both enjoy fulfilling lives and both follow up on exciting professional opportunities. Sure, it takes a more planning ahead but our kid is happy because he sees both his parents are happy.

Because I come from a bilingual and super supportive family that relentlessly told me from day one that the sky was the limit, that I could be anything I wanted to be and do anything I wanted. That structures your mind as a human being and builds your confidence as a woman. Thank you Mum, merci Paps.

Because I’m a boring heterosexual. I’ve never had to lie by omission on topics unrelated to my professional field that would have nonetheless had an impact on my reputation.

Because I am white. I’m acutely aware of how much more discrimination wasn’t thrown my way because of my skin colour and of the staggering amount of racist fetishist fantasies women of colour are projected on and have to deal with on top of sexism and everything I mentioned above.

 

We need this industry to change, and fast. It’s cruel to see women work so hard, be so passionate and stellar at their jobs and yet accumulate so much lack of recognition while paying such a high personal and professional price just because they are women. I yearn for the carefreeness of life in which you don’t have to start off battling, deconstructing prejudice and proving your worth before you have even gotten a chance to say a word. Is it so much to ask, after all?

Luckily, some people value our thoughts and give us a voice and the space to speak up. Some men believed in me and gave me my big break. midemblog, and James Martin particularly, also have my full gratitude for giving me the complete latitude to choose my topics, tone, thoughts and views expressed, timing and frequency. It’s so rare. All the more because I am no exception: regular contributors and writers of some of midemblog’s most popular (read and shared) articles have been written by fellow female professionals: US manager extraordinaire Emily White, and fellow Brits Lucy Blair and Alison Lamb. Ladies, you shine, and your ideas are well worth guiding the world.

So. Where to from here? And how can men help?

First gentlemen, please realise we want partners, not saviours. We want to solve our problems with solutions we came up with ourselves. It’s not just a question of pride, it’s also a matter of adequacy. “So why do you tell me about all this? I feel useless” is usually the next thing you say. Please don’t get us wrong: when we talk to you about the amount of discrimination we confront on a daily basis, we are only trying to explain to you what we feel and think. We are just processing differently. Our feelings and thoughts don’t need to have their validity assessed or approved. Our feelings are valid. Our thoughts are valid. Our solutions are valid. And they way we individually and collectively as women choose to deal with wide-scale discrimination and combat oppression is valid. We don’t need or want you to tell us what we should be thinking and how we should be emotionally dealing with something you have never experienced.

However, what we do want, what we really really want, is for you to listen to us (our experiences, our thoughts on sexism in the music industry) with as little prejudice as possible so as to consequently work out for yourselves and at your level how you can best help things change on a daily basis towards full equality between you and us.

It’s not laughing at a rape joke; rather, telling the colleague who thought it was a good idea why it’s offensive. It’s stating that the millionth music video synopsis “glorifying” x-y-z female artist’s beauty and sexiness is not only unoriginal and terribly boring, it’s essentially missing the point of her message. It’s not ogling another female music biz counterpart or making comments about how ‘fit’ she is in the middle of a meeting. It’s thinking twice before interrupting a female colleague who is presenting a new idea because she is taking too long or her voice is too shrill, give her space, let her speak, let her finish. It’s shaking off the habit of organising impromptu meetings at 6pm without a thought about whom it excludes. It’s expecting your female colleague to say something smart and to excel, not the opposite.

Because things will never change until men also contribute to our long and tiring journey to full equality. Until men see their interest in giving up the power and advantages they benefit from in a patriarchal society, our voices will go unheard and our frustration grow to unprecedented heights. A world in which men and women are treated equally will mean there will be less pressure on men to conform to social norms, to violence, to spending their lives living up to imposed standards of what ‘success’ has been defined to be. They too can benefit from it if they are willing to look over the glasses of their own privilege.

The story of women in the music industry is a story of legitimacy and entitlement. Or lack thereof. Inferiority leads to illegitimacy, a pervasively deep-rooted problem. Except there are factually no grounds for being convinced of our own inferiority. Really, we women should know our place isn’t only at a man’s side, at the back of the room or at the bottom of the organisational chart: it’s right where we want to be and on our very own terms. And there’s no need for us to justify ourselves about it either.

 

More about music as a social change driver with will.i.am’s Midem 2014 intervention; followed by a panel discussion featuring Maureen Ford, Live Nation Network; Neeta Ragoowansi, Women in Music; and Ralph Simon, Mobilium Global & MEF.

Emily Gonneau is the manager of artists like Emilie Chick, and a consultant for OK Go. Read all of her midemblog posts here. You can follow her company, Unicum Music, on Twitter & check out its website here.

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  1. On March 25, 2014 at 11:35 pm Celene said:

    As a female drummer who is continuously judged before I play, dismissed before I am heard, interrupted when I speak, ignored by club owners and festival offices I approach with band material, I can definitely relate to your experiences. Often the surprise and novelty accompanied with being a female in a male dominated industry minimizes the work I have put in to mastering my instrument, reducing me to my gender. Both women and men are happily surprised, but do not understand how deflating it is to be categorized by gender. I want my accomplishments to be recognized, not my gender.

    I am lucky to have found a group that works well together, who don’t dish out sexist comments, and often defend me or dismiss sexist or rudeness from others. They know the value I bring to the music we play and the business we run together.

    I also wish that society would change the patriarchal protectionist viewpoint. Men need to be the leaders in this, to speak up and change the negative attitudes surrounding women into positive messages about all of us human beings.

  2. On March 26, 2014 at 3:52 am Clyde Smith said:

    It’s so depressing women still to have to face this kind of nonsense.

    The world has lost a lot by keeping women down.