How To Be A Female Musician Starting Out
By Hannah Golightly
In the UK I have always found that guys in bands support and encourage me as a female musician … as long as I refuse to let them touch my guitar (if you do, they will play some wanky-noodly crap on it in an attempt to impress you — even though they couldn’t necessarily write a simple yet catchy hook if their life depended on it). If you stand your ground, set a clear boundary and show self-confidence, then they show you respect. It’s all good-natured. Another tip to female musicians: learn to tune your own guitar. If you do this well in front of guys, they will take you more seriously. A guy would never (as far as I can tell) hand his own instrument to someone else in public to tune it for him. Make it clear that you think it’s sweet of them to offer — because it is. But make it clear that you are capable of doing it yourself.
Men in the music industry fall into two categories in my mind: those who are fascinated by female musicians and those who think you are cutely incapable, less talented, and are trespassing on their turf all in the name of a game – like playing house as a child. Be aware of this and use it to your advantage – because in so much as one type will put you at a disadvantage, the other type will put you at a distinct advantage. You will need all the advantages you can get, just like all male bands need their advantages to compete and succeed – they just happen to be slightly different in nature when you are female.
Remember that the sound man at your gig is the one with all the power. Treat this person with respect even if he/she (but so far I haven’t encountered yet any ‘she’s in this role, dare to dream … ) is a complete knobhead. You are dependent on your relationship and interaction with this person to deliver a good set. Piss this person off at your peril: the result is not hearing yourself through the monitors, while the person doing the sound ignores your hand gestures from the stage, talking to someone else as your set crashes and burns into an out-of-tune mess. (I saw this happening with my own eyes to a girl band at the Great Escape Festival. In fact, why not start off the night by buying this person a drink and having a friendly chat.)
Expect to get more offers of gigs than you can play … especially true while forming your band and before you have a full line-up. People are always looking out for something to make their night special and a little bit different. A girl band or female musician achieves this for them. This is your advantage.
You can decide whether or not to partially trade on your looks as well as your music. If you do so, you will have advantages from the types who think you are cute and playing house. The tricky thing then is that if you look better than you sound, you will get slated for it – you will suddenly be rubbish if you don’t come out playing like a stadium-filling pro. Men will fancy you, they will show up to your gigs … but the jury is out as to whether they will be caught dead actually buying your records, wearing a T-shirt with your band name on it or talking about how great your music is to their friends, a.k.a. the word of mouth factor that is important to success. This will most likely be an annoying hurdle for you if you do decide to look stunning and cool – after all you’ll see many examples of this working for men, pimping out their sexiness and sleeping with lots of groupies. This factor seriously helps men … their music will not suffer criticism for it, quite the opposite. Unfortunately the same cannot yet be said for women, so choose carefully. If you are willing to work hard to become exceptionally good musicians, then looking good is a definitely good way to go: achieve that and you achieve the full package. The other option is to focus on the music (which either way YOU will be doing) and what I mean is, make it LOOK like you are focussed on the music, by creating an anti-image or one that won’t distract from your songs. A good example of this would be Warpaint. They are sexy, I’m sure, but they are primarily about their music, not now much leg they are (not) flashing.
Take yourself seriously when you talk about music. Debunk any hint that you are a novelty act that’s being given a leg-up because you are women and therefore haven’t earned your stripes. If anyone asks why you are all-female, ask why guys tend to play with only men and leave it at that. Why wouldn’t you play with women when you’re a woman? Have a sense of humour about absolutely anything else.
When looking for band members, expect to have more replies to your ‘I’m Forming A Grrl Band’ poster and online ads from men than from women. In fact, any guys wanting to start an all-male band could use this approach to get a lot of responses. It seems that as soon as you discriminate in favour of women, men will be drawn to dominate your band pronto – either that or they fantasise about hanging out with a load of girls with guitars (the type fascinated by female musicians do this.) I was once playing drums in an all-girl New Wave band when we hired a guy to play guitar. When I asked him if he minded being a guy in a girl band, he said not at all “Just as long as everyone thinks I get to sleep with you all”. He was gorgeous, so I let him get away with that joke, plus he respected us as musicians and equals, so this comment was most likely his way of justifying being in a girl band to other men.
Get organised and do regular band rehearsals. Take this commitment seriously by prioritising your practices. This is the only way to get good. Make sure it’s fun and that everyone in the band feels important and is given their say and is given room to express their ideas. This will ensure everyone wants to stay for the long haul. Be friends, don’t be a clique. Know the difference.
Get other people involved. Talk about your band. Network. Form relationships with other bands and promoters. Support your local scene. Keep your eye out for opportunities everywhere.
Make sure at least one band member knows how to drive; being in a band means travelling.
Get a web presence. All the usual sites like Bandcamp, Myspace, Reverbnation, Soundcloud. Essential.
Make your own rules. Above I have attempted to outline the landscape of the music industry from my own experiences. Have an awareness of what goes on, then reject anything that doesn’t add up for you and your band. Everyone is different and will experience different things.
The music industry is currently run by a disproportionate number of men than women. The music industry is also crumbling at the moment in light of the download generation. Record shops are closing. Music is as popular as ever. It could be an ideal time to throw the rule book out the window and create your own music industry landscape. There has never been a better time to be truly independent. The internet provides an insane amount of competition, but it also provides a zillion platforms upon which to be heard.
Vinyl sales are up. Consider pressing records old school. Sell them yourself at your gigs. Make your own T-shirts and merch. Sell these at your gigs and through your website. Make button badges with your band logo on. Sell them at your gigs/give them away for free.
Hold gigs in unusual spaces: your own garage, your kitchen, a field, anywhere. Don’t limit yourself to the established way. Create an experience for your audience. Harvest the buzz.
Get your stuff reviewed on www.collapseboard.com: John Peel is no more, but Everett True is going strong. Know your allies in the press. Or ignore the press. Lock them out of your gigs. Play to the people. Do whatever you like.
Make your own records on your computer. Make your own music videos on your computer.
Attend music festivals that celebrate women in rock music: play to your audience at these festivals. Inspire other women to pick up guitars and drums and form bands. Arrange gigs with other female-inclusive bands.
Spend time writing songs about the things that move you, throwing away traditions of style, structure and lyrical content. This is you you’re expressing, not Elton John.
Be yourself, even if you think acting like a man in a band is the best way to go. Just do it your way, on your terms and be a non-conformist, by which I don’t mean dressing up like the male non-conformists; that is conformity. Be a female musician: that is what makes you special and unique, that you are yourself and have something of value to contribute.
Smile (or scowl) but remember not to be intimidated by men in the studio, in conversation about music/your band or at live gigs. They will sometimes try to patronise you. That’s their issue, leave it to them. To illustrate: I was a drummer in a band and we were playing our first gig in a club in Manchester. I had brought my own drum stool because it was taller than most drum stools. I had also brought my own Zidjian cymbals and my own snare. I had phoned the venue beforehand to make sure there would be two tom-toms as I needed them for most of my songs. I arrived and there was only one tom-tom. The sound man tried to talk me out of needing two. I calmly mentioned that I would be needing two and that I had called the venue to stipulate this and was promised it would be there. The sound man got me a second tom-tom drum without much fuss. Then while I was setting up my cymbals and snare etc, the sund man once again came over (this time to mic up my drums) and queried me on my drum stool. I found this incredibly annoying but kept my cool. He told me my drum stool was too high. I told him that it was just right for me and also that I played drums wearing high heels because of the leverage and control it gave me to get an accurate and heavy attack on the bass drum pedal. He was not convinced of my reasoning. I asked him if he was a drummer (it seemed that he obviously was from the knowledgeable way he was talking) and he said “No, but my son-n-aw is.”
As you can imagine, this was pretty patronising and all delivered in the “‘m trying to be helpful” one of voice. But I was sitting there wondering what on earth possesses a person who doesn’t even play drums to tell someone who has passed grades exams in classical training how to sit at their instrument, when he closed the issue by saying “Well, seeing as you’ve practised like that, tell you what, play that way tonight, but go back into your rehearsals and just TRY to sit lower at your drumkit and see that it makes it better.” I was so infuriated by his lack of respect. All because I was doing something different to what he was used to, because I was doing it my own way, not the way men do it or other drummers in general. I thought “What an idiot. Don’t you get it that when a person learns to play an instrument, they generally copy other people around them, so any deviation from what other people are doing is likely to be intentional?”
I felt like shouting at him that if drumming was considered a female thing in general, then all the male drummers would take to wearing high heeled shoes to play drums because this makes for better, faster, more accurate bass pedal action… but I resisted, and in doing so, didn’t piss off the sound man, and our sound was done really well, and my drumming sounded really good too, because I knew what was best for myself as a drummer.
Be who you are. That is enough.
Photo of Shrag by Greg Neate