Being Female Is Not My Brand
Written for the Ivors Academy on International Womens Day, Emily Saunders and Hannah V speak their thoughts about the music industry.
This is not an article about being female, nor is it an article about the prejudice and hardships that women face in the music industry. This is an article about art.
‘art’ – noun
“The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
My name is Hannah V, I am a record producer, songwriter and pianist – and God, I love my job. I often feel more like a magician than a musician – creating something from nothing. We grasp for a feeling, an emotion, the unknown, and suddenly the bare bones of a song appear.
As producers, we work in service to the song, making adjustments here and there, constantly nipping, tucking and choreographing sounds. As you shape the song, the song shapes you. The struggle is real – one second it slips through your fingers – the next you’re grasping it firmly. You fight with it, you make peace with it, you love it, you hate it. Tension – Release. A final crescendo and there it is – the song, the finished product.
What does this have to do with International Woman’s Day?
Not a lot, and that precisely is my point.
When I walk into the room as a producer, people react to me being a woman; and with that, the pressure of having to prove myself to people that I do not know grows. More importantly, though, they do not know me, nor my dedication to music, my training, my accolades, my talent, my technique or my instinct. At that moment, I am unthinkingly forced to prove that I can do the job that I have trained my whole life for – I cannot let myself slip.
So, what am I asking for?
Let me answer this by giving an example of a recent session.
Last year, I produced an EP in Abbey Road’s iconic Studio 2. Naturally, I was nervous – this was arguably the most famous studio in the world – yet, from the first phone call with the head engineer through to the recording sessions, I was treated with total respect. No eye raises, no trivial mentions of it being “great to have a female producer here”, just “what do you need and how can we support you?”.
My voice was heard, the team were listening – I was seen. And what happens when you are truly seen? You relax. And so, I immersed myself into the session, with nothing in the way of my instinct and the music.
I was in a room with extraordinary musicians, beautiful songs and a phenomenal artist, all whilst feeling unapologetically free to direct the art at hand.
The legacy of the studio did not weigh me down, it uplifted me. The outcome was powerful – I will be proud of these recordings for the rest of my life. Not only in terms of the music but knowing that I have added to the fabric of the building and left some of my authentic self behind.
So, let’s repeat my question – what am I asking for?
It’s pretty simple. Be a considerate and respectful human being.
If I am in the room, assume that I am qualified to be there. See me as the producer that I am and check your unconscious bias at the door – don’t react to my gender or the colour of my skin.
As artists, musicians, engineers and creatives, we are trying to create something bigger than ourselves and give way to a higher calling. My job is to capture life in all its beauty and pain. This takes a microscopic level of attention to detail – every fibre, atom, and molecule of myself is physically and mentally engaged. I simply do not have the time or energy to justify my presence.
Let’s stop magnifying something that just, isn’t – being a woman is not my brand.
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Emily Saunders: Without Question
The countless times I’ve been asked to clarify if I wrote the chords, bassline, and arranged my compositions is heart-breaking. To lay this to rest, yes, I’m a vocalist, a composer, and producer. Maybe it’s a ‘singer’ thing or a ‘women’ thing; all I know is it happens a lot.
People compose, they are artists, they produce. For me that’s where it begins and ends. I prefer to be judged by my work not by my gender.
A world where people feel the need constantly to clarify their professional skills, is a world where people are not used to seeing equal, diverse, inclusive representation in composition, songwriting, producing, and all positions within the music industry. So, how do we get to the position where it’s familiar to see equal representation of women across the music industry? To quote Malala Yousafzai:
“One child, one teacher, one pen, and one book can change the world.”
The way I see this is ‘start from where you are’. Change is seldom given to us, without effort. We have to take action in our music industry, and action for the greater good. Therefore how and what specifically can be done to create the change we need? It’s not that there’s a lack of talent – but there is a lack of representation. What needs to change? Let’s look at some cold hard statistics:
Vick Bain’s Counting the Music Industry Report 2019:
Nadia Khan of Women In CTRL’s Gender Disparity in UK Radio Report 2020 (based on British artists whose songs are registered on Radiomonitor):
“Artists in the Top 100 UK Radio airplay chart 2020: 51% male, 30% collab, 19% female.”
“Songwriters in the Top 100 UK Radio airplay chart 2020: 80% male, 1% non-binary, 19% female.”
“Producers in the Top 100 UK Radio airplay chart 2020: 97% male, 3% female.”
Will redressing imbalances in all music industry areas affect the output in radio, awards, publishing signings, streaming?
I think it’s obvious to say that we need all areas in the music industry to ensure they have appropriate diverse representation. Major industry bodies have huge influence and power in the selection, and featuring of artists, enabling voices to be heard.
How do we create good practice from the beginning? What needs to be done in the music industry in order for women to be able to, more equally, claim their patch in music?
Industry bodies could choose to make immediate adjustments (as some organisations are) in co-opting existing brilliant people into boards and committees, creating an immediate shift that implements a broader and more equal voice. They can also choose to bring the conversation of diversity and inclusion to all meetings, where it may not have previously happened. Also opportunities for women already in positions of power could be funded to mentor more women to be in more senior leadership roles.
There is not a lack of diverse talent, but there is still a lack of diverse representation. We need to act sooner and more quickly to redress the imbalances. Then maybe in the near future, when I refer to my work as vocalist/composer/producer, this will simply be accepted without question. It takes us all to enable the changes we need to happen, so we can all be judged by our work not by our gender.
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