A lot has been reported recently about the lack of women in electronic music, whether it’s on lists like the 50 best DJs of the year, playing club nights, or performing at festivals. In the latter case, last year the female:pressure network published a survey that gathered data from 229 electronic music festivals around the world, including BPM in Mexico, Dekmantel in Holland and Movement in the US. Between 2014 and 2017 a mere 15% of all acts were female. There’s clearly a problem here, so how do we fix it?
Myriad reasons have been bandied about as to why this is happening, from the absurd to the infuriating, such as that there aren’t that many female DJs in the first place, or women don’t like dance music very much.
Madame Gandhi , is a performer, producer and activist who gained recognition as the drummer for M.I.A. and Thievery Corporation, and later made headlines when she ran the London Marathon bleeding freely while on her period to defy the stigma that surrounds menstruation.
The problem with electronic music, she says, is that there are not enough female-identifying people in the producing and engineering seats. Without seeing women in these roles, young girls don’t consider them career options, whereas “young boys see the DJ hero with millions of people in front of them. They see the Aviciis of the world, and they hear about Skrillex.”
Gandhi says this is because women and girls are valued for their looks, while boys are valued for their skills. “If you tell one gender group they have to spend [time] on their nails, their hair in the morning, shaving their legs in the shower, putting make up on, putting lipstick on, managing their weight, whatever it is at whatever age group, those are hours spent each day, each month and then across a whole life taken away from their ability to invest in their skill set. Meanwhile the boys are becoming better engineers, spending hours in front of [music software] Ableton. They’re in their sweatpants not worrying about how they look, they’re worrying about how much of their brain has developed in relation to being able to record music.”
“Even in my own career while I was lucky to have found the drums, there was never a moment when someone looked at me and was like, “you should try making your own music.” I always assumed I would have to rely on a bunch of guys at the computer, and it’s crazy for how forward-thinking I am that it didn’t even occur to me I might be able to produce my own music.”
Four years ago she produced her first few songs, and in 2016 she released Voices, her first EP. The five tracks of smooth electro-pop conclude with the glitchy rap number The Future Is Female, a call to arms for all women.
Hearing stories of fellow musicians being in situations where they felt vulnerable – when a producer wouldn’t send them their music, refused to pay them, or made them feel uncomfortable in the studio – spurred her to produce for other women. “Knowing all this really made me want to contribute to the change” she says, “to be the one at the laptop, not to use that power for exploitation but instead for empowerment, and to uplift others.”
She explains that during production she makes it a point to ensure everyone feels happy and safe to take risks, such as playing around with dissonant sounds. “The experimental phase is how you get to access the good stuff, so if I’m saying it’s ok to sound weird because we all know we’re trying to sound good, that makes the other musicians feel that they can do the same without being judged or criticised, and that’s really important.”
Gandhi looks out for the physical wellbeing of the musicians during lengthy recording sessions too, from simple things like taking a walk to the nearest coffee shop to have a break, to feeding them healthy food like nuts and fruit. “All these things are just enormously healthy and powerful, and I really try to embody them when I’m producing.”
“Women and girls are valued for their looks, while boys are valued for their skills”
In terms of getting more women on stage, one of the solutions posed by female:pressure is public grants, as these subsidies are often subject to rules concerning gender diversity. “Even just seeing the advertisement for the grant means a woman might go for something that she wouldn’t otherwise” Gandhi says. “Producing is extremely expensive! I feel lucky I’ve been able to subsidise part of my own music career by doing speaking and consulting work which then allows me to buy the gear I need. Grants are a great way not only to encourage women to pick up the drumsticks or Ableton Live, or start producing or whatever, but it also offsets a lot of the costs that I would imagine disproportionately hit women worse.” These costs could be things like having to take time off during pregnancy, or for childcare.
A quick search through female:pressure’s extensive database , or under “female dj” on Mixcloud shows there’s certainly no shortage of talented women making, mixing and playing electronic music. However Gandhi says a reason for their lack of visibility is that they don’t tend to shout about it. “Women often don’t oversell themselves because everyone is already underestimating us, and so we feel so much psychological pressure to be at some sort of unreachable Beyonce level before we even throw our name in, or think we’re worthy of management, or an agent, or posting on Facebook.”
In a recent interview for Channel 4 News, EDM musician Steve Aoki said men have to step aside to make room for women DJs and producers, and festivals need to start taking positive action to not just book the hottest acts, but book all ethnicities and all gender groups.
“If they want to have some of the best talent in the world on their line ups, [festivals need] to be more active and aggressive about listening to female musicians, musicians of varying gender identities, varying disabilities, racial and ethnic backgrounds” Gandhi says. “They will have to listen to artists who are in the periphery and may not have all the Spotify streams and Instagram followers that Skrillex might have, but who are so good, and if put in front of an audience would take that opportunity so seriously and deliver.”
“We’re not asking festivals to programme music they don’t think is good, we’re asking festivals to recognise that there is inherent bias in the selection process, whether conscious or unconscious, that there are systemic oppression points that hold women and marginalised communities back from making the best music they can, and that those who are already trying to make music and put it out, definitely need the extra support to get their work out. And how amazing for a festival to do that work and claim they are the ones who discovered that artist?”