The Leeds Music Hub is a stunning venue, with huge arched windows making the most of the picturesque but gritty urban setting. Today, the sunlight streams in and illuminates the colourful, spacious main room. The incredible vocals and mellow vibe of local alt-rock quintet In Your Prime provide the perfect introductory backdrop to this sunny Sunday afternoon. The mellifluous tones of Ruby Cooke’s voice are perfectly complemented by ambient guitar riffs and the low hum of people arriving and appreciating the relaxed atmosphere. Women in Music, hosted by Leeds label Come Play With Me, pitches itself as ‘an afternoon of discussion and celebration of women in music scenes’. But this event is so much more than that. It is a triumphant holler of energy and passion from women in all sectors of the music industry, it is a rallying cry for equal representation, and most of all it is an inspiration for anyone, of any gender, who loves music.
The first speaker is musician and photographer Suzy Harrison, interviewed by Sarah Statham from Esper Scout. Suzy’s documentary ‘So Which Band is Your Boyfriend in?’ is the result of three years of interviews and research with women and gender-neutral individuals involved in DIY and underground UK music scenes. Suzy’s goal is to draw attention to the gender inequality that still exists in the music industry and to try and find ways to instigate change. The result is a powerful and evocative testimony of real experiences. The accounts of women in the film include instances of being treated differently to male band members and feeling the need to ‘qualify’ or ‘prove yourself’ to be considered as a serious musician. After the documentary, Suzy talks about the strength found by women who are networking with one another for support, sharing stories and working together to showcase their musical talent. Things are moving forward, but progress is too slow and it has been a long time coming.
Next up is Jackie Parsons (Badger) of 1970’s rock band Mother Superior. Jackie’s story is compelling – all-female prog-rock bands were an unorthodox rarity in 1970’s London and the discrimination suffered by the band at the hands of dubious record companies was echoed by the narrow prejudices of male sound engineers and band managers. Despite playing live shows to consistently packed-out venues, Mother Superior were continually overlooked and dismissed by record labels who insisted that there was ‘no market’ for their unique brand of psychedelic prog-rock. One of the most prominent moments of the talk is Jackie’s anecdote about a female guitarist being asked if she was ‘on drugs’ by a male audience member who was clearly flummoxed by the radical notion that your gender does not affect your ability to play an instrument. Today’s crowd are noticeably saddened and humbled by this disturbing narrative of ignorance.
At this point in the day, a beautiful and welcome interlude is provided by self-promoted Youtube sensation Hannah Trigwell. Her set opens with the hauntingly ethereal ‘Another Beautiful Mistake’ – the exquisitely delivered lyrics are faultlessly accompanied by her alluring, folksy guitar riffs. Hannah is a confident performer and is unapologetically herself at all times, interacting warmly with the audience and inviting response to her set. Her songs are full of powerful, brooding refrains and are delivered with exceptional vocal range. The set highlight is a cover of Jax Jones and Raye’s ‘You Don’t Know Me’ – Hannah manages to bring a whole new angle to this sassy track with her distinctively soulful version.
The Industry Panel is made up of 6 extraordinary young women who have had an enormous impact on the Leeds music scene. Each woman tells the rapt audience about their journey into the sometimes treacherous but almost always fruitful waters of the music industry. Emily Pilbeam (who at only 20 years old is talent-spotting and curating shows for BBC Introducing and doing ‘the going home song’ for BBC Radio 1!), speaks about her first foray into radio through doing reviews and features at a hospital. Jaguar Bingham, who now DJs for BBC 1Xtra, started in radio through an apprenticeship at the BBC after graduating from the University of Leeds with an English Literature degree. Miz DeShannon is originally from a design management background and brings her eye for detail and meticulous project management skills to her role as director for Come Play With Me. Kat, from Leeds DJ collective SLUT DROP, talks about how they couldn’t find the music scene they loved in Leeds, so after travelling miles to find the sounds they craved, they decided to create SLUT DROP right here in the city. Emma and Rachel from Park Fires discuss their experience as the only women on the lineup (including the stage managers, event organisers etc) at many of their gigs, and how their experience has inspired them to set up all-female PR agency HER. Emma speaks poignantly about balancing motherhood with being a musician and the pressure to behave and look a certain way as a woman in a band. Every one of these women has constructed her own unique story and their battles and successes along the way have contributed to the fiercely authentic passion that they all share. The session ends on a high note, with top tips for women looking for a career in music and a resounding consensus that hard work and determination pays off. These women clearly have both of those (and so much more) in abundance.
Dr Rosemary Hill, lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leeds, is on next with some thought-provoking research on the portrayal of female music fans. She highlights the stereotypes suffered by women who love music – including the idea that their devotion is all about the ‘look’ associated with the genre they support, and how bands or genres with a majority of female supporters are accused of ‘selling out’. As a woman who has experienced this many times, I found it personally enlightening to hear someone else speak about the persistent questioning of female music fans to ‘prove’ their knowledge and understanding of their chosen band or music scene. She explains how this reduction to purely intellectual knowledge is limiting for all fans of music and denies the true pleasures of enjoying rhythm and sound – including the physical vibrations and mental stimulation of a piece of music. Dr Hill also draws attention to the cliché of the ‘groupie’ and how it denounces women’s sexuality and propagates the potentially dangerous notion that all female fans want to have sex with male band members.
At just after 5pm, NikNak takes to the stage to wow the audience with her super cool mix of old school hip hop, soul and jazz. The laid back vibe is a stunning accompaniment for a sun-drenched Sunday afternoon and sets the ideal tone for the creative panel, made up of a wide variety of musicians from diverse music genres. Both Sarah (guitarist, Esper Scout and drummer, Fig by Four) and Jackie (guitarist, Girlschool) call attention to male-dominated festival line-ups and the lack of exposure for talented female rock musicians in comparison to their male counterparts. Jackie points out that women are traditionally assumed to be the singer in a band and instrumental musicians can often be overlooked. Sophie (drummer, PINS) talks about how she struggled to find female role models growing up and this is followed up by Sarah questioning whether girls are encouraged enough to pick up or try instruments as children. The conventionally restrictive perceptions of women in music result in a pressure for female artists to sexualise themselves and an idea that women need to be ‘wanted’ by men to be successful. This is highlighted by Hannah (solo singer/songwriter and guitarist) who has suffered sexist abuse from both anonymous internet trolls and well-known record producers. Kat (singer, Polo) points out that the experiences of women differ depending on the musical field they work in and also whether they play solo or with a band. The rest of the panel agree with this and are keen to point out that women in music are supporting each other through the solidarity of networking and shared stories. Although all agree about the frustrations of their ‘femaleness’ being constantly identified, change is starting to happen – there are more studies and wider media coverage than ever before and women are speaking out and challenging the stereotypes designed to confine them.
To say that today has been inspirational would be an enormous understatement. The sheer ambition and passion of all the speakers and performers outshines even the early July sunshine and the glow from the audience is palpable. Somehow, today’s event feels like the start of something bigger for women in music – it is an important step towards women feeling able to speak out about something they love without fear of being interrogated or pigeonholed. I feel humbled and privileged to have been here and it makes me proud to say that I am a woman in music.