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Gone Grrrlz?

Male musicians wildly outnumber females in the local music scene
Organizer Matrisha Armitage with 2013’s GRRRLZ Rock musicians. Caroline Bauer. Halie Loren. Betty and the Boy (not pictured: Jon Conlon). Photos by Rob and Tracy Sydor • robsydor.com
Organizer Matrisha Armitage with 2013’s GRRRLZ Rock musicians. Caroline Bauer. Halie Loren. Betty and the Boy (not pictured: Jon Conlon). Photos by Rob and Tracy Sydor • robsydor.com

On the Billboard Hot 100 charts — ranking song popularity across genres — the top three slots are currently filled by Lorde (“Royals”), Katy Perry (“Roar”) and Miley Cyrus (“Wrecking Ball”). On the radio, that trio plus Lady Gaga and Lana Del Ray all place in the top 10 played artists. Over the past year, other female-centric acts have made many more a top 10 list: Alabama Shakes, Beyoncé, Fiona Apple, Cher, Norah Jones, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Beach House, CHVRCHES. These trends, however, are not reflected in the Eugene music scene.

The above numbers may seem like women rule the music world, but when was the last time you saw a successful all-girl band? How about the last time you saw a female drummer or bass player? Two weeks ago, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame announced its shortlist of inductees for 2014 and only two of the 16 acts include women (Linda Ronstadt and Chic). Female acts rarely headline major music festivals — in 2013 the headliners at most festivals like Bonnaroo, Bumbershoot, Lollapalooza, What The Festival, Outside Lands and Kaleidoscope were predominantly male. According to a study done by the National Endowment for the Arts (2008), women account for one-third of all musicians. 

“When you look at statistics like that, you would think women are not interested in playing music,” says activist and journalist Carla DeSantis Black, a former Eugenean who has devoted her life to advocating for women’s issues in music on a national level. “It’s very, very discouraging.” Back in 1995, Black was prompted to create ROCKRGRL, a magazine devoted to “talking shop” with female musicians often overlooked by the mainstream media, after reading an interview in Rolling Stone in which an interviewer asked a female musician what perfume she preferred. Since then she’s founded MEOW (Musicians for Equal Opportunities for Women), which is dedicated to supporting women in the music industry and holds conferences that discuss the very real issues women face in the male-dominated industry. 

These issues aren’t just occurring at a national level; in fact, the numbers locally are worse. After tallying the ratio of female-to-male centric acts that have hit the stages of WOW Hall, Cozmic, Sam Bond’s, The Shedd and McDonald Theatre and Cuthbert Ampitheater over the past six months (May to October), female-led acts account for about 13.3 percent, a great deal less than the 33.3 percent cited by the National Endowment for the Arts. In Eugene, between artists, bookers and professionals behind the scenes, women appear to be pushed out or just plain absent. 

This is a town brimming with local female talent — Halie Loren, Deb Cleveland, Siri Vik, Betty and the Boy, Caroline Bauer, Blue Lotus, Anna Gilbert, Small Joys, Sara Scofield and Tara Stonecipher and The Tall Grass to name a few. In addition to local talent, Eugene’s location between Portland and San Francisco sees an endless cycle of regional and national acts touring up and down the I-5 corridor. So why the disparity? As a woman, journalist and KWVA DJ, I myself have had to do some reflection about my male-heavy playlists. Blaming this phenomenon on one group of people or one state of mind would overly simplify a complex and ingrained societal problem. To find out where the disparity lies, EW spoke with the women behind Grrrlz Rock, local bookers, producers and musicians.

 

BEHIND THE CURRRTAIN

Like Black, local musician and former talent booker Cindy Ingram noticed this trend in Eugene. Eight years ago, Ingram started Grrrlz Rock, an annual music and arts festival celebrating and supporting women in the music industry that spans the month of November, booking stages all over town with female talent. “I thought, well, what if I put some effort in getting some women together? The fact that I had to seek those women out showed me there was a need,” Ingram says. Even after she curated a strong female-centric lineup, Ingram says the festival remained male-heavy. “If you were to count all the musicians in all the bands, it was primarily men, even in Grrrlz Rock.” While the leadership and goal of the festival has changed throughout the years, the disparity in the overall number of female musicians in town has generally stayed the same.

One aspect that cannot be ignored is that the gatekeepers of the Eugene music scene, bookers, are predominately men. Mac Goodwin, owner of the Oak Street Speakeasy, is the lone female booker. In her own role in the music scene, Goodwin experiences sexism quite frequently — not with the artists she books, but personally. “I know I get treated differently for a being a woman,” she says. Goodwin speaks of malevolent rumors that were spread about her and her female employees, despite her many years of experience helping manage music venues and bars. “There were rumors that we were sleeping with all the bands, and that’s the only reason people would play here,” Goodwin says. “People just assume I’m like a groupie or something, not really doing the job I say I’m doing.” Goodwin says she often runs into many distributors who will refer to her as “sweetie” or can’t believe that she could possibly be capable of running a music venue without the help of a man. Even with that perspective, the music roster for Oak Street Speakeasy tends to lean toward male acts.

“She’s the exception that proves the rule,” says Calyn Kelly of Goodwin. Kelly, booker for WOW Hall, says he has spent a lifetime pondering the gap. “I think that by and large, it is a male-dominated industry,” he says. “I would like to see more females. It tends to be men who want to impress women,” adding that “I’ve always wanted to find the female who is as excited about music as I am.”

In addition to WOW Hall, male talent bookers call the shots at Cozmic, Sam Bond’s, The Shedd and McDonald Theatre and Cuthbert Amphitheater. Mike Hergenreter, talent buyer for Kesey Enterprises, which books for McDonald and Cuthbert, declined to comment for this story.

Peter Wilde, talent booker at Sam Bond’s Garage, and Alec Cox from Cozmic cite the overall number of female acts touring through the area as the main reason for the disparity. 

“When I start looking at who wants to come through here, who wants to play here,” Cox says, “it’s male heavy.” Cox also says he observes a difference in temperament from female artists. “If I really go out on a limb,” he tells me cautiously, “I think musically, women have a more emotional approach to it, which can tend to leave them guarded and not wanting to step up and out.” 

Like Wilde and Cox, Kelly says who he books depends largely on who is touring. That may be true, but it’s hard to ignore that there are many more female-led acts touring Portland and San Francisco than are stopping in Eugene. And in a town where some of the best-attended shows in the past six months were Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside and Thao and the Get Down Stay Down, it’s hard not to wonder why acts like CHVRCHES, The Joy Formidable, Emmylou Harris, Janelle Monáe, Sleigh Bells, Heartless Bastards, Camera Obscura, India.Arie, Fiona Apple and the Indigo Girls — all of which played Portland in the period from May to October — did not come to Eugene. On the other hand, are Eugene audiences even asking for female-fronted acts?

 

SONGBRRRDS

On stage and off, female musicians are subject to the same sexist attitudes, both casual and blatant. While no artist interviewed said that she’s experienced sexism from bookers, each of them have faced very real condescending and patronizing experiences related to their gender from men in different facets of their careers. 

“I was heckled once when I was 15,” jazz vocalist Halie Loren tells me quietly over a cup of coffee. Loren, who’s based in Eugene but tours nationally and internationally, released an album this fall — Simply Love — that ranked number one on Billboard Japan’s jazz charts. The professional songstress tells me about a man in the audience of one show who insisted on making sexist remarks toward her looks, disregarding her talent. “That’s just super inappropriate for any age woman, much less a 15-year-old girl, but I think that that unfortunately is this thing that’s still super present in music.” 

Local indie folk singer Caroline Bauer — whose music video for her 2013 track “Last Train Home” was part of the official selection for this year’s Portland Film Festival, L.A.’s International Film Festival of Cinematic Arts and the Long Island International Film Expo — speaks to the patronizing challenges that an up-and-coming female artist faces backstage. “Early on I had a few different experiences of older men in positions of power, whether they were booking guys or venue owners or even just more experienced musicians, who made a point of telling me ‘You’ve got potential, kid’ as if they had ‘discovered’ me and were going to take me under their wing and slingshot me into stardom,” the young singer-songwriter says. “It felt condescending.”

It’s troublesome that these experiences are so common, even at a local level, for a woman pursuing a career in entertainment. To compound the issue, women are often held to a quite different standard in terms of looks and persona than men. “What you have to say becomes less important than how you look,” Black, of ROCKRGRL, says. “We’re losing voices. We’re losing perspectives for outfits and mini-dresses.” 

“Everything I’ve experienced with talent agencies is very based on your looks,” says Bettreena Jaeger, front woman of local band Betty and the Boy, co-winner of EW’s Next Big Thing 2011 (they tied with Tyler Fortier). “Men don’t really have to try to be cool when they’re holding a guitar. Women sort of have to add something if they’re not initially attractive.” With pure talent at the forefront of her success, it was a double standard that Jaeger wouldn’t succumb to. 

Sex does sell, and when you see the Miley Cyruses cashing in on it, traipsing up and down our airwaves, television screens and twitter feeds, putting the word “twerk” on the fast track to a spot on the pages of Merriam-Webster, it seems the only choice major female performers have is to be lusted after or laughed at. This September in The Guardian, Lauren Mayberry of electro- pop trio CHVRCHES discussed her disgust for the casual objectification she experiences as a part of a band born on the internet. Similarly, critically acclaimed Canadian producer and musician Claire Boucher, aka Grimes, put the music world on blast last April with a stirring post on her Tumblr page that called out the many strange behaviors and acts of sexism she encounters as a solo female artist. 

 

THE GENDERRRED NORM

“I’ve never heard of anyone saying, ‘Well I didn’t get a gig because I’m a woman,’” says Billy Barnett, local producer, sound engineer and lead guitarist for Mood Area 52. After working with countless talented female musicians at his Gung-Ho recording studio, at the Eugene Symphony and on stage, the producer thinks the problem lies deeper in society’s social gender norms. “This could be from a man’s standpoint, but I just don’t see intentional obstacles, other than the general cultural curbs you trip over trying to do anything in this life.”

The discrepancy in numbers could also be more biological in nature. Ingram explains how domestic responsibilities and social pressures weighed heavily on her as a musician. “To prioritize creative expression is a privilege that, perhaps, is more available to men,” she says. Ingram, a mother, says the gender norms stick, especially for musicians. “It does happen, but it’s not as often that you have stories of stay-at-home dads and the mom is out going to gigs.” 

As to why we don’t see many all-girl groups, Ingram says that socially, it’s difficult for women to work with all women. “Well, I can speak to my personal experience and sort of watching other women bands,” she says. “The social complexities are more prominent with all-girl bands and that’s the stereotype of women being catty.” After working with an all-girl group, and now playing as the only female in local band The Whiskey Chasers, Ingram says, “It’s kind of the truth that it’s easier with guys.” 

Matrisha Armitage, member of local band Bajuana Tea and current head of Grrrlz Rock, agrees. “Whether it’s five chicks trying to get their schedules to lineup, or five chicks trying not to flirt with each others’ boyfriends, there’s definitely a totally different dynamic than five guys drinking beers in the garage,” she says. 

However, the observation that female bands “just can’t get along” seems to short-sell female musicians. Male bands like Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Guns N’ Roses, The Eagles, The Everly Brothers, Oasis, Simon and Garfunkel, The Beatles, The Police, The Sex Pistols and The Rolling Stones are almost as famous for their infighting and public feuds as they are for their music. In mid October, the Jonas Brothers canceled the rest of their tour because of a “deep rift” over the band’s artistic direction. Even cult classic films like This is Spinal Tap and Almost Famous focus on this dynamic in all-male bands.

For Black these issues still demand an immediate supportive response. “Women have to learn to work together in a way that is constructive,” she says. This week, Black is preparing to welcome 600 women in the music industry to Austin, Texas, where she will lead a week of panel discussions and documentaries that touch on a range of topics including female guitar shredders, drummers, family bands, rock ‘n’ roll moms on the road, lack of female festival headliners and why so many of the good girls go bad. 

“I think there are more women pursuing music than ever, but I think you need to see people who are doing it and successful to make it a possibility,” Black says. “Somebody needs to break the mold,” she says, then corrects herself. “Not somebody, a lot of people.” 

In Eugene, Armitage is gearing up to do just that as she heads the eighth year of Grrrlz Rock, which she refers to lovingly as “The Girl Scouts of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” helping to provide a safe space for female musicians of all ages to rock out throughout the month of November. Armitage has booked concerts featuring local youth, professional and national female music acts all over town. Portland’s Shook Twins and Acoustic Minds, as well as Alder St. All Stars, The Great Hiatum, Boomchick, My Father’s Ghost and many other female-led acts will hit the city’s venues in a collaborative effort to support and empower young aspiring female musicians. In addition to live music, Armitage has planned a silent auction, a KWVA radio show every Thursday afternoon, live visual artists and an instrument maintenance workshop to better involve the entire community. 

Most men and women in the music industry agree that the only way to shape the industry is to call out distressing acts of sexism or stereotyping in order to provide more musicians for aspiring girls to model themselves after. But sometimes the sexism and stereotyping that leads to this gender disparity is so ingrained in the culture, not even women can see it. Grrrlz Rock may be the first step in solving these problems, but female musicians can’t just be sequestered to November.

I, too, am a gatekeeper. When I think about the bands I pay to see in Eugene or drive hours to Portland and Seattle to see, the list is testosterone heavy. When someone asks me what music I’m in to, I avoid naming a female act in fear of not being taken seriously. I was taught there were the greats — Elvis, The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and the female greats — Etta James, Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. I subconsciously fall into the trap. But as I scroll through my music library, I’m overwhelmed by the female acts that I admire for changing the industry. People like the powerful Neko Case, the innovative Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, the fearless Erika Wennerstrom of Heartless Bastards, the commanding Alexis Krauss of Sleigh Bells and the electrifying sisters of HAIM are all pioneers in music. Let’s hope there’s room for pioneers like these in Eugene, too.  

 

For more information about Grrrlz Rock visit http://grrrlzrock.com. Additional reporting by Alex Notman