'If You Want To Be Somewhere, You've Got To Occupy It'
How Women Are Changing The Face Of Engineering And Producing
The lack of women engineers and producers in music is not news. Historically, the recording studio has rarely seen women outside of the reception area or, in the case of a performance venue, in the box office. And as a 2012 report in The Journal on the Art of Record Production shows, these same conversations about gender imbalance in music production have been happening over and over for decades — with little progress being made. While these conversations keep happening, the report says, there is less talk about why "music production in the popular music industry has, for most of its history ... been a male reality" — and what women's experiences in this industry are actually like.
"When I started in 1986, it was at least four or five years until I saw another woman doing the same job," says Karrie Keyes, who has been Pearl Jam's monitor engineer for over 25 years. "Then it was another four or five years before I saw another one. I had no role models. I had no input about people that worked on live sound in concerts."
Keyes is the executive director of SoundGirls, a non-profit organization she co-founded in 2013 with a mission of "empowering the next generation of women in audio." SoundGirls aims to create a network of professional women in audio and to provide role models through audio-related workshops, seminars and training sessions across the globe.
"I always had the attitude that at some point, there are going to be women doing this," says Keyes. "The first step being: Is this even a viable career option with a face that is female on it? It is important to see a face, or you're never going to think you can do it, and you need to see more than one."
This scenario has, however, been changing incrementally. Producers and engineers like Linda Perry (Pink, Christina Aguilera), Sylvia Massy (Tool, Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Catherine Marks (The Killers, Wolf Alice), and mastering engineers Mandy Parnell (Bjork, The xx) and Emily Lazar (Foo Fighters, Sia) have all been in the game for more than 20 years. Then there are the new school of contenders, women in their 20s and early 30s helping to evolve a new paradigm. Cases in point: producer Jennifer Decilveo (Andra Day, Beth Ditto) and engineers Suzy Shinn (Weezer, Panic! at the Disco) and Dani Spragg (Noel Gallagher). This year's Music Producers Guild Awards in the U.K. boasts 25% female nominees.
Dani Spragg — who, at 21 years old, is the in-house engineer at Hoxa HQ studio complex in London — agrees. Spragg says many young women today don't necessarily default to male role models, but that female role models in audio aren't always easy to come by. "In audio, there aren't very many women in those positions to aspire to be," Spragg says. "On every project I've worked on, I've always been the youngest person and the only woman. Both of those things give you opportunities. But, it is a really hard job. It can be a very difficult environment to work in."
For young women who may not have an obvious role model on whom to base their audio aspirations, music education programs can be an exploratory starting point and a place of discovery. The New Orleans-based Electric Girls, a young-women-geared, technology-driven program, provides one example of what this education can look like — and of the challenges in making these programs sustainable. During the group's first few years, it regularly brought its summer camp participants into a recording studio at New Orleans' Loyola University. This provided a window into a world previously not experienced for these teens. "They loved it," says Maya Ramos, Electric Girls' co-founder and lead instructor, also a music student at Loyola and piano player in a few bands in the area.
"We recorded them in the studio. It was exciting and hands-on, which is what made it so engaging," she continues. "They didn't know it was a profession and a possibility for them. As Electric Girls grew, we didn't have the resources to sustain taking them to the studio, and so we had to cut it off. Without the hands-on work and seeing what it means to be a musician in the studio, interest dropped right off."
Electric Girls' experience with the young women's spike and crash in interest indicates how a lack of exposure to the studio environment can be a major contributing factor to the low number of women in the field. As Ramos and her colleagues saw, once the girls interacted with the studio, their enthusiasm was instant — but it couldn't be sustained without continued practical involvement.
In 2012, BBC News reported on the low numbers of female students in production and engineering, citing a ratio of one female student to 10 male students. When Beth McGowan was earning her degree in the '90s, she was the only woman in her program studying live sound. McGowan, now a 10-year teaching veteran of Music Production and Events Management at Shrewsbury College in the U.K., worked in the live sound arena for numerous years; since beginning teaching, she's seen the impact of her presence in the classroom on her female students.
"Purely by being a female teacher and because I've actually been out there and done it, is attracting more females to our course," she says. "I have a lot of female students who want to be sound engineers now, whereas before they took my course, they weren't really sure what they wanted to do in the industry."
Sally Gross, a principal lecturer in the Music Business Management master's program at London's Westminster University, has also seen firsthand how powerful it can be for young women students to have a female teacher. She conducted a weekend-long, women-only studio lock-in in May 2016 that she called "Let's Change The Record." In a report on the initiative, Gross says her intention was addressing the underrepresentation of women in the music industry with a focus on production, the least represented area.
"Most women's experience of walking into studios is not to be in a female environment," says Gross. "The starting point of writing songs and recording them is such an important space, one that we can very much see the absence of women. The idea was to subvert that, to change the environment of the studio by making sure everyone teaching and everyone participating in the studio was female. If you want to be somewhere, you've got to occupy it."
During a summer break from Berklee College of Music, Suzy Shinn did just that. While interning at a studio in Los Angeles, Shinn put in countless hours not only absorbing information but also doing all manner of menial tasks, fetching coffee and cleaning toilets in between recording vocals and learning music software programs. Soon, Shinn landed a permanent position as producer/songwriter Jake Sinclair's in-house engineer, manning the controls for the likes of Fall Out Boy, Train, Lea Michele and Dua Lipa.
It's an impressive feat to gain a position like Shinn's; it's the result of years of hard work and is part of the legacy of pioneering women who came before her. However, as Shinn admits, getting in the door won't necessarily solve all the problems facing women in production and engineering.
"You have to stick it out, you have to pay your dues," she says. "All my role models were male, but I'm seeing more females, my contemporaries in their 20s, getting into engineering. I know a significant amount of work I've gotten was because I was female and the producers or songwriters or artists, the creatives in the session, who are usually men, wanted a girl in the room — even if it is generally a boy's club."
"I don't think I've gotten work because of my gender alone," she clarifies. "A few more opportunities have come along as it's still quite unusual to have a girl in the room. I'd like to think that I'm getting called into sessions because I'm good at what I do and I'm pretty OK to hang around with for hours on end, rather than just being a girl."
Many of these women also say personality plays a role in studio success; they often felt a need to downplay more stereotypically feminine parts of their personalities to be taken seriously by artists and other men in the studio. They also pointed out that often, they feel women have to work much harder to be seen as just as talented as male producers and engineers.
"Women have to be better than their male counterparts from the first go," McGowan says. "I feel I have to prepare [female students] for the reality of that ... you have to be better than the boys by a mile."
"Women have to work 10 times harder to get the recognition," concurs Keyes. But, she says, the fact that studio technology is becoming more widely accessible is good for women who are interested in this line of work. "Like many people working in audio, I had some aspirations to be a musician. The changes in technology are the greatest thing, because anyone that has an interest can have the tools to record and mix the way they want to."
Jennifer Decilveo, who started as a songwriter, had a similar path to working in the studio. She put in the proverbial 10,000 hours painstakingly teaching herself the rudiments of playing in order to eventually write and record her songs, which led her to production and engineering. "The majority of the artists I wanted to work with didn't work with songwriters, just producers," she says of her segue into that role. "I mainly learned everything from YouTube. With all these learning tools available, cheap or free, all this accessibility to learn, these [gender] roles in music are going to change."
McGowan says that during her time in the industry, she has seen conditions improve for women — but that some problems still remain. In 1990, when she decided she wanted to do her degree with an eye toward working in live sound, she was told it wasn't really a job for girls. "It seems incredible to me that it's still an issue," she says. "Not as much as it was 25 years ago, [but] it shouldn't still be an issue."
Shinn agrees. In 2009, when Shinn applied to Berklee College of Music as a Music Production and Engineering major, she met similar attitudes. She was told she couldn't do it because it was the hardest major at the school. She applied anyway and got in, only to be met with: "Who are you hooking up with?" both during her time there and continually while working in the studio.
"Sometimes I think, '20 years I've been dealing with this shit'," says McGowan. "Other times, I think, 'It's best to just be really good at what you do so no one can criticize.'"
What many of McGowan's colleagues say would really help, though, are more support networks — spaces like SoundGirls or the Bay Area's Women's Audio Mission — to create a scaffolding in the studio to support future women. When women see other women in this environment, there is a good chance they will be encouraged to step into it and explore its possibilities. And having access to a network of other women working in the field, to whom they can ask questions and be given advice, shifts the paradigm, making it more likely for women to enter this line of work.
"When I first started, I was young and naïve, unwanted encounters happened more," Shinn admits. "Everyone is more respectful now. Maybe it's because I have a resume and a catalog built up, or maybe it's because times are changing."
"It's less about girls being comfortable in that environment, it's more about guys getting used to having a girl there and adapting their behavior," McGowan points out. "These days people are more aware. When I was first starting out, I had to ignore all the comments about women. You had to let it go or you'd be seen as making a big deal out of it, whereas today you have to stand up to it."
Correction Feb. 28, 2018
A previous version of this article mischaracterized the amount of time Emily Lazar has spent in the recording industry. She has worked as a mastering engineer for more than 20 years.