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Black Sky Thinking

Off The Record: How Studios Subliminally Silence Women
Grace Banks , May 20th, 2017 06:06

Producer, engineer and musician Grace Banks argues that recording studios are all-too-often male dominated and even hostile to women, from outright misogyny to the subtle messages in the buildings themselves. What might be done to change this?

Early on in my music studio career, I had a job as an assistant engineer for an all-male band. They had an insult for anyone who fucked up: 'girl'. It was banter, of course, but, it made me feel bad each time I heard it. Occasionally they would glance at me, remembering I was in the room, and I got the impression it made them feel bad, too.

It was said unthinkingly, a hangover of a society that, as a certain Always advert riffed on, associates doing things 'like a girl' with doing them badly, and a symptom of a music culture still dominated by men. This undertone persisted with the annoyance of an elusive ground hum in almost every studio I would go to – it was often unnoticeable and, on the surface, people were usually polite. A few things would always give it away: the disparaging remark about a colleague whose success "must be down to whom she was sleeping with," or the "too geeky" conversation that was apologised for once a female was present.

Much has been written about sexism in the music industry, whether it is Grimes citing 'mansplaining' or Bjork discussing her work being credited to male collaborators. I could give plenty of examples of overt sexism I encounter on a daily basis. I could write about the times people have mansplained guitar amps to me, postulated that women are intrinsically less capable of grasping music theory, objectified me at work and then told me I should not have risked making my boss feel awkward by calling it out. I could tell you about the time I was working as a live sound engineer setting up for a gig when a piece of gear failed; a random guy walked over and said "hey, I have no experience in sound but I could try to figure out what is wrong if you want." Seriously?! Would anyone go up to a car mechanic at work and say this?

Notably, for the first time last year, entries to the British Composer Awards were judged anonymously and the number of women making the shortlist more than doubled. Similarly, when the major US orchestras implemented blind auditions, female membership soared. It turns out that we do like music made by women; we just don’t know it.

Much of this unconscious bias plays out under the radar. Upon hiring me one rehearsal studios owner warned that when clients need assistance and they find a woman on shift, they will ask, "is there anyone who can help me with x?" When there's a man on shift the client will ask 'can you help me with x?' Subtle but it sends a message – one of trust and confidence, expectation and normalisation - one which, accumulatively, when repeated day in day out, matters.

A recording engineer told me he noticed something interesting. When he is too busy to take on a job and so recommends that clients work with me instead, they will say that they came to the studio because we particularly wanted to work with him. Nothing sexist there, right? Except that when he recommends a male engineer (at this point the clients know nothing about us but our names) they tend to be open to the suggestion. This phenomenon is well documented. Recent studies, in which CVs which were identical in all but name, revealed that male applicants, despite being no more competent, were rated significantly higher and offered higher starting salaries and more mentoring.       
There are other messages within the dominant and at times hyper-glorified male presence in recording studio environments. How do they affect the creative process? The difference between feeling that I belong or am an impostor, of feeling supported or undermined – these affect my performances, whether I choose to voice opinions and the quality of my work, whether as musician, sound engineer or music producer. Environmental factors leading to such feelings can be unquantifiable and subliminal but they are, nevertheless, there. It was one studio, in particular, that made me realise this.

By the front door hung a picture several feet high of Roman Polanski, near to which was a similarly imposing image of Woody Allen. It struck me that these men had something in common; they had been in the news in relation to sexual abuse. Was it a strange coincidence? Or perhaps this juxtaposition manifested something more significant.

An array of typical icons were displayed, Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Jack Kerouac... Then finally: a picture of a woman. She was the first thing you saw when you walked into the main recording room, she was gazing at you when you were in the control room listening to the musicians. She was anonymous and she was naked. This is a place for men, she stated. The studio had a theme: this is a place for men to be comfortable, to be wonderful; where men may abuse people, even, and still be lauded. Ultimately, this is a place for men.

I contemplated how it might influence the two women who were recording, that day – and, ultimately, their music. I thought of Professor Shelley Correll and her fascinating demonstration that people tend to fulfill stereotypes more when they are made aware, even subliminally, of them. I also thought of the research suggesting that feelings of being sexually objectified deplete confidence and inhibit cognitive focus. Perhaps those two women we were recording were unlikely to play their best, after all.

In her talk, Professor Correll explains that when someone is shown a positive or negative stereotype about themselves it affects their performance, respectively. Two groups were given a spatial ability test; the first had been exposed to a negative stereotype, the second group a positive one. Those in the second group performed 14% better than those in the first. However, when asked whether the stereotype had had any influence on their performance, 90% believed it had not.

If subliminal messages and stereotypes affect our performance without us even knowing it, presumably musicians can suffer or benefit from this, too. Add the fact that associating a person with a dominant status encourages dominant behaviour, and the studio power dynamics are susceptible to some serious slippage. An episode of QI demonstrated quite sweetly that labeling someone as 'leader' tends to induce more assertive behaviour, and the famed Stanford Prison experiment of 1971 took this to a sinister extreme. Surrounded by images of powerful, successful men (and subservient women) might a guy feel emboldened to push his own vision more? Although hard to determine causality, it seems to be a particular and common frustration among female musicians, producers and engineers.

Among the many I have spoken to about all this, themes around the nuances of studio environments which discouraged them and reduced autonomy over their work cropped up with striking regularity. Having their creative ideas dismissed as objectively wrong was all too common. Several great female musicians confided they have abandoned recording projects because the producer simply would not listen to them. And one producer was overheard warning the pianist that the client who was about to arrive had 'a lot of opinions'. Unfortunately, there is a sense that an idea from a woman is something to be wary of, not excited by.

A fundamental asset of any recording facility is the ability to make artists comfortable. Studio owner and editor of Tape Op magazine, Larry Crane told me, “creating a nurturing environment where artists feel free to express themselves is important.” Producers often describe a large part of their work as psychology. After all, the most sure-fire way to make a great-sounding record is to work with great-sounding artists - and a comfortable, inspired artist is usually a better one. But are the intended 'comforts' of the studio world skewed towards men and actually detrimental to women?

The dozens of female musicians I have spoken to about this subject tend to agree; whether through a lack of sanitary bins, a shortage of women in creative or technical roles, or an absence of images celebrating female creators, many studios fall short of being a good host. Studios salute the same artists over and over again: Joe Meek (who, incidentally, killed his landlady), Bob Dylan and David Bowie... far fewer celebrate Bjork, Patti Smith or Delia Derbyshire. The sense that studios are places for men is reinforced subliminally and regularly.

Male perspectives and tastes have shaped our musical heritage. Out of the five albums topping Rolling Stone Magazine's list, 'The Greatest Albums Of All Time' only one had any female involvement at all in the recording process. According to SoundGirls.org, only 5% of audio engineers are female, while an estimated 6% of the Music Producers' Guild members are female.

Culturally, this matters. It means that every piece of music you listen to is likely to have been either created entirely by men or filtered through the opinions of men; what women want to say is diluted or absent. Producer Steve Albini puts it this way: “Any time you take half the people, cut half the potential participants out of a scenario, then you're half as likely to have your chance of finding the best person for the job or finding the unique insight”.

Currently, commercial recording facilities set up by women are almost unheard of but these might be an important part of the answer. The good news is there is a swell of women and girls keen to do the studio stuff. We could tap into this talent if we do not undermine those venturing beyond the sound-proofed door.

Ultimately, it is about more than tackling the obvious aspects of sexism. For female talent to flourish, leave a greater mark on recording history and have the credit it deserves, we need more creative spaces where women, as well as men, are made to feel like they belong. Until its representation of women improves, the recording environment will nudge male creativity forwards while whispering in the ears of females that they are not good enough. And 'girl' will continue to be synonymous with 'fuck-up'.

The editors of this site were in agreement with the author of this piece that, for once, the comments sections should be left on and essentially unmediated to reveal - i)Why we often feel we have to turn them off and ii)To prove the necessity of this opinion piece in the first place

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