Turning the Tables: KC Edition | The Gender Disparity
In her speech at this year’s Grammy Awards, Kansas City, Kansas, native Janelle Monáe underscored the issues that women and gender-diverse people in all facets of the music industry are forced to confront. By declaring “time’s up” for pay inequality, harassment, discrimination and abuses of power, and challenging the industry to create equal access and safe work environments for all genders, Monáe’s speech unified those who have felt gender disparity on all levels.
This is a disparity that prevails in an industry where women historically exist on the margins, being perceived as novelties or anomalies. And whether they’re performing in a dive bar or an arena, working behind a sound board or side stage, the experience of otherness follows them through their careers in music. It’s an experience that is not limited only to the obvious, abhorrent cases of sexual assault and harassment that have gained prominence in the entertainment world.
It comes from the sound tech who repeatedly ignores the musician’s request until a male bandmate steps in to intervene. Or from the music blogger who focuses more on a songwriter’s appearance than her arrangements. From the artist who patronizes a stagehand by calling her “sweetie” and explaining her job to her. Sometimes even from the well-intentioned audience member who gushes, “You don’t play like a girl.”
Gender Labels and Stereotypes
When they’re not being mistaken for somebody’s girlfriend, female music professionals say they repeatedly endure the endless stereotypes attributed to their gender. As a result, they’re taken less seriously, ignored and even dismissed.
Casey Osburn has spent the better part of the last decade in the music industry — as a tour manager, merch handler and now, a production manager for The Truman and AEG Presents.
“A lot of people assume I’m a male when I’m advancing shows through email. Their whole demeanor changes when they realize I’m a woman,” Osburn said. “Being ignored or talked down to by tour managers and musicians is something that happens more often than it should.”
As a nationally touring act, Katy Guillen & the Girls has performed everywhere from high-profile blues festivals to small-town roadhouses. In many cases, the all-female trio has had to earn respect by wowing a crowd — and judgmental venue employees — through their performances.
“Sometimes the sound guys don’t say much to us or even look at us when we arrive at a venue,” frontwoman and guitarist Guillen said. “They only treat us differently after they see us play.”
Guillen also noted that women get used to dealing with these situations. “They become normalized for us, and we develop a callus to them because we have to,” she said.
More often than not, these situations aren’t severe enough to warrant legal action, yet they can be almost as detrimental to a woman’s confidence and her self-perception as a music professional.
For more on the legalities of harrassment, read our companion piece, "Setting the Record Straight: The Female Rocker Bill of Rights," part of the Sympathetic Vibrations column on our sister website, Flatland.
“Back in the day, I subconsciously internalized the misogynistic belief that singers — particularly female singers — weren’t real musicians,” said Camry Ivory, a vocalist who currently performs in two local tribute bands — Found A Job and The Band That Fell To Earth.
Ivory was a longtime vocalist who later played keyboard in bands, feeling that the instrument would garner her more respect. “Now that I’m older, I realize the utter foolishness of this mindset,” Ivory said. “I know some fantastic female musicians who are ‘just singers’; their whole body is their instrument, and they wield it with just as much power and passion as any instrumentalist.”
In the event that a woman should defend herself against undesirable behavior, another gender preconception emerges. A blunt, candid approach — even and especially for those in positions of authority — can immediately miscategorize a woman as unreasonable, controlling or overly sensitive.
“Being a direct woman in a male-dominated industry is not the approach for best results, music or otherwise, even in 2018,” said Judy Mills, owner of Mills Record Company. “There are ways to temper your tone, soften your approach and still maintain your true self. There are also days when just being yourself is all anyone is gonna get.”
Sheri Parr, owner of The Brick, recalled a time when she instructed an employee on the order of a band lineup for the evening. She left the bar and returned to find that the employee had not only disobeyed her directive, but characterized her as a control freak.
“That’s something that never would have been said to a male business owner,” Parr said. “If you’re a woman, you get called a bitch. There’s no word that’s equivalent for a man, because ‘bitch’ somehow means I’m irrational.”
The objectification of women is not a new concept, but in a business where image is perceived as critical to success, sexualization runs rampant. It occurs on one spectrum of the industry, where artists are rejected by major labels for not being svelte or attractive enough. But it also happens in those small, seemingly insignificant moments where performers are told by audience members to show more skin or smile while playing. It minimizes their abilities, and in more serious cases, invades their privacy.
“Over the years, I've heard more crude comments than I can count,” said Michele Choate, drummer for garage punk duo Mr. and the Mrs. “A guy from another band once recorded us at a show, but it turns out he actually just recorded my chest and tried to see up my shorts while catcalling and telling me to ‘take it off.’ And then he posted it online.”
In her career as a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Teri Quinn has encountered persistent, disquieting messages from so-called “super fans.”
“A couple weeks after a show I played, a man was trying to get me away from my friends, buy me a drink and go outside to talk,” Quinn said. “Something in my gut gave me a red flag. Later that night, I got a nasty message from him about how rude I was for rejecting his advances.”
Erin McGrane performs with her husband, Jeff Freling, in local folk-jazz duo Victor & Penny. Over her past three decades as a musician, she’s learned to set boundaries in her interactions with audience members, club owners and other musicians.
“After shows, fans want to come up and touch you or make comments on your appearance. It can steal that moment of ‘I had a great show tonight,’” she said. “I have to make it clear in my mind that it doesn’t matter what other people are saying. These are the things I don’t think men ever think about.”
At the end of the day, women say these all-too-frequent encounters can leave them feeling drained and diminished. Many women depend on various coping mechanisms, from friend groups to self-defense and continual self-assurance.
Though she’s only been performing as a musical artist for about a year, Ogechi has already felt the burden of gender inequality in her native Kansas City and Atlanta, where she attends college. The 20-year-old vocalist, rapper and spoken-word artist has faced suggestive comments, inappropriate jeers and slight gropes from fellow performers and audience members.
“My coping mechanism is not to let people’s actions and words affect the way I look at myself, and more importantly, the quality of my art,” Ogechi said. “So, when this voice does get older, louder and more ears perk to my tunes, I hope to assist in changing the tide of the current wave.”
At age 21, Mikala Petillo has already been performing for nearly a decade as a drummer, and more recently, as a solo artist.
“I’ve had to learn how to play in an environment that isn’t necessarily cut out for a woman to succeed,” Petillo said. “I remind myself that I’ve made this my passion in life, and no one can keep me from achieving my goals. I also like to think of people who make those assumptions about my ability as self-conscious people.”
For Osburn, a production manager, getting a handle on these issues means having a strong group of female friends to confide in.
“Sharing experiences and talking about harassment and how to deal with it is such a stress reliever,” she said.
But Osburn also noted the difficulty of relating to someone outside of the industry. “I’ve been searching for a therapist, but a music industry-specific therapist is next to impossible to find unless you’re in Los Angeles or New York. It’s hard to explain what you’re going through to someone who doesn’t understand the long hours, ups and downs, and stressful situations that leave you completely drained and both physically and emotionally exhausted.”
Changing the Perspective
Though gender disparity is rapidly working its way into public consciousness, there are still major gaps in the law that neglect marginalized groups. While Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects employees in formal workplaces from discrimination, it provides no legal recourse for independent contractors in nontraditional workspaces.
Essentially, because gigging musicians are typically considered independent contractors, safe spaces for women, transgender and gender-diverse people in the music industry can be hard to come by. Women said they still feel vulnerable to unwelcomed behavior in music venues, dressing rooms, recording studios and rehearsal spaces. And in a smaller, more community-focused scene like Kansas City, there are even fewer opportunities to speak out against this inequality.
“Women are treated differently than the men doing the same job, even in a relatively safe space like Kansas City,” Mills said. “It’s often very subtle and seemingly best left unsaid. It’s unpopular and problematic to point out the differences, and being liked translates to success in this industry, to a certain degree.”
Those in the industry say it’s up to venue operators, booking agents, media and promoters to establish equal pay structures and curate gender-inclusive lineups and playlists. And that their male colleagues hold each other accountable, and hold women to the same standards their male counterparts are afforded.
“We can all do better in advocating for inclusion of women and femme performers and the creation of spaces that are more healthily balanced,” Ogechi said. “Promoters and show curators should make the effort to hire more of us, alter the culture and treat us in the same regard they would with men.”
As a lack of data exists on gender representation in the local and regional music industry, we compiled information from six of Kansas City’s music festivals — Boulevardia, Crossroads Music Fest, Middle of the Map, Outer Reaches, Plaza Art Fair and Westport Roots Fest. Our original analysis found that between the years of 2014 and 2018, women in KC-area acts were represented — had at least one female member in the band — at around 40 percent each year.
The year for lowest representation was 2014, with women represented in 36 percent of the performing acts. The highest: 2017 with a nearly 42 percent representation.
While these percentages represent a small sample of recent locally curated festivals, there is also a call for action among performers — both men and women — to set equal standards for one another.
“We need to show and demand that fellow performers be treated with respect, regardless of gender,” said Kyle Dahlquist, a male musician who has been performing in Kansas City since the late ’80s. “There have been many voices telling women and girls that they can’t do something because of their reproductive organs, and you need to make sure you’re one of the voices that assures them they absolutely can.”
As Janelle Monáe charged in her Grammy speech, Kansas City musicians are calling on one another to “undo the culture that does not serve us well” by encouraging one another, setting examples for the next generation and standing together in solidarity against discrimination.
— Michelle Bacon writes about music for 90.9 The Bridge and plays bass and drums in bands. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @michelleobacon.
About the Series
Turning the Tables: KC Edition is inspired by NPR Music’s national series on women in music. Follow the conversation each Thursday in July here on bridge909.org. Next Thursday, July 26: We've asked you to tell us about which local female musicians inspire you and why. See what you've said and download a Spotify playlist oriented around this series.
Join the Conversation
On Wednesday, July 25, join 90.9 The Bridge at Mills Record Company at 4045 Broadway Blvd. for Turning the Tables: KC Showcase, a panel and showcase of women in music. Join us for lively and open discussions around gender, equality and the future of KC music, featuring live performances from Katy Guillen & the Girls and Hi-Lux. The showcase is free and open to the public, but please register in advance.