“The future is female is not just a clever thing, it’s a huge part of our culture right now!” On feminism and the (Neukölln) music scene
Off-Kultur Zine, Datum
It is no news that women (as well as other marginalized groups or intersecting identities) are still not an equally represented group in music scenes all over the world. This obviously holds true for the Neukölln music scene as well. You can just check it out yourself: go to a show or a party and count how many women are part of the line-up, and in case there are some, check how they are being marketed. Obviously, behind the scenes, as bookers, managers, sound technicians et cetera – they are equally underrepresented.
No, this is not just my own perception – here are some numbers for the rational analysts among you (and everybody else, too, but you gotta know your strategic arguments). Female:pressure collected some festival data from 2015: At Atonal festival they counted 2 female, 62 male and 3 mixed artists/bands, at the Berlin Music Week 37 female, 165 male and 27 mixed, at CTM 15 female, 77 male, 9 mixed, at nation of gondwana 4 female, 30 male, 2 mixed (I would be interested in fusion festival? A counting project for next year?). Some data for clubs, also 2015: about:blank 15 female, 79 male, 1 mixed and 4 non binary / unsure. Berghain Clubnacht November 9 female, 61 male 1 mixed. Reading these numbers always makes me realize how bad the situation actually is.
And sadly, misrepresentation is not the only problem of the music industry. Just recall earlier this year, when Dirty Projector’s Amber Coffman spoke up against the popular publicist Heathcliff Berru, being “[t]ired of sketchy ass dudes and sexual predators getting a pass from their ‘bros’. Grow a spine and hold your friends accountable”. Her tweets created a wave of anger by many female artists and musicians, who were sharing their experiences of sexism and rape culture in the music industry.
I experienced, or rather realized a few things recently, which led me to write this article instead of a cute and funny photo-story of how we went to loophole for the first time in our early twenties. These stories are far from being as terrible as what Amber Coffman and other female artists had shared online, but they play into a discourse that constantly devalues women as musicians, as music nerds, as workers in the music industry and basically as human beings (that is, what sexism is about ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ).
I will only share the two most salient experiences. You can see one visualized by the screenshots accompanying this article. These are screenshots of a facebook discussion on Anton Teichmann’s (founder of the Berlin based label Mansions & Millions as well as one of the initiators of Off-Kultur) wall. Posting a link to Pop-Kultur’s festival, Anton asked “where are the acts from Neukölln?”. My point here is not at all to go into a substantial discussion of the arguments that followed and the general issue at stake here, but to point out to the structural dimension of this discussion. Reacting to Anton’s question I counted 52 comments of male actors of Berlin’s, Hamburg’s and Cologne’s music businesses and scenes. The 53rd comment was mine, I was angry and I wanted to intervene and raise awareness of who is speaking and claiming to represent, and who is being important and heard in this discussion. This was followed by some more – male only – comments to come to an end with 64 comments in total, 63 of them male. Which, to some degree perfectly illustrated my intervention (also, have a look at how these guys reacted to it – I think you could write a dissertation based on that!).
Yet, there is another issue, which I find incredibly insightful, which only happened a few days ago. There is this game on facebook, where people are being tagged in order to post their favorite album covers. A male friend of mine – tagged by a male person as well – tagged (as asked by the game) 6 other male persons to share a “great album cover”. I checked these other guys’ fb pages who participated and whose profile was public, and as it turns out, it seemed like men were roughly tagging 90% of other men – and counting.
I know for a fact that some of these guys know quite a lot of female djs, musicians and music nerds in general and I also know for a fact, that some of these guys call themselves feminist and like to talk about precisely these issues on length. Wtf is going on?
Both examples clearly show who represents and who is being addressed as representing music business, knowledge and credibility in the (sub)cultural scenes we are talking about. Female voices are not showing up and it becomes more than clear why this is the case. There have been many discussions trying to sort out reasons and strategies for this huge problem. Beginning from socialisation, rolemodels, access to scenes and equipment – to the male dominated and opportunity hoarding bro culture – to the sad general sexism, racism and trans- and homophobia society (re)produces on a daily basis.
I couldn’t help but wonder, since coming from a ‘merely’ feminist point of view and not being a musician myself, how women (and men) in the music scene perceived these issues. Thus, I met some folks who are part of it as musicians, bookers, organizers and journalists and asked them about their experiences, about problems and – most importantly – strategies.
As a female and queer artist living in Berlin and being part of the Toronto music scene as well, Alana Marta DeVito aka Bobbypin has a lot to say about these issues and is probably the most outspoken feminist person I have ever met in the cultural sphere of Neukölln. She compared the Berlin music scene to her ‘home’ scene in Toronto which “has a lot of female representation and probably the most in any city I’ve ever been – and I’ve toured a lot, it’s a pretty special place” where you do not only see a strong female community, but also a growing representation of other marginalized groups and the LGBTQ community.
Alana ascribed the openness of Toronto’s music scene on the one hand to its saturation of bands of very different styles – thus there are per se many more options for female artists to get involved. Whereas in Berlin, there are many, pretty closed scenes working on their own and it’s more about dj culture, “it’s one person in a musical project, that cuts your odds down automatically”. On the other hand, reflecting on the scene she is part of in Neukölln, Alana is under the impression that as a pretty new scene, Neukölln does not have this kind of diverese representations yet, because it still has to grow and develop. But the women who are involved, who want to see a change (like for example Emma aka Magic Island with whom Alana discusses these issues) have to support each other more and build networks. It is a very important point and goes in line with the above mentioned experiences I made online, that support is “something a lot of women don’t naturally do, like men always do, bros and everything, you know, and it seems so silly, but that’s what they do, they support each other and create some very strong bonds”.
In order to establish female support systems, the Neukölln scene could learn from structures, which are already existing in Toronto. For example women’s collectives like “Toronto Women in Music”, which started a few years ago with a few female artists or women working in the industry. Describing what these collectives can do for women, Alana precisely summarized the challenges women face in a male dominated scene and, at the same time, points out to the most important strategies to overcome these structures: “It [women’s collectives] really helped a lot of people to feel comfortable, asking questions, because as a woman, sometimes you have to pretend, like, you have to be that much smarter than any man (…) so to have a support system of other women, being able to ask any question that might seem silly and not be worried about your place in the community because you had to ask anything from how use Ableton, or like, how to record in Ableton, like as simple as that, to like, how do you know that when someone is wanting to represent you as a manager, this question actually made a lot us go [rolling eyes], but it’s an honest question, as a young girl how do I know that a man who approaches me to work with me, he’s not trying to hit on me or anything?”
This observation is so much in line with what Björk said in her famous 2015 pitchfork interview: “I want to support young girls who are in their 20s now and tell them: You’re not just imagining things. It’s tough. Everything that a guy says once, you have to say five times”. So, how to support girls and women in music? Following Alana, female collectives as the ones in Toronto are extremely helpful in order to make women feel more comfortable entering the scene, having a safe space, learning to cultivate good and positive relations with other women because this “is a big part of women becoming more in the forefront of any place whether again, academics, arts, design and music, because we need to support each other, you’re gonna get something, whereas we were grown up in society telling us that fighting each other is entertaining and you know that’s not helping anyway!”
Referring to education and the general climate girls are being raised in, Luise Vörkel, a band member of Tendre Biche, feminist music journalist and dj recalled: “I’ve been raised in a way that enabled me to achieve things, for sure, but also in a way that I always had to be friendly and polite and that I had to appeal to people. I think when it’s not only boys who are allowed to be bad-ass [she uses a very nice German word: Rabauken], it would all be much more equal already, because then you would know as a girl, I don’t have to care about whether someone thinks I’m ugly or stupid when I do something”. For her, it also took a while until she had enough self-confidence to say “I can be there as well, and I am under the impression, that that’s much more common for women, that they think they have to really first of all produce something, or that they should able to present something first, before they are able to stand on a stage”. So there is always a double-standard, produced by women themselves, but being initiated by society all the time, that they are being scrutinized that much harder than men.
The idea to have an all female band (although Tendre Biche has one male member as well) arose from the experience of its members that “we know for sure that there are female guitarists, we simply didn’t find one that had time for another band in our circle of friends and most important for us was to find somebody we know we get along with”. Luise also mentioned that she thinks that once an artist is being eccentric or somehow ‘crazy’ “it is being much more criticized if the person is female or it is being put into a strange context, whereas with a man, people simply say, ah ok, he’s a bit crazy but pretty cool”.
Or, as Alana put it: “you can make mistakes, but as women we’re told you can’t make mistakes cause someone will jump on you right away”. She also points out to the fact, that working without a band can be a choice but “it’s also a necessity, because going into a studio with a group of men that don’t take you seriously, it’s a very normal part of being a female musician”. Thus, women have to be on top of things all the time, which helps female creativity – but is not fair at all.
Sitting together with two male actors of Neukölln’s scene, I also wanted to get to know their perspective. Anton Teichmann reflected: “It is always hard to speak from a male perspective, because I am not always sure how much impact it has, but yes, I think raising awareness is important, the more people know that there are many female artists on my label, the more they will perceive the whole thing differently, they will take it more for granted. Because, for example, I am under the impression, that the discussion that has been started by Kat Frankie has been extremely important, because I believe that many people do not bother at all, they don’t know many female artists. I just think that we have to do things on many different levels, that’s the most structural thing we can do, that’s pretty easy, for sure, and nothing extreme”, Lukas Föhres, booker for Melt!booking as well as male artist and dj added to that “and then they will be perceived as artists, as normal part of the music scene”. Thus, from a male or industry point of view (which is basically the same), it is important to be aware of the existing structures and to always bear in mind that sexist structures (and other exclusionary mechanisms) are sometimes hidden.
Both, Anton and Lukas spend some time talking about taste when it comes to the selection of music, as in booking bands or as in what kind of music you like. Aida Baghernejad, journalist and PhD researcher based in London and Berlin added a very important question to that: “How is taste being constituted? How is it cultivated, there is so much to it, especially if it’s about something like guitar music, there is this whole substructure or rather superstructure, it’s about virility and guitars as phallic objects, there is so much more behind taste and it is actually not that much different with techno”. These questions lead us pretty soon into a very intense discussion on the relationship between music and politics, especially in the Berlin expat scene. Off-Kultur as well as Melt!booking are part of the plus 1 campaign – but how political is the scene, or how political should it be? Anton mentioned, that he is afraid that the ‘Berlin Hipster crowd’ is just not that into politics, a concern Alana also expressed. Aida, Lukas and I agreed, that in any case, not to care is a pretty privileged position, or as Aida put it “as somebody who grew up in a migrant family, I am much more judgy than all of you, because I think it’s tremendous, with brown skin you cannot just pass like that, that you just won’t learn the language (…) You can see it in terminology as well, it’s expats and immigrants“. Luise expressed a similar concern, saying that she doesn’t understand why people think that politics should be excluded from music, “that’s such a stupid argument but I hear it quite often. I always think to my self, pff, I mean, your life is just not apolitical”.
So, what do we learn from this insight into the Neukölln scene and its structures? It is great to see that things are changing and that “the future is female is not just a clever thing, it’s a huge part of our culture right now and I think the men that are supportive are an important part of it”, as Alana put it. But the Neukölln scene has a long way to go and needs more supportive structures in order to foster female, non-white, LGBTIQ and other marginalized groups’ representation. Maybe it also needs to (re?)think if there needs to be more politics involved in general. As women, we need to work on our support systems with other women in order to challenge the boys club, because “competition is extremely healthy, as much as you support each other too” (Alana). Speaking for the boys club, Lukas concluded that “you should have your own quota I guess, it’s difficult, and to tell all festivals, ok, now you have to do it that way won’t work, but it is important for yourself”. I think, all of us who agree that things are not right the way they are have the obligation to speak up and to work on changing the status quo on all levels. Or, to conclude with Björk’s wise words: “I definitely can feel the third or fourth feminist wave in the air, so maybe this is a good time to open that Pandora’s box a little bit and air it out.”