It’s a tough world for women – and the music industry is no exception. We spoke to Big Sky Mountain, a Sydney-based band, about their experiences.
What’s the story behind the band?
The early beginnings of the band started with Kelly and her long-time friend, Gabby. The two had collaborated before, and hesitantly had the idea of bringing Kelly’s songs to life by starting a new band. Knowing the amount of work (and risk) involved they made a considered decision to name it the year of ‘yes’ and see where the idea took them. With an open-minded approach of seeing who would get on the bus and where the bus would go, the other members joined one by one. Most were a friend of a friend or some other convoluted connection (all representing different ethnicities, personalities and music tastes), and the sound of the band evolved from there.
BSM was never intended to be an all-women band. It’s just how things turned out. While many of the members are feminists in varied definitions of the term, there was no deliberate ideology about being an all-women band, nor plans to push any kind of agenda. It was always about the music. We just happen to be women.
You’ve previously alluded to sexism as an obstacle to being taken seriously – can you share some examples?
For the most part we have been appreciated for our music first and foremost. That said, women are underrepresented in the music industry and like most women musicians, it doesn’t take long to come up with examples of gender being brought into a situation that really has nothing to do with gender. Statistics would support the statement that a 7-piece all-women band regularly gigging is not something you would see every day.
Between us, we have played in a number of bands across different genres, ranging from high profile professional acts to casual informal settings, and everything in between. Some have been other all-women acts and in other circumstances we’ve been one woman amongst men. Some of us have also worked in the audio industry, which is similarly (if not more) dominated by men. Overall, there haven’t been many examples of something we “couldn’t do” as women. Underrepresentation is the key issue.
What are the effects of this structural sexism on the band?
While many women musicians might be respected at an individual level, they are still part of a minority group. This comes with some challenges. If audience members approach us at a gig, most of the comments they share are about the album or when our next gigs are, but along with that are comments about the fact we are all women. Often someone (usually a woman) will say “isn’t it great to see a band that’s all women”. It would be unheard of for someone at a gig to comment on how amazing it is that every person on stage is a man.
We’ve heard well-intended compliments that were poorly delivered, such as “I’ve heard you’re all women, and that you’re actually really good”,and surprised remarks along the lines of “little lady can play drums”. We forgive these types of comments. They’re not barriers; merely a reminder that we’re in a minority group.
Less forgivable are sleazy lines like “I thought you ladies might be getting changed in here and I could watch”,referring to the green room, and a drunk patron saying how much he enjoyed the gig before leaning in for a pash. There’s also been some incidents of ‘mansplaining’, where a stranger approaches us to tell us what we should be doing. Regardless of whether their comment is worthy of the breath (some are, most not), there’s clearly a perceived sense of authority and entitlement.
These types of comments are definitely few and far between. These people are out there, but they’re a minority themselves. It’s also interesting to note that all of the above examples were men over 50. Younger men rarely talk like that. This is a sign that times are changing.
What are the biggest challenges currently facing women in the industry?
There has been a lot of momentum on this topic recently with media coverage of gender ratios in festivals and airplay. But overall, the statistics really don’t look great for women. While there are a lot of women doing really well, there is a big difference in the numbers, particularly amongst high-profile festivals and professional musicians. We all have day-jobs, some in music-related roles and some not, so we don’t use the band as our primary income. We play mainly smaller festivals and local live music venues.
When looking at big festivals, the headline acts are mostly fronted by men, with a small number of women-fronted acts. It’s also worth mentioning that a lot of the women-fronted acts are backed by a man band or DJ. That considered, there’s even more of a gender difference. When challenged on this disparity, often festival organisers will say they book bands according to popularity and that the men acts sell more tickets. This is probably true – but due partly to the fact the men have had more exposure in the first place. And so the cycle perpetuates.
Speaking generally, a lot of women musicians will say they don’t get taken seriously at first and have to work hard to gain respect. Sharon Jakovsky studied at Berklee [College of Music, Boston, Massachusetts] in the 1990s, and was part of five per cent of women guitar students. Sharon says “Fender released figures saying 50% of beginner guitar sales are women. But getting to the professional level is not reflecting that! It’s the prove yourself stuff that’s really tiring”.
While a lot of barriers can be overcome, women musicians are often reminded they’re in a minority group. Sharon tells of times she’s been in a guitar store and deliberately picked up a guitar and played for a bit to demonstrate she’s a serious customer.
“I’ve also been asked if I’m looking for a guitar for my child, or perhaps a nylon string guitar?”.
Minnie Ryan, another band member, has had similar experiences getting repair work done for her trumpet.
“I had my two young children with me and handed him my trumpet telling him what needed to be done. He was surprised and said, ‘oh it’s yours is it?’. I don’t know whose he thought it was – perhaps my 4-year-old son who would barely be able to hold it? This shows most of their customers are either men or mums buying for their kids”.
These situations aren’t barriers; no one stops us buying what we want. They’re just examples of us not fitting the look of the typical customer they see.
There are also issues around pregnancy and parenting that face women in all industries. Aside from the physical aspects of playing some instruments while pregnant, there are also challenges with late nights, lugging gear and inconsistent incomes. We are expecting a “BSM baby” soon. Rachel Aracan, our bass player, has a baby arriving soon and is taking time off from the band. Rachel previously worked in an audio engineering role in a large company. She was the only women in a team of 10 or so engineers. Overall she had a positive experience: “I felt highly respected as an equal and team player, which made me focus and let my work speak for itself”. The organisation also offers paid maternity leave for employees.
How can the general public support women, such as BSM, who are taking on the music industry?
Like every other music act, we just want to do our thing and share it with the community. The general public can support us by coming to shows, buying our music (digital and/or CD) and going to festivals. Festival organisers and venue bookers are influenced by what the audience wants. We need them to see that audiences want to see more women, and more diversity in general. At some gigs, you’d be forgiven for thinking the only people who created music were white, male and heterosexual.
As much as we enjoy chats with audience members who compliment us after a show, we look forward to one day when an all-women band is so common and unremarkable that people don’t even blink. Music has nothing to do with gender. Yes, we’re an all-women band; but really, we’re just a band.
Kelly Staines – songwriter, drums
Dominique Douglas – lead vocals
Sharon Jakovsky – electric guitar
Gabby Liistro – keyboard, backing vocals, vocal arrangements
Viviana Viteri – acoustic guitar, backing vocals
Minnie Ryan – trumpet, backing vocals
Renee King – bass (relieving)
Rachel Aracan – bass (maternity leave)
Album Launch will be on Thursday 6thJune at Smith’s Alternative in Canberra. Tickets $20 via Smith’s Alternative website.