PERSONAL: Is Your Boyfriend in the Band? My Experience as a Woman in the Music Industry

Olivia Marconi

After practicing for hours on end, my bandmates and I arrived to prepare our set at Pittsburgh’s cherished Altar Bar, an old, gritty church with a provisional stage and bar. I eagerly introduced myself to the headlining band, trying to contain my enthusiasm. Instead of the usual pleasantries exchanged between bands, however, the headliners greeted me with a derisive, “You’re opening for us?” I bit my lip and headed over to sound check. After my bandmates and I performed one of our best sets yet, however, that same tough guy offered us a genuine, “I’m sorry. You guys were great!” Although that man apologized for his condescending doubt, my question is, why did he assume that we wouldn’t be great in the first place?

I was 15 years old when my friends and I started attending shows at local music venues. Two friends in particular, Kristy and Koren, shared my creative spirit and passion for music. We were constantly surrounding ourselves with dedicated concertgoers, music lovers, and music makers. We wanted to be a part of this great community of talented musicians who constantly supported each other, attended each other’s basement concerts, and bought each other’s five-dollar GarageBand EPs. We were middling guitarists, decent pianists, and members of our high school chorus, and Kristy had been taking violin lessons since she could crawl. So, we decided to become a band.

We had a blast and accomplished a lot in the two and a half years that we made music together. We recorded an EP that eventually made its way to both iTunes and Spotify, and the three of us were fortunate enough to play many of the popular Pittsburgh venues where I continue to see some of my favorite musicians play. We even had the opportunity to open for one of our favorite bands in March 2012. But early on, we realized that the people around us did not think of us as just a band – instead, we were a girl band, and it turns out that this male-dominated, so-called supportive community was not so supportive when it came to “girl band” basement concerts and “girl band” EPs. We were girls first, band second, and the perception of our gender, like many other all-women bands, limited us. Regardless of our success and consistent, relentless practicing, we were still labeled “girl band,” a term drenched in so much disapproval that no one was taking our music seriously. What’s so bad about being a girl band?

I wanted to think this label was a positive thing. We were making a name for women in a space dictated by men – and young women, at that. I built a greater sense of confidence in myself, and I was thrilled that my peers were developing inspiration from my work. Other times, my less supportive peers instilled it in my head that my band’s all-girl composition was the only interesting thing we had to offer. Competitors in my high school Battle of the Bands contest convinced me, “You only won because you’re a girl,” as if the judges thought we would cry if they gave the title to someone else. When I would arrive at a venue, excited and armed with my guitar, I would stumble into the same assumption again and again: I was either dating or sleeping with someone in another band (Reminder: I was only 15 at the time), as if women could never possibly hold a different place in the music industry.

This ubiquitous attitude that women have abilities inferior to those of men goes beyond high school Battle of the Bands and 15-minute concerts in dirty garages. People act as if enjoying music produced by women is an anomaly. Indy Week newspaper recently published an article titled “What it’s like to be a grown man whose favorite band is three women.” Writer Brian Shaw, a self-described “31-year-old balding male,” describes his irrefutable, album-cover-tattooed-on-his-shoulder love for badass, all-women rock band Sleater-Kinney. After praising the band’s “musical strength” and “ability to funnel several distinct voices into one compelling sound,” he begins to defend himself, as if his fandom is shameful. Shaw continues, “Someone will occasionally say it’s strange for me, a straight white male, to be so enamored with a ‘girl band,’ a pair of words that say very little.” Shaw provides the name of another man who enjoys Sleater-Kinney, just to let us know he’s not the only one. Although Shaw’s love for the band is undeniable, this article proves that there is a stigma when it comes to men enjoying music produced by women. Why is this? Could it be another example of society’s attitude that the work of men should be taken more seriously than the work of women, and yet another example of men being valued more than women?

Confronting the blatant sexism first hand in the music industry was a rude awakening. You may think you know a lot of successful, famous women musicians, but this doesn’t mean that sexism in the music industry is dead. Young girls are being told that drums are for boys and being convinced that they only won Battle of the Bands because they’re girls. When my two friends and I decided to form a band, we were excited to become part of a supportive community where we were encouraged to explore our talents and interests. The shock that we encountered soon after serves as a reminder for musicians and music-lovers to dismantle sexist cultural and social structure and stigma if they really are passionate about music.

Check out more from this month’s issue here.