The ’90s and early 2000s were a time when boy bands and teenaged pop princesses dominated both music charts and the attention of major labels. Today it’s electronic dance music that has been earmarked as potential savior of an industry seeing increasingly sluggish sales. The soul-shaking rhythm of drums, the thrum of deep bass, and the ease in which many of EDM’s most prominent DJs blend disparate genres make it accessible to listeners with varying musical preferences. EDM’s meteoric rise has also created a market estimated to be worth roughly $7 billion annually – it’s a number that will only increase in the coming years. And, if you manage to rise to the top of an increasingly competitive crop there’s a near limitless potential for earning. Calvin Harris, for instance, made $66 million last year, securing his spot as the highest paid DJ in the entire world.
Unfortunately, what is achievable for Calvin Harris isn’t achievable for everyone. For some, the glass ceiling inevitably collides with dreams of stardom and global recognition. Women DJs in particular often have to confront the real-word limitations of working in an industry in which they are a minority. Despite pioneering female musicians like Wendy Carlos, Ellen Alien and Suzanne Ciani, whose early synth experimentations were instrumental in pushing electronic music forward, EDM remains a largely male-dominated genre. As a result, historically, the contributions of women and non binary people often go unacknowledged.
The issue goes deeper than just the talent, media contributes to the erasure of women as well. Last year Forbes published an article titled, “Electronic Cash Kings,” which profiled the highest-earning DJs in the world. The choice to use the gendered word “king” was no accident because every single DJ on the list was male, and not a single one earned below $14 million. In all fairness, Forbes could hardly control that male DJs consistently earn more than women, but to acknowledge it rather than normalize it would have been a step in the right direction. Similarly, Billboard’s roundup of the most high-powered DJs and executives of 2016 included men exclusively.
Statistically, the disparity between the number of men and women making music has seen some improvement in the last few years. Women-led collectives like Brooklyn-based Discwoman along with efforts from legacy talents like The Black Madonna, who launched her DAPHNE series specifically to encourage visibility for women in the EDM, have started to change the “boys club” paradigm that has enshrouded the genre. There have also been up-croppings of dedicated spaces for women at festivals and events where they tend to be outnumbered, and sometimes feel unsafe. Despite the industry finally addressing some of these pressing issues, the discrepancy in the earning potential of men and women, and the exclusion of women as headliners for major festivals remains a problem. Considering EDM is arguably still in its teenage phase and the genre is still finding footing in markets outside of the West, one would think there would be plenty of room for all to be successful.
So why isn’t there?
This was Smirnoff Sound Collective’s primary question when it launched the “Equalizing Music” initiative. The longterm project, which concludes in 2020, aims to double the amount of women headliners over the next three years. As part of the project, Smirnoff also profiled several leading women DJs in EDM with the hopes of group-sourcing solutions for the future. We had the opportunity to talk to The Black Madonna who, in addition to establishing the DAPHNE series, became the first female talent buyer at Chicago’s legendary Smart Bar, and DJ Rachael, Uganda’s first female disc jockey and the founder of Femme Electric, a movement that empowers women musicians on the African continent.
How do you create a gender-balanced industry?
The Black Madonna:
It’s very simple for me: If you are in a position to make decisions about who is going to play you have to make a decision to pay marginalized people. Pay black women, pay trans women, pay black men to play dance music. Pay people who meet those criteria. The wealth of many of these established artists is extraordinary so it’s not an either or position. You don’t lose anything by making the decision to pay marginalized people to do their jobs. You don’t lose anything.
The people who book clubs and festivals often believe the people who are put in front of them are the result of the cream having magically risen to the top. They truly believe that they are all they have to work with and their hands are tied. I do not believe that and I’m in a position now where I can choose to make my tour look economically the way that I believe the world should look economically. I’ve been lucky enough to do that because people let me choose who I’m on tour with now. You can show people that you can have a sold out American tour that has women of color, trans women, black men and gay people and the tour will sell out, everyone will make money, and the building won’t burn down.
Through education: I have a project back home that teaches girls how to DJ and produce music – it’s called Femme Electric. I’m getting girls into this program and making sure they learn the technical aspect of making music. I want them realize that they can achieve success in whatever passion they feel like pursuing. It’s not just about the music – when someone looks at a successful person they realize there is so much they too can accomplish. Everyone might not turn out to be a DJ or a producer but they’ll have the confidence to know that they can be successful in their chosen path.
What sort of leadership models can help effect change?
The Black Madonna:
When it comes to these kind of things there’s a real danger of going into a kind of Spice Girls, “Girl Power” T-shirt moment which is not interesting to me at all. I think it’s really important that we get away from the cult of personality. It’s a thing that I’m always pushing back against – I don’t want to represent every woman in dance music. If there’s one kind of leadership model that I would argue for it would be leadership by plurality.
One of the reasons that I wanted to go to Uganda is because Rachael faces some very specific challenges in her home and manages to lead really effectively despite that. In the West we think that there’s one way to skin a cat. We have some really concrete ideas about what leadership is and I am not convinced that they are universal. I don’t think that leadership is a cultural universal. I think that people do things differently in other countries. To see Rachel doing what she does and have this incredibly effective thing in an environment that is not fractionally as welcoming as the one that I live in, she knows something that I don’t know.
How as the industry changed for women since you started out?
The Black Madonna:
There are some things that are different from when I was a kid. When I was a young Riot Grrrl it was really radical for us to talk about rape. It was a big deal for a lot of us to proclaim our rapes. I was a member of Riot Grrrl Kentucky – which was not big but we were there. Our task at that time was processing the abuse; we were processing violence, we were processing sexual assault and we were doing it in public ways. That was a radical moment for us to walk into a show and wear a shirt that says “I was raped by XYZ.” Now we’re still in the process of that; we see women online disclosing their experiences but there was a very direct visceral way we were processing it in public spaces back then. So I guess I would say it’s become more acceptable for women to speak out.
I am seeing a lot more women DJs and emcees. There’s even a female DJ collective in Kampala now. It started happening when I was in my third year of DJ’ing – that’s when I started seeing more female emcees, anyway. The DJs took quite awhile – it was nine or maybe 10 years before I saw the first other female DJ in Uganda. A lot of it is just that they didn’t have easy access to equipment, and there’s also a societal strictness that produces this fear of heading out into the artistic realm.
How has inequality shaped your career?
The Black Madonna:
I have had to resist a lot of gender roles. We really struggle with the idea of the woman auteur in this culture. I am certainly a person who falls into that and I am in control of everything. I am trying to go into a place that is quite frankly often reserved for men. As much as anybody can I think I resist some of the things that are expected of women. I am a singular business, I employ a ton of people. At the very least I can say on every level I drive the car.
Even the language we use to discuss music can be very gendered – the godfather, the maestro, the master – we have no parallel. We have difficulty seeing women in that kind of maestro position but I’ve always been a pretty aggressive DJ. The way that I behave, the way that I talk, has always been pretty forthcoming.
Sometimes I would get insults from men or even men trying to grope me – lots of things would happen. There were also a lot of negative stories about me in the papers [in Uganda] because I once owned a bar and I have a lot of friends who are gay. They used to come to the bar a lot so it was branded a gay bar, which I didn’t really care about. But then the newspapers would write all of these negative stories about whoever would come there and say bad things about the bar. I eventually had to close down – I had it around seven years ago.
That kind of inequality has driven me on – I’m a fighter. I like to battle it out until the end. I’m very quiet and shy but deep within me I have that drive that keeps pushing me and I think it’s because of all of the challenges I’ve faced. It’s made me more fearless, more adventurous and more determined to reach my goals.
What still needs to change?
The Black Madonna:
We’re at this point where we’re at this critical mass around a lot of the issues we care about. Is it time for women in dance or women in general to come together and have a sort of official larger conversation? There’s a huge generational gap between what young women care about and how they activate to create change and the older generation. I’m 40, I’m a third-wave feminist – there is a fourth wave now. There are young women who are far more radical than I am. Some of the things we care about are the same, some of the things we care about are quite different. I think there still needs to be a larger conversation about what we can change.
I think it depends where you’re standing. If you’re just starting out maybe it looks like it’s changing but if you’ve been around for awhile you see so many things that have stood still. Male DJs and producers are still getting paid more, that’s not changing. Maybe it will be that’s one constant. At least now we have more female DJs but when it comes to producers, still not so much.
Also read our profile discussing the lack of female percussionists with Mindy Abovitz of Tom Tom Magazine here.
- Photographer:Nico Amarca/Highsnobiety