key of she sam warren

In The Key of She: Prof Samantha Warren on her research project on experiences of women in EDM

Samantha Warren is based at the Faculty of Business and Law, University of Portsmouth and is Project Lead. She also DJs and produces under the name of Dovetail.

In The Key of She is a project which aims to shed light on the careers of women in eletronic music via research and interviews. The research has generously been supported by a Fellowship from The Leverhulme Trust.

Tell us about your route into the audio industry…

My first formal contact with the audio industry was Brighton Music Conference in 2018, just after I’d been awarded the Fellowship funding to undertake the In the Key of She research project.

But I’ve been a long-time electronic dance music fan, and I taught myself to DJ in 2014. I have since learned to produce music myself too, and have had a couple of releases.

What inspired you to start work on In The Key Of She? 

I noticed that  the female DJs I was encountering weren’t producing their own music in the same numbers as the male DJs I knew. During previous research I’d done on DJing as a career, I learned that making your own tracks is an important part of a modern day DJ’s reputational capital – it’s not enough to be “just” a DJ if you want to get booked for big events and festivals. I knew that there was a big push to getting more women on the stage through pledges like Keychange’s 50/50 campaign (and rightly so), but if women aren’t producing the music that will get them noticed and respected by talent bookers and promoters, this target will be unattainable. Ultimately I want to generate an evidence base for how we can break down the barriers that are stopping women from becoming music producers

 What can you tell us about In The Key Of She?

It’s an academic project exploring the career experiences of women and non-binary people who are (self)producing electronic music, in order to find out what their key success factors are and uncover the barriers they have faced. Its part of a wider investigation into women, technology and cultural production to try to redress the gender imbalance in digital-creative industries. The project is funded by a Fellowship from The Leverhulme Trust which means that I have been seconded from most of my role as a Professor at the University of Portsmouth Business School so I can carry out the research. I’ve been interviewing female producers (33 so far) and other players in the industry, such as record labels, founders of collectives, and festival organisers (another 15 people). I’ve been producing podcasts from some of these interviews (25 so far) and I’ve also been using my own journey into production to understand the issues faced by women from the ‘inside-out’ . The project has also allowed me to join the Association for Electronic Music as a Co-Chair of the Diversity and Inclusion working group, which means my research is directly feeding into industry debates and best practice. I’ve also been writing articles for industry press and on the In the Key of She blog, and I plan to write a book from the findings in the coming months.

What have been some of the key findings from your research?

There is still a survey phase of the project to carry out yet, to get more wide-scale data, but so far the interviews have uncovered a whole range of things that suggest that women have to become more like men to succeed in the industry – whether that’s dressing down to avoid accusations of being talent-less (if they look too attractive, for example), or having to ‘act like one of the lads’. Every woman I have spoken to has some story to tell about being put down, undermined, harassed, trolled, or  sexually assaulted in the course of their music career. It shows how much ‘hidden labour’ goes into just being a woman in these scenes – having to constantly prove their worth, put up with hurtful attacks, and comments that chip away at confidence and self-esteem. The women in my study generally also learned their craft in a very isolated way, lacking the like-minded networks and friendship groups that give access to gigs, opportunities, signings, etc.

Did you discover anything during your research that particularly shocked or surprised you?

It’s really interesting that a large number of the female producers told me they’d had what you could call ‘non-traditional’ childhoods for a girl – either being self-described ‘tom boys’, or explaining how their parents encouraged them to play with tech, or to pursue ‘male’ activities and interests. This suggests that women who have had a more traditionally gendered upbringing might find it extra difficult to break into the ‘male-coded’ world of music technology. We need to make tech and the tech-education much more accessible from a much younger age.  I’ve also been shocked by how many of the women I’ve spoken to just accept the fact that they have to downplay their femininity to be taken seriously, and how even quite serious sexual harassment is explained away as being par for the course because they’re working in a club environment and/or men just ‘don’t know how to behave’. If, as women, we excuse poor behaviour as something that is to be expected then things won’t change!

What are some of the most common experiences that the women you have spoken to so far have encountered?

As well as the more negative things I’ve highlighted above, as you might expect, all the producers I’ve spoken to absolutely love what they do. They look at me very strangely when I ask them why they produce music! They’ve all worked super hard to be where they are and have showed extraordinary resilience and drive to succeed. They’ve all talked about the importance of self-belief and establishing networks, and being nice!

What are the main barriers to the industry that you have seen in your research?

As I mentioned earlier, access to the right networks is vital if you want to succeed. Women have to work harder to get accepted into those networks and that takes guts and persistence.  It’s often said that women lack confidence and that’s what the problem is – but academic studies show that what appears to be a lack of ambition among women is actually a learned response to being in an unwelcoming environment – When women know men aren’t going to be present, they rush to share their ideas, and music in ways that doesn’t happen in regular situations. Great examples of this are the Hospital Records Women in Drum & Bass network, Toolroom’s We Are Listening campaign, Red Bull’s Normal Not Novelty initiatives, the Music Production for Women development network, and Facebook communities like 2% Rising (2% is the official number of music producers who are women). It’s the environment we need to change, rather than to ‘fix the women’. We need more women to be visible in positions of expertise, power and prestige in the music industry – on and off stage. But this is hard to make happen when every time a woman shares her content online or a company uses a woman to demonstrate a product, for example, she gets a bunch of negative and often misogynistic comments about her appearance, sexuality, questioning her skill or talent, accused of being there as a token – it’s exhausting, and quite understandably, women are refusing offers to be put in visible positions because why would you put yourself through that? Finally, the whole world of music tech and DJ ‘bro’ culture in general is so male that its a lonely place for women who are constantly reminded that they’re the odd ones out.

Are attitudes changing?

It’s hard to answer this question, but I can certainly say that  diversity (of race as well as gender) is now firmly on the agenda, with organizations being called out for having line-ups and rosters that are exclusively white men, and that’s a start – just beginning the conversation. We are also seeing a huge rise in the numbers of female-led collectives and initiatives like the ones I’ve noted above (and many more like them) but the question is whether these women and their music is trickling out into the mainstream. We certainly need to see more action on matters of sexual harassment, and more men willing to speak up and out on behalf of women – all too often bad behaviour is blamed on one or two trolls, or abusers, when its the broader culture that’s to blame just as much. So although we could say ‘well we’re moving in the right direction’ and that attitudes will shift as the new generation of more inclusively-minded young people grows up, in order for that to happen we need to take active steps to change the cultures they’re growing up within.  I did a calculation and if we continue progressing at the same rate we have over the past 8 or so years, it will be another 90 years before we have a 50/50 gender balance in music production – are we happy with that?