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A Studio of Her Own

Paula Wolfe

 

Introduction

It has been suggested that women have excelled as singer songwriters because of the accessibility of the medium . In order to take the song from the private space to the public arena Mavis Bayton has pointed out that ‘…the most popular route has been self production, this being the way Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Millie Jackson learnt their production skills.’  

The process of self production taking place in a home studio, whereby the female singer songwriter accesses music technology to arrange, record and produce her music in order to transform it into ‘product’ with which to enter the market place, might be seen as conforming to what Norma Coates has identified as a marginalized status in popular music , yet increasing practices in these spaces, I would suggest, are serving to transform the very notion of the marginal from negative status to an attractive, desirable and empowered place to be.

In a climate that sees the majors treading an ever narrow and cautious path, the opportunities that access to new technologies affords, for the independent artist to record and produce what and when s/he likes, have never been in such abundance. And in an industry in which, as Bayton has pointed out, ‘Few artists have managed to gain control over the process of their presentation ‘  , and I would add representation, the potential for manipulating such processes in her own studio, when then placing herself and her product in the public arena is considerable.

Control as artists and as career builders within the industry is, of course, good news for artists irrespective of gender or genre but for the female singer songwriter there is particular significance. For despite the seemingly current prominence in Anglo-American popular music, the female singer songwriter continues to work within a context fraught with contradictions.

 That there are very successful female singer songwriters is nothing new nor is the way in which the music media represents them. Her achievements have often been contained in a variety of ways, the most common being the way in which the only term that exists to describe women who write and perform their own work, having been reduced to a restricting stereotype.  Credit for her success often goes to whomever she may have worked with, whether it be her band, collaborators in the songwriting process, the manager or label that ‘discovered’ her, or, as many recent reviews would indicate, the most powerful figures of all, the producer and engineers that allowed her to blossom through their mastery of music technology. An example of this is exemplified in a review of Beth Orton’s Pass In Time where the critic comments,
‘ What Orton’s oeuvre seems to have thrived on, as evidenced by the overflowing list of collaborators thanked on the sleeve notes…give the impression that Orton has done them a massive favour when clearly it is the other way round…When you’re listening to the expansive Galaxy of Emptiness , it’s Andrew Weatherall’s production that stands out, as do the Chemical Brothers on their own track Where Do I Begin, borrowed here for padding out purposes.’ (Hanley L. Word Magazine November issue 2003:107)
 

Emma Mayhew has noted,
For female performers, their artistic status is often put under scrutiny in relation to the role of the producer and the issue of musical control…As the producer has become more and more associated with an authorial position (both taking credits as well as being associated with a brand sound), a female performer’s positioning as valued artists is tied up with her relationship to this role.   

And so we have an interesting scenario. A Radio 2  producer  bemoans ‘where are all the boys?’ and the ‘marketplace’ has been described in several  album reviews of female singer songwriters as ‘crowded’ because you can count on one hand women who have been achieving success in the last few years through selling their craft rather than their bodies. Apart from the fact that female domination in the music industry is not imminent, (you just have to look at the line up for any major festival or look in any music magazine) there might be another underlying message which says that it is ok being a talented writer and performer but producing is where the real work takes place, to take the raw product and turn it into something special and powerful, a hit.

If we are seeing a shift in power, the implication of which has been noted by Mahew and has certainly been evidenced in album reviews in the last few years, from the artist to the producer, are we also in fact witnessing yet another example of what Coates has described as, ‘the invisible yet potent rules of power in rock to keep women firmly in their marginal place.’  

Who produces your album certainly influences how seriously you are taken by the music press. Some critics are openly resistant to reviewing an album if they know it is self produced. But is it just the case that critics may, quite rightly believe that any piece of music benefits from the objective input of ‘fresh ears’ or is suspicion raised if a female artist chooses to do everything herself? After all, how many female engineers and producers are there? Or rather, how many women have acquired those skills given that the field of production, under the general umbrella of music technology, is one of the largest sectors in the popular music industry which is still totally male dominated?
 
An aspiring female musician/ producer will not have taken the route that many male  producers do. She will not have hung out in studios for years, starting out as a tape op. and working her way up from tea maker to engineer, breaking her production teeth on recording teenage bands into the small and affordable hours of the morning. Nor will she have hung out with sound crews behind the mixing desk for years ‘educating’ her ears. She won’t have done this for two reasons.

Firstly, ‘hanging out’ in this manner is a male dominated activity that few women can comfortably take part in - most bands are male, most studios are run by men, most venues are run by men, most sound crews are run by men. Hanging out is also a time consuming activity. If a female artist has children or has to work to finance her music then this important networking practice, which ultimately is what it is, lies completely beyond her reach and so do the benefits. Bands are signed, deals are struck from hanging out with the right men in the right bars, venues, studios, festivals, conferences at the right time.  Even if a female artist does summon up the confidence to actually attend said festival or conference, to stride confidently up to the bar and infiltrate what will be a predominantly male circle, is not only excruciating, it is a situation loaded with the potential for misconstruction even before she opens her mouth. It may be equally difficult for a male artist to try and network in this way but on no level is it anywhere near as fraught with the potential difficulties encountered by his female colleague.

If, as we are consistently told, the future of the industry lies in the hands of ongoing technological progress, evidenced perhaps by  MIDEM’s devotion for what will be three years running to a special two day event called Midemnet, what does this signify for female artists and would be producers? Could this mean greater potential to carve out the career they want because of the increasing accessibility of that technology or by virtue of their minority status in the field, does it present future opportunities to be dismissed as “just the singer” or as a woman, a musician herself, said to me recently, ‘just a female singer songwriter’? Alison Goldfrapp’s reaction to being told that she had been the first woman to be interviewed as part of a special Guardian feature at last year’s Glastonbury perhaps illustrates the point,
“Really! They’ve all been blokes? Bloody typical! That’s British rock for you. Britain is obsessed with boy guitar bands and that means you get overlooked sometimes…If you’re female and you sing, there’s this idea that you don’t have anything to do with the running and working of it, that you just stand there and sing, and then you knit while someone else is doing the work.”    

Her current success clearly shows that she certainly is not being overlooked at the moment but a recent interview highlighted the fact that almost without exception, the press has focused on her sexuality whilst Will Gregory is interviewed exclusivelu about the actual music illustrating Bayton’s point that, ‘women are rarely talked about as musicians in their own right.’

This paper, then, hopes to look at women’s recording practices in ‘a studio of her own’ in which working within such an ‘inviolable space’ might be seen to take the form of a challenge to boundaries, both old and new. By considering some of the factors that might lead to choosing to work in this way, the notion of empowerment that it offers and by briefly alluding to other related cultural practices, I ultimately hope to place ‘a studio of one’s own’ as part of a broader feminist debate.

On the outside looking in

In the introduction to the first edition of her book ,’ She Bop.The Definitive History of Women in Rock , Pop and Soul’, Lucy O’Brien draws on Virginia Woolf’s famous essay to draw comparisons between the female singer songwriter and the female novelist. She asserts that,
In 1928 Virginia Woolf wrote that an aspiring woman writer who wanted to speak her mind needed “ A room of her own and five hundred a year”. From the early nineteenth century women made a major contribution to literature partly because their modestly growing economic independence could stretch to a chair, a desk and a piece of paper….Women excel at singer/songwriting for the same reason that they are good novelists, because it is an easily accessible medium.  

Empowerment

 A contemporary singer songwriter wanting to “speak her mind” and with complete economic independence, can now “stretch to” a decent computer, industry standard recording software as well as my own instruments to not only write her songs but produce them to a professional standard and release them on her own label if she so wishes. The “room of her own” has become “a studio of her own” and although it could be argued that creating such a space might actually be seen as having confirmed and conformed to a marginalised status, I would suggest that the home studio is a place of empowerment rather than one of hapless isolation and solitude. Technology has not only become increasingly affordable but user friendly. Buying the equipment from a good retailer ensures that technical support will be part of the service so that most problems can be solved on the end of the phone or by e-mail. The hardware itself serves to break down any isolation because if the system invested in is compatible with other systems such as the ProTools range, rapidly becoming an industry standard, then a project that cannot totally be managed at home, can be put on disc and taken to a larger studio where existing tracks can be added to.

With the arrangements already worked out, the woman artist can enter the ‘professional’ studio empowered, firstly, because she knows exactly what she wants the musicians to do and secondly because she knows that she not going to be intimidated by unfamiliar technology. There is also the financial consideration which is important if, as an independent, she is financing the album herself, in that the studio time will be a lot less costly than if the whole track had been recorded in someone else’s studio using their in-house engineers.

Ultimately it is the pursuit of one’s own artistic goals that drives the desire to self produce but it cannot be denied that is also provides an increasingly viable route into the industry, evidenced by singer songwriter, Polly Paulusma who self produced and self released her debut Scissors in My Pocket before signing to One Little Indian,
‘ “The next album, we’re going to try something different, it’s going to be a lot darker.” And would she be averse to having a big name producer at some stage?
“ I’d like to work with a producer for three tracks. I had a look at The Hour of The Wilderbeast by Badly Drawn Boy, which is a work of genius and he did that. He worked with Ken Nelson on a number of tracks – and there’s about 20 tracks there, but there are these cornerstone tracks, done with a producer, and then it was filled in with great, home-grown, skanky, passionate recordings.” ‘ (Where Do The Songs Come From? Polly Paulusma in Interview Lawless A. www.threemonkeysonline.com)

It is worth noting that the attraction of the “refugee mentality of making it at home” as expressed by MIA on the televised Mercury Awards this year, holds some sway when there still exists the type of studio I visited last year, whereby pictures of Page 3 girls adorned the rest room walls and the calendar echoed a similar theme in the studio’s office. Such an environment may not necessarily restrict and inhibit the creative output of a female artist working there but might certainly make her feel uncomfortable. This kind of studio is, of course, at the lower end of the market and there are ample studios and retail outfits who take the artist’s professionalism for granted and would not dream of trying to patronise. However, this knowledge only comes from experience and unfortunately the dodgy local studio is all too often a necessary and usually painful rite of passage. What happens, therefore, if those are the only options open to the young aspiring female singer songwriter wanting to record her first demo? How likely is she to be scared off in this way, thus perpetuating a male hierarchy?

Recognition of the empowerment that comes from music technology was highlighted in an interview I conducted with a female producer/engineer based in Manchester. She commented,

New funding initiatives are now being brought in specifically to teach young girls music technology. I teach a class one night a week and the girls are really keen, it’s also good for them to have a female role model in this environment.  

The organisation Women In Tune have long recognised that such knowledge is power. Judging by the increasing numbers that attend not only their yearly women only festival which offers countless workshops that involve music technology, but the accredited courses they offer throughout the year, there is clearly a desire to learn such skills but also a need to acquire them in an ‘inviolable space’. Interviewing the Chair of Women in Tune , Heather Summers she said,
…it’s women doing it, that’s our thing really, both in a performance way and in a learning way…it’s giving that opportunity in a safe non-competitive space to get up and have a go at everything you might have dreamed of doing or dreamed you never could do…we picked the music technology side because that is the least represented by women…you don’t have to want to be a sound engineer you just want to be a musician who know what to ask for.  

In her discussion on the demise of Janice Joplin, Sheila Whitely asserted the importance of production skills for women in music fighting very real battles in the 60s.   In 2005 the same battles are still being enacted and the recognition of the power and potential from technical knowledge lies at the heart of those battles.

Undoubtedly, the role of an objective ‘other’, a fresh pair of ears, can only be a good thing for the creative process of any piece of music. The point here, however, is the significance of the producer’s ‘ear’ that home technology allows the female artist to develop so that if she makes a decision to pull other people in to work on her project, that decision is informed by having been able to develop her ideas herself first. What it avoids is the debilitating scenario of arriving in the male dominated environment of a ‘professional’ studio, clutching her songs and a few ideas of how she would like those songs to sound when recorded. In other words, handing over creative control in one fell swoop to a producer, or what would be more likely on for an unsigned artist on a low budget, to the studio owner/engineer who doubles up as a producer, is a risky business.

It is worth acknowledging at this juncture that such notions of empowerment hold significance for the aspiring female singer songwriter not only in terms of gender but class, race and sexuality as well.

Stick me on the guest list

Achieving an identifiable ‘sound’ is an important goal for any artist. It not only helps to sell the work but forms an intricate part of that artist’s own development in exactly the same way that a visual artist works on developing a style that is honed and developed throughout her/his career. Substitute the word sound for voice, both metaphorical and literal, and again the significance for the female singer songwriter, is clear.

For some artists, an instantly recognisable sound is apparent from very early in their careers and success may be relatively swift. For many, however, the process of finding one’s own voice or sound can be an elusive and arduous journey and may take a number of albums before it is achieved. Young artists/bands who have been taken on and then dropped by a label if the debut album does not sell, may never get beyond the starting post for this reason. Arguably then, the home studio is a vital tool in the process of artistic development for male and female artists alike. If, however, as a woman marginalized by the patriarchy of music technology and therefore not possessing the skills and knowledge to experiment and hone in this way, that creative journey may never take place. In such a light Polly Paulusma’s experience is pertinent,  
‘ She identifies strongly with the growing crop of artists who’ve recorded and released records in similar circumstances, like Damien Rice for example:
 “ That very home made sound, on those records, that give them that ‘acousticity’, was born from the fact that we didn’t get any support from an industry that was focussed on glorified karaoke for so long, and it’s turned out to be a wonderful thing. It’s like a forest fire. There was a ravaging time, and now there are all these shoots coming up, forced due to circumstance.” ‘
(Lawless A. www.threemonkeysonline.com)

During a conference last December called Sexing The Scene run by Salford University  one of the speakers, a very successful woman in the industry, recalled her first important A&R meeting and recounted her shock and disappointment when she discovered that high level A&R meetings did not involve listening to any new music or discussing any new artists, but rather involved listening to the artists that their competitors had recently signed.

When profit and keeping up with competition comes way above any notion of developing the artist, how much more significant, then, is it for the artist to develop herself rather than pursue what she thinks a label might be looking for when clearly what the label itself is looking for is simply an indication from its competitors as to what ‘formula’ is likely to be the next ‘big thing’, so that they can then direct their A&R personnel to go and find their own version of it.

In a feature earlier this year in The Observer Music Monthly debating the current state of the British Music Industry, comments from the invited panel made this very point,
 …the music industry are lazy. British A&R men are lazy. They don’t get out of Camden – it’s very Londoncentric – and they’re sheep. They’re all scared to death
of signing anything that sounds interesting or different, or someone who doesn’t sound like blah blah blah and blah blah blah put together.

The process of finding one’s voice or sound used to be called a development deal but those days are well and truly gone as commented upon by panel member Yvette Livesy (founder member of In The City),
No one’s interested in developing artists these days. In the past, you might have expected your first album wouldn’t sell much, your second might sell a bit more and your third would fly. But nobody’s got the patience now.     

It is a given now that labels will wait for a band or an artist to have developed themselves before they become involved. They want to know that there is a sound, a fan base and most importantly a single or indeed two,
… a lot of A&R men aren’t willing to look for new talent. What they want is to keep their job and put their energy into saying ‘I’m blah blah blah  from blah blah records, I’ve got my job and I can get into my gigs for free!’…if you go to a label, the label will say they’ll sign you if you have two good singles. It doesn’t matter what the rest of the album sounds like.  

How significant it is then that an artist, and in particular a female artist, should want to create her own deal, her own time and space to develop without a major watching the clock and wanting her to instantly be the next Norah Jones or Dido. In the same feature, the artist Estelle comments on her experience of major labels and the pressures put on her by A&R for her to be that which they thought would sell and which consequently would secure their own positions,
I got everything. ‘Can you be naked?’ ‘Can you be Dizzee?’ ’Can you be this?’ ‘Can you be that?’ But …Artists have got to know who they are as well. They can’t come into the game saying, ‘I’m going to spend ten years trying to be Destiny’s Child.

Independent mavericks

The contemporary female singer songwriters that I have researched are fully aware of the contexts in which they work and that they have to access whatever they can to strengthen the corner from which to come out fighting and a studio of one’s own, I would suggest, packs a powerful punch,
‘Ani DiFranco pioneered all this,’ says Katy Carr. ‘I didn’t quite know how to be a singer songwriter. When I saw Ani DiFranco play, it made it feel like it was possible. I needed that example.’ Thea Gilmore agrees. Both also point to Kathryn Williams…..Charlotte Grieg, meanwhile, was influenced by self releasing, strong selling folk artists like Lal Waterson and Kate Rusby. They’re mavericks; they don’t fit in,’ she explains….  

The article, from which these comments were taken, went on to recognise the potential that independence offers women, demonstrating what has been a shift in opinion as to the value of being signed to a label at all. This was reiterated to me by comments from a woman working for a large music PR company  when she remarked, ‘nobody cares whether you’re signed to a big label anymore’.

In many ways, the market has been thrown wide open and increasing numbers of women are accessing the technological tools available to them to take full advantage of it. The journalist closed the above article stating,

The long term importance of these musicians, though, isn’t their gender but their ability to survive by themselves – their suggestion that personal, rule-breaking work may have more of a future than the bland industry they’ve ignored.

But of course artists have known this for years,
Labels are much less important than they used to be, because CDs are so cheap to make,’ Grieg explains. ‘The punk do-it-yourself is finally coming true,’ Gilmore adds: ‘I think they’re scared of me ‘making it’, in their words, and disproving the theory that they’re needed. But a lot of people have done that now.

And at the end of the creative process she can stand her ground if she knows that it is, for better or worse, her ‘sound’ on those songs, or at least a sound that she is striving to develop. As the music media will inevitably struggle with representing her in terms of that work rather than her gender, the importance of being able to pursue her creative goals on her own terms is reinforced.

Conclusion

Undoubtedly the concerns that have been touched on here resonate in numerous creative and indeed non-creative fields. The problems encountered by women who have to present their work and themselves in the public arena is not limited to women working in the popular music industry . Returning to Virginia Woolf, her sympathy, for the female composer in 1929, offers an interesting perspective for the female producer in 2005,
The woman composer stands where the actress stood in the time of Shakespeare. Nick Green,  I thought remembering the story I had made about Shakespeare’s sister, said that a woman acting put him in mind of a dog dancing. Johnson repeated the phrase two hundred years later of women preaching. And here, I said opening a book about music in this year of grace, 1928, of women who try to write music. ‘ ‘ Of Mlle Germaine Tailleferre one can only repeat Dr. Johnson’s dictum concerning a woman preacher, transposed in terms of music. “ Sir, a woman’s composing is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all.” ‘  So accurately does history repeat itself.                   

Indeed it does. For a woman to stand on stage with a guitar has been seen in the past thirty years as a challenge to the status quo. The challenge now takes the form, as I’ve suggested, of that woman not only performing her own work on stage with a guitar but also recording and producing it in her own studio with the option, if she is not signed, of going on to promote and release it on her own label, thus creating her own career as an independent artist.

Final Word   

One cannot help but fear, however, that when the female producer starts to emerge from ‘a studio of her own’ as stridently as she has from a ‘room of her own’, the marketplace may again be too ‘crowded’ for her. This year saw the 25th Brit awards and Radio 2 with the Brits established a Best Song award from the Brits years. Of the 25 nominations there were only two female artists, Annie Lennox for her song Why and Kate Bush for Wuthering Heights. Of the 5 top short listed songs, Kate Bush was number 4.

The questionable merit value of such an award aside, there are two points to be made which serve as an apt illustration of many of the issues raised here. Firstly, that there were only two women on such a list serves to demonstrate how women continue to be perceived in the industry. Secondly, the presence on the short list of Kate Bush, who is as renowned for her production skills as she is for her writing and performing, might well be seen as a positive in terms of her offering a role model and as an illustration of the value of self production and yet in opposition to this is the manner in which her choice to produce herself from early on in her career has also been perceived as self indulgent as highlighted by Mayhew who points out that,
Kate Bush’s ‘control’ of (the) studio technology is presented through (these) two competing discourses, one which highlights her authentic skill as a ‘real’ creative subject, the other questioning Bush’s creative ‘objectivity’.  
        
It would be tempting, then to view the current status quo in a totally pessimistic light but this would be wrong for a number of reasons, not least for the growing number of women who are ‘working it’ in the industry at whatever level, year in, year out and for the younger generations coming through who have grown up with technology and who do now have the benefit of more visible role models. In a recent news item on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, it was reported that more girls than boys are buying guitars (bbc.co.uk/radio4/today). This was echoed in the press in which Paul McManus, chief executive of the Music Industry Association was reported as saying,
The guitar is once again the weapon of mass choice…the figures speak for themselves…and then of course there are the girls….there is a revolution of girl bands out there, and girls in guitar shops. And of course, Daisy Rock guitars.

Tish Ciravolo who founded Daisy Rock comments,
When I started five years ago there were very few girl bands around. There was discrimination right across the industry, we were treated badly in clubs. Girls were also held back by the sheer weight and size of guitars…When I set up the company, I would get 500 e-mails a day from girls asking, ’How do I get a guitar? How do I join a band? What I wanted to do was not only design a guitar for a girl to play, but to change the consciousness – make the sight of a girl playing  a guitar as natural as that of a girl playing a flute…We are just the beginning. The tip of the iceburg: you watch MTV in ten years time.
(Vulliamy E. ‘What’s rocking music: girls with guitars’The Guardian August 15 2205:7)

A heartening sign, perhaps, but given that the current topic on 6Music’s The Great Debate is entitled ‘Where is the 21st Century Janis Joplin?’ and offers the view that,
‘the music industry still prefer(s) its female solo artists to be either pop puppets, urban divas or insipid Dido-figures..’ (www.bbc.co.uk/6music),  serving once again not only to casually categorise women but to exclude those who do not fit into the categories, it may be quite some time before future pundits have genuine reason for describing the marketplace as ‘crowded ’.

Notes

  1.   O’Brien, L. 1995 She Bop, The Definitive History of Women in Rock Pop and Soul London, Penguin, p175
  2.   Bayton, M. 1998 Frock Rock, Women Performing Popular Music. Oxford, Oxford University Press p14
  3.   Coates N. in Whitely S. (Ed) Sexing The Groove London:Routledge, p53
  4.   Bayton, op.cit, p5
  5.   Harris quote here
  6.   Mayhew, E. in Whitely S. Bennett A. Hawkins S. (Eds.) 2005 Music, Space and Place:Popular Music and Cultural Identity London, Routledge p23
  7.   Ref. here to conversation I had with a Radio 2 Producer last year.
  8.   See Coates, op. cit.,p53
  9.   The Guardian June 28 2004:4
  10.   See Bayton, op.cit.,p3
  11.   See O’Brien,op.cit., p175
  12.   e-mail interview conducted with Amanda Wigby January 2005
  13.   Interview conducted at Chard Festival of Women in Music May 2003
  14.   Whiteley, S. (2000) Women and Popular Music London, Routledge, p69
  15.   Sexing The Scene Salford University December 2004  www.sexingthescene.org.uk
  16.   Observer Music Monthly 2004, p.32-37
  17.   Ibid., p.32-37
  18.   Hasted, N. January 04 2004 Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves Independent.co.uk
  19.   Research stemming from PR work via e-mail 
  20.   Ibid.
  21.   A cover if Vanity Fair shot by Annie Leibovitz of 10 successful and nearly successful actresses has been described as a ‘Last Supper like tableau’, and demonstrates how the film industry is another example of that public arena in which successful women will quite simply be judged on their sexual attractiveness first and their work second. Drawing on the significance of the title of William Thackery’s novel, the journalist demonstrates why this copy of Vanity Fair illustrates ‘ a loveless world,
  22.  ‘It has imposed a brutal hierarchy on its exquisite models…the photograph has been divided into three smaller tableau and folded over twice…it is a desperate sight to make all feminists tremble… It reminded me of Caravaggio’s famous chicken in the National Gallery: it’s just as pornographic. Leibovitz’s cover is simply a casting couch, a homage to the blowjob values of 1950s Hollywood. To watch 10 beautiful women (of which at least four are talented) bicker for the lens’s attention like tarts in an upper class brothel is dispiriting. ‘  (Gold, T. 2005 The Guardian G2 p.4)
  23.   Woolf, V. 1929 in Eagleton, M. (ed) 1996 Feminist Literary Theory, A Reader. Oxford, Blackwell,p.77
  24.    See Mayhew, op.cit., pp249-250
  25.   Vulliamy E. ‘What’s rocking music: girls with guitars’ The Guardian August 15 2205:7
  26.   www.bbc.co.uk/6music