The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who’s both an incredibly talented musician and a brilliant music-business mind. Sipping small-batch beers and shouting over a live band, he patiently listened to my frustration over being someone with a strong artistic background but limited business knowledge trying to launch a career where I have to somehow deliver great art while performing all the functions that would have been carried out by an entire team of people 20 years ago. I’ve found it incredibly difficult and often feel like I’m running into a brick wall, especially when it comes to booking gigs and serving as my own promotions person.
As an independent artist himself, my friend said he had found similar struggles, but observed that male artists definitely had a leg up when it came to booking and promoting themselves. Throughout his career, he has worked with other artists in a business capacity and found that female musicians, regardless of their quality, got fewer responses from venues and publications. Even as a male artist, he had observed the glass ceiling that women come up against in this industry.
I found it to be sort a relief to hear someone – especially a man – make this observation. In college, I found many (though not, by any means, all) of my male peers denying how bad gender equality is on our field. When more than 70% of your classmates are having a totally different experience in the workforce than you, it can make you feel a little crazy, so it was great to hear my friend say “Yes, this exists and it’s a problem.” In addition, it took some of the pressure off my art. It’s not that my product is necessarily bad or worse than anyone else’s, it just might not be getting heard at all because my boobs block the sound waves from reaching people’s ears.
Working all on my own, it was easy to forget how my gender might be affecting my career. There’s no one to remind me about it. I don’t get emails back from the people I’m contacting saying “Sorry, but boobs;” I just don’t get emails back at all. I’m not saying this is purely because of my gender; I’m young and unpolished and often entirely unsure about what I should be doing. But, considering the experiences I had that initially led me to stop playing jazz in restaurants, it’s not hard to believe that there’s gender bias at play.
My friend made another interesting observation: women need to make a choice about how they will use their sensuality in their careers. Does the artist embrace her role as sex object or completely reject it? Everyone approaches it differently and there are shades of gray between sex-pot and asexual androgyne. But it’s something I hadn’t really thought about in regards to my career and it’s something male artists don’t have to consider to progress (though their physical appearance can play a role in their careers as well).
Part of why I’ve ignored the question for so long is because I don’t look at myself as a sex object. I look at myself as a whole person and I, perhaps naively, assume that’s how other people see me. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fit, healthy twenty-three-year-old woman and whether or not I look like a model, some people will find me attractive if only on the basis of my youth and everything that goes along with it – and I’m aware of this fact. But it isn’t how I define myself. If someone were to ask me to describe myself in a few words, “woman” might break the top five, but it wouldn’t be the first, nor would I consider it something that directly impacts the quality of my art.
One of the things that drives me nuts about the current state of music and the music industry is how quality often comes second to image or a quick but short lived profit. Since the advent of television and the music video, there has been an understandable push towards more attractive artists, but – maybe I’m an old-soul – I yearn for the days of when it was more about the sound and the live performance than pretty faces and tiny waists. As more and more consumers get their music from Youtube and other online video sharing sites, we’ll likely continue to see being physically attractive play a major role in getting your sound – no matter how good or bad – heard. And I’ll buy in a bit and put on makeup because you can’t totally buck something as massive as a format shift.
But having my gender – which has no effect on format or sound (other than males and females having different vocal tracts) or the quality of my writing and performance – impact my career trajectory is ridiculous. The only significant impact my sex should have on my career is if I decide to stay at home to raise kids in 10 years. I don’t want to be evaluated differently than my male peers.
With that in mind, I’m making the decision that I don’t really care if you think I’m sexy. I didn’t study the art of seduction nor was I a pageant girl growing up. I studied music, how to write it and how to perform it. I can read sheet music in one key while playing it in another; I can hear a song on the radio and transcribe it in full; I can sing in styles from classical to jazz to rock and roll to country (with the twang and all); and not one of those things is affected by how sexy or female I am. When you hear my music or see me perform, I want you to notice these things and judge me based on my abilities. If you’re distracted by how sexy or androgynous you find me, that’ll be your own problem.
There’s a terrible trope that female musicians don’t sell as well as their male counterparts. There are power-players on Music Row still spouting this idiotic piece of folklore. If there is any truth to the rumor, maybe that’s because labels are attempting to sell sex to people who are trying to buy music.
So if you’re looking to buy music, I’m your girl. If you’re looking to buy sex, try PornHub rather than Spotify.