What inspired us?
The idea developed in January 2014 when we were planning to mark International Women’s Day at the Oh Yeah Music Centre in Belfast. We needed a theme, something that would resonate with people in relation to women and music. A small but interesting event that linked Kate Bush to Belfast (see video) always goes down well with visitors to our NI Music Exhibition. That might work, we thought. Other factors like topping the charts at the age of 19 with her debut ‘Wuthering Heights’ making her the first woman to have a number one hit with an original composition inspired us all. That, an Ivor Novello award and over 35 years of success, sealed the deal.
Unbeknownst to us, at around the same time, Kate Bush was about to announce a string of live dates in London, her first and only live concerts in thirty five years. Coincidence coupled with design; the stars were aligned.
We lined up local talent including the astounding voice of Jazz singer Suzanne Savage. We called it ‘This Woman’s Work’ and the result was a stunning night of Kate Bush interpretations and original material from the artists involved. Suzanne gave a brilliant rendition of ‘Wuthering Heights’ that people talked about for weeks. Other top acts included the rising Fiona O’Kane, (Runaway GO), The Dandy Horses, Decomposing In Paris and Shannon O Neill. We were buzzing.
In January 2015 after a series of conversations with some friends and local artists we decided to form a committee and plan for a bigger event which aimed to help promote local women in music and other areas of creativity. Then an interview with Bjork appeared on Pitchfork written by Jessica Hopper. In it Bjork talked about women being invisible as producers and the twitter floodgates opened.
Shortly after, I noticed an article about Beth Orton taking part in a series of song writing workshops designed to improve confidence and encourage more young women into music. It was at this point I decided to read a bit more on the subject and found that gender inequality in music, theatre and film were the subjects of heated debate.
Later that year a photo-shopped poster exposed a massive under representation of female artists at festivals. The poster in question removed the male performers from the line up leaving a paltry amount of female performers. It had people divided as to whether or not it was deliberate, accidental, unavoidable or coincidence. Whatever the reason, it was a stark gap and for me it simply couldn’t be that ‘there aren’t enough quality female acts out there’.
In fact the situation is so bad there are efforts being made and organisations being set up to alter the situation. There’s a group in Germany Female: Pressure, an electronic music, club and digital arts network for women in Berlin. They are campaigning for more diversity in the line-ups of events, festivals and labels – more diversity in terms of gender, age, class, cultural identity, an disabilities. Their focus is on supporting women in creating and promoting great art.
So it was approaching International Women’s Day again and it was suggested we celebrate Bjork this time. Once again the timing was right, her new album ‘Vulnicura’ was on the way and the Museum of Modern Art in New York was about to open an exhibition dedicated to her work. We enlisted the talent of local band R51, Sister Ghost, Katharine Philippa, Goldie Fawn, DJ Sage and Jai McConnell. This time we kicked off with an afternoon discussion on the topic of women in music. The panel included Rosie Blair (Ballet School, Bella Union), Christine Brown (Help Musicians UK), music publisher Charlene Hegarty (Smalltown America Music), Carrie Davenport, music photographer and two of the artists featuring that evening Shannon O Neill (Sister Ghost) and Laura Totten (DJ Sage). A good strong diverse panel representing a broad section of people working in the music industry. We ran it in association with the Roundhouse in London, who were also asking the same questions of a panel at their end.
What emerged was a real energy and enthusiasm from everyone involved to take the discussion further, to do something positive by coming together to promote the great work that is already going on locally as well as getting involved in what was becoming a global conversation.
Then in August 2015, aforementioned music journalist, Jessica Hopper, feminist writer and Riot Grrrl veteran, asked ‘women and other marginalised folk’ to reveal their first brush with the idea that they “didn’t count” in the music industry. Story after story of sexism, racism, misogyny, harassment and condescension poured out and it took the subject of women in music to new levels of discussion.
As far as statistics go, it has been repeated many times over the last few years that PRSF (Performing Rights Society Foundation) found that only 14% of registered songwriters in the UK are women, no doubt even fewer are from here. As a response to this PRSF set up the Women Make Music Fund to support the development of outstanding women songwriters and composers of all genres and backgrounds at different stages of their career. Association of Independent Music’s 2012 membership survey revealed that only 15% of label members are majority-owned by women and a Creative and Cultural Skills report revealed that the gender divide across all music industry related jobs is 67.8% male to 32.2% female. UK Music works closely with many of these organisation and in 2012 along with Alliance for Diversity in Music & Media (ADDM) launched the ‘Equality and Diversity Charter’ an industry wide code of practice.
And so, what, if anything does any of this have to do with us, here in Northern Ireland?
Well, we most certainly have a diversity problem in music. Based on experience it appears that there are far fewer girls picking up guitars, becoming DJs, doing live sound or running their own studios. One conversation I had with a local music producer left him scratching his head trying to give me one example of a female run professional studio. He could not think of one in Northern Ireland (so if there is anyone out there please get in touch). You can count on one hand the number of women making a living from live sound and in my line of work year in, year out, the number of young bands coming through are 90% male.
Why is this? Part of our work will be trying to answer this question. Throughout this year we will be interviewing, collecting information and looking at survey research to look into this question.
Positively, there has been a shift on a local level in the last year, a move towards creating more encouraging environments for women. The emergence of Go Girl, a collective of creatives working and supporting each other has really taken off and is powered by a group of energetic young people that includes both women and men. Then there’s Macha Productions set up by former Kabosh writers Jo Egan and Fionnuala Kennedy that aims to find new narratives to empower women through theatre. Belfast Underground Radio is now a campion of female DJs and helping fans to unearth and promote a lesser known Belfast arts and music scene that the mainstream media might not cover. Promoter duo Bird & Bramble, Stef Campbell and Amy Joyce, both musicians, are running regular gigs across a variety of venues around Belfast, their remit is based on supporting the artist through a crowd funding model. Songwriter, musician and actress Katie Richardson is fearlessly and creatively tackling the issues that surround body image and eating disorders with a project called To Be Beautiful, aimed at both men and women.
So, Women’s Work aims to do something positive regarding the position of women in the music industry, from promotion, to collective celebration, to increased visibility and diversity through events, all wrapped up into a festival that will ultimately continue as a network.
Women’s Work aims to:
- Promote, celebrate and support women by establishing a local network that is open and accessible to all.
- Have a concentrated series of events ‘Women’s Work’ in and around International Women’s Day to ensure greater impact and reach.
- Empower women to take the lead in shaping their own careers by providing advice, signposting and encouraging discussion.
- To lift and inspire aspiring young female artists to get involved knowing there is positive and supportive network locally.
- Help promote cities like Belfast and Derry as forward thinking music cities supporting its artists through a variety of networks and encouraging diversity and by joining with networks in other cities in other countries.
- Link with other groups nationally and internationally.
- Increase awareness and understanding of equality issues facing women.
- Work towards informing key funding and development bodies that may inform future strategy or priorities.