Getting girls on stage: Why we need to demystify live music situations

In a couple of weeks’ time I’m going to be volunteering at the Girls Rock London women’s music camp. Twenty five women are going to turn up, learn the basics of a new instrument, form a band, write a song, and play a gig. All in the space of three days. I’m so excited to be part of this caterpillar-butterfly process. It’s the first time I’ve been involved, and previous volunteers and participants all describe the intense emotional journey that the weekend inevitably entails.

Rather than being a camp focussed on technical skill, at the heart of GRL lies the desire to empower girls and women to break through lifetimes of under-confidence: to shake off the crippling shackles of fear, to embrace mistakes and to embrace creativity and performance. As part of the volunteer training, we explored the origins of this under-confidence in girls and non-binary people. There are many, rooted in gender expectations and norms from the day a girl is born, but one word which cropped up again and again was demystification.

On a quick Google, there appears to be very little out there linking the well-documented lack of confidence in girls and women with the concept of demystification. But it’s something which is very real, in particular in the music industry.

Picture entering a live band setup for the first time. There is a lot going on: a host of different, unnamed cables linking up instruments and mics, a mixing desk with about 100 unexplained dials and buttons, a ton of DI boxes littered across the stage. Coming into this situation for the first time, there is very rarely a patient tutor to show you the ropes (well, cables) – more likely a curt sound guy who relishes unhelpfully reeling off jargon. Lacking in any formal knowledge, you might unwittingly unplug something without switching down the power, causing a loud bang and an irritable comment from the sound guy. If you ask what an MIDI sync cable is, you might get a rushed answer you still don’t understand, and end up treated as a deaf mute idiot by the sound guy for the rest of the evening.

Generally speaking – with the emphasis on generally – a boy is much more likely to shrug these instances off and maybe do it right next time. A girl is likely to take these episodes to heart, and to quickly associate the live music situation with humiliation and losing face. There’s also the unspoken pressure that by getting something wrong as a girl, you’re reinforcing the accepted notion that girls don’t know what their doing when it comes to all things technical. It took me about two years before I stopped deferring any question the sound engineer had, in a state of mild panic, to my band’s frontman.

All this is assuming a young girl even gets into a live music situation – the constant female adolescent goal of avoiding situations of unfamiliarity, and the consequent risk of being perceived as stupid, means that the straightforward path for young girls is simply to consider the live music environment environment as ‘not for them’. Often it won’t even be a conscious decision – girls will still go to see their favourite band play an arena gig and be full of awe; but all too often that awe won’t evolve into concrete aspiration, because the mechanics of the setup are so distant and unexplained. Look further down the line, and I believe this is a key factor in the unbalanced festival lineups we see today.

Rewinding to the initial band setup we explored before, it’s clear that demystification has a big role to play in mentally enabling girls and women to step into the live music world. Armed with basic technical knowledge, the fear of being exposed as ignorant is diminished, and the girl can move on to actually playing and performing (building confidence there is a whole other story).

Achieving demystification is not difficult, as Girls Rock London are proving. At the start of the camp, participants learn the terminology they need and immediately get hands on with setting up their own instruments. Every technical role at camp is performed by a woman, smashing the preconception that certain technical know-how needs a man to demonstrate and disseminate it. All equipment is clearly labelled, and leaders place a huge cultural emphasis on the idea of a safe space where there is no assumed knowledge and therefore no stupid questions.

In the wider world, the steps to demystification are just as simple, although the shift needs to be on a much grander scale.

Alongside the endless lessons on the different sections of an orchestra, I’d love to see basic PA setup on the music curriculum. For every orchestral performance, I’d estimate there are hundreds more rock-style gigs happening at the same time; it’s absurd that this element of music is so overlooked.

There’s already some great content out there where artists expose their ways of working – I love the way Four Tet admits some of the sounds he creates are just ‘clicking as fast as he can’ at around the four minute mark of this video chatting through his live music setup. Electronic music in particular is need of demystification, with producers so often shielded behind large decks which make it impossible to tell how sounds are being created. Willingness by artists to share their methods, especially with girls and women, could have a big impact on women feeling technically able to venture into music creation themselves.

The shift will come at the level of social interaction at grass roots venues too: there’s a need to clear the bravado and any unnecessary jargon out of live music situations. I have to check myself on this too; my band was recently joined by Jan, a synth player with a more classical background, and I was amazed by how easily I slipped into assuming knowledge and leaving her behind as a result. By taking the time to explain things once, Jan has quickly become independent setting up on stage – it’s only the first step that’s missing, rather than any lack of ability.

Of course, there’s a line between opacity and patronisation which needs to be found and trodden. This article isn’t advocating seeing a woman setting up on stage and immediately going into hand-holding mode. Rather, it’s about about consciously gauging experience and tailoring communication accordingly. I’m so looking forward to putting this into practice at the Girls Rock London camp next week – if you’re around on the next bank holiday, come along to the Victoria in Dalston to see the real fruits of demystification and confidence-building, as all the women take to the stage, many for the first time. It’s going to be awesome. And aspirational.

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