Keychange and the Myths Surrounding Female DJs
In the past weeks, the world of electronic music has been roiling on the Internet. More than 100 festivals have joined the Keychange pledge to book more women, trans and non-binary artists and diversify their lineups by the year 2022, aiming for an eventual 50-50 gender balance. The Keychange pledge is an initiative impulsed by the non-profit PRS Foundation, whose claim is “to address the imbalance between those who are currently represented and those who are consistently underrepresented”, targeting live music line-ups and music conferences, among other activities. This would be overall good news if the response on the Internet had not been so ferocious; with social media pages boiling bile and anger over the pledge and the initiatives that have ascribed to it. Whereas a segment of the social network society has still responded to the initiative with enthusiasm, a large part of the electronic music world (females and women-identified people included) feels outraged by the measure.
The intention of this article is not to speak about the good intentions of the pledge itself, but to shine a light on the arguments that have been popping up all over the Internet against it. Most of these arguments are relatively easy to debunk with statistics and studies at hand; but some of them are more difficult to respond to because they belong to a moral framing. However, the point is not to question how necessary the pledge is for equality in a male-dominated world, but to remark up to which extent the patriarchal system is embedded in our political consciousness so that we question the pledge instead of understanding why such a pledge has been impulsed. Of course an initiative like that contributes to tokenism, but isn’t its own existence a proof that, somehow, for achieving gender parity in these music scene and industry, some sort of regulation needs to be explored? Probably before analyzing the functioning of the initiative we should ask ourselves how to disrupt a space that has been traditionally gendered masculine. Keychange is probably not the best solution, because booking is only the tip of the industry system’s iceberg, but at least it is a starting point to achieve more visibility.
During the past days I have been compiling a list of arguments that have been on the complaining side of the measure, trying to understand what it is that has triggered the sensitivities of every group of people, and what are the possible solutions to address the real fact that, in the world of electronic and techno music, the female presence is still scarce or insufficient. Of all the comments and articles that I have been reading on the Internet, none of it focuses on, in my opinion, the most questionable element of Keychange: the fact that it includes Trans and non-binary artists in the 50% of the category representing “women”, which seems to build, in summary, an unfortunate, inaccurate synonym for “non-males”. The fact that Keychange falls here on the dangers of universalization is highly problematic, but the existence of the pledge itself has generated enough controversy to overlook this statement.
As for the other arguments, they cover in general the rainbow spectrum that women in the industry have to deal with in their daily lives. These are the most common:
MYTH #1 - I will be booked based on my gender and not my talent.
In our system, talent is another way to speak about human capital, a decisive and competitive factor in the producing chain of the system. Thus, talent is evaluated in relation to many other factors. What we should do instead is to analyze the nature of the spaces where the production of value develops. In the case of techno and electronic music, and most predominantly music festivals, the spaces have been traditionally dominated by males. International collectives such as Female:Pressure have noted the scarce presence of women in the headlines, techno charts or music label rosters (a sad 10% by the year 2013).
Scholars such as Rebekah Farrugia have explored the topic further, noting how women have been sidelined as patrons on the dance floor, and how conceptions of gender and technology “continue to inform the male-dominated culture surrounding electronic music”. The figure of the DJ has also been originally shaped as a male construct, along with technological expertise. Are you worried that you might be booked based on gender and not talent? It is a legitimate question. However, maybe it’s best to use the chance “to take this masculinized space and occupy it, fill it and claim it”, as Marina Hervás says, because a man “won’t do it better, he will just do it differently”.
We women-identified people might never know the particular reasons behind being booked –which, by the way, is a question that male artists rarely ask themselves–, but aside from questioning whether they book us because they are forced to fill a quota, we can take the space to show how we do it. Because independently on why we get booked, they chose us and not somebody else. The only way to reverse tokenism is to create a space where we can disrupt it. The credibility, seriousness and the talent discourse in the field are related to a symbolic capital that is inherently masculine, so taking the space as a chance to feminize it (or ungender it) is also a step for narrowing this diversity gap.
MYTH #2 - We need to build a system where we don’t refer to gender but we refer to human beings with talent.
This is an interesting comment posted by a woman at the Resident Advisor Facebook page. Ideally, building an ungendered system would be great. But how realistic is it in a context sustained by patriarchy? We live in a society structured in terms of binary identification, so believing that we are only “human beings” is nothing but naïve (unluckily, our ID cards do not refer to us solely as “human beings”). This will not change anytime soon. Again, what does talent mean and depend on?
MYTH # 3 - There are less female DJs than male DJs.
Do we know that for sure? Is there evidence behind this? The fact is, there are few statistics that show with accurate numbers how many women DJs or producers exist, including bedrooms, so such an assumption may well be an overstatement. The distribution of work categories according to biology is also equally dubious, as well the meritocracy argument. However, it has been proven that, for instance, the informal networks of electronic and techno music and their spaces are usually masculine. As Geraldine Bloustien points out, a number of women who have learnt the skills “typically had to develop them outside these networks, and thus without the considerable benefits they can provide”. That translates into access to workshops, clubs, equipment or physical spaces, even when the “written policies are equally welcoming” to all genders. So a first step is to understand that not all DJs are created equal.
YouTube is also an interesting window to the close and often cruel scrutiny that female DJs suffer, for instance with comments on their anatomy –note a random comment (one of many) posted on a set by Amelie Lens: “she's ex modeling..gorgeous undoubtly” (sic) or The Black Madonna (translated): “Maybe she’s not as hot as Nina Kraviz or she doesn’t have Miss Kittin’s dressing style, but Black Madonna really bangs it!”. A consequence of that is Boiler Room’s decision to hire moderators for their comments section after the verbal abuse shown on the performances of DJ Toxe and Nightwave, among others. If this is not enough to convince you, a bizarre experiment is to put any electronic music playlist on YouTube: thousands of songs uploaded by users show randomly unrelated pictures of women in their background. The reason why is still unknown to me.
MYTH # 4 - There are women who have made it to the top; those who haven’t aren’t talented enough.
Of course there are a number of female, trans or non-binary artists who have made it to the top, such as Laurel Halo, Lena Willikens, Ellen Allien, Maya Jane Coles, and a long list of names. This is great. But there are also, as it happens with men, plenty of women and women-identified artists that haven’t made it to the top, independently of their talent (again, the exploitation and validation of talent, whatever that means, depends on many other things).
The fact that there is a booming of female participation means there are women who previously did not have access to the industry that are now able to enter it, and consequently showing that gender discrimination is and has been a reality. For that reason, there are many collectives created by women, trans or non-binary artists that have been fighting for more visibility: that is the case with collectives such as Feminatronic, Audible Women, Female:Pressure, Open Signal, WMN, Sound Women, Her Beats, Yorkshire Sound Women Network, Femnoise or Her Noise, among others (again, thank you Marina). They provide a platform for networking, as well as the creation of new opportunities in the field of music or digital arts.
Thus the problem is not talent or the lack of artists; the problem is the whole systemic pyramid that perpetuates this gender imbalance: festivals, bookers, agencies, rosters, promoters, labels, etc. The reason to exist for the above mentioned collectives is the lack of commitment in the whole spectrum; sexism is a structural and circular problem of the whole industry. Of course there are small music scenes in which this issue has been challenged. But the main struggle will be over when we don’t even remark that it’s a woman behind the decks. Thinking of women DJs as “unusual”, though less than before, is still sadly a thing.
MYTH #5 - The festivals only signed Keychange because they want $$$.
If female presence will bring them more rentability, then bring it on! It’s a win-win for everybody. If you are reading this and think “but we should book in terms of talent and not quota/diversity”, return to points 1, 2, 3 and 4.
MYTH # 6 - This is not going to bring the festivals any $$$
If so, why would they book them otherwise? How wrong it is to think that having to fill a quota equals hiring untalented women.
MYTH # 7 - This is a usage of the “female oppression card”
It sadly seems that too many people are reading Jordan Peterson these days. Let me tell you one thing: playing the “card” has been historically ineffective, because the denial of the oppression by the perpetrator has been historically accepted as a valid argument in discussions about discrimination. Thus, using it often leads to nowhere. There is still a lot of denial in relation to gender imbalance, even when there is a strong, undeniable evidence that it happens, and there is a lot of resistance to acknowledge our complicity to the system. This is also the reason why arguments such as “if women are not booked it is because they are not talented enough” exist: this argument is an avoidance of responsibility and awareness that the system is indeed oppressive and dismissive for some segments of the society you don’t belong to (or you belong to but you are unaware of it). Other strategies such as question-evading, silence, individualization (“if The Black Madonna did it, you can do it as well”), victim blaming and using a discourse of progress are usual (as it happens with racial discrimination). So, no, if using the card was effective, the game would have already been won.
To sum it up...
These are only a few of the reasons against the Keychange pledge. There are plenty of others: “booking women is not rentable”; “pouring over mix tapes, analyzing remixes, and planning sets is a pretty geeky pastime, and most women (not all) are not made for being DJs and producers”; “most women don’t have what it takes to make it to the top of the DJ game”; “women don’t need a sympathy pedestal”; etc. Giving attention to them is partially feeding the troll, but also evidences that this rhetoric and denial obstruct engagement and perpetuate the deep unawareness the whole industry’s general inequality measures. Initiatives such as Keychange may be sustained by good intentions, and it is necessary to interrogate them as they indeed help maintain a system that is based on gender division, and they deviate from forms of rethinking structurally gendered spaces. However, we need to remember that as long as we live in a patriarchal system, and as long as these rhetorics exist, we need some platforms to get started from.
Like this article? Thank Carlota.
Carlota is a Berlin based, 30-something year old woman with a soft spot for contemporary art, urban sociology, feminism, electronic music and critical theory. While juggling to combine all of them in her daily work, she writes about the things that don't let her sleep properly. Thus, as long as she's told that she is always looking for the cracks in the pavement, she knows she is doing things the right way.