Women gaining ground in the Music Industry
When taking a closer look at the music industry, the number of women working in this field is (still) less than 10 per cent. Also, in addition to that, most work as assistants. Fortunately, women like four-time Grammy winner and mastering engineer Darcy Proper (AC/DC, David Garrett, Eric Clapton and many more) and film music producer Isobel Griffiths (“Lord of the Rings”) demonstrate it can be different! Moreover, there are signs of progress. At the Abbey Road Institute’s in Frankfurt and Berlin, 20 per cent of our student body is female. Reason enough to have a chat with these wonderful ladies, including Darcy Proper about their view on the current state of the industry.
Mira Schulte Strathaus and Michelle Williams are currently in the middle of their final exams for the “Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering” at the Abbey Road Institute Frankfurt. They have spent twelve intensive months learning about professional mixing consoles and software, the importance of composition, arrangement, recording and mixing of a song, how to market their music and the legal aspects of the music business. At the same time, 20 years old Megan Ashworth has recently moved from a quiet Bavarian town to the vibrant capital and is just about to graduate.
They are all part of the approximately 20 percent female students at the Abbey Road Institutes in Germany. “A ratio,” says Tolga Tolun, managing director of the Abbey Road Institute Germany, “that gives hope for growing participation of women in the audio and music industry.”
These three women are making their way into the music industry. With tons of motivation and no feeling of discouragement by male domination in the industry. That’s what we call power women.
Training as a music producer and sound engineer at the Abbey Road Institute
Why did you choose to study at the Abbey Road Institute?
Mira: It has been clear to me ever since that I want to earn my living with music. I completed an internship at my uncle’s recording studio and studied musicology at the university for a year afterwards. However, that was not practical enough for me. That’s why I was looking for an education that would better prepare me for the music industry, and I became aware of the Abbey Road Institute after reading a newspaper article. The Abbey Road Studios have a long and significant history in the music industry. The program at Abbey Road Institute draws from this knowledge and experience, which leads to a thorough overview of the development of music production and offers me many opportunities.
Michelle: What I find particularly good about this course is that it’s aimed at people with a great passion for music and willing to learn the technical aspects required for a professional production.
Megan: For as long as I can remember, I have sung, played the piano, written my first songs at the age of nine, and I always knew that I wanted a career in the music industry. But I didn’t know whether it would lead me into a creative profession or more into the technical world of music. While surfing the web, I came across the Abbey Road Institute, which unites both. During my first visit, it all felt very informal and at the same time very professional. Plus I thought the studios were just amazing.
What did you like most about the training as a music producer and sound engineer?
Michelle: The fact that there is such a strong focus on music. Because that’s what was important to me when I decided to start the course. I wanted to learn to produce my own music independently and in the highest quality. The Abbey Road Institute not only teaches theoretical and technical knowledge but also improves our musical creativity, which is mainly because of the high quality of the local lecturers. They are all industry professionals and not only do they have a very practical approach, but they also incorporate a lot of everyday life aspects and interaction in the industry.
Mira: I can indeed confirm that. Besides the four musical projects which we had to produce ourselves and the final exam, there is also a film music assignment. And for this, a severe amount of high-quality instruments and extensive equipment are available to us. There is always someone making music here. Working together on musical projects and being able to work with external musicians – in my case with the female metal band “Revolution Eve” – was a lot of fun.
Megan: Yeah, the musical development I’ve been through is tremendous. The training is very intense, and it’s essential that you attend all classes to make sure you don’t’ have any knowledge gaps during the exams. Overall, it depends very much on yourself how well you use the opportunity to learn a lot here in a relatively short time. Above all, I have learned where my strengths lie this year.
How do you vision your own future in the music industry?
Megan: My dream is to get started as a songwriter, to write songs that reach out to many people and make them feel how my favourite songs make me feel.
Mira: I would like to run a studio with two or three other people. But first I will continue to learn, expand my knowledge and gain experience. I can also imagine going abroad to gain more experience.
Michelle: I, too, would like to continue to make my own music and earn my living in a permanent position as a sound engineer. Even though it does not appear to be that easy to get a steady job, nevertheless, based on the people here who have completed their education, I can see that it works. After all, my motto is “If I stick to it, I can do it.”
Career start in the music industry
Lucy Pape stuck to it. The 19-year-old completed the Advanced Diploma in Music Production and Sound Engineering course last September at the Abbey Road Institute in Frankfurt, while in the meantime releasing her single “Let’s get out” and has now professionally ended up where others spend their holidays.
Lucy, what are you up to now, half a year after graduation?
Lucy: I work on Fuerteventura in the Robinson Club as “Sound & Light” technician. I found the job on the internet and applied for it.
Did the fact that you are a woman play a role during the application process?
Lucy: Not at all during the technical casting. Only skill mattered. I could have started immediately at a bustling club. However, It would not only incorporate doing the sound for each show but also building up and dismantling the entire stage daily. I was advised not to take this job because of the high physical stress and decided to go to Fuerteventura instead. Even though stage building and dismantling is also one of my tasks here, it’s not to the same extent.
What exactly are your tasks?
Lucy: They are very diverse. On the one hand, there are two theatre shows a week, which means building up and breaking down, including sound and light. Then there are regular live events with bands that I mix. Several DJs play at different positions in the club every day. Everything has to be set up and taken down afterwards for them too. Also, of course, there are many smaller activities, such as the daily quiz, which requires a microphone and a short jingle, fitness classes such as aquafit etc. – music and microphone are also in use here. So, I have something to do with anything that needs sound.
Do you feel anything like discrimination based on your gender in your professional life?
Lucy: At the beginning, I had the feeling that I have to prove myself. However, I’m not sure whether that was down to gender, age or because I was new. The training has given me a fundamental structure in many areas, and I benefit from that. It is often emphasised that women have been a rarity in this team so far. Otherwise no problem (laughs)
Sound Engineering – a male profession?
What do the others say? Do you think that it is more difficult for women to be successful in this industry?
Megan: I think there are certain situations in which you have to prove yourself more as a woman. Because despite many efforts towards gender equality, there are still people who think conservatively and would give preference to men in audio engineering settings. However, I do not let myself be intimidated by that.
Michelle: Contrary to the past, when it was almost impossible to get a job as a woman in this industry, times have luckily changed, and women now have real opportunities. A good example is Isabel Griffiths, who has worked on many films such as Harry Potter and Stars Wars, or Darcy Proper. Since I have not worked in the industry yet, I can’t say anything about my own experience.
Mira: It’s true that the industry still often speaks of sound MEN and females are often assumed as assistants. But this is more a picture of the past and should not be used as an excuse. Anyone who thinks that technology is preserved for men and women generally are not capable of doing technical or traditionally male-dominated jobs urgently needs to update their operating system and take a closer look at the world!
Darcy Proper – an industry audio professional
Someone who should know is Darcy Proper. The very likable American born Mastering Engineer, has received numerous awards (including four Grammys and eleven Grammy nominations), works at the Wisseloord Studios in Hilversum, the Netherlands, and is a lecturer at the Abbey Road Institute, Amsterdam.
Darcy, you’ve been working in this predominantly male industry for almost thirty years, won four Grammys and worked with the Who’s Who of the music scene. What are your experiences as a woman in music production?
I’d say my overall experience has been quite positive. In the live sound field where I was initially active, some people were surprised and, once, actually annoyed at having to work with a woman. But I didn’t let that bother me. I knew what I wanted to do and concentrated on doing just that.
Do women in the music industry have to pay attention to certain things?
Not particularly. They should just get on with it and focus on learning and doing a good job. For any young engineer, male or female, it’s important to be critical of yourself and to constantly challenge yourself to become a better engineer. But don’t let the fear of making mistakes cripple you. Accept that you, like everyone else who is just beginning in the challenging and ever-changing field of audio engineering, will make mistakes.
However, for young women, it may be especially important to remember that when you do make mistakes, you make them because you are “young and stupid” in the professional arena. You are NOT making them because you are FEMALE and therefore “stupid” with regard to audio. Your male counterparts are also making mistakes because they are also “young and stupid” with regard to the profession. We are often our own worst critics and undermine our own self-confidence more than anyone else ever could. You will make mistakes, that’s a given. How you handle the situation when you make a mistake is what separates the “wheat from the chaff.” Step up, own it, do what you can to fix it, and never make the same mistake again. That’s professionalism. Don’t let it put you in a tailspin. And if it’s of any reassurance, I will say that in the years I’ve been working in this industry, the support and encouragement I’ve received from my male colleagues have far outweighed the negative attitudes I’ve encountered. Of course, there are sexist jerks to be found in all professions, but I would venture to say that the vast majority of the men in this creative industry are open-minded and enlightened, not only with regard to gender but also race, sexuality & religious beliefs. Once you prove you can do the job and work well with others, you’re part of the team.
What tips do you give trainees for their everyday work?
When you’re new, it’s important:
- to be clear in your communication and follow social cues – know when to speak up and when to keep quiet.
- to be well-organized – particularly if you are documenting sessions. The details count.
- not to confuse constructive criticism and “paying your dues” with gender bias. You’ll waste a lot of energy that could have been better spent learning and enjoying the job. Everyone fetches coffee and cleans toilets when they are the „newbie“.
- to pay attention to signal flow and audio basics so you can deliver your work in a technically healthy state.
- to train your ears by listening to all styles of music. They will ultimately be your best judge of a “healthy” effective mix.
That applies to women and men. (laughs)
Support is also provided by the Verband Deutscher Tonmeister (VDT – Association of German Sound Engineers), with whose regional group in Frankfurt the Abbey Road Institute cooperates. In an interview with Yvonne Scheller (WAZ) in 2017, Joern Nettingsmeier, board member of the VDT, wished “that more women would push to the mixing consoles. The proportion of women in our industry is simply too low. That is changing right now, but slowly. That’s why every extra woman helps.”
With this in mind, we would like to thank Darcy Proper, Mira Schulte Strathaus, Michelle Williams, Megan Ashworth and Lucy Pape for talking to us about “Women in Music Production”.
Darcy Proper also has a blog post on the Abbey Road Institute Amsterdam page.
On International Women’s Day, the Abbey Road Institute’s around the globe published inspiring blog posts focussing on the wonderful women that are making a difference in the music industry. You can read about Marta and Lizzie making a difference in the UK here and read about the strong women, engineering and producing in Australia here.
More about education at the Abbey Road Institute can be found here.
Text: Susi Schiller