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‘People are actively searching for female composers’: Hearing from women in audio at the top of their game

PSNEurope made its way to Spitfire Audio’s swanky HQ last month, where Saffron was hosting a special event geared towards aspiring female-identifying audio professionals. Here is some of the industry insight we gained

Young Padawan presenting a workshop on Moog synthesisers

PSNEurope took a trip down to Spitfire Audio’s London HQ for an exciting women in audio event last month dubbed Tech Dissect and organised by Saffron Records. The event was filled with workshops and panels from a variety of female-identifying audio engineers, composers and music professionals at the height of their careers. Some of the highlights included hearing from Abbey Road Studios’ managing director Isabel Garvey about her journey from finance to heading the most iconic studio of all time, and a talk about making it as a woman in the music and audio industries featuring the highly successful composer Nainita Desai, Connie Edwards, music supervisor and composer manager at We Are Golden, and Sarah Guerin, head of rights management at ITV Studios.

We also had a play around with Native Instruments’ magical Maschine and listened to singer and performer Bishi detail her incredible musical journey. What’s more, attendees in the masses were cramming into the studio rooms to witness workshops from PSNEurope columnist and mastering engineer Katie Tavini, freelance engineer Fiona Cruickshank, Young Padawan, K-Minor and many more. Here is a round-up of the most significant insights we garnered from the experts…

CLIMBING THE RUNGS

The stats show that although there is a 50/50 split of males and females currently coming out of Music Technology courses, this newfound equality doesn’t carry through to the industry itself, with only seven per cent of UK engineers and producers actually being female. Desai gave her take on the subject: “If anything is a barrier I think it’s yourself holding yourself back, but I also think technology has, up until recently, held women back.”

Desai acknowledged that events like this one are great as they encourage women to take that step further after pursuing music technology courses by applying for jobs and submitting their work. “It’s wonderful to see things are changing, thanks to Spitfire Audio and other organisations, Facebook groups and social media. Up until four or five years ago, I was on my own. It’s so important when women come together and support each other.”

Desai pursued a degree in Mathematics to begin with after experiencing peer and social pressures not to go into the audio industry, as well as a lack of educational options in music technology.

“There were no music production courses during my late teens/early 20s; we’re so lucky that we have such a fantastic music education now.” After that, she ended up doing a postgraduate degree in Music Information Technology, and then attained a scholarship to go to the National Film School and edit sound for films. She was introduced to singer/songwriter and producer Peter Gabriel during her course and ended up landing an internship with him after university. That experience, she said, opened many doors.

Abbey Road’s Garvey started out in finance, which she dubbed her ‘dark past’, but ended up in music after landing a job at EMI to help them prepare for the digital world. This led to work at Warner Bros and finally she was picked up by Universal after it acquired Abbey Road. Her job, as managing director, was to ensure that Abbey Road Studios is still relevant 85 years from now. How did she go about doing this? “[This involved] really investing in the core. The recording studio is the gold dust we have to look after, but we’ve also built ancillary businesses, an education brand, and the music tech incubator. We digitised the mixing and mastering services so you can access them outside of the studio and we built a retail business for all the tourists on the zebra crossing. All of that has bolstered the financial health of Abbey Road – the studios themselves are thriving, and will continue to.”

Guerin described a few different paths she could’ve taken, doing a degree in Biology, working at ITV for a spell initially, then contemplating doing another course in Nutrition after being made redundant. Finally, she made it back to ITV Studios where she’s been working for an “eye-watering 22 years – I worked my way up from entry-level to head of department.” Edwards studied music and has found that helpful in her role at We Are Golden, working and communicating with composers: “That’s the part I really love, because you’re working with really talented composers and you feel like you’re part of their creation.”

DECONSTRUCTING BARRIERS

Desai remembers being the only woman in the room when she started out but highlighted that now “people are actively searching for female composers, it’s not just all talk” and all three women agreed unanimously that it isn’t the case that female engineers and composers aren’t wanted, but that there is a lack of submissions from them.

Edwards recalled her experience with the issue: “I’m seeing a lot more female composers on credit lists, which is excellent. But when I worked at Major Tom, a supervision agency, I actually cannot recall when we had a composer submission from a woman.” She emphasised that you should always send in submissions, “hustle and share your talent”, as she makes a point of listening to every single one she’s sent. “I often meet female composers at events like these,” she pointed out, “but I’d love to see women composers at the standard events as well. There seems to be a barrier where I’m not finding you, or you’re not finding me.”

Guerin hammered home that you should “just let all your passion out, don’t ever hide that” in interviews, as that is what’ll get you the job. She also advised: “Don’t be put off by something that seems like a sideways step, because that could be an opportunity to meet people you wouldn’t normally meet. Don’t shut any doors.” Edwards chimed a similar tune, emphasising that “if you really believe in and love what you’re doing, that’ll come across and connect with people.”

Garvey stated that as a woman in the music industry you should “find someone to sponsor you, male or female”. Having a good role model and someone to support your growth is key. Desai experienced a similar positive support structure from some of her male peers despite being the only woman in her field at the time, for instance being given the opportunity to be Gabriel’s assistant engineer.

Desai explained: “I never looked at myself as a woman. When I worked in sound design it was also very male-dominated, but I aligned myself with men who gave me a few lucky breaks. I see the colour of my skin and that Asian stereotype, so I have even more against me, but I never looked at it as a barrier. I see myself from the inside out, not the outside in.“You just have to go for your passion, your dreams, your ambitions,” she advised. “My career has taken longer to take off than male counterparts, that I would say. There are so many obstacles, but don’t give up. Get out there and meet people – you could be the next Beyonce or Mozart, but not if people don’t know you!”

Garvey hasn’t found being a woman in the industry as a barrier or an issue, but she did notice, as did Desai, that there weren’t any female role models to look up to. Thankfully though, Garvey reassured us that this is changing with her positive outlook on the matter. She spoke of her experience as a woman in her senior role: “I felt for the first time that I was myself and that it was a huge advantage to be a woman. I’ve made a career because the industry went through such a disruption, they needed new talent, they had to break the existing mould. There was no idea of who should be sitting in that job, so you could kind of waltz into it. It was very rapid how the industry declined and there was a state of panic for a while.”Actually, being a woman and being almost non- threatening really helped because you could cut through the, quite frankly, male ego crap and get things happening,” she asserted.

In a call to men in the industry, as she herself has had “great male mentors”, she stated: “Where there
are women with talent, really help sponsor them and understand the barriers that they’re facing. Understand that we have this imposter syndrome we shouldn’t have and help us a bit.

“There’s a whole generation coming now of super talented women that have more visibility and a few role models ahead of them and they’re gunna kick ass. It’s going to be great,” she beamed. “For the first time, when I look at my own network of peers, there are a lot of other senior women and we all help each other. We’ve passed that point when we were like ‘we’re going to have to learn golf.’”

Finally, Garvey tells us how she’s been working at Abbey Road Studios to make it more hospitable for women. The diversity problem isn’t so much in the artists, it seems, but in the engineers. “We’ve built two smaller studios specifically to get younger talent in the building; people earlier in their careers. It’s not just this old mecca for old rock stars. In terms of talent coming in, we’re pretty diverse. Where we’re not great is that our engineer base is 95 per cent male, which is a problem. It’s a generational thing and I don’t think girls are made aware of the engineering route into music at school. And it’s not that we are getting 50/50 applications from men and women and not picking the women, it’s that there are no female applicants.

“But that has changed,” she continued, “we’ve got two young female engineers with us now and I hope that starts to push through the system really quickly. However, there’s still a huge amount of work to do. We’ve also got a group of women that meets every quarter at the studio, and we talk about how to elevate younger people starting out and how to profile the women that are amazing at their jobs.”

saffronmusic.co.uk

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