Article by Tara Lepore
“This wasn’t just about teaching DJ skills,” Saffron Records’ creative development manager Lizzy Ellis tells PSNEurope. “It was about how building a supportive community for women in music should go hand-in-hand with technical learning. Also, it was a cultural exchange – we wanted to learn what it’s like to create music as a woman in Russia.”
The workshop was part of the UK-Russia Year of Music, a programme of events throughout 2019 funded by the British Council to get Russian and UK organisations in the creative industries collaborating together on music-based projects. Moscow-based organisation Parallel Music set up the week-long course for female musicians at the end of May, inviting two UK organisations – Saffron Records and Brighter Sound – to facilitate music tech workshops in the Russian capital.
In January this year, Parallel, which aims to support women in music, received a grant from the city’s British Embassy to go on a research trip to the UK and meet leaders of similar creative projects to collaborate on delivering a workshop back in Moscow. It was during this trip where Parallel founder Zhenya Nedosekina – whose adopted artist name Jekka means she commonly goes by the name Jenny – met Laura Lewis-Paul, the founder of Saffron Records, a Bristol-based record label and facilitator of music production workshops for women and non-binary people. The successful meeting led to Lewis-Paul applying to be a workshop delivery partner as part of the Year of Music, funded by the British Council, who also suggested that Jenny gets in touch with Manchester music charity Brighter Sound.
With two keen yes-es, Parallel organised the residency, flying over some of the UK’s best music tech talent to teach female-identifying musicians from Moscow key production and DJing skills.
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Access barriers in the field of music production aren’t just a problem in Russia, but felt across the UK too. And particularly for women, who it is estimated make up just five per cent of the music tech industry. Saffron Records tech and DJ courses to women in Bristol since 2015 (having already received two rounds of funding from the PRS Foundation, and financial support from DBS Music).
Ellis, who also heads up Saffron’s subsidised MixNights DJ course, says while the opportunity to export the workshop over to Moscow has “given me the confidence to know that we can do things further afield”, there is increasing demand for classes like MixNights across the UK. “We’ve had loads of requests to roll it out, not just in the rest of the UK, but in Europe as well. We definitely want to at some point. We’ve been trying to nail down our model here [in Bristol], but I think we’re nearly at the stage where we can start across the UK.”
The two-day DJ workshop Saffron brought to Moscow was a condensed version of the nine-week MixNights course it runs in Bristol, right down to the teaching equipment used. MixNight’s resident tutors Em Williams and Daisy Moon ran the classes, using Pioneer DJ mixers with the group of 15 musicians who attended the course for free.
Ellis says: “We started by going through the equipment: the decks, the mixer, the headphones and monitors and how they all work together. We also gave an introduction to beat matching, which is really key if you want to be a DJ, especially for electronic music. The main aim of the two-day workshop was at the end of the second day, we would all come together as a group to do a megamix. So, everyone chose three tunes and had to mix them, like a massive back-to-back set. We also talked about how to order your tracks to tell a story with Pioneer software Rekordbox, which you can use to organise your DJ music library.”
Saffron’s workshop was run out of a Moscow club called Powerhouse, which is a “really cool multi-space venue,” adds Ellis.
At the end of the week, Brighter Sound sent songwriter and producer Poppy Roberts to Moscow to run a two-day music production class with the same group, focusing on the use of synths, something that can “often be perceived as an elitist thing” if you don’t have easy access to them. She continues: “You feel like you have to know a million things before you can even touch a synth. It can be a hard world to access, especially for female artists, who might have less experience [working with them]. We were using Ableton on the laptops with a Focusrite Sapphire, which is the soundcard that I use as a kind of ‘mini studio’ – they’re very good for that.”
The synths used were a Moog Sub Phatty, Arturia Mini Brut, and an Arturia Drum Brut.
When we ask Roberts what the feedback was like from the workshop’s participants, she relays that they “definitely” don’t have many opportunities to attend music tech classes. “There’s a lack of opportunity, in the specific sense, probably everywhere,” Roberts explains, “which is why the Brighter Sound’s Both Sides Now programme – which aims to get more women into music – and Parallel have had so much impact. There’s also a lack of opportunities to learn together in great facilities like the Moscow Music School, as well as limits on getting your hands on equipment like this.”
To the same question, Ellis responds: “What I kept hearing from the participants was that there’s not an organised music industry [in Russia] in the same way that we would describe it in the UK,” which, she adds, makes it difficult for them to figure out what they can achieve in the business. “They said that makes it difficult not just for women, but for everyone because it’s not run in the same way.”
But now, with programmes like the UK-Russia Year in Music, “these opportunities are coming up and people are really grabbing them,” Roberts states.
After both workshops, the women on the course made arrangements to collaborate together in the future. “I hope that we’ve inspired them to further support each other and feel empowered to know that they can do these things – they just need to build their own community for it,” Ellis adds.
Roberts concludes: “They were so grateful for it. The impact at the end was pretty extraordinary. I’m
still getting messages and emails about it, and I’m still seeing on social media that the artists are sharing their work and talking about how inspired they were.”