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‘Gender plays no part in the actual creative or technical process’: Music production researcher Paula Wolfe discusses latest findings

Here, in her own words, Paula Wolfe takes us inside her research for her book Women In The Studio: creativity, control and gender in popular music sound production and reveals some of its most fascinating findings

Paula Wolfe

Paula Wolfe is a researcher in the fields of music production, independent music and the role gender plays in the studio. She is also a critically acclaimed artist-producer who, in addition to her research, self-produces and self-releases her music on her own label, Sib Records. In June of this year, she released a new book entitled Women In The Studio: creativity, control and gender in popular music sound production. Here, in her own words, she takes us inside her research for the project and reveals some of its most fascinating findings…

My book Women In The Studio: creativity, control and gender in popular music sound production (Routledge) has been the culmination of three self-produced albums, doctoral, post-doctoral research, many conference papers, a published article and two published chapters. What all of this work has told me is that the journey that brought me to my own studio door was not unique.

In the book, I interrogate the impact of the construction of music production as a gendered arena of creativity, technical expertise and control. The research was conducted within a 16-year time frame from 2002 to 2018 – a period of time in which self-production by artists has moved from marginal to standard practice and a period in which women’s under-representation as music producers has attracted increasing attention. For me, it has been very clear that self-production is the next chapter in the story of how female artists have responded to both historic and contemporaneous marginalisation in the industry. I also see it as forming part of a wider narrative about how creativity per se has been gendered, notwithstanding the gendering that has taken place within music technology.

A number of key things have emerged throughout the research. Firstly, it is important to draw a clear distinction between the growth trend in self-production practices as a result of technological developments and subsequent industry shifts, and the particular significance gender holds when assessing a woman’s practice. I would add that in examining that distinction, it is also important not to conflate the work of the music producer and that of the artist-producer, not least because of the nuanced manifestations of gendered marginalisation particular to each practice – which in conjunction with the impact of the gendering that has taken place within the broader field – packs a powerful gendered punch. I pay considerable attention to these distinctions in the book by examining how self- production – a practice often enacted within a domestic environment – manifested itself as a powerful challenge to the gendering that has taken place within music production in a particular period of time, when digital recording technology first became widely available.

The second key point is that gender plays no part in the actual creative or technical process. None of
the female music producers or artist-producers or engineers included in the book make any reference
to their gender when discussing their work or in their subsequent interpretations of the production process. It is very clear that gender only becomes an ‘issue’ when positioned within the cultural and social contexts that underpin and frame our understanding of music production within the music industry.

Sonically speaking, the individual circumstances that brought each of the participants in the study to self-produce as solo artists varied greatly, but what underscores each of their creative journeys of literal and figurative isolation was their arrival at a ‘sound’ – the very starting point from which to create and/or sustain a career. I do not suggest, however, that self-production is a new phenomenon for female artists. What is evident, however, is that questions continue to arise from the practice, in conjunction with its gathering momentum, as a direct result of the steady growth that I have been long observing. I suggest that they continue to arise because the impact of the gendering that has taken place in the broader field of music production, of which self-production forms an increasingly significant part, cannot be underestimated.

Conducting the research for the book has been a long journey and it has been fueled by my own practice – the process of creating and then producing my own songs is one I continue to find utterly thrilling and compelling. My examination of the situation of women who work in music production, particularly in self-production, over the course of nearly 20 years has coincided with a period of seismic change within the industry and has witnessed different spikes of interest in the topic. The core argument I have presented is that the development of music production skills by female artists is significant because of their minority status in the broader field and because of the historic gendering of the creativity, technical skills and control associated with the practice.

This argument has held amidst the various developments that I have observed throughout the
time frame, not least the shift in both the practice and perception of self-production from a marginal activity to an industry standard.

The argument has also held when I have situated it in a wider music industry culture and compared the career-building experiences of female music producers and artist-producers with those of female industry professionals in the business sector, and also when I have suggested connections with women establishing careers in other creative and non-creative fields, most notably in literature and politics.

Moreover, the argument has held when I have sought out the roots of the gendering that has taken place in music production and located them in constructions surrounding social class, race and gender, the three divisive pillars in contemporary society which continue to underpin the cultural frameworks that either validate or discredit acts of creativity and their products.

Furthermore, the argument has gained momentum as I have monitored the subsequent ramifications of these roots in the journey of a piece of self-produced music from a woman’s studio to the marketplace and its problematic representation within various different types of media.

Drawing on the generous contributions of numerous professionals and practitioners within the industry,
as well as on the opinions of some scholars and commentators looking in from its sidelines, has helped me to tease out the different strands of the argument as it has played out in the different sectors I have studied. All of these individuals have contributed, wittingly or not, to what has been a long-running conversation about what it means to be a woman in the popular music industry, whether it be as an industry professional, music producer, artist-producer or artist-label.

The conclusion I have drawn from that conversation is that creative control lies at the start, and indeed the heart, of any career that might be constructed within it. The key question that has been raised throughout my research for this study has been, ‘Why aren’t there more female producers’? I have tried to reframe this question to firstly examine why there have not been more female artists in control of their own voices and secondly to assess the response to those who have. In doing so I have been heartened to see increasing numbers of women working on both sides of the industry fence who have come to understand and value both the liberty and the protection creative control offers.

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