The 2020 Rise of Women and Non-Binary Music Producers

Men make up 95 percent of the music tech industry, but Covid-19 combined with the mainstream rise of bedroom pop has enabled more people to get involved from home.
December 17, 2020, 9:15am
Lande Hekt of Muncie Girls
Photo: Lande Hekt, via Major Transmissions PR

When I started my degree in professional music production in 2014, a male peer broke the ice by quipping: "Why aren't there any women producers? They can't use Reason or Logic!" ‘Reason’ and ‘Logic’, obviously, being the names of two popular digital audio workstations… you get it. Later, a lecturer made a 'women should be at home cooking and sewing' joke during a lecture about why there aren't more women in music production.

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Women make up just five percent of the music tech industry, which isn’t surprising. Sexism in the field is insidious and exhausting, and my experiences aren't unique: most women in music production have had to deal with sexism – a reality that is especially daunting in the earlier stages of a career with a steep learning curve.

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The recording studio can be an intimidating environment. Think: big glass windows and mixing desks worth tens of thousands of pounds, hired out at hundreds of pounds a day. And, despite the inroads made by various gender equality organisations worldwide, being in that environment still means being surrounded by men, contending with overt sexism as well as the more pervasive signals that exist even in the most well-intentioned studios. Whether it's being taught how to use equipment you’re already familiar with, being mistaken for a girlfriend, or even the absence of a sanitary bin in the toilet, the message is clear: we do not expect you to be here, and we do not take you seriously.

Women in production have been talking about this for years, and artists have used their platforms to spotlight the issue. Speaking to The Fader in 2015, Grimes said of her studio experiences: “There’s all these engineers there, and they don’t let you touch the equipment [...] I was like, ‘Well, can I just edit my vocals?’ And they’d be like ‘No, just tell us what to do, and we’ll do it.’ And then a male producer would come in, and he’d be allowed to do it.” It’s part of the reason she decided to self-produce and self-engineer her critically acclaimed 2015 album Art Angels.

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More recently, Paloma Faith turned her hand to production on her 2020 release Infinite Thing – a move made necessary by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Appearing on The Jonathan Ross Show, she said "we're taught to believe that [music production] is very complicated, and like a lot of those ideas that [apparently] only men are capable of doing... it was absolutely a piece of piss."

Bedroom pop artist Magdalen Bath VICE UK

Songwriter and producer Magdalen Bath working from home.

If the studio is a contested space for women with huge platforms in the music industry, you can bet the situation can be even worse for smaller artists, or those who are just starting out. “I’ve often found these environments quite intimidating and experienced a lot of imposter syndrome," songwriter and producer Magdalen Bath tells me, explaining her trepidation to work in a professional studio. "It generally feels like I have to do more to prove myself, and it’s probably the same for a lot of people who are not male."

Throughout her years spent in professional studios, Lande Hekt of Exeter punk band Muncie Girls has found that opportunities to get involved are much more readily extended to men. "My male counterparts have grown up being invited into this world of tech and engineering,” she tells me. “I don't get invited into those conversations, and unless we look for these pieces of information ourselves, we'll never learn them." Without her confidence in these environments thanks to studio experience from a young age, Hekt doesn't think she'd have gone into studios at all. Even with this experience, she prefers to work on her music from home where possible.

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In most cases women and non-binary producers need a high level of confidence to even begin feeling at ease within a professional studio environment. But what if you don't have it? Jaded by stories and experiences of industry sexism, producers are increasingly turning to the sanctuary of their bedrooms and repurposing them as one-stop shops for all their production needs. The most basic set-ups consist of a laptop, a microphone and GarageBand.

In 2020, bedroom studios are a part of pop culture like never before. From girl in red to beabadoobee, low-fi and fuzzy is in – but even bodies of work celebrated for their clarity are increasingly made at home. Billie Eilish's multi-Grammy-winning debut album was famously produced in her brother's bedroom, and Taylor Swift also dabbled in a home studio set up on lockdown releases folklore and evermore

Of course, this mainstream visibility didn’t materialise overnight. The use of bedrooms as studios goes back as far as technology has allowed it, and for many – whether it’s due to access or affordability – making music at home is the only option. Grime emerged from bedrooms across London in the early 00s, and early 2010s Tumblr was a hotbed of artists like Kitty, whose conversational rap created on GarageBand in her Florida bedroom went viral. Despite his reluctance to be known as a 'bedroom artist', the low-fi immediacy of Alex G’s music resonated with everyone from dyed in the wool DIY fans to Frank Ocean, proving that home recording can spark trends the music industry could never predict or engineer.

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“People are going to realise they can achieve those sounds in a kind of makeshift or home studio scenario,” Hekt suggests. “It’s become really trendy and accessible, and those two things go together really well.”

As the mainstream appeal of bedroom pop legitimises home recording as a creative choice, not just a last resort, and the pandemic makes home studios the safest option, there has never been a better time for women and non-binary people to create music away from the male-dominated music industry. Casee Wilson, a songwriter based in Spain, decided to produce from home due to affordability and feeling intimidated by other working environments. "I like to know what I'm doing, and I feel confident with my own equipment," she tells me, making setting up a home studio a natural next step.

Bath also finds home studios a much more relaxing space – something she says has been echoed by women she's worked with. “I’m afraid to follow my instincts or speak out [in professional studios],” she adds, “which is another reason I have largely stuck to a home studio environment."

Bedroom pop artist Casee Wilson VICE UK

Singer-songwriter Casee Wilson at her home studio in Spain.

Producing from home offers the freedom to learn unobserved and without intrusion. It’s a way to make mistakes, find what works and what sounds good on your own terms without outside pressure – an important step towards equalising music production. This is one reason Laura Lewis-Paul founded the Bristol-based organisation Saffron Music, which offers training in music production, sound engineering and DJing specifically for women and non-binary people. "We want to end outdated environments that breed toxic cultures from micro-aggressions to harassment, and instead create places that are inclusive, creative and collaborative,” Lewis-Paul explains.

Working in a space separate from the traditional music industry no longer means working in isolation, as Facebook groups like Loud Women and 2% Rising provide forums for women and gender minorities to connect. Loud Women is set up for women in music more broadly, with producers using the group to find advice on software upgrades and share masterclasses for beginners. Over on 2% Rising, producers and studio engineers in the UK and EU converse and share opportunities within the industry. 

However, the rise of bedroom studios doesn't mean that professional studios can remain exclusionary. Many artists I spoke to said they would love to work in one if they could ensure it wasn’t a male-dominated space. "I'd hire producers on retainer, and I'd probably lean towards female/non-binary producers," imagines Wilson. For Hekt, who is currently studying for a degree in music production, the hope is to become a producer who is more accessible for queer artists or women – “because, at the moment, men are the only people who feel totally comfortable in a studio scenario."

"I think now the next steps are really to support and nurture women and non-binary producers into the professional setting," says Lewis-Paul. “We also want people to stay fearlessly themselves, which needs to happen to break down these barriers of access.”

@eloiseavbulmer