Last week, BBC Radio 1 announced that they're to host an all-female DJ line-up in celebration of Women's Day. The line-up is set to include veteran broadcaster Annie Nightingale, who was quoted as saying that "Gender is, welcomingly, not an issue nowadays when Radio 1 appoints new DJs, and it has been demonstrably supportive of women. We all desire to be judged on our abilities alone in this very competitive field, and we all thrive on the respect of our peer group, and our audiences." On the other side of the pond, gargantuan American EDM festival promoter/day-glo hedonism exporter HARD announced their plans to host a weekender of all-female DJs next spring. Founder Gary Richards promised that the weekender would feature "all the dope-ass girl DJs" he sees fit - or can convince, perhaps - to join ranks.
You could argue that in booking all-female line-ups, BBC Radio 1 and HARD are committing the same crime against good taste. They're furthering a misguided yet widely held notion that women who DJ are a novelty, a penned-off selection in an industry swamped with men, and we should write the whole concept off. Yet, there are shades and tones to a topic as side-eye-inducing as this. Sure, the concept itself of an all-female DJ line-up pinches at me, but BBC Radio 1's Women's Day comes across more like a sincere championing of talent; in tandem with the wealth of regular female hosts on the station, and BBC Director General Tony Hall's announcement about tackling gender inequality. I agree with Nightingale when she says that it's a "competitive field", yet unlike Nightingale I think BBC Radio 1 does treat gender as an issue – albeit in a positive, forward-thinking manner that should be lauded.
In comparison, HARD's resume for promoting talented women is miserable. A paltry 8% of HARD festival acts from 2008-2013 were women and, in a 2013 interview with WildSpice, Richards addressed these numbers by insisting that "I've been asked this question so many times that I feel like we need to develop it more. You know, develop a brand or something, to give girls more of a chance." When pressed about how he would frame this event, he went onto say that although he would invest personal time in the organisation of it, "the thing is I can't pay them as much [as male DJs]. See when it's the festival, when you're doing 60-70,000 people, you can pay people more money. But this show will probably be at the Palladium, so if I want to get five or six girls from around the world, you know it's gonna be tough to make it work."
It's not just the painfully apparent sexism in this that pinches at me, it's the defeatism too; that booking female DJs is such a poor commercial investment for a major promoter, in an exploding, near-billion dollar industry, that Richards would dock wages and scale back on events in order to "make it work". Richards judges not on ability alone, but on being female as a marketing tool.
So, besides old rich dudes being sexist morons, what's happening in current electronic music culture that keeps rendering the female as novelty? I'm not going to try to peel away every layer of that massive, rotting onion of bullshit right now, but there's been a bunch of underhand micro-trends digging their heels in lately that have been contributing to it. They're occasionally remarked upon but rarely openly discussed, and so chip, chip and chip away at what little progress is being made in building a positive conversation about gender attitudes in electronic music.
For the sake of brevity, I'll pick one. Have you noticed how many male producers and DJs are working under overtly female monikers right now? There's Night Slugs affiliate Neana, Miss Modular (who releases on Her Records) and Patricia, whose debut album in Opal Tapes is called, um, "Body Issues". There's also the Andy Stott and Miles Whittaker collaboration called Millie and Andrea, who release on a sub-label of Modern Love called, um, Daphne, and then there's Lucy, Agnes, Margaret, Daphni, Samantha Glass, and the triple threat of Karenn's Sheworks project, released on Works The Long Night. That's by no means an exhaustive list, and that's partly the issue.
This micro-trend is telling because whilst artist names are mostly harmless word-play, and are rarely given a second thought by fans, there's something that pinches at me about men who choose names that are either explicitly female (Lucy, Millie and Andrea) or imply femininity (Miss Modular, She Works The Night, Body Issues), and do so in an attempt at anonymity, or playful indulgence. Millie and Andrea is apparently framed as an opportunity to "explore sounds not usually associated with their solo productions", i.e. a way to hide behind the feminine in a stylistic attempt to create better work through a false persona.
Men who adopt explicitly female monikers and don't engage with the issues implicit in doing so, in an industry where women are often treated as novelty, run the risk of labouring under a false apprehension. Using the feminine to create an air of mystique not only panders to the misogynistic stereotype of the woman as the voiceless and unseen figure, but in only engaging with the female or feminine on a surface level, it could go as far as to actively undermine women who rightly seek to just put in the work, and not have gender treated as a selling point.
This micro-trend has been bugging me for a while now, so I called up Miss Modular to ask him why he's called Miss Modular. He was surprisingly forthright about it all. "I chose Miss Modular a long, long time ago before I even started producing", he insists. "I used it for a blog I used to do. When I first chose it, it didn't really occur to me that it was implying a gender, but then as I started producing and getting more attention, people used to message me being like: 'Hey, we're doing a piece on female producers, do you want to get involved?' I'd tell them I was a man and they'd be like, 'Oh, okay, well, we're not really interested in writing about you anymore'."
How did that strike you? "I found it frustrating", he confesses. "Not because I wasn't getting the attention because I was male, but because I thought the concept of a magazine wanting to run a piece on female producers was weird. As though being female was some kind of handicap for them, and that if they were good at what they do then it should be, extra celebrated?"
How do you feel about being Miss Modular now, considering that? "In all honesty, I found myself a bit caught up in the whole phenomenon of this. I wonder if men working under female names is them purposefully trying to be anonymous; because of some inherent guilt of being a white male producer, and wanting to present yourself as something else. I've definitely noticed that since using a female name people have treated me as a novelty, and come to me about my work purely because they think I'm female. Whenever I've done a vanity search on Twitter, people are always talking about it."
Do you really think it's a trend worth talking about, or are we just being hypercritical? "Oh no", he says. "I think it's a trend that's really starting to snowball now. I've met guys who are trying to start out as a DJ, and been like 'Oh yeah, I might call myself this because it's female', and I've been like, 'You're saying you've actively chosen this name because it will present you as female?!' I really should have probed deeper into that at the time." I asked if it opened his eyes to sexism in dance music culture, and he admitted that:
"It's both fascinating and frustrating. It shows what these gender politics are like. It's been quite an insight. I feel a bit weird being part of it, to be honest. I'd really like to stress that as a guy working under female names, I had no intention of hiding myself behind some kind of veil of femininity. I thought about changing it altogether, or at least doing variations on it, but then I thought that it might be more effective to use this weird situation I've found myself in in order to speak out about the issues that it's brought up, and try and frame it in a more positive way."
So, what do you think of all-female DJ line-ups then? "I think it's complete fucking nonsense. Why not just put females on the original bill? Gender should be completely irrelevant, so why make a whole separate festival just for females? That type of thing pisses me off so much."
Granted, this micro-trend is a fairly chin-stroking one. Most punters don't give much thought to artist names, and will still go see DJs and producers they love regardless of how corny they are. That won't change. What could happen though, is that I'll look at a massive dance music festival line-up in 2014, and there will be a list of female names headlining the bill who aren't women. Women? They get their own festival – the smaller one, with shitty pay, reduced attendance, and the stink of underhand sexism lingering in the sweaty air. Promoters, don't book female DJs for your clubs and festivals for their gender. Book them because they're great DJs. You won't be doing it to give women "a leg up" in a hyper-competitive industry laced with sexism, you're doing it to raise the level of a culture that risks slipping into and accepting micro-trends that could become the elephant in the room.
You can follow Lauren Martin on Twitter here: @codeinedrums