This story is over 5 years old.

Assessing The Risk: Austra, SassyBlack, and More Talk Gender and Lack of Diversity in Canadian Music Scene

"If there's anything to be taken from this it's that conversations like these will, sadly, always be necessary."

Austra, Photo by Kate Young

Canadian Music Week has come and gone, and what’s left behind is a deep sense of frustration over the glaring lack of women represented throughout the week, particularly in the lineups of CMW’s showcases. Even more concerning is their lack of voice in their week’s worth of “expert panels” that took place. These panels, conferences, and events covered topics ranging from the impact of social media to the state of the global music industry but its experts consisted of an 80/20 split of men to women. The lineup boasted a laundry list of headlining artists, music executives, and journalists, tasked with sharing their wealth of experience and knowledge with up-and-coming artists who depend on these industry leaders to provide advice and guidance that would help them navigate the complex nuances of their careers. How can you possibly trust the wisdom of these events when they omit the expertise of a plethora of women who experience the music industry every day? Are they really speaking to the state of the global music industry with four male panelists, a male moderator and only one female executive? Does a panel of A&R experts that consists of twenty (yes, twenty) men and not a single woman read as representation?


Not simply a matter of gender, there is a glaring lack of diversity in every sense of the word. A white wash with little to no presence of Indigenous or queer communities or people of colour. CMW is not at all an exception to the rule; festivals across Canada—from Bestival and WayHome to OVO Fest—have recently released their lineups and mirror the all-too-typical male demographic that we saw take over the city during CMW. Why is it that during a season that sees the global music community come streaming into major cities across Canada, there is a void of female and minority representation? Women in music, as it happens, are still seen as an alternative to the regular programming.

When speaking with a number of female artists, producers, and radio personalities across Toronto—many of whom were participants at the recent Work Work Work Work Work panel held on the fringes of the festival addressing women in music— one thing that stuck out to me in these conversations is the concept of risk. The risk that festival organizers, magazine editors, and broadcast producers see or take when a female artist comes into the conversation. We’ve all seen the poster that went viral last year, showing what a festival lineup might look like were you to take out all the male artists involved. But when you really dive into the issues and learn about the many areas where this “risk” assessment is utilized, the results are truly shocking and a bit nauseating. Raina Douris, one of the hosts of Toronto radio station Indie88’s morning show, recounted her time working at 102.1 The Edge, part of Corus Entertainment, “where the only thing they cared about was making money for their shareholders.” She continued, “We would have these music meetings, and they’d say, ‘well, we can’t schedule two female artists back to back.’ That was an actual rule when we were scheduling music.”


Music journalist and author Sarah Liss recalled that fact is what sparked Sarah McLachlan to start the female-only festival Lilith Fair almost twenty years ago. And yet still, in 2016, these same conversations are happening every day. As Douris stated, with an air of hopelessness in her voice, “There’s no patience or faith in the idea that if you take a risk, it could pay off.” Katie Stelmanis of Austra agreed. “The music industry is a business. All of the promoters, all of the booking agents, all of the festival organizers, they all want to make money.” Stelmanis added, “As a business, there are some guaranteed lineups that will make them money. They know that a four piece dude band makes money because they’ve seen it happen a million times. But people like me, we’re ‘risk’ acts, and these promoters don’t want to give us money because they don’t want to take the risk.” Vallens, Photo by Shelby Fenlon

At the same time, many women in the industry experience constant misogyny and sexism, continuously labelled as “fashion girls” or “sex pots” with very little acknowledgment of their real hard work. “A sad reality of being a female musician is accepting that a huge amount of the interest directed towards you by industry guys or musicians above you will be sexual and won’t really do much for your career,” Talvi Faustman, one-half of dream-pop duo Prince Innocence laments. “A lot of these guys will try to fuck you but then speak through you to the male member of your band or your male manager.” So how do we get around this labelling that confines female musicians to such a limited space in the zeitgeist? As Robyn Phillips of Toronto band Vallens sees it, the solution may be in a change in the vernacular. “I think that if we stop referring to bands as "girl bands" or "female musicians," and really equalize the vocabulary, it will be a good start.”


If the promoters, bookers, and producers aren’t going to cross over the line and be a part of the solution, there are tools and strategies that these boundary-pushing and glass ceiling abolishing women have put in place to combat the lack of space and claim their voice as best they can.


, a multi-talented and often multi-tasking musician/producer/actress, came up with her own solution: Do everything. Not only does she produce her albums, but she handles her media, her own bookings, and fights to be treated the way that she believes all artists should be treated, across the board.

“Something that’s been really helpful for me is putting up boundaries,” she said, referring to anyone who will find ways to get her to work for little to no money. “‘Cause otherwise you’re going to get burnt out. People in the communities that you’re representing will say things like ‘oh man, that’s so cool you did that for free, well, I’ve got this other free thing coming up, and I’ve got a whole lot of free things in my mind right now.’ You have to learn to say no.”

While women are handling every aspect of their own career, they are also playing double duty as an artist and a representative of her gender. Carmen Elle, a mainstay of the Toronto music scene and the lead singer of synth-pop band Diana, said, “[performing in these festivals] adds this dynamic where I feel as though I have no option but to juggle being a musician, and expressing what I want to express through that medium, and also being a woman holding space in this hugely male dominated event.”


The disparity in gender and minority representation at music festivals like CMW and on radio stations around the world is still a systemic issue; one which is still slapped with an “it is what it is” label, despite the number of high-profile artists that have spoken out about sexual abuse, dismissive misogyny, and general disrespect that they receive from male producers, label managers, bookers and more.

Talvi Faustman of Prince Innocence, Photo by Anthony Tuccitto

Despite claims like these, the industry itself seems unprepared to make the necessary changes, and continues to perpetuate a system that excuses the behaviour of those who abuse their power the most. What will it take to make the changes that are necessary to empower women’s voices in these industries? When will our male allies join the conversation in a meaningful way over these glaring disparities? If there's anything to be taken from this it's that conversations like these will, sadly, always be necessary.

Amy Michelle Smith is a writer living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter.