Advice For Young Women Looking to Break Into the Music Industry, From Discwoman's MoMA PS1 Panel

DJ UNIIQU3, journalist Mary H.K. Choi, and more on why you should make URL connections and never ask permission for anything.
March 14, 2016, 9:05pm
All photos by Charles Roussel. Courtesy of the artists and MoMa PS1.

It's mid-afternoon on a warm, overcast Sunday at MoMA PS1 in Queens, New York. But for denizens of the city's rapidly expanding feminist techno scene, it's barely time to roll out of bed. MoMA's Sunday Sessions, a multidisciplinary arts series, take place inside a huge dome in the museum's courtyard, where images are projected on three sides of the curved ceilings and audience members sit on oversized red cushions. As I arrive for Discwoman's Industry Women II event, quite a few audience members are napping on them, only to be roused a few minutes later by a set of spacey, undulating synths and powerful bass by Brooklyn's Via App.

Discwoman was founded in 2014 by Frankie Hutchinson, Emma Burgess-Olson (who DJs and produces as Umfang), and Christine Tran. United by a common mission of providing female-identifying electronic musicians with exposure and professional opportunities, their booking agency and promotion machine has thrown parties around the world. This is Discwoman's second year at PS1 leading an afternoon of music, talks, and workshops focusing on women in the music industry. The crowd was gathered in part to honor the release of a short documentary about the collective presented by Smirnoff Sound Collective, which follows the group from DJ nights in Brooklyn to a massive warehouse party they threw in Mexico City.

Following a screening of the film in PS1's dome, Discwoman founder Frankie Hutchinson moderated a panel discussion with music writer Mary H.K. Choi, DJ UNIIQU3 and Liaison Artists booker Ryan Smith. Drawing on their respective careers, the speakers offered advice for young women looking to break into the industry, including some choice banter on how New York City drives us to take chances with our art and why internet networking will never trump IRL connection. You can find the edited transcript below.

Frankie Hutchinson: I hope you enjoyed our documentary, which actually gives us a sort of great context to start talking. Let's start by introducing ourselves.

UNIIQU3: I'm a DJ, producer, and vocalist from New Jersey.

Mary H.K. Choi: I have been covering music and pop culture in New York for the last 13 years. There's been a lot more representation, I think, lately, which is so heartening, but also just such an indication of how much further we have to go. When you do get older, you start wondering what the next guard will be like, and you start to be concerned about what their experiences will be. I think it's really great to have opportunities like this to have an open dialogue about things that are happening.

Ryan Smith: I work at a booking agency. I generally focus on house and techno and bit of disco as well. I do have some experience being outside the norm. I came out when I was 16, in high school, so I've experienced some adversity. I've taken that perspective as motivation to try to understand people and their differences. How to make difference—I hate to say "normal," but part of the day-to-day equation.

Frankie: I just wanted to talk a little about coming into New York fresh and having huge dreams, and what it feels like to get those dreams shut down. How do we move on?

Mary: I think the really wonderful thing about New York—and what makes it so vibrant—is the fact that you have this huge influx of aspirational energy. And sometimes it's gross, because strivers are the worst, but it keeps you competitive, and I think that energy is the furnace of the city. New York is important, because it makes you feel crazy enough to want to finish something. The competitiveness makes you not only have that million-dollar idea, but to actually see it come to fruition. I think that regardless of how many asterisks there are against your name in terms of the likelihood of your success, if you just do something and then finish it and then put it into the world, that's really key. And I think New York is really good at making you do that.

UNIIQU3: I like New York because there's so many different people here from all around the world. It's definitely one of those places where you can come up with a grand idea and make it happen. And it doesn't have to be limited to just here—it can be limited to the whole world because there are people here from everywhere.

"It's all about making that personal connection with people; that will never steer you wrong."—UNIIQU3

Ryan: I've definitely cried a few times [laughs]. Like, what am I doing here? It's acceptable to cry on the street here, which is pretty amazing.

Mary: I just lived in LA for a year and came back. When I came back, the thing I remembered really profoundly is that the intersection of people you're exposed to in New York is incredible. I'm a writer, and if I wanted to exclusively hang out with writers, I could do that. But in New York, oftentimes you're in a position where you're with everyone. I'll be talking to someone and they'll be, like, a zygote—like 21. They'll just inform you about new shit that they're excited about. You just don't get that in LA. You'd have to drive up this little windy road, like 45 minutes, and you get there and everyone is wearing the same jeans and it's the same conversation. Here, you hear new slang, you hear new songs. Everyone is so competitive about being on the next shit, and that's great. I love that.

Frankie: There's such an emphasis for young people on figuring out what you want to do. Do you think it's really necessary from your perspective to have that kind of certainty about your future?

Ryan: I still don't know what I want to do, so I don't think so. But I do what I enjoy. The best part of that is it doesn't really feel like work, in a way. It's just something that I enjoy doing right now. I might not enjoy doing it forever, and that's ok.

Mary: I have the best job, no joke. I don't have to go into an office; I'm a full-time freelancer. I wasn't that kid who liked writing essays in school, at all. So I don't think it's really important to know exactly what you want to do. In my line of work I have the wonderful, rarefied experience of talking to lots of interesting people who do different things. I just talked to this wonderful artist in London. She kind of blew my mind. She is a dancer and choreographer, and she was talking about how it never occurred to her—and this might be a generational thing—to ask for permission to do exactly what she wanted. She's a singer and a songwriter, so presumably she doesn't need to know Ableton; she doesn't need to know all this stuff. But the reason she learned all of it is so she could control her own output. So she wasn't relying on other people to do what she wanted. And that kind of blew my mind. Whatever you're going to pursue, I think it's important that you don't ask for permission. That unalloyed conviction in your own Kool-Aid is so much more important than waking up every day with a consistency about what your vision is.

Ryan: I've learned a lot from going out and clubbing. I think it's magical; there's nothing better than being on the dance floor at like 8AM. I started out as a door guy. I've been a promoter, I've DJed. I've done all this stuff, and it's led to me making dance music into a bit more of a professional life.

UNIIQU3: I dropped out of college. For awhile I was like, I don't know what I want to do, I'm just working these dead-end jobs to make some coin. DJing was always just a hobby, but I'm lucky enough that it became something I love to do. I was like, "I can make money off of this." And it just happened. I'm a millenial. We're all very multi-talented. We have multiple trades we're decent at. That "jack of all trades, master of none" thing is kind of dead now. So I could definitely say as long as you have multiple things that are within the same category, you'll be good.

Mary (to UNIIQU3): What was your galvanizing moment when you figured out what you wanted to be?

UNIIQU3: When I used to get booked for gigs out of my little New Jersey bubble. And Gun$ Garcia, definitely, were part of me taking this on full-time, because they introduced me to the fact that my signature of music, Jersey Club, was getting known internationally. I saw my friends that are male doing it, and I was like, damn, maybe I can do it. I was like, I'm going to quit my job. I just stopped answering texts. I told my mom I was off that week.

Frankie: I wanted to talk about some practical things, for people here who are trying to get into what they want to do.

UNIIQU3: Nowadays it's really hard to promote yourself. It's such a URL world. People are so focused on social media. And that's important, don't get me wrong, but it's all about making that personal connection with people; that will never steer you wrong. You can have millions of people following you on social networks, but how many people are in the building to support you and whatever it is you want to do? Word of mouth is a type of promotion that's more personal. I used to go out to Brooklyn late at night and just be in the corner not knowing anybody and go up to the DJ, like, "Hey, I liked your set, what's your name? I'm UNIIQU3!" That's how I got my start; I just used to go out, tag along with my friends, and introduce myself to everybody.

Ryan: I think it helps to have a perspective. In music, especially, there's so many people that want to have this glamorous traveling world, getting paid to go play in Australia or wherever. It's really more interesting to have a perspective, like Discwoman does. Women in electronic music was something that I thought about, but didn't really think about, before Discoman. Figure out what makes you you and go for it.

Mary: What you're saying about perspective is really, really good. For me, it's that logline of, what is it that you do? Can you encapsulate that in five words and have it stand out? I don't care about you until you have that sort of frisson of famousness, and that sounds terrible, but I just mean from a work perspective. In order for that to happen, it means that people I give a shit about, for some reason, seem to give a shit about you. If I've met this person and they've sold me this very original logline, and then someone else who I happen to be with also knows this person... I mean it sounds kind of diabolical, but that is absolutely how it works.

As [for] interning and getting into the industry, there was a long time, in media, where interning was the only way to go about it. That's how you get your foot in the door. As someone who isn't independently wealthy, I will say there's something important to setting a price for yourself and being really, really unwilling to go below that—no matter how tattered and scary your ATM balance is. Once you come in at a certain level that just sort of becomes your level and it's really, really hard to upgrade yourself from that.

Ryan: I also think at the same time it's good to be realistic about your value. There's some kids who are just starting out that I get emails from and they'll have like 50 SoundCloud plays. This one kid had his rider on his website. Business class flights and a limo to drive me around town. Like, you have 50 SoundCloud plays, calm down. But get paid, for sure.

UNIIQU3: Definitely know your value, but I do feel like opportunity is a form of currency.