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Celebrating Women in Music: Producing It For Themselves

This is a man’s world: Or is it? Despite the huge imbalance between the genders there are many awesome women making the music industry great behind the scenes.

Written by Gemma Dietrich

FKA Twigs by Tiffany Baxter
FKA Twigs by Tiffany Baxter.

The music industry would have us believe women are dominating the music scene right now. Fierce, female, singer/songwriters are in abundance. We’ve got Miley on her wrecking ball, Beyonce grinding her surf board, Lady Gaga covered in ham. We’re winning ladies… I digress, we shouldn’t be laughing. Whilst the dominant, mainstream female artists claim to be writing their own music and be heavily involved in the creative process, the other side of the mixing desk is another story. The domination does not extend to production.

Trina Shoemaker mixing desk
There are plenty of high flying women in other areas of the music business. But despite the BBC starting to train female sound engineers in 1941, it is still a predominantly male playing field. Trina Shoemaker is a brilliant exception to this and was the first woman to take home a Grammy for ‘Best Sound Engineer’ in 1998 for her work on Sheryl Crow’s album Globe Sessions.

Women in music illustration Louise Andersone
Women in music: illustration by Louise Andersone.

However, only three women in history have been nominated for ‘Best Producer’ at the Brits and Grammys and we are yet to see the day a woman goes home with the prize. Perhaps this isn’t even a gender issue. According to The Music Producers Guild, women only hold 4% of the equity in music production. There just aren’t enough women in the sector. There are an array of arguments on the reasons behind this figure, ranging from women being disinterested in the technical side of things to sexism, to the age old restraint of becoming a mother and its incompatibility with the lifestyle and all consuming nature of a being a studio producer. Who knows what the truth is. Perhaps it’s a mish mash of the lot of them and then some.

Joni Mitchell Clouds Album Cover
Joni Mitchell complained that whichever man was in the room with her when she was recording, he would take credit for her work. Bjork has recently echoed a similar sentiment in a recent interview with Pitchfork stating that time and time again she has been denied due credit for the production of her albums. In another Pitchfork interview in 2007, the highly skilled MIA laid into the interviewer regarding the production of her records, ‘I just find it a bit upsetting and kind of insulting that I can’t have any ideas on my own because I’m a female… After the first time it’s cool, the second time it’s cool, but after like the third, fourth, fifth time, maybe it’s an issue that we need to talk about, maybe that’s something important, you know.’

Delia Derbyshire Radiophonic Workshop
Despite their low numbers, there have been some formidable women sitting behind that mixing desk throughout the history of recording. Take Delia Derbyshire for starters. Delia who? Derbyshire. Despite being told in 1959 by Decca Records that the recording studio was no place for a woman, she persevered and joined the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1960. A genius to sound, Derbyshire was responsible for the recording of Ron Grainer’s Doctor Who theme in 1963 and earned herself an incredible reputation as an innovator in sound before the age of the synthesiser. At a time when groups and composers were exploring Psychedelia, she was feted by musicians all over the world including McCartney, Hendrix and Pink Floyd and in her latter days she co produced with Sonic Boom and heavily influenced modern experimental groups including Portishead, Orbital and The Chemical Brothers.

Remember The Sugar Hill Gang and their hit ‘Rappers Delight’? Product of a woman. The first commercially successful rap recording that brought rap music to a global audience was produced by the late Sylvia Robinson in 1979. For this alone she should be a household name, but by no means was that the extent of her success. At the age of 16 she had a number 1 hit in America, she penned hits for the likes of Ike and Tina Turner, produced one of the first ever disco singles and founded multiple record labels. In the late sixties she was one of the few women to be producing records and in 1979, when she started Sugar Hill Records, almost all of the recordings were still produced in house and overseen by herself. That other big hip hop classic ‘The Message’ by Grand Master Flash? She was the driving force behind that too.

Women may be few and far between in production roles but that doesn’t take away from their ability. As music technology is becoming more accessible, a new generation of self taught, self sufficient, women are rising, producing their own records, and taking the music industry by storm. Check out this lot.

Lykke Li
Lykke Li plunged onto the music scene back in 2007 with her debut EP ‘Little Bit’. Her voice was quirky and her tracks an intriguing take on indie pop. Writing her own songs, composing melodies and recording demos, Lykke has then worked with male counterparts Björn Yttling and Lasse Mårtén to produce the finished product. As co producer on her latest LP ‘I Never Learn’ she had more creative input than ever and has come up with all the ideas for her music videos since she started. Having established herself as a credible artist and three albums into her career, she still notices and comments during an interview with The Guardian that ‘the rules for women in music are tacitly different… If I’m on stage and it’s warm and I don’t want to wear trousers all of a sudden I’m a victim, but if Iggy Pop takes his shirt off? Oh, that’s fine.’ Thought she was just another female performer surrounded by great people producing and directing her? Think again. She’s business savvy too having created LL Recordings in 2007. Releasing all of her work under her own label to protect and give herself freedom, this woman is a power house of vision.

Tw-ache – Twigs remixed one of her first tracks ‘Ache’, co directed the video with Tom Beard and shows off her dance moves. A force to be reckoned with.

FKA Twigs
English Singer/songwriter FKA Twigs has taken the world by storm. After teaching herself the music software package Ableton, Twigs went on to produce her debut EP in 2012 entitled EP1, which she self released on bandcamp. In 2013 she worked with top producer Arca and released her second EP, EP2. Having proved herself, Twigs collaborated with several other producers including Arca, Emile Haynie, Devonté Hynes, Paul Epworth and Clams Casino on her debut album LP1 to help her fill in the gaps in areas she felt she needed guidance. Both male and female artists employ these methods. As a professionally trained dancer, Twigs has also taken full control of her music videos. She knows what she wants and refuses to sacrifice her creativity for popularity. It seems to be a winning philosophy as in her few years on the music scene she’s already been nominated for a Brit, a Grammy and the Mercury Prize. This woman is fierce and a real inspiration to young women.

snowapple illusion album cover

Video for Snowapple’s latest single ‘California’

This unassuming, all girl trio are another wonderful example of women taking control of their music. Snowapple play dozens of instruments, layering beautiful harmonies over the top, creating an eclectic folk sound. Being entirely responsible for the creative side of things they’ve gone one step further and are also in charge of their own bookings, management and production. The Amsterdam based trio have many self made women as colleagues and see a shift in the way things are moving, ‘The music industry is still an old boys club but we believe the decisiveness of female entrepreneurs is very powerful and we are conquering more and more space!’ Their new album ‘Illusion’ is out now.

Isolde women in music
An emerging artist from Bristol, Isolde is yet another young female, producing her own material. Creating each track from scratch, she then gets busy fleshing them out with instrumentation and samples. She knows what she wants to hear and has taught herself how to communicate that. However she notes ‘I feel a lot of pressure, when entering this predominantly white, affluent, western male playing field, to prove my ‘techni-ness’. What I care about is the music, and how the technology enables me to create it.’ I don’t think she has to worry too much. Her debut EP ‘Seed Bud Bloom’ is a glorious patchwork of sounds she has collected over the years and full of her own personal essence.

There is a real platform now for women to have a shot at commercial success as producers and artists in their own right, moving away from the traditional glamourised and sexualised image. Women are becoming more confident in their abilities in all aspects of the music business and are reflecting their own identities and ideals.

It’s been a long road and there is still a considerable amount of distance to cover but it’s an exciting time as more and more women are challenging traditional perceptions.


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