Feature – Bigsound Turns Up The Volume On Gender In The Music Industry

[Published in The Guardian (Australia), September 10 2017]

‘We’re over it’: Bigsound turns up the volume on gender gap in music industry

Gender inequity in Australian music is as old as the industry itself – but this year’s Bigsound conference was focused on solutions. By SAMUEL J. FELL

Brisbane’s grimy entertainment district, Fortitude Valley, is home to a slew of live music venues, bars and clubs – and each year, the Australian music industry descends for annual conference Bigsound.

Tagging itself as a global gathering of musicians, media, brands and music lovers, Bigsound is at once a showcase for local talent, and a forum for discussion about an industry that’s in a constant state of flux. And two of the big issues on the table this year revolved around gender: sexual assault and antisocial behaviour at festivals and in live music venues; and gender equality and diversity within the industry itself.

The former issue was brought to the fore recently via a number of alleged assaultsat the Tasmanian leg of Falls festival. Helen Marcou, co-owner of Melbourne’s Bakehouse Studios, chaired a panel that argued for preventative, rather than reactive, measures.

Marcou is a co-founder of Your Choice, an initiative launched in Melbourne in July and heavily backed by industry heavyweights, which aims to curb sexual assault, violence and discrimination at live music events by making promoters, venue owners, artists and managers aware of the issue; and by giving them the tools and information they need to stop toxic behaviour.

As Marcou’s fellow panellist and PR head Stacey Piggott said, the only way culture will change is if people within the industry talk to each other about it: “The conversations need to be peer to peer,” she said.

The issue of gender equality was also on the table. In late July, the Skipping A Beat report was released by the University of Sydney, which assessed the state of gender representation in the industry. It found that women were poorly represented across festival lineups and industry boards; on stages and backstage.

The same week, industry copyright licensing body APRA/AMCOS released their own report which found that female members share in only 10% of the total royalty pool, and that more women are represented in cricket than songwriting in this country.

To many, these statistics come as no surprise.

“We’ve acknowledged there’s a problem; this is about how to deal with it,” Leanne de Souza said. De Souza is the executive director for the Association of Artist Managers, but also runs Facebook group MEGA (Music Equity Group for Action), advocating for a more inclusive industry.

“I think the conversation around gender equity has been so focussed on calling it out that we’re over it, women who’ve been working in the industry now for 20, 25 years are tired of that,” she tells me later. “We’ve heard those stories, so now it’s time to turn the narrative – what’s working?”

As a result of the research undertaken by RMIT, APRA/AMCOS have committed to a 25% increase in female members over the next three years. From October, the body will invest each year in the mentoring of female artists across a range of genres; and they have called for the entire industry to take action and eradicate gender disparity.

“So now there’s this energy for change,” de Souza said, “and there are some great things happening. There’s the Listen movement, safe spaces, there are youth mentoring services – there’s all this good stuff.”

Listen, based in Melbourne, is a diverse and inclusive feminist music collective whose focus is on giving a voice to minorities in the industry. It’s co-organised by Elspeth Scrine, who spoke on two panels at Bigsound and whose flyers could be found at venues across the Valley: “Top 5 Cop Outs For Booking A Lineup That Is Not Diverse” read one – no doubt a direct response to the Days Like This festival booking an all-male lineup in March.

Other fliers listed simple things everyone could do to make for a more inclusive industry: respect people’s pronouns; avoid reducing an artist to one part of their identity, like their gender; make sure your workplace has toilets that everyone can use.

They are deliberately easy ways to rebalance an industry that for decades has been seen as a boy’s club; a recent study by Triple J program Hack showed an overwhelming male bias within the majority of aspects of Australian music.

“It’s about individual accountability,” said de Souza. “There’s a sense in the industry that we’re moving towards a positive focus.”

Jerusalem… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Jerusalem throbs with a religious fervour, with a visceral sense of time and place, with tension you can almost cut and with a power that’s hard to put your finger on.

It swelters in summer heat, its maze of streets – in both the new and old cities – an indecipherable sprawl of foot-polished stone, undulating with the hillside, sharp left turns and dips, rivulets of some liquid or other coming to pool in the cracks, covered over with wet cardboard and shredded paper; detritus and bits and pieces that, at the end of the day, are hosed off and left to fester in the damp heat.

Damascus Gate

Outside the daunting Damascus Gate, perhaps the most formidable entrance to the Old City, long and black guns are strapped to uniformed fronts, tan pants tucked into boots planted firm on shining flagstones behind blue Police barriers. Inside the gate though, in the Old City on the final day of Ramadan, in the Muslim Quarter, the market booms and bustles and people throng. A seething mass bumping up against one another as they move from place to place, up steps, vanishing into dark corners behind the old rock, the giant walls disappearing behind as you descend into the maze, covered alleys decked with garments and plastic toys and sweets with names you can’t pronounce and shouldn’t pretend to.

We follow the stations of the cross and stop in small churches amidst lush gardens, oasis’ from the heat and noise outside. For the most part, they’re empty and quiet and our footsteps echo and we whisper just because. A lone woman kneels at the alter and starts to sing and her voice fills the entire space, ricocheting and furling back on itself and it sounds like a choir and stuns us to silence as we listen, before slowly fading out.

Temple Mount

The Temple Mount is closed and things are quiet at the Western Wall. We don yamakas and wander down to the ancient barrier and touch its smooth sides, think for a minute about what it all means. The tension doesn’t seem too heightened here, the sunshine layering the scene perhaps a pleasant distraction from what could, or what has, or what might happen. An electrifyingly religious place for so many with varied beliefs and opinions as to what it means, what happened, who has ownership, who can do what and when. The guns are still there, but they’re hanging loose and it all seems so calm.

Jordan (background)

Having dinner with the ABC middle east correspondent on the hill above town, Jordan visible through the heat haze as the sun sets. We talk shop and throw opinions and observations onto the table among the tall cans of Budweiser and bottles of red wine, olives and bread and shredded meat. Talk is cheap and as the wine flows, so to does the speculation. Half a dozen people from halfway around the world trying to dissect a place as tangled and gnarled as any on earth.

Flashes of gold from a way across the desert as the setting sun reflects back off glass in another country.

The streets around the Old City seem grey and listless. The closer you get, the busier it is though, cars and buses bumper to bumper, horns blaring. At the crossing, men and women of different religions and belief systems stand side by side, the minutia of the everyday relegating them from sworn enemies to mere people crossing the road together, with their shopping, to catch the bus, to head home, to pray, to pick up their children.

The market bustles and a young Asian man sprints past, accosts someone, seems his passport has been lifted from his pocket. The accosted man is indignant and the Asian kid nearly beside himself, potentially trapped somewhere he no longer wants to be.

Alleyways

James and I head out later, at night, to a shisha bar where we smoke giant pipes and drink cold Lebanese beer while discussing this and that. Stray cats play in the garden and jump from the trees. A young woman sitting by herself receives a birthday cake from the staff who sing to her, and we wonder why she’s there alone.

Ramadan had finished the day before, and having dinner high atop one of the local hotels, we hear what seems an explosion, but are told it’s just the signal for the sun setting and so the feast begins – seems an odd signal in this part of the world, an explosion. To get here from Tel Aviv, we’ve driven through the West Bank, a long and fast run through the desert which, before you realise, is bordered on both sides by high barbed-wire fences, cameras every fifty metres on tall poles, monitoring the scene… one doesn’t stop on this road, not even for a flat tyre, one just drives until the destination, either way, is reached.

We pass through checkpoints along the way, and the soldiers manning them look no older than seventeen.

You can see the Palestinian towns, marked by tall mosques, and the Israeli settlements, marked by red-tiled roofs and huge Israeli flags. It’s tense and I feel the car speed up a little. It seems so incongruous that this place, the West bank and Jerusalem itself, these volatile pits of possible violence and despair, are so close to Tel Aviv with its convivial feel and its cosmopolitan ambiance. They seem of different countries.

We leave Jerusalem after a couple of days having walked the flagstones and seen the people and the places. It still sat heavy and foreboding, despite the sun and the heat, a place that could erupt at any time and yet is so full of history and tales tall and true that one could get lost there for decades.

It recedes behind us in the rear-view mirror as we re-enter the West Bank, past checkpoints and guns, and seems like it wasn’t even ever real, just an imaginary place where trouble brews but where people just get on with life as if it’ll never change.

Samuel J. Fell

Tel Aviv… A Brief Portrait

[UNPUBLISHED]

Tel Aviv shimmers rippled gold from the midnight desert. A sprawling jewel against black from the tiny airplane window, disappears as we bank left, reappears on the far side. Closer now. The thud as we touch down and reverse thrust and finally, still.

From verdant English countryside to layers of burnt orange and gold, a layer of dust covers it all in a dull warmth, the heat from the dying day a slow and languid wash that envelops you as you navigate the airport, Hebrew lettering and blue and white flags and shawls draped and flaccid in the marble quiet.

In the old town, Jaffa and its ancient port, lights are lit and music tumbles from old, arched doorways despite the time of day and we sit on the top deck and drink Israeli beer after we’ve put her to bed and we catch up, smoking in the still air, wafting upward. The new city burns bright in the middle distance, white light, while below us basks in yellow, the flickering painting the cobbled streets in ever-changing layers of light and shade. Stray cats prowl and the purple bougainvillea spews over an old grey wall like spent beer from a bottle left in the freezer overnight.

The next day we wander the maze of the port, ancient and labrynthian, tiny galleries and churches hewn into rock on the side of the hill rolling up from the water. We stand on the hilltop and look across the half-moon bay. Sunlight, ever-present, dances on the water, on the stone, off the pale walls of houses shuttered against the building heat. The cats sit in the shade in high places and watch from under lidded eyes.

Across Yefet Street, into the flea market and its own twisted alleys and underpasses, antique dealers’ wares spill onto the roadways. We sit outside a café under an orange umbrella and drink weak black coffee with small glasses of water as people wander past – young and old, some with children hanging off them, in prams and strapped to chests, men on scooters with cigarettes hanging from lips and mobile phones pressed against their ears, the sound of car horns always on the breeze which comes in from the Mediterranean and becomes a part of the city noise like the talking and the yelling, the call to prayer and the music from weddings and churches, Arabic music and Jewish music, the occasional burst of a western sound, cars and trucks and bikes through the round-about at the clock tower, horns and shouting, street hawkers and people gawking and yelling.

The sound of a city shifting restlessly in the midday heat.

In the mornings, I strap her to me and we walk for an hour or so while she sleeps. I pick up one of the newspapers thrown on the front step and tuck it into my back pocket should I come across somewhere to drink coffee while we’re out but I never do, nothing is open this early. We have the old streets to ourselves and we make for the water, along the foreshore, into the maze of the port and upward, upward, steps and slopes, warn smooth from centuries of feet, so many feet, up to the crown of the hill overlooking it all and down the other side. Across the wishing bridge. Past the church facing west. Into the shade and bustle of Yefet and into the market where nothing is open and we’re hidden from the sun under shade of narrow paths and old, faded sun-shades stretched across alleys entwined with electrical wires and ornate strands of fairy lights and wreaths of coloured cloth.

We get home before she wakes and I make coffee in the kitchen and sit out the back under the passionfruit vine and read the paper until she wakes up and we have breakfast together as the rest of the house stirs and comes to join us

Everything is burnt orange and gold and there’s a layer of dust that covers it all in a dull warmth and yet it shimmers with a vibrant colour and sheen, polishing the edges and washing the roadways of rubbish and refuse, detritus from centuries of use and overuse and underuse, and the green-blue Mediterranean gently pushes up against its edge and the palm trees bow in the breeze and Tel Aviv exists, shimmering rippled gold in the midnight desert.

Feature In No Depression Magazine (US) – Yirrmal & Indigenous Australian Music

Appearing in the summer issue of legendary American roots music magazine No Depression, SJF has a long feature on up-and-coming artist Yirrmal, and the scope, influence and identity of indigenous Australian contemporary music.

Issue out in mid-May.

And consider subscribing to No Depression – for only $6 a month, you can support ad-free, in-depth arts journalism. Head to the website HERE.

Worrying About The Future

A little after midnight on a Friday, almost a week into the new year, our daughter was born. Our first child, she entered the world in a flurry of flailing limbs, eyes wide in surprise at being wrenched from the warmth of the womb, howling like a freight train out of control on dark tracks. It was indeed an entry I will never forget.

She calmed quickly though, and spent the next hour and a half lying on my wife’s chest as we smiled and looked at each other, and her, in disbelief. Of course, we’d known of her impending arrival for quite some time, and yet in the cold, harsh light of the hospital delivery room, the reality of what was happening was almost too much to comprehend. And yet, as many will appreciate, it’s a shock that’s edged with awe and excitement – the thrilling possibility of life with this little creature far outweighing any fear or anxiety.

In the days since her birth, I’ve found little pockets of time in which to think on the life-changing consequences of her arrival into our lives. Of course, ‘life-changing’ is the operative phrase here – among other large changes, most of them sleep-related, I regularly find myself standing, with raised eyebrow, considering the almost inhuman amount of poo in yet another nappy. Indeed, things are different now.

With this new joy (and poo-related disbelief), also comes a healthy dose of worry, as I’ve quickly ascertained. I worry about small things, like whether or not that noise she just made in her sleep was a death rattle (it wasn’t); whether or not she’s warm enough at night (she is, it’s hot as hell at the moment); whether or not she’s cool enough (she’s probably not, none of us are, it’s hot as hell at the moment); whether or not our friend’s nine-year-old will drop her (he didn’t, he plays a lot of footy and has a safe pair of hands).

And, naturally, I worry about big things. I worry about what sort of world she’ll be growing up in, a world that largely denies climate change despite worsening natural disaster; a world that elects a misogynistic blowhard as leader of the most powerful country on the planet; a world where, here at home, politicians spend more time bickering with each other and frivolously spending tax dollars, than they do actually governing for a better future.

I also worry about the age-old issue of equality, whether she’ll be afforded every opportunity she would have were she born a male. Will she be treated differently because of her sex, or have we made enough inroads into what, in this day and age, should be a non-issue, so she’ll thrive in life, able to do and achieve whatever she sets her mind to, regardless of her gender?

Worrying, it seems, is the parent’s lot. When I catch myself getting carried away with thoughts like this though, I try and put the brakes on, focus on the here and now and the new life that’s been wrought for us. Look on the positive side, I tell myself – she has the requisite number of fingers and toes, she’s eating well, she’s healthy, she (mostly) sleeps well. She also looks more like me than my wife, which is actually another worry, at least for her.

The best we can do then, is just love and support her. Protect her from life’s evils as best we can, set her up to deal with challenges and obstacles in the best manner possible so she can thrive as she gets older. Some of the best advice I received prior to her birth, was not to take on anyone else’s advice. Listen to everything, it was suggested, and then ignore it, instead taking it all as it comes and listening to her and each other, forming your own ways of doing things. It’s this advice I’m taking to heart, when it comes to how she’ll grow up.

As such, one hopes, no matter what ugly paths the world may turn down, no matter how inept those in power seem to be when it comes to ensuring safety and prosperity for us all into the coming years, she’ll be ready to face whatever comes.

Just let me get some more sleep first though.

 

Samuel J. Fell

What Came Out Of BigSound

[An alternate version of this story ran on Crikey, Friday September 13, 2013 – click here]

BigSound

Fortitude Valley, Brisbane

September 10-13, 2013

Sitting on the bus into Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley for the final night of BigSound – Australia’s reasonably modest answer to the behemoth that is Austin, Texas, music industry shindig South By South West – I find myself savouring the calm.

It’s early evening on a Thursday, traditionally a day to let loose, to get a jump on the upcoming weekend, but it’s been a long few days and so I’m enjoying the relative quiet; the hum of the engine, the gentle forward motion, the space, the solitude.

It’s short-lived though. “Last stop before the city,” yells the driver, a pork barrel of a man in navy blue shorts, neck like a ham, and so I’m ejected onto the sidewalk at the corner of Ann and Brunswick and the calm is all but a distant memory.

For this is the Valley, where the city’s drunken elite meld all too easily with the barrel bottom, a place that used to house the bohemian element, before rapid, and rampant, development had them fleeing across the river to the relative safety of hippie haven, West End.

The music still resides in back alleys though, upstairs in odd warehouse spaces, boutique venues still thriving and so it’s the ideal place for BigSound, this year running for the 12th time, a three day conference that brings all involved in music in this country, and beyond, together to nut out problems faced by an ever-shrinking industry, to collaborate in order to overcome barriers to growth, to find the ‘next big thing’, to talk.

Idle talk, big talk, small talk, chit chat, back chat, talk back. It’s all about the talk – to paraphrase from ‘79 sci-fi flick Alien, at BigSound, no one can hear you scream. Because they’re all too busy talking. It’s a tsunami and it washes over you leaving you battered, bruised ear drums, craving silence. I long for the bus.

“It’s about connecting people,” says Executive Programmer Graham Ashton, this year being his last BigSound at the helm. Given it’s late on the Thursday, he’s sufficiently relaxed. “People come from all over the world… [BigSound] is about making connections.”

Networking, they call it. It’s happening all around us, standing as we are in the dingy smokers area out the back of what was once Mustang Bar, people with sky-blue lanyards talking shop. Or perhaps, given the hour, shit.

During the day, over the past three days, BigSound is a mild-mannered conference, comprising panel discussions like The Future Of Australian MusicIndie Labels 2013 StyleTouring Tips & The Live Music Environment, along with a plethora of In Conversations.

By night however, it’s like this; there are over 120 bands playing over two nights this year, and so music flows, as does the hooch, and an environment like this is fostered, where people spill outside in between songs to network. To connect.

“There are no rules to this,” Ashton says after a bit of thought. “That’s why music is so exciting. Every band is different, every idea is different, there are no rules. One thing though, [BigSound] isn’t education, it’s inspiration.”

The inspiration for most comes in the form of the music itself – scungy rock ‘n’ roll bands, thundering country, lilting folk and pogo pop, for this is why we’re all here. Whether it’s Billy Bragg or Robert Forster playing Bakery Lane to a full house, or some young quintet out of Melbourne playing an early slot to an almost empty room, the entire place throbs with not only literal sound, but with an inspired energy. People are excited, they want to share, and so connections are made, as they should be.

It’s not all beer and skittles however. One of the reasons events like this exist is to talk about what’s not going right, about how to change same, how to better the industry and to help all those who work within.

In typical fashion, during the The Future Of Australian Music discussion, outspoken promoter and label head Michael Chugg lashes out at commercial radio’s local music quotas, saying, “The quota’s far too low and they take advantage of late night… running tracks from midnight to dawn. They’ll deny it, but it’s true… It’s bullshit, and it’s holding the industry back.”

At the Byron Bay Bluesfest showcase at lunchtime on Wednesday, festival director Peter Noble attacks on a different front, saying in front of a large crowd, “I don’t want to criticise [politicians], but they’ve got to emulate,” referencing the lack of support the Australian government offers its musicians compared to their Canadian counterparts.

Perhaps he should have had a word in Wayne Swan’s ear, although the ex-Treasurer seemed far more preoccupied with UK punk poet Billy Bragg, seen at both his show and his keynote speech, tweeting later about the latter, “A really engaging discussion by Billy Bragg… about the power of music and the purpose of politics…”

It’s a shame Bragg wasn’t around a few months ago to give the same talk to the crumbling Labor party, but I digress.

So it remains to be seen what comes out of BigSound this year, at least in terms of solid, lasting, effective change. If you were to just buy a ticket to the music side of things, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that music in Australia is alive and well, and it is, without a doubt.

A new government though, not one renowned for generous arts funding, will have an impact, but as the dust still settles, people nursing final night hangovers, it seems inspirations and connection, the initial aims of BigSound, have been achieved. There is, however, still a lot to talk about.

Samuel J. Fell

Trumped

[UNPUBLISHED]

The rain has stopped. It’s cooler now, the aroma of wet earth rising and mingling with the cigarette stench and the smell of fish off the barbeque, long since eaten, digested; we’re on to bourbon now, beer chasers, rolling new smokes and lighting them with the stubbs of the old.

A clutch of moths hatched somewhere in the garden earlier today and so the lights out the back are being bombarded. Tiny flying insects chasing their sun. Bumping and buzzing with a ferocious intent, getting stuck in your eyelashes, your ears.

Aside from their buzz though, the croak of the odd frog, the cicadas, it’s quiet. Claire’s gone to bed and I’ve shut down the endless Twitter staccato; the rolling analysis from the New York Times; the ABC; Fox News; all the rest. Shut down the apps on my phone, closed all the windows on my laptop.

A couple of hours ago, Donald J. Trump was named the forty-fifth president of the United States, a notion which, only a few hours before that, was regarded as a long shot, a laugh, a joke, and a bad one at that.

Earlier, we’d sat and followed the results as the storm front came over, lessening the humidity, the grey sky lowering as its moist loins girded and eventually birthed upon the dry and crackling north coast a torrent. We watched as Electoral College votes stacked up, and even though this was happening half a world away, we kept watching, swapping stories we’d heard via various news sources throughout the day.

I was on deadline, not an urgent one, but closing in, three days with the majority of reportage behind me, three days in which to ruminate and write. I let it lie though, gave away half a day, pulled down the rabbit hole by the events unfolding with alarming rapidity across the Pacific.

I, like everyone else, have spent the better part of a year smirking at memes, nodding with faux-educated agreement at analysis, talking with friends and work mates about how this imposter dares set foot upon the hallowed turf that is a presidential race, and yet here we are now. An angry white male, about to take up a post in The Oval Office, in The White House.

Indeed, it’s never been whiter.

At some stage, not long before the heavens opened, we talked with my sister on Skype and the three of us asked each other over and over how this could be happening. My phone, open to some graphic or other, sat on the table next to my laptop and mid-conversation, I’d lean to the right to check results. My sister, two thousand kilometres to the south, would periodically do the same.

Claire’s sister rang at some point. They talked briefly out the back. Incredulity was the tone that floated in through the open screen door.

As we shut it down, maybe an hour ago, the analysis was starting to filter through. What next? What does this mean? Where to from here? I don’t know and don’t pretend to. All I know is this has ceased to be a sick joke and is now a sicker reality. It’s the uncertainty that’s the killer, the feeling that anything at all could happen, and that most (if not all) of it won’t be of the notion that respect, inclusion and diversity is the key to a new world order.

The uncertainty, that’s the killer.

The rain has started again. The moths and frogs and cicadas have gone. There’s another storm brewing.

Samuel J. Fell