Joe Sparrow : I thought I got a tiny glimpse into what being a woman in the music industry is like, but of course I never will
Not long ago, the brilliant, award-winning singer-songwriter Beth Orton mentored a group of 14 emerging musicians, singers, songwriters, and performers.
The week of learning and songwriting culminated in a one-off collaborative gig at Band On The Wall in Manchester. Beth was inspirational, the participants were bold. It was great.
The pride at making the project happen successfully was palpable at the end-of-week show. Happiness radiated from the stage, and was reflected back at them. Praise rippled through the crowd; press coverage was deservedly wide and glowing.
One of the key elements that immediately hooked me in was its unique specification: all participants were to be exclusively female.
I worked on the PR side of the project, and on the very first day, I made sure I found an excuse so that I had a semi-plausible reason to visit. I slipped into a few of Band On The Wall’s rooms. Tentative rehearsals had begun, and I lingered a little longer than I usually would.
The songs and sounds were already eye-openingly lovely, after only a few hours of the project beginning. The atmosphere was happy, productive, open and enlightened.
Everyone was working in supportive harmony. It was so different to so many events in the music biz, which can sometimes be fraught, or the people stand-offish, or both. I stepped into the lift, effusing about how great the whole thing was, and then a thought stopped me mid-sentence.
It was this: apart from me, one member of staff and my colleague Liam, everyone in the building was a woman.
The staff, the organisers, the in-house PR people, the interns, the head of event organiser Brighter Sound, the participants, the sound and tech people, Beth Orton: all women, all busy milling round, working hard, learning and laughing.
I’ve spent a few years both working in and hanging around the edges of the music industry. When you go to where music is happening, women are always the minority.
Something was fundamentally different here.
It felt different, it looked different and it sounded different. Warmer. Experimental. More kind. Less bull-headed. I wandered around, a minority for once, and a couple of things struck me.
Firstly: this feeling of being a minority might be a tiny — minuscule — taste of how it feels to be a women in the music biz. Except without any of the hassle, the testosterone, the aggro, the misogyny and the judgment.
(So, of course, my experience wasn’t anything like it at all.)
And secondly, a reminder of how easy men have it: not only in the music business, but in life.
In the midst of a euphoric after-show party, I spoke to one of the artists who took part, and she told me that what she had found most liberating about the all-woman environment was not the fact that it was “giving women a chance” — a slightly patronising idea, in truth — but that the whole project had been so intensely, overwhelmingly supportive.
“There was no competitiveness,” she said, “we just worked all day to help each other achieve things that we didn’t know we were able to do.”
She then told me something that made me sad, and then told me something else that made me sadder. She said that if men had been able to take part in the mentoring week, she probably wouldn’t have applied, because of the unspoken pressure women feel in a room of men.
Then she told me that she’d already identified a vulnerable younger artist she wanted to help and protect from men in the music business, “because, well, you know what those men are like.”
I do know what those men are like.
I wondered if I’d done enough over the years to provide a supportive environment for women, and had to admit that I hadn’t. Not many of us had.