The #metoo challenge in Melbourne’s “boys club” music scene

Margy Noble, bassist in local Melbourne band Househats
In the Melbourne music scene, artists and industry professionals are challenging the patriarchal norms. Aimee Cunningham writes that while acknowledging that sexism and inherent misogyny exists in music as elsewhere, there has been a push to change the cultures and attitudes ingrained in the industry.

By Aimee Cunningham

Increased exposure of sexual harassment and sexism in entertainment industries has emerged in the media. In the wake of such social media movements as #MeToo and #TimesUp, which revealed 81 per cent of women alleged they have experienced sexual assault, women in male-dominated industries have created a platform to share their personal experiences in an attempt to support others and have successfully brought down some high-profile men over sexual misconduct.

However, in industries based around traditional boys’ club mentalities, online accusations can be more damaging to careers than ever. Spanning across major and independent labels and in local musicartists, assistants, publicists, writers and executives have spoken out about their experiences with sexual harassment. But new technology and social media’s pressure for equality do not necessarily change the original concern of retaliation, just offering a new and very public tool to be used with caution.

Recent data reveals that one in 10 professional Australian women are being sexually harassed at work. The music industry is no exception. In a competitive world where backstage connections are forged over drinks and partying, industry positions can be used to manipulate and maintain an environment where sexual abuse remains silenced.

Margy Noble, freelance music writer for The AU Review and Beat Magazine and bassist in local bands Househats and Plovers, has been breaking into the local music scene after an eight year hiatus working in science and on her PhD in chemistry.

“It’s really interesting to see the parallels in gender disparity between the music industry and the scientific and academic communities,” Noble says. “There’s a definite ‘boys club’ in just about any industry, and music is no different. While there are more and more women taking to the stage and behind the scenes – be it producing, recording, running labels, there is still a dominant male force.”

Across music scenes and the wider global music industry, women remain underrepresented and pressured to conform to male expectations of the industry. Women make up only 29 percent of people in Australia that list their occupation as “music professional”.

In the Melbourne music scene, artists and industry professionals are challenging the existing patriarchal norms. While acknowledging that sexism and inherent misogyny exists in music, there has been a push to change the cultures and attitudes that are ingrained in the industry. The gender gap in Melbourne’s local music industry remains apparent, but offering safe spaces for women and enforcing behavioral codes in venues and workplaces, could be a move in the right direction. It may provide opportunities for women with growing support and encouragement. In any case, there is still a very long way to go for the industry to be more inclusive for female creatives and eventually curb everyday sexism and sexual harassment.

Freelance writer and bassist Margy Noble has experienced the positive side as a female contributor and artist. But she has also found it hard to ignore sexism in the industry and has been harassed and treated differently to male musicians when playing gigs.

“I get treated differently to my male band mates. Sometimes I get spoken down to in a way and sometimes people come up to talk after a gig and just talk to the dudes.”Noble stresses the importance of having a support network in this kind of environment.

“My band mates are all absolute allies, and they’re always open to hearing my thoughts and feelings regarding sexism. They’re the kind of men who will call someone out on their shit. I guess it’s unspoken guidelines. My band mates are my family and we look after each other.”

With social media becoming a platform for dialogue about sexual harassment, Noble shares a similar attitude with many women who have chosen not to participate. She says social media is a dangerous tool for any campaign and having private spaces where people can share their experiences could be more helpful, as well as providing online support and counselling for victims.

“I don’t think it is something that everyone can partake in. Sexual harassment can be a really traumatic experience for victims and things like the #MeToo campaign could be triggering for victims,” Noble says. “It isn’t the victim’s fault ever, and that is the most important thing to stress. Education is probably key and maybe instead of just using a campaign to boost numbers of victims openly coming out, the campaign could aim at educating perpetrators.”

 Melbourne musician and CEO of the Melbourne-based management company, Harbl MGMT, Joshua De Laurentiis has concerns with this type of campaign and online allegations.

“Social media can be a very helpful tool, but it often can also turn into an extremist echo chamber and also a method of utilizing a personal platform to express views, without actually doing anything in the actual world to enact change, based on said views.”

De Laurentiis has worked and performed in the local music scene for over a decade and witnessed the slow shift toward a more inclusive local music industry. He says that the current climate in the industry favors signing female artists or having a female member of a band.

“It is very helpful to that artist’s career – music festivals and radio stations are doing their utmost to give more opportunities to women.” These opportunities are valuable and could make or break a performer in such a fiercely competitive industry. It does however raise the question of legitimacy: whether their selection is based on talent or to fill a quota.

Australian music festivals have endured increasing scrutiny after reports revealed a lack of gender and cultural diversity on their lineups. Falls Festival being a festival recently surrounded by controversy, with social media backlash about only nine women on the first announcement. Now, music industry professionals and the public, are paying close attention to representation for upcoming festivals.

This week, popular Byron Bay music festival Splendour in the Grass released its lineup for the three day festival held in July. Out of 205 performers, 50 are female or non-binary, equaling 24.4 per cent. This statistic raises issues determined by various factors, including talent and availability, but also about music industry connections.

“There’s the lesser proportion of female musicians who get those big festival slots, festivals claiming that they book based on “talent”. It’s bullshit,” says Margy Noble. “I know so many female musicians who are more ‘talented’ than their male counterparts, and not only that, but that music isn’t just about talent. It’s about communicating and connecting with people.”

This leads back to if women are being treated fairly and with respect in the music industry. Women should not have to do anything differently to ensure that they are being taken seriously and certainly not expected to endure harassment, sexual or otherwise.

Positive change will take time, but patrons and professionals can expect Melbourne’s music scene to grow in diversity and there is evidence that women have support from the local music community. Following an announcement in March, venues including The Corner Hotel, The Croxton Bandroom and The Old Bar are part of a pilot program to curb sexual assault in their establishments.

Patron Emily Cross says, “The main change I’ve noticed in the last few years is the posters in the girls bathrooms saying if someone’s being a dick or making you uncomfortable, call the manager on this number.”

This is now common across Melbourne and spreading, which can only encourage women to seek help.

Women in the industry say they hope safer spaces are created and dialogue about sexual harassment can begin to change the social constructs of sexism in music.