Holly Herndon

Electronic music's female frontier

There's a crisis in visibility, but is segregation the solution? After performing at a women-only festival Holly Herndon, Ashley Paul, Helena Hauff and more weigh in

It’s mid-afternoon on a Saturday and I’m stood in Cambridgeshire’s Wysing Arts Centre eating a Yorkie bar – the only chocolate bar in the world marketed exclusively to men – at the only music festival I have ever been to that features exclusively women and woman-fronted acts on the bill. This is the fifth edition of the experimental and electronic music festival Space-Time, and the first time that Wysing Arts Centre’s Director Donna Lynas has decided that the line-up should be entirely female-focussed. Heading up proceedings are producers Holly HerndonKaren Gwyer and Helena Hauff, neoclassical experimentalist Ashley Paul and the solo project of Factory Floor’s Nik Colk Void.

In between inhaling chocolate bars in the name of irony, I was here to investigate. Recently, techno pioneer Paula Temple talked to Red Bull Music Academy about how shocked she was to return to the music industry after a hiatus of several years only to discover that the situation for female artists had actually regressed during the time she’d been away. “There are definitely lots of techno artists that are not male, but they’re not visible,” she explained. “That is really interesting to see, to understand why they’re not visible, to see why they’re not supported, why they’re not being buzzed about in the same way that other artists are.” Despite the cult profile of innovators such as Herndon, Hauff and Void, there’s still disproportionate representation when it comes to women in electronic music. 

“Sometimes people try to be nice, especially young boys, and they’re like ‘your music is so good, for you being a woman!’,” she says. “They don’t even realise what they’re saying" – Helena Hauff

“It’s about how and if we are recognised,” says Female:Pressure, a brilliant international collective of artists who make it their business to highlight and challenge this imbalance. In a study of 21 labels and 43 festivals covering Europe and the US over 2010 - 2013, Female:Pressure estimated that “a 10% proportion of female artists (could) be considered above average” for a label roster or festival line-up – and average female representation at festivals was put at 8.4%. At the most lucrative end of the spectrum, DJ Mag’s annual list of Top 100 DJs is notoriously imbalanced, this year featuring just two female-identifying acts.

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Ashley Paul
Ashley Paul at Space-Time Festival 2014Photography Mike Cameron

Listening to anecdotes at Wysing, it becomes easy to imagine why new female artists trying to break through might feel intimidated. Nik Colk Void notes that she frequently got “oh, you’re in the band?” when turning up to venues while touring America in her 20s. Helena Hauff, the relentlessly acidic DJ and producer who’s a beloved resident at Hamburg’s Golden Pudel, reflects that female DJs are very much still subject to the same kind of disbelief and interrogation. “Sometimes people try to be nice, especially young boys, and they’re like ‘your music is so good, for you being a woman!’,” she says. “They don’t even realise what they’re saying.” Saxophonist Ashley Paul, too, finds herself on the receiving end of the same kind of spurious praise: “I often get comments about how surprising it is that I can play powerfully. I also often get likened to Lisa Simpson.” Both artists note that these kinds of responses vary depending on where you travel; Hauff doesn’t experience anything like it at home in Germany, where she’s well-known and revered, and Paul says “Europe is much better for this than the US.”

Yet on either side of the Atlantic, there's a sense that the inclusion of women in all-male line-ups can appear tokenistic. For Hauff it’s this kind of othering of the female DJ that’s the main issue she faces. “There are a lot of open doors for women, because there are not as many,” says Hauff. “So people are interested, and want to know. But once you’ve entered that room, it’s more difficult to make your point, and get the full respect of people. People just never really judge you as a DJ, but always as a female DJ. You kind of have to prove yourself harder than a man has to - especially when it comes to mixing, for example, beatmatching. It’s always like ‘can she beatmatch? Is she tight enough?’ No one actually really thinks about those things with men.”

The consensus among the artists I speak to at and around Space-Time is that in their immediate circles, their gender is a non-issue. Ashley Paul tells me over email that “there is a growing support system for female musicians, and I am not unaware of how helpful that is. I feel lucky to live in a time where my gender doesn’t prevent me from being creative.” Also speaking over email, RVNG artist Holly Herndon adds, “I would say that the most positive thing about being a female electronic musician in 2014, as opposed to 1990, is that for the most part, the community of artists I find myself involved with are pretty enlightened with regards to gender issues, and I’m rarely made to feel overly conscious of it when in the company of peers.”

“It takes a hell of a lot of confidence – which I don't think most musicians possess – to pluck up the nerve to burst into a boy's club and hope to be taken seriously” – Karen Gwyer

Nik Colk Void is even more optimistic about the situation at large, claiming there has been an "uprising of women in electronic music" due to the growth of non-traditional routes into the industry. "The internet has given us a platform and a voice to get our stuff out there,” she says, speaking on-site. "There’s more people releasing their own records than there ever has been in the past, so there’s more exposure. With the way that the music industry has been, in that it’s very male-dominated, perhaps it’s just a little bit like, 'do we really want to go there?' It’s changing, and it’s accelerating."

This level of scrutiny applies on some level to music made by women too, and has led to some actively exploring the pursuit of a non-gendered sound in their work. Gwyer says she gave up singing on her tracks because “I spotted very quickly the box that was waiting for me to be put in as a ‘woman who sings.’ And I wanted to stay the hell away from that box.” Meanwhile Void, who performs a slowly unfurling set of deconstructed noise and techno at Wysing in front of a giant projection of a guitar, describes the instrument as “masculine.” “There is definitely a male and female sound, and that’s what the problem is with music in general,” she tells me. “That’s the great thing about electronic music, it opens it up... if you use hardware, you almost have to go with it, you command it, but sometimes it takes a while to understand how you command it. If you’re just true to yourself...then you’ll come up with your own sound naturally. If you forget about all the other politics.”

Herndon, too, calls it a “privilege of our time” that we are able to “cheaply choose how you represent yourself in the world, and liberate yourself from that which you did not choose.” Through vocal manipulations in her music, she transcends gender politics or any kind of bodily identity. “Douglas Rushkoff wrote a book called Program or be Programmed,” she explains, “which was a call to arms for people to learn at least basic code, or risk ceding control of aspects of their lives to others who do. The same goes for production in a way. Produce or be produced – it used to be that the only way some people could get studio time was to adhere to a reductive stereotype, (but) none of us are beholden to that expectation now. We can literally represent whatever we want.”

Yet while tight beatmatching and manipulated sonic experiments can be used to mask, distort or even emphasise gender, bodily identity becomes inescapably real when in front of an audience. The question at Space-Time that seems most pressing is: why are women still so under-represented on the live circuit? Hauff notes Sweden’s Volt festival, and Void shouts out Unsound as having a consciously changing lineup, but on the whole the balance only swings one way. Gwyer says she’s had positive experiences of not being the “token woman” on the bill when she’s booked by women, but those gigs are an exception to the rule. “The real question would seem to me to be more like ‘are male promoters including more women?’” she asks. “And my answer to that is that there have always been guys who happily include women without too much thought, and guys who don't. The fact is that the guys who don't (put women on the bill) vastly outnumber the rest.”

"I think (female-only festivals) can be a really good thing... if it’s about the music, more than about the fact that someone’s got a pussy instead of a cock" – Helena Hauff

It’s thought that women don’t sell tickets, so promoters don’t book them. The result? A self-perpetuating loop, where women don’t see as much exposure, so don’t build bigger profiles and don’t sell tickets. With this in mind, the sets I catch at Wysing Arts Centre feel so thrilling and so vital. As Hauff beautifully puts it, “I think it can be a really good thing... if it’s about the music, more than about the fact that someone’s got a pussy instead of a cock. With this event, I have a postive feeling.” Watching Lucy Railton’s mindblowing control with the cello, Ashley Paul’s introduction of a roomful of spectators to whole new ways to hear a saxophone, Ravioli Me Away’s glitter-punk and Hannah Sawtell’s astonishing noise contortions was only the beginning. As night fell, Karen Gwyer span warm, melodic techno, Holly Herndon and Peepholes’ headline sets were both met with rapture, and Helena Hauff brought things to an explosive close. The whole experience was a resounding argument against anyone who says it’s not possible to pack rooms with an all-female line-up in 2014, or that to try would be to include artists who weren’t up to scratch musically.

“I was very keen that I pitched it to everybody as a way of showing a diversity of practices in a celebratory environment,” says the festival’s organiser Donna Lynas. “I didn’t want it to be a hostile move in any way. I just wanted it to be a celebration of all the brilliant stuff that’s there. I think the gender of the people performing was irrelevant on the day, to be honest.”

Even so, Lynas says the festival will be adopting a “strong female bias” going forward, but it won’t be repeating this kind of specifically gendered event. So, was this ‘quota creation’ the right approach? Herndon is wary of this, commenting that it could create a “haunting insecurity that you are somehow just making up numbers, or are somehow only operating in this odd ghetto of female artists.” Ashley Paul, meanwhile, says that a move towards curating female-focussed festivals without marketing them as female-focussed is what’s needed. “If someone simply curated a festival as bad-ass as this one, and it just happened to be all females, that would send a stronger message, don’t you think, than billing it as being all female?”

On the flipside, Planningtorock’s imprint Human Level imprint is women-only, while Paula Temple’s Noise Manifesto promises that all its releases and events will feature at least 50% female and queer artists. Is this the way to bring about systemic change? Karen Gwyer asserts that “believing in a 50/50 approach doesn't make it happen.” For her, this kind of deliberately curated event is necessary to achieve the overhaul the system needs. “If it's acceptable to put together all or very nearly all-male line-ups for every party, gig and festival, and to run labels that release entirely male-produced music, then the approach of Wysing Arts Centre and Human Level cannot be criticised. What I would absolutely love to see would be for a woman to start up an incredible, uncompromising record label that releases blazing hot records by whoever she likes, and those records sell out straight away at Hard Wax, and promoters go crazy for those artists, and people sell the t-shirts on eBay for serious cash, and the whole system shifts. Permanently.”

At Wysing, while the organisers, press and performers are mostly women, the bodies moving on the floor are a pretty even representation. It just goes to show that there's no reason why what Gwyer's describing couldn't happen: the idea that ticket-buying audiences care whether music is being made or played to them by a man or a woman looks, on the ground, like a myth. But the dogmatic old boys' club has yet to catch up. Highly visible platforms won't be available to women as readily as they are to men until the gatekeepers of the industry and the live circuit are no longer mostly male, and so for now, it seems essential that female artists and promoters carve out these alternative spaces in order to make themselves seen.