Sisters are doing it for everyone: Is female equality still a concern in electronic dance music?

Culture is an aspect of life where people identify themselves under a unifying, often artistic banner; where one can feel a sense of belonging that sits outside of the drudgery of daily life and offers both escapism and unanimity. Humans hold culture in the highest regard, and it can inspire pride and protectiveness in varying measures of passion and zeal. This often leads certain lifestyles to be beyond transmutation, cocooned in the shell of oneness, stoically defending what defines them and allowing nothing to alter the essence of what they are.

Dance culture, though imbued with many of these aspects of other cultures, is also different in its own way. Metamorphosis and the willing embrace of change occupy and verify the spirit of modern dance music, with its roots in the notorious purge of disco in the late 70s – to which victimised black and gay minorities reacted by setting off a musically earth-shattering chain of events – and its mind-boggling array of sub-genres; dance music is almost imperceptible to those on the outside, yet this constant pupation correlates with its adherents’ desire for persistent excitement that can only be brought about by change.

We are now in the midst of another mutation, a special time in dance culture where developments, long overdue, are taking place at breakneck speed, and are front and centre of the narrative of what it means to belong to this society.

For better or worse, the dance music industry has traditionally been overwhelmingly male dominated. According to female:pressure, a collective that works to increase the profile of female and transgender artists in electronic music, the percentage of women DJing on the festival circuit in 2014 was just 10.8%; the DJ Mag Top 100 has featured just one female act in the top 30 in the last 5 years (EDM duo Nervo); and DJ and journalist Dani Deahl estimates that 9% of electronic music released on labels is created by women.

Paradoxically, dance audiences have always been significantly less tilted towards any gender, and a cursory look around any nightclub or festival will attest to this. So where is this disconnect, why is it there, and what is being done to correct it?

Unlike racism and homophobia, sexism still has a greater tendency to rear its ugly head too often, and this is unfortunately true even in dance music, where women continue to have to face objectification and discrimination, and attitudes that should be consigned to the dustbin of history are prevalent to this day. In 2016, the Boiler Room featured a performance from Glasgow DJ Nightwave that was streamed on Facebook Live, and an avalanche of nauseating misogyny accompanied it, polluting the comments section underneath. Nightwave was suitably shaken, and it prompted Boiler Room’s Gabriel Szatan to look at introducing preventative measures to combat future unsavoury episodes; in 2015, Dutch DJ Frontliner, when asked about the relative dearth of female DJs and producers, opined: “Because maybe they spend too much time in Sephora [a make-up store] and too little time on producing”; when Charlotte De Witte won the Tomorrowland DJ Contest aged 17, the barrage of sexism that followed prompted her to adopt a male alias for the next six years in order to be recognised for her talent as a musician, and not defined by her looks or gender; and most recently Giegling co-founder Konstantin sent shockwaves throughout the dance world with his assertion that women are “disproportionately promoted” and “usually worse at DJing than men”.

In an environment like this, it perhaps comes as no surprise that women may feel reluctant to expose themselves to such tastelessness. But passion for electronic music transcends gender boundaries, and there is no reason why a girl should feel any less inclined to ask for a set of Pioneers or a Traktor Kontrol for Christmas than a boy.

And the fightback is well and truly on. B. Traits (whose 2016 track ‘Still Point’ was named in honour of the piece of the same name created by Daphne Oram -widely regarded as the First Lady of electronic music – in the 1940s) curates the coveted Saturday 1am slot on BBC Radio 1, having first had her break at the BBC in 2012, landing a slot presenting ‘In New DJs We Trust’ on the back of the success of her debut single “Fever”. She herself has experienced sexism and regularly participates on discussion panels that deal with the issue and seek ways of providing encouragement and support to girls who might consider a career in electronic music. She has said that being a female in the industry has its pros and cons, with the fact that it is a male dominated field meaning women have “less competition”, though conversely, some can attribute a female’s success to “your sex, rather than your skill”, something she finds “disheartening”; Smirnoff, in a prescient move, backed by music industry heavyweights such as Spotify, THUMP and Insomniac, launched the Equalizing Music initiative in 2017 with a view to doubling the amount of female headliners at festivals and large-scale parties by the end of the decade to counter – in direct contravention to Konstantin’s assertion – the comparative lack of exposure that female DJs and producers enjoy.

Techno in particular is a genre that proudly boasts well-established world-class female talent such as Nina Kraviz, Helena Hauff, Rebekah, and Nicole Moudaber; and arguably leading the charge is Marea Stamper, better known as The Black Madonna, who was also inspired to name her ‘Daphne’ nights – which offer up and coming female DJs a chance to establish themselves in Chicago, the birthplace of house music – for the aforementioned pioneer. Furthermore, she established Femme Electronic as a resource where aspiring female DJs and producers in East Africa can avail of training, mentoring and workshops. And she won Mixmag’s prestigious DJ of the Year award in 2016, a testament to her hard work, talent and the esteem in which she is held.

Just Her (Claire Spooner) is aware that change is afoot:

“I do feel that the tide is shifting towards [greater female representation], but I don’t think we are quite there yet. No doubt there are more and more women becoming part of many aspects of dance culture, which is amazing, but we still need to push harder to close the gap. For example, from my experience teaching in further education, Music Technology classes are still dominated by males and recruitment of females is still lower. We need to be working harder to make girls feel that they can pursue electronic music right from grass roots level so the gap doesn’t exist in future generations.”

Barcelona-based Brazilian techno DJ and Devotion Records manager Fernanda Martins has experienced some level of sexism as her career progressed, though she considers this to be an unfortunate by-product of a rapidly growing industry: ‘The dance industry is bigger now than it has ever been, and there is so much happening. This means that with ever more people involved, there will be different opinions. I do think that the gender issue should be totally irrelevant, because everyone should play their own part in whatever way they can. I can say honestly though that in the past I have felt judged by my gender and challenged to prove if I was any good. And when I was younger I made it my business to shut the chauvinists up, simply by working hard, respecting my audience, and believing totally in what I was doing. Nowadays, I’m a little more mellow, and I don’t let it bother me anymore.”

And this is the attitude that ought to be, and, ostensibly, is the overreaching one. Hard work, self-belief, the determination to have fun, and stoic refusal to let petty prejudices like sexism pollute this most open and colourful of lifestyles will squeeze out the negativity and keep the scene in continual rude health.

House music is built on love. It is defined by love. And unity. It’s one huge party to which we’re all welcome; all anyone has to do is accept the invite. Just leave your baggage at the door, thanks.

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About the Author

Mark has been in love with electronic music since hearing Jean Michel Jarre's "Oxegene" at an early age. He has been DJing for over 15 years and has played all over his hometown, Lurgan. He also obtained a degree in Music Technology from Belfast's prestigious Queen's University. Has an (as yet) unfulfilled ambition make a pilgrimage to Chicago, the birthplace of house.