Why is the Australian Popular Music Scene Such a Boys Club?

By Sylvie Leber

In the late 60’s and early 70’s the boy next door and his mates would have their band practice in the garage. Usually there was a girl or two hanging around. Back then the only women that played instruments were folk/blues singers.

Then punk music arrived in the mid to late 70’s, reacting against prevailing rock music traditions such as the way too long guitar solo and the need for technical virtuosity. It also gave female musicians “permission” to join and form bands. Inspired by feminism and our passion for music, we thought “if Sid Vicious (of the Sex Pistols) can only play three notes then I can play in a band too”.

In my 20’s I had a few strokes of luck. My boyfriend had given me an acoustic guitar to learn to play on and I took it to jams in people’s lounge rooms. A 13 year old female bass player, Zo, who now publishes a rock magazine, gave me my first electric bass. She became my teacher as well. Then a few male musos recently arrived from Adelaide to Melbourne were looking for a bass player and provided me with my first break in The Cakes. It wasn’t long before a friend and I started the 7 piece Girl’s Garage Band which eventually became Toxic Shock. We played on average once a week, recorded on vinyl, and community radio stations played our songs. Those were the days…

In mid-90’s Melbourne, an informal network for women in the music industry called Access All Areas was formed. There were over 300 women on the mailing list and 120 plus would turn up to our events. At each event there would be a couple of women invited to talk about their work and their vision and then enthusiastic discussions would ensue. The representation was broad: musicians, media, management, venue operators, record companies, publicity and promotion, recording studios as well as students from the Rock and Roll High School.

Among the presenters, Clare Moore – the drummer from Dave Graney and The Coral Snakes – told a few poignantly hilarious stories such as going to drum shops to buy sticks and being asked “Are you buying them for your boyfriend?”

Jump to 2015. I go to hear live music in Melbourne a couple of times a week and have noticed how rare it is to see women playing instruments in bands apart from lead singers accompanying themselves on guitar. It feels like things have gone backwards. I get grumpy and sad and ask myself “Why is the Australian music scene such a boys club? Did we feminists take our eye off the ball?” The women involved in contemporary music in Australia I’ve spoken to all say that it is dominated by men – but more than being merely anecdotal, these shocking stats by Music Victoria and those collected by Diana Wolfe, (from 2007-2012 Diana and guitarist Fiona Wilde ran Play Like A Girl, a monthly music night for female musicians), speak for themselves.

One of the standout stats: of the 73 artists and music industry figures inducted into the Australia Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame, not one is a female instrumentalist.

I was also shocked to learn that the ARIA has an all-male board, a male CEO and on its staff: four men and only one woman. This year Sydney’s Vivid Music Festival and winner of the 2015 Helpmann Award for Best Contemporary Music Festival had 17 headline acts – and no women!

When I speak to Diana Wolfe she says that generally, women are not as pushy, competitive and confident as men. We tend not to jam and expect a higher standard of ourselves. And men have greater longevity because they don’t have the added pressure of having to look good. I can’t remember the last time I saw a woman with grey hair like me in a band. “Women musicians have a tough time keeping their music career on track once they’ve had children,” said Diana, “especially if they need to tour.” She suggests introducing paid parental leave. This will be a tough one to win. I had to stop playing for years after my daughter was born and it’s still tough for me to find people to play with.

Being a muso naturally involves self-doubt. Monica Weightman, is a confident, shit-hot guitarist. As the Songlines Corporation’s current artist in residence who mentors young Aboriginal musicians, she advises women to follow their musical instincts, not to get intimidated by men at rehearsals and gigs, to make themselves visible and to support each other. “In general female musos are better listeners. Not as much ego.”

When asked what advice she would give to young Australian women instrumentalists, Monica only half-jokingly replies. “Get out of here! Go to the States!” Which is exactly what some of our best – such as Orianthi, Tal Wilkenfeld, Penny Ikinger and Nat Allison – have very successfully done.

But girls, it’s not all doom and gloom. Organisations like Listen are creating policy around women and the music industry. One Of One are highlighting women’s’ achievements and Music Victoria is establishing a Women’s Music Industry Advisory Panel.

I sometimes attend a monthly music jam where I’m the only woman. The guys refuse to turn their loud instruments down and tend not to listen to each other. Maybe it’s time for a Toxic Shock comeback. Nothing will be handed to women on a platter and so we need to follow Aretha’s advice: Sisters are Doin’ it for Themselves.

Dedicated to Patricia Amphlett/Thompson (aka Little Pattie) who started performing at 14. She has worked tirelessly for decades to improve the working conditions of our entertainers and is the president of the MEAA.

Sylvie Leber’s most enduring work and passion is music. As a teenager she worked in distribution at Go Set magazine, later as a bass player and songwriter in diverse bands, most notably in all-female post-punk band Toxic Shock. Sylvie also researched, wrote and directed education modules for AUSMUSIC including History and Styles of Australian Rock Music and was the presenter of 3RRR’s Give-Men-A-Pause show.  She likes jamming and occasionally DJs.

Feature image: Anaïs/Flickr