BRATTLEBORO — The arts industry is no different from any other industry when it comes to gender equity. In the traditionally male-dominated fields of music production, engineering, lights and sound, tour management, and stage management, still only a small percentage of women end up in these roles.
In 2022, 30% of artists on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End chart were women, an increase over 2021's 23.3%.
That's according to a 2023 study by Stacy L. Smith, an associate professor of communication at the University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism who founded the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which examined the gender of artists, songwriters, and producers across 1,100 songs from 2012 to 2022.
The study, which analyzed 1,100 songs released over those 11 years, found the overall percentage of female artists was 22.3%. This is a ratio of 3.5 male artists to every 1 female artist.
So, in 2022, Stone Church rolled out Grrls 2 the Front, a new and expanded program in honor of International Women's Day and International Women's History Month.
"Stone Church believes that the music industry is the best industry in the world, and we know that women and nonbinary folks are massively underrepresented in it," explains Erin Scaggs, director of outreach and programming at the venue.
"We're committed to working towards creating greater representation of marginalized folks in all its facets - on stage, in production, management, and leadership, so last March, we featured 34 musicians and bands not led by men, booking an entire month of shows," she says.
The name is a nod to an important decade in this effort to create a sea change: the Riot Grrl movement, which, Scaggs explains, "exploded in the 1990s punk music scene with bands like Heavens to Betsy and Bikini Kill."
She explains that Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill popularized the phrase "grrrls 2 the front," which invited women in the crowd to move forward - so they could see the musicians and feel safe, and so the band wouldn't feel overwhelmed by a sea of men crowding in front.
Those words, which started as a simple instruction, would become a slogan of feminism in music and an iconic call to action for closing the gender gap.
Last year's programming was a big success, Scaggs says. Stone Church held free weekly production workshops for 65 women and nonbinary community members, and they talked about sound and stage management.
Scaggs says the organizers found that the enrollees left feeling more empowered, that they felt more comfortable advocating for themselves in the live music arena, and that they possessed more knowledge than when they began.
"Grrrls 2 the Front is all about creating access and opportunity for women and nonbinary people in the music industry. Celebrating their accomplishments, amplifying their voices and connecting them with resources and each other," says Scaggs.
Their goal this year is twofold: greater systematic change with lasting impact, and better outreach and inclusion of folks who are not cisgender women.
The venue's March 2024 lineup will again feature all-women and nonbinary bands, but that's only part of creating access and opportunity.
"Training women and non-binary people how to run sound, how to operate lights. Creating year round opportunity to connect and share resources and knowledge. Creating a space that feels accessible and carving out a sense of belonging for women and non-binary people in music is at the core of the program," continues Scaggs.
Many of the workshops are free and don't require registration, creating a very low barrier to access.
A major piece of the programming includes 10-week courses on light and sound production.
"Sound Tech and Light Design are the classes which run January through March, meeting every week for three hours of classroom and hands-on instruction," Scaggs says.
"This program is meant to serve any individual who has experienced gender inequality in the music industry and meant to increase access, opportunity, connection and solidarity to amplify the voices of women and non-binary folks in music," according to Scaggs.
The courses, limited to 10 participants each, will cost $1,200. Guilford Sound has provided two scholarships for the courses, and payment plans are available.
Planning the program
Women and nonbinary musicians have been at the forefront of organizing Grrrls 2 the Front.
Rei Kimura, 20, of Brattleboro, a local musician and program organizer, has been playing in bands since she was 9 years old and is currently lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the band Moxie.
"The music industry has forever been a male- dominated space, and as a female musician myself I know how it can feel to be the only woman in the room," Kimura says.
She has helped with planning the program, bookings, workshop design, speaker outreach, promotions, and student recruitment.
"The program, which is necessarily inclusive, aims to build coalitions and communities for those who have been historically underrepresented or faced gender-based disadvantages in the industry," says Alouette Batteau, 22, of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.
They help coordinate the workshops, do audience outreach, and book artists and bands for the March concert series, and they also ensure that program messaging is inclusive and accessible.
Batteau, who has worked as a musician in western Massachusetts and New York City for many years, plays drums for the band Kalliope Jones - a nonbinary and women trio - founded in 2011. They have recently performed as a solo artist.
"I believe the programming functions as a tool to disrupt the hetero-patriarchal strategy that excludes women/girls (cisgender or transgender) and genderqueer people from the music industry," they say.
Batteau believes the program will give attendees real-world skills and empower them in those fields.
"To build confidence and authentic branding methods is to shatter the exclusive glass compartments of the larger music business," they add.
"We have always been confronted by the realities of being non-male musicians," Batteau says. "We hear the same messages again and again: 'You're good for a girl band,' 'Use the sultry,' etc."
"For girls, women, and genderqueer musicians, the industry is not only a daunting and exclusive network, but participating in it often requires exploitation of the self," says Batteau.
Ruth Garbus of Brattleboro presented a workshop in November, "Big Enough: Get Comfortable Taking up Space," as part of Grrls 2 the Front.
The professional musician reports that she took the 15 attendees "through a sort of smorgasbord of practices that have been helpful for me over the last few years. Things that have aided me in my growth as a person and as a musician."
"We meditated, visualized, wrote, and vocalized together," Garbus continues.
"My hope is that people came away with some insight into their own desires, allowed their dreams and spirits to get bigger, and, at the very least, had a nice, relaxing evening," she says.
Search for the website of Carsie Blanton, a singer/songwriter based outside of Philadelphia, and you'll find this description on Google: "Hi, I'm Carsie. I make songs, records, videos, blog posts, and mischief."
Blanton, 37, will present a Grrls 2 the Front workshop on Wednesday, Dec. 13, "The Politics and Economics of Making Art," at Stone Church.
A full-time working songwriter for 15 years, Blanton intends the workshop to give participants a "more realistic understanding of the contemporary music business and the ability to make better decisions about how to participate in it."
According to her website, she and her band have played about 150 shows throughout the U.S., the U.K., and Ireland since the late-pandemic return of live music. She has 90,000 monthly listeners on Spotify and 150,000 followers across various social media platforms.
"If making a fortune is your goal, a career in music will take you a long way - in the wrong direction," Blanton says frankly.
"I'm 37, and I've been working as a musician since I was a teenager," she says. "I'm an independent artist, meaning there is no record label funding my work."
And, she says, "I'm an American, meaning there is no public funding, either."
"All of that work, content, and fandom does generate money," Blanton says. "But the amount I get to keep is less than you might think, and my business is operating from beneath an ever-growing mountain of debt."
Going bigger, getting louder
"Our partnerships this year are truly giving the program the ability to go bigger and get louder," Scaggs says, noting partnerships with other live-music venues: Higher Ground Music in South Burlington; Foam Brewers, in Burlington, and Epsilon Spires, in Brattleboro.
"Each of them is putting together their own Grrrls programming, and our students will be spending time at Higher Ground in a mentorship program," notes Scaggs.
"This is the ripple we believe Grrrls 2 the Front can create," she says. "We want those ripples to get bigger year after year."
And, she adds, "we feel like these partnerships play an absolutely critical role in our ability to keep doing the work. Finding people that hear your vision, see the value in your work, and decide to support it one way or another."
"I can't overstate how energizing that is," Scaggs says. "It's a dream."
For more information on Grrrls 2 the Front, visit stonechurchvt.com/grrrls-to-the-front/.
This The Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.