As some of you may have already heard, NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION has teamed up with the WE MAKE WAVES Festival this year to showcase some of the powerful women that work in the music industry today. We previously already told you why we think this is a crucial time to do so.
With the festival just around the corner, we’ve had the pleasure of a lengthy but interesting exchange with festival guest speaker, Frances Morgan from The Wire.
Music magazines – or just generally music journalism, has had the tendency to be a more male dominated domain but with the age of the internet and the possibilities of getting your opinions and words out there more freely – times have changed the balance. However, as a young, female journalist starting out in this great big realm of music writing I still had a few quintessence questions I wanted answered about how it is being a woman writing about music.
Frances, how, when and why did you get started writing about music exactly?
FM: ‘I was obsessed with music and magazines growing up, and wanted to run a music magazine from when I was a kid reading Smash Hits, Melody Maker and NME. I wrote for fanzines as a teenager and I would say I’ve been working in music journalism quite consistently since the early 2000s. I specialized in print journalism at university but started off working in different kinds of editorial – while writing in my spare time for zines and underground magazines and also playing in bands. One of the magazines was Careless Talk Cost Lives, run by the journalist Everett True. When Careless Talk Costs Lives closed in 2003, Everett asked me to be involved in a new monthly magazine. This was called Plan B, and it ran from 2003-2009. I was initially the editor then worked as the publisher for the last few years of the magazine. I freelanced in music and film writing, and did various editorial projects, until I got the job as deputy editor at The Wire. I’m now doing a PhD in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art but I’m still writing for The Wire and other publications when I can.’
‘I think there is a level of awareness of diversity at The Wire which is really healthy and exciting to see.’
As The Wire is still one of the publications you write for, how well – in your opinion – are female writers represented at a magazine? Is there still a gender gap? And if yes, why?
FM: ‘Historically The Wire – like most music magazines – has had more male than female writers, but this has changed a lot in the last five or so years and I think the magazine looks much more diverse now. Women make up about half of the office staff, but print editorial is still majority male.
Why? I’ll attempt an answer, although bear in mind this is just my opinion – others at The Wire may have very different viewpoints. Firstly, it has to do with the history of the magazine, which started in 1982 as a magazine mostly covering jazz, an area in which there are not so many women writers or indeed musicians. It then broadened out into covering electronica, underground rock, modern composition, etc – and again, the same thing applies, or did in the 80s and 90s. So a status quo becomes established and the magazine becomes coded as a male domain, whether or not this is the intention of the editors. And it can take a long time for perceptions of who plays, listens to and writes about certain kinds of music to change, especially when you have a strong relationship with your readers and writers (and also promoters, advertisers, record labels etc) who commit to the magazine for many years – which is one of the really good things about The Wire, that it encourages that kind of commitment. There are commercial imperatives for maintaining those relationships, of course, and anyone running a magazine has to think about that too. Currently, I think there is a level of awareness of diversity at The Wire which is really healthy and exciting to see.’
Food for thought?
Even though Frances had explained that a magazine like, The Wire, has a lot more gender diversity in it today, I still had to dig a little deeper as to how much of the industry was still ‘male-dominated’ and if we still needed to look at our male colleagues as competition?
‘Generally men are not competing with women, they’re just getting on with their work, because they do not see us as competition. I’d rather just get on with my work, too. I’m much more interested in using my energy and time for collaboration rather than competition.’ (Frances Morgan)
Needless to say there wasn’t an easy answer to give as my questions was maybe a little generalising – (and perhaps applying a more black and white outlook) – on the subject. Yet, Frances Morgan’s answers were brutally honest and something to think about…
FM: ‘How hard is it nowadays to compete with men? I don’t know, because I no longer compete with men, or no longer see myself in competition with men. I just think, what’s the point? A competition is only interesting if both sides are equally invested in it. Generally men are not competing with women, they’re just getting on with their work, because they do not see us as competition. I’d rather just get on with my work, too. I’m much more interested in using my energy and time for collaboration rather than competition.
Is the industry still a male-dominated domain? My feeling is yes, but I’m reluctant to say that without exploring what it means to be ‘male-dominated’. Does this mean that there are literally more men than women working in music journalism, or that the higher positions and gatekeeping roles are held by men, or that the way that gender is expressed and understood in music journalism skews towards a presumed male readership…? Where I’m at in my own thinking at the moment is trying to get beyond the numbers and percentages of men vs women and look at the structures that make up ‘the industry’ in 2017 and how they hold onto potentially harmful ideas of binary gender.’
Like I’ve mentioned earlier, I believe that the internet has done a lot to change up the game when it comes to women being able to more freely get their work published. Of course I needed to find out if I was right in my assumptions or not.
‘I can go online right now and read loads of articles about music written by women, if I want to – that’s a big change and it’s got to be a good one!’
Has the change from print to online changed anything? How has the internet, you think, changed the game? Or hasn’t it? Is it perhaps a little easier for women to get a ‘foot in the door’ and create a name for themselves in the industry?
FM: ‘Materially the internet has had a huge impact on music journalism, creating new opportunities for writers and devaluing their work at the same time so that now it’s very hard to make money from writing about music. That’s a big topic to address here, but in terms of women’s opportunities, yes, I think it has made things better in the immediate term. Just seeing a greater variety of bylines on articles has an impact, I think, and there are more women now in editorial positions than there would be if there were no online media. I can go online right now and read loads of articles about music written by women, if I want to – that’s a big change and it’s got to be a good one!’
FM: ‘But when you say ‘the internet’, this is a very big terrain. Obviously, there are online magazines, blogs, etc., but for me, the big change in the landscape of music writing has been the appearance of this area that can’t really be categorized as journalism because it’s heavily connected to branding and promotion, such as Red Bull Music Academy Daily and MTV. These platforms appear to be really receptive to diverse narratives from a wide range of writers, and sometimes they are, but it’s important to remember that if those narratives aren’t profitable or if they start to be problematic in any way, they can easily be dropped – and I would guess that non-male writers, younger writers, writers of colour and writers with radical politics of whatever kind will be the ones who lose out from that. I am thinking of MTV News’s editorial relaunch with Jessica Hopper as music editor a few years ago – some really interesting long-form writing on all kinds of music was published, often with a strong political slant. However, earlier this year most of the writers got laid off, as MTV wanted to focus more on video content, and there were apparently concerns about some more critical writing alienating artists. Working in the media is never secure, I know that – but this demonstrated to me that while big companies might experiment with diversity and criticality, they will not necessarily commit to it if it does not sell.’
While I found this both encouraging but also disconcerting to hear, I still have this thought in the back of my mind, nagging me about there having to be some sort of problem as to why there is/was a ‘problem’ with female writers specifically. Expressing my concern, Frances Morgan answered me this:
FM: ‘There is no problem with women writing about music. There is a problem with how writing by women is perceived overall – their expertise, experience and skills are generally trusted less. This is true of music, too. I think it’s to do with how women perform knowledge of music, and also to do with stereotypes about the music nerd, the music obsessive who knows everything about a particular genre and therefore has authority on it; the idea that it’s this kind of person who becomes a music writer. Of course it’s possible for a woman to fit this type, but if she does so she is often called a fan, and thus taken less seriously; or she stands out as an exception that proves the rule, and can move in male circles as a result.’
Sex and Rock n’ Roll
With our conversation slowly coming to a close, I couldn’t end our interview without mentioning what’s been going on in the media at the moment. So, with my final question I had to ask something that had been on my mind but tended to brush off as in my personal experience I’ve never had to deal with this concern. However, whilst researching I came across a few article about female music journalists and their male interview partners – and how maybe, it’s actually due to them that women can’t ever really be taken as seriously as we’d want to.
Could the lack of women in the business also be because they’re maybe not taken too seriously by male musicians? Targeting in particular, the problem with sexual innuendoes towards women (looking at what’s going on at the moment with e.g. Harvey Weinstein)?
FM: ‘The issue of sexism and violence in the music industry is being discussed too right now, with allegations against Matthew Mondanile of Ducktails and others. I would imagine there are a lot of similarities with music and film in the sense that both industries have an aura that powerful people can use to exploit those less powerful. I feel that I should just focus on music journalism, so from that perspective, I would say that music journalists must not ignore the politics of the music and musicians around them, but tackle these and explore them and don’t shy away from them. Music journalists could be proposing solutions, looking at the structures of the industry and thinking about how sexism and racism are perpetuated in different music scenes – really using their platforms as spaces for investigative and critical writing. I think this is already happening and I hope it continues. I also hope that the onus is not only on women to do this work, though – it is a problem that affects everyone, and we must all address our own role in it.’
You can still get tickets for the WE MAKE WAVES festival (November 9 – 12) in Berlin here.