Confronting the question all-too-often aimed at women in music: "Are you the singer?"
"Whether a singer or musician, a composer or programmer, there is a plethora of under-celebrated female creativity in the music industry"
Susan O’Shea, Factory Acts. Neil Winward Photography.
Picture the scene: A band are setting up prior to soundcheck at a gig. They've smashed through rehearsals of their set several times over the last few weeks and are feeling confident about the performance ahead. One of the sound team comes over and notices a female member of the group setting up a guitar in the corner, aiming both the question and gesturing at her with a tuner, he asks: “Hey… Are you the singer?”
The above scenario does not sound all too out-of-the-ordinary, right? And that is indeed where the issue lies...
Whitney Bluzma. Neil Winward Photography.
Female musicians are routinely overlooked. "Are you the singer?" – the question probably asked most regularly in the industry – underlines this.
It's loaded with two assumptions: First, that a woman can be little more than a singer or "front-piece" for a band. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a female artist being a vocalist, but the attitude of those asking, "Are you the singer?" often involves a second assumption, that is being "the singer" means little original talent or input.
It certainly is emblematic of a statement so often used to dismiss the diversity of female talent.
Whether a singer or musician, a composer or programmer, there is a plethora of under-celebrated female creativity in the music industry. Now, a post-punk infused electronic duo from Salford – Factory Acts – are confronting the issue head-on.
Their latest release is titled Are You the Singer? itself, taking spoken word cut-ups from 10 people who identify as women or non-binary in the music industry and overlaying them with bold bass and beats.
The track has been primarily assembled and performed by S.O.S. (Susan O’Shea) with input from Matt Davies – with both artists coming together as Factory Acts.
Running at an impressive 15.44 minutes (plus a shorter radio edit) and released on independent label AnalogueTrash, Are You the Singer? as a piece of music is a sonically and socially-seething space allowing room for the range of contributors to express their frustrations via (often) real-life anecdotes of what it is to be patronised and/or stereotyped in the modern music industry.
The track takes on experiences from gritty Salford studios to live music spaces in London and New York to Riga and Cork. According to Factory Acts’ Susan, who has requested and collated the responses for the track, “We are so proud of this transnational feminist musical collaboration."
"It really was a labour of love only made possible by the generous and thoughtful vocal contributions of the talented women and trans folk making music and smashing gender stereotypes.
"Yes, sometimes they are the singers, but they also produce, design, compose, mix, master, soundscape, play multiple instruments and badass boss their way around a live stage or a studio set up. They have our utmost respect!”
Contributors to Are You the Singer? include Una Baines of Manchester-based band Poppycock (formerly of The Fall), Whitney Bluzma who is currently in both the groups ILL and Diagonal Science, Rose Niland of Rose and The Diamond Hand, San Francisco-based Lynn Breedlove formerly of Tribe8 and currently in The Homobiles, as well as musician and producer Mandy Wigby, a key creative force behind Sisters of Transistors.
New York’s Carolyn “Honeychild” Coleman is also part of Are You the Singer? and had this to reflect on the issue:
“It’s comical at times, tragic at others. I can be carrying an instrument and a bass and a heavy case of pedals and literally every time someone will assume I am the singer. If I say I am in a band if I’m on stage and I’m soundchecking and I’m not the leader of the band, the sound person will always come up to me if I’m the only woman.
"Even when I speak with other musicians and women it’s shocking. When I say, 'I’m a musician’, they say, ‘Oh, you’re the singer’. I’m like: ‘Yeah, I play about six instruments, I compose and I sing’. So they have to step back and be like, ‘Oh, a woman can be more than ‘the singer’!”
Insight from Waritsara Karlberg, Margaret O’Sullivan, Faye Williams and Stella Zine completes the line-up.
As the music festival season gets underway, 🎶 how much gender equality can we expect to see? ⛺ @LatitudeFest music booker @Lucy_Latitude, @Bestival music booker @Ele_Beat and the director of @GreenManFest @Fiona_Stewart discuss: 👉 https://t.co/B09Cd0rCn6 📻 pic.twitter.com/twEjTHEGxh— BBC Woman's Hour (@BBCWomansHour) June 16, 2018
The track itself was debuted live at Manchester’s independent underground music venue The Peer Hat earlier this year, as part of the Manchester Meltdown event series, celebrating innovative grassroots artists who do not shy away from expressing difficult social realities.
Now it is time to take Factory Acts’ message further afield – the need to address the overlooking of women in music is more acute than ever.
Recent articles on the issue (to name just a few) include, "For rock music to survive it will have to cut back on testosterone" and "Female composers largely ignored by concert line-ups", indicating the continuing unhealthy precedent of genres being treated as male-orientated spaces.
Getting the subject into bigger, open conversations is key in shifting the balance.
Are You the Singer? is out now on AnalogueTrash across all good digital download and streaming services, with an extremely limited cassette edition released for the recent International Cassette Store Day 2018.
Want to support #womeninmusic? Come to DIVA Music Festival from 30 November – 2 December 2018, visit www.divamusicfestival.com now.
Only reading DIVA online? You're missing out. For more news, reviews and commentary, check out the latest issue. It's pretty badass, if we do say so ourselves.