Fighting Gender Discrimination in the Music Industry

Gritty sand and dirt filled my boots and shifted under my feet as I was flung out of an Anthrax mosh pit at Hollywood Casino Amphitheater. After quickly stabilizing myself on the nearest barricade, I joined the rest of the crowd in screaming the band’s lyrics back at Anthrax vocalist Joey Belladonna.

“Can’t stand it for another day…” Belladonna sang.
“AIN’T GONNA LIVE MY LIFE THIS WAY!” I yelled in reply

The song came to an end and before I could get caught back up in the mosh, two men beside me complimented me on my knowledge of mainstream Anthrax tunes.

Slayer pit
Anthrax fans mosh on the lawn of Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre on May 25, 2018 // Photo by Nikki Roberts

‘It’s so cool to see a girl interested in metal,’ the first man told me.

‘Your boyfriend must really like Anthrax, huh?’ asked the second.

I looked around for my boyfriend, but he was nowhere in sight; I had lost him in the crowd long before the set even began. Nothing about my appearance indicated that I was in a relationship, and while it is true that I’m dating a metalhead, he isn’t an Anthrax fan. My knowledge of old school thrash metal can be partially credited to my father, to my own love of heavy music and in part to “Guitar Hero 3”. However, this pair of men believed that I couldn’t be interested in metal music without the influence of a boyfriend they assumed I must have.

I brushed their comment off and continued to enjoy the show, but I realized that their remarks revealed a much larger issue in the music industry. From underground scenes to mainstream shows, sexism runs deep in the music business and discriminates against female identifying professionals, performers and fans.

For the purpose of this story, sexism can be defined as stereotyping or prejudice and discrimination against women on the basis of their sex and/or gender. It can occur in obvious ways, such as belittling women professionals or ignoring female members of a band, as well as in passive ways, such as the comments that were made to me by the fellow Anthrax fans.

Suzi Uzi, the only female member of Chicago doom band Black Road, performs at Reggies Rock Club // Photo by Nikki Roberts

Heather Ferguson, 34, has had similar experiences where she was not taken seriously by men at metal shows. Even though Ferguson has worked as the office manager at Reggies Rock Club for the past seven years, she still experiences sexism as both a music industry professional and a music fan.

“I’ve definitely gone to shows by myself in the past and have had the door guy question me, saying, ‘Do you know where you are? Are you sure you’re in the right place? Do you like this band?’ It’s kind of insulting. It’s like I have to pass a quiz before I can see a show. They never do that with guys,” said Ferguson.

In addition to not being viewed as serious music fans, sexism in music communities also functions by assuming that women only attend shows or feign interest in bands to gain the attention of men. Not only does this devalue female involvement in music scenes, but it also reduces women to sexual objects that have no genuine interests outside attracting the heterosexual male gaze.

Girls go to hardcore and punk shows because they like hardcore and punk.

“The widespread assumption that girls go to hardcore and punk shows to meet ‘bad boys’ or whatever is so crippling to how girls experience shows. Girls go to hardcore and punk shows because they like hardcore and punk,” said Hailey Rose, 19, a female-identifying heavy music fan.

Rose lives in a small town near Atlanta, Georgia, but she frequently attends concerts in Chicago with her boyfriend, Jay Williams. Something that bothers Rose is the difference between the way men treat her when she attends shows alone and when she attends them with Williams.

Female fans sing along with Bombflower frontwoman Liska Vasily // Photo courtesy of Glegoz Photography

“I went to a punk show not too awfully long ago because I really dig the opener. I was the only one in the crowd who knew the words, so I got the mic a few times. After that, it was like every guy in the place was hitting on me. Apparently, girls being able to scream was still a new idea to them. I got a couple people who genuinely wanted to talk to me about music, but the vast majority of them just wanted to tell me they thought it was hot,” said Rose.

Rose expressed that she is either oversexualized when she is alone, or she is ignored and labeled as a fan’s girlfriend when she attends shows with her partner. Likewise, Amanda Flores, a 28-year-old Chicago musician, has seen multiple aspects of her gender used against her. Flores is the vocalist of doom band Rosaries and the guitarist/vocalist of Buried in Yellow. At times, she believes her femaleness is exploited by promoters and that she is often reduced to nothing but her gender and sexuality by males in the music industry.

“I feel that when some people are booking you, they’re only booking you because you’re a girl and you can bring more girls to their shows,” said Flores. “A lot of people try to throw you in a category of the female-fronted genre of shows. I think my music is its own genre; just because I’m a girl in metal doesn’t mean I have to play with bands that have girl singers, too.”

While Flores spoke about promoters only booking her because of her gender, she also expressed that many men use her status as a woman against her. She believes that she has received many remarks from men who doubt her abilities as a musician simply because she is female.

“Sometimes after people hear me perform they say, ‘I didn’t actually think you’d be that good,’” said Flores. “That’s a common thing people say to me. They didn’t think I’d have any talent or be able to write a song or hit a certain note. I think that is instinctive for them because I am a woman.”

Flores is not the only female musician in Chicago who has faced sexism. Lili Trifilio, 21, is the only woman in indie pop group Beach Bunny. Despite being Beach Bunny’s only vocalist, Trifilio often feels silenced because she is a woman.

“Being the only femme in my band can be really frustrating sometimes because I don’t feel heard, or more so I feel powerless despite having the greatest position of power in the band,” said Trifilio. “It’s a weird phenomenon, but I’m working towards being more assertive. Being a woman in a band is great, however, because I can help inspire other women get involved in music and start their own projects.”

beach bunny
Beach Bunny headlining their record release show at Elbo Room // Photo by Nikki Roberts

It would seem reasonable that female musicians like Flores and Trifilio are more exposed to sexism because they boldly step on to a stage that is often dominated by male performers. However, many professional women who work behind the scenes face the same levels of discrimination that female musicians do.

When Azalee Cano, 24, got her start in the music industry, many people assumed her interest in music production and marketing was only due to her relationship with a male musician. Her own professional pursuits were overshadowed by her past partner’s involvement with the music scene, which lead her to feel underappreciated and not taken seriously as a professional.

“When I first started, a lot of people would say ‘hey, you’re just doing this because of your boyfriend’ because he was a musician. That’s obviously not true; this person is no longer in my life and my career has come a lot further along since then,” said Cano, who is currently a coordinator at open air metal festival Full Terror Assault and works with live sound production at The Forge in Joliet, Illinois.

Because Cano’s position as a sound production assistant requires her to do a lot of heavy lifting, she is often subjected to stereotypes that exist about women’s strength and their ability to perform physical labor.

“I’m at a disadvantage, not just because I’m a female but because of my size, so I do have to try extra hard,” said Cano. “I don’t mind doing that because in the end, no one can say anything negative about that. I feel like I do have to work a little extra harder so people can back off. I feel very confident that my work speaks for itself.”

Having to work harder to prove herself not just as a professional, but as a woman, was a common theme heard from Chicago’s female professionals, performers and fans. In fact, many women had devised simple strategies to help avoid gender discrimination. For Cano, one such strategy was changing the way she introduced herself to male coworkers.

“Something I have started doing to make myself less of a target is starting to tell people to call me Lee because it’s an androgynous name and it seems a little more masculine [than Azalee],” said Cano.

Adilene Gonzalez is the only female member of Chicago hardcore group Black Mass // Photo courtesy of K.B. Imaging

For other women in the music industry, the discrimination they face has shaped their work ethic and the way they treat others. Ferguson states that experiencing sexism at shows and in the workplace has emphasized the importance of respecting all her coworkers and recognizing their unique talents, regardless of their gender.

“I really try to treat everybody fairly. I don’t necessarily assume that, based on gender or race or any other thing, that someone is going to be into a particular type of music or have a particular type of expertise. You have to treat every person as an individual,” said Ferguson.

It is admirable that many women choose to channel and manage the sexism they face into a renewed passion for pursuing their musical careers. However, it should not be the job of female professionals, performers and music aficionados to combat sexism in the music industry. The music business has a long way to go before it fully recognizes the role that women play in creating, producing and supporting music, but in the meantime, it is crucial that women share their stories of battling and overcoming sexism.

Here’s to Chicago’s ladies that love to rock.

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