Face The Music: Why Women Rarely Make It On Stage In Bloomington-Normal
Years of vibrant growth in the live music scene in Bloomington-Normal have benefitted men, not women. Maybe that shouldn’t be a complete surprise. A study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative last year found women are vastly underrepresented in popular music. But an in-depth report by WGLT shows harsher central Illinois numbers and cloudy prospects for change.
The Castle Theatre in Bloomington is a big part of a decade-long resurgence in live performance in central Illinois. It has become a tastemaker of sorts since the ownership group that includes Rory O’Connor brought the once-shuttered movie venue back to life in 2011. The Castle books national touring bands and some local acts.
But overwhelmingly, males lead those musical acts. Especially white males. Through the first 10 months of 2019 female-led bands comprised less than 10% of the Castle bookings.
Smaller Twin City venues considered “listening rooms” have similar ratios. Females led just under 13% of the bands at Nightshop in downtown Bloomington.
Two other clubs in Bloomington have 9% women acts: Jazz UpFront and Six Strings Club. Jazz UpFront was the only venue that did not respond to a request for comment.
Women In Music 1
And of all the musicians on-stage at the Castle this year, including leaders and backing members, just 5% were female. O’Connor is part of the ownership group at the Castle. He said even a recent male-led band at his venue has noticed this national trend.
“He said even look at the female-fronted bands,” said O’Connor. “Her bass player is probably a man; her drummer is probably a man. She’s the only female in that band in most circumstances.”
The total number of females on-stage in all listening rooms in the Twin Cities in 2019 ranges from 5% to 11%. Yet the Census Bureau said 40% of musicians in the nation are women.
Nightshop owner Chris Golwitzer said music is one of many professions with a glass ceiling for women.
“In a band there’s like a stage encasing. And it’s hard to get in from outside for a long time if you didn’t look a certain way as a female,” said Golwitzer.
The male-to-female ratio skews higher for women in numerous Twin City restaurants and bars that book live music, though nobody remotely approaches a 50/50 gender balance.
There is no comprehensive national database of performers, let alone gender breakouts. WGLT’s best guesstimates are female-led artists and bands make up, at most, 30% of available acts to book.
Yet female-led bands were booked, at most, 13% of the time in 2019 in those Bloomington-Normal “listening rooms.” And though most of the local restaurants, bars and festivals hiring mostly local talent have a better ratio, most don’t even hit that 30% mark of female-led bands. Some don’t come close.
“I’d like to see those in print and take a deeper dive into them, but those are staggering numbers. And they’re really disappointing,” said Roanoke-based Nick LeRoy, owner and CEO of the music promotions and talent buying firm NTL Productions. He and most promoters, talent buyers and venue owners WGLT spoke with were unaware of the on-stage gender imbalance in the Twin Cities.
That lack of gender diversity appears to extend to regional venues. Boondocks in Springfield, Illinois, was just 8%. Others in Indiana, Missouri, and Iowa ranged from 8% to 17%.
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There are a couple outliers, including the Monarch Music Hall in Peoria, owned by the same group as the Castle Theatre, where 28% of their acts were female-led. The second was the Englert Theater in Iowa City. Female-led acts there made up 35% of the on-stage acts. (More on the intentionality behind that number later in this report.)
It gets worse behind the stage. The Annenberg report found roughly 22% of hit songs were by female acts, but only 12% of hit songwriters are women. And male producers outnumber women 49 to 1.
Nearly every person WGLT interviewed for this story acknowledged the music business is a boy’s club. From #GrammySoMale to the Annenberg report and a Nashville group focusing on the issue, you’d think it’s an easy solution, right? Just hire more women.
Well, it’s complicated.
For example, Nick LeRoy books shows across central Illinois, including some at the Castle Theatre.
“90% of the talent we book … it’s coming to us,” said LeRoy, meaning music talent agencies email him and other promoters about artists routed through central Illinois.
LeRoy said he gets so much traffic from the top five agencies he works with, he gets to pick and choose the acts he makes offers on, and ultimately end up at the Castle Theater. They are often artists he enjoys personally, and they tend to fall into the Roots Rock and Americana category.
“Only a very small percentage of the time do we say, ‘We want that act, let’s go get ‘em.’ It’s mostly because we have these built-up relationships with these agencies we’ve worked with for years, so we don’t even have to, because our inbox is so full of requests,” said LeRoy.
LeRoy challenged WGLT to scan the artist roster of the music talent agencies he deals with to understand the hand he’s dealt.
And though WGLT found the percentage of female performers on those agency rosters higher than what’s being booked in the Twin Cities, it was still overwhelmingly male.
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A quick scan of record-label artist rosters shows a roughly similar percentage of females. Labels are commonly known to be a conduit into the performance arena, as most major record company contracts now take a percentage of tours, concerts, and live performance revenue to make up for loss of recorded music sales in the digital age.
There’s another consideration for venues and promoters: ticket sales. LeRoy doesn’t believe enough female-fronted bands are available to significantly increase female numbers.
“If we really put our minds to it that we want ‘x’ amount of shows, we might come up empty on finding acts that can put butts in seats … that we can put on our marquee,” he said.
Even some female bookers agree. Gabriel Events owner Morgan Schulte promotes and books some shows at the Castle Theatre and Peoria's Monarch Music Hall, but she mostly books local artists into restaurants and bars in the Twin Cities. She’s also the force behind various festivals and series in town.
“At the Castle when we have females … phenomenal women come in … and the numbers are lower than they are for men,” said Schulte. “That’s not a Castle Theatre thing. That’s not the booking agent or the talent buyer for that show as they’re promoted the same way. This is a systemic problem.”
Schulte estimates women lead just 10% of available local music talent.
Chris Golwitzer of Nightshop agrees with Schulte about Bloomington-Normal. He said the pool of female artists is larger in cities as close as Champaign-Urbana, Springfield, and Peoria.
“There is just not a ton of younger women and girls or non-cis male identifying people playing guitar-based, rock-based music right now,” said Golwitzer.
Even in institutions that emphasize diversity and inclusion, gender disparity in music is an issue. Sarah Bennett is a senior arts technology major at Illinois State University. She runs the ATK Live RSO on campus that books music shows and a music festival.
“Our last show we had one female artist and the rest were male with a lineup of five artists. For the festival it’s a little bigger, we have 10 artists, and again they are mostly male just because that’s what’s on the market right now and that’s what’s available,” said Bennett.
Six Strings Club General Manager Brian Dixon said female talent in the country and rock music he tends to book is very thin. He’s not presenting 90-minute headliner shows with opening acts, instead filling three hours with one band. Since that can strain one singer’s voice, Dixon said the trend he notices is male/female co-lead vocalists for his venue.
(For the purpose of this report, that doesn’t constitute a female-led band when all other band-members are male.)
WHY ARE THE NUMBERS SO LOW?
So, there is widespread agreement among those who book shows in the Twin Cities it’s difficult to improve the ratio of female performers because the number of female-led acts available to book is lower than male-led acts.
So why are those numbers so low, both locally and nationally?
Marita Brake is a Twin City-based singer/songwriter, once signed to Columbia Music. She said the historical optics of the business creates one barrier. The predominance of men on stage sends a clear message to women.
“You’re not welcome. You. Are. Not. Welcome. It’s still that way in clubs. I get the feeling that it’s male dominated and I’m not welcome,” said Brake.
Music booker Morgan Schulte echoes Brake, saying the message is men are better at the music game.
Kate Browne sings and fronts the all-female quartet She Said So in Bloomington Normal. Browne said helping people think differently about inclusivity is the focus of her work as a writer, speaker, and consultant. She has also worked for a few years as a stagehand and roadie for the BCPA.
“And I would often be one of two or three or maybe the only woman on a crew. So, it happens not just on stage, but through the whole music production business,” said Browne, who points out the “sound guy” is usually referred to as a “guy” for a reason.
“It takes a lot of people to put on a show, and if you don’t see women in all those roles … there’s just no place for me in this … and the path is not clear,” she said, adding that audience members, venue owners, promoters, stagehands, record label owners, producers, and engineers are overwhelmingly male.
Small slights can also send a clear message.
Bri Mazerek currently runs lights and works as a stagehand at the Castle Theatre. She helps crew members of touring bands load in and out before and after shows. At a recent show, she was the only woman in the room standing by to help the crew load-in—and said she was ignored.
“And I was like, ‘Hey guys, I’m here to work for you. Like this is my job, this is what I do and what I have been doing.’ Finally, they let me do some stuff and they were like, ‘Oh wow, you’re tough, blah blah blah,’” she recalled.
Promoter Nick LeRoy has another theory about the low number of female performers.
“Why isn’t there enough confidence for some talented females to really put themselves out there? And I feel if they had more confidence to put themselves out there, you’d probably see more of a leveling off,” said LeRoy.
“It’s really easy to say that,” said Grammy winner Rhiannon Giddens, a world-renowned banjo and fiddle player.
“But when you say that, you’re completely ignoring the whole system, which begins in grade school. Who was encouraged to perform? Who was given the opportunities to perform?”
Some know Giddens from the critically acclaimed early string band revivalists the Carolina Chocolate Drops. She’s also well into an equally acclaimed solo career.
“Confidence comes from being encouraged to do things from an early age,” said Giddens. “So, if that is skewed one way or the other, then it’s very hard to manifest confidence when you’re 18.”
The gender imbalance in music is both cultural and structural. Illinois Wesleyan University sociology professor Todd Fuist asks parents to think about children who express an interest in rock music.
“What kind of music do we put in front of them, and then how do we encourage them to participate? If you have a girl and care about this, encourage her to play the drums. Encourage her to play the guitar from a young age,” said Fuist.
WGLT spoke to numerous females in music, including performers, promoters, and behind-the-scenes hands, about the other barriers they face in the male-dominated business.
Rose Marshack is one of those performers. She's an arts technology professor at ISU. She’s also the bassist and co-founder of the punk quartet Poster Children that formed in Champaign-Urbana in the 1980s. The critically acclaimed group recorded for major record labels and toured the world. Despite the notoriety, Marshack said she still deals with being a woman in a boys’ club.
“I would get really tired of being asked if I was with the band,” said Marshack. “That means are you with somebody in the band? No, I am the band, I am in the band. I am the band.”
Marshack said the three men in Poster Children have never been asked if they are with the band. She said she’s given up on battling the question, instead choosing to say “yes,” that she’s the band manager, which seems to be a more acceptable role for a woman associated with a band.
Writer and vocalist Kate Browne got at another barrier women know they face.
“I think it’s the same reasons its always been,” said Browne. “You must have a young, pretty woman up front or a record’s not going to sell.”
Browne said powerful, emotional vocalists including Adele, Lady Gaga, and Kelly Clarkson have been told to change their bodies to fit the pop ideal if they want to reach a larger audience. She said that crosses all music genres.
“Men aren’t necessarily under those constraints. It’s more about the musicianship. They’re not expected to be showpieces out there,” said Browne.
“And the ones who succeed … man they have to put up with a lot of crap,” said promoter Morgan Schulte. “They’ve been sexually assaulted … they’ve had the most disgusting things said to them, but they just had to keep on going. But that’s what we all do. Isn’t it now?”
Another artist who said she gets sexist comments all the time is Bloomington-Normal based singer/songwriter/guitarist Sara Quah.
“(They) call me baby, or honey or sweetheart. Talk about my shape, talk about what I'm wearing,” said Quah, adding that women in the business get conditioned to “play the game,” and either endure uncomfortable situations or risk angering gatekeepers by speaking up. She said that part of the job is a much different experience and expectation than for her male peers.
The USC Annenberg report also surveyed female experiences in the recording studio. WGLT’s Mary Cullen shared some of the findings with promoter Morgan Schulte.
“25% said they were the only woman. 39% said they often felt objectified, 28% felt they were dismissed. And 20% noted drugs or alcohol,” Cullen told Schulte.
“OK,” said an exasperated Schulte. “That actually struck something else in my head. So as a female … going into a space where it’s all men is overwhelming in itself. Especially if you’ve had previous trauma.”
PLAY LIKE A GIRL
Like Schulte, Quah, Browne, and Marshack, all the women quoted in this story are already in the music scene. How many decide the slights, disrespect, sexism, double-standards, and boys’ club attitudes aren’t worth the effort? There doesn’t appear to be research on that topic.
Another potential barrier appeared when Rose Marshack opened up about her early start in music. Her jazz trumpet-playing father made her practice piano at a young age.
“I remember one time playing some kind of loud Beethoven piece, and I remember him sitting next to me and going, ‘You’re playing like a girl. You’re playing like a girl. Don’t play like a girl.’ And so I would think, OK, ‘like a girl’ is weaker. I’ll play stronger, with more emphasis, and then even though I’m a girl I won’t be playing weaker anymore,” said Marshack.
“I would naturally play more timid,” she said.
Does that mean music that is respected is considered “male”? Not the musicians playing the music, but does the sonic quality of the music itself determine whether it’s "respected"?
Marita Brake said yes. The guitarist said it starts the moment they pick up an instrument.
“To hold a pick ‘like a girl’ you have your index and middle finger together and your thumb is straight across from them and it’s pressing in on the pick, and there’s a lot of pick out. The more pick that’s out, makes your music a lot more feathery and gentle,” said Brake.
Time and time again, Brake said women hold the pick “like a girl,” herself included. “For 20 years, I held my pick wrong. And I couldn’t figure out why I couldn’t play ‘like a guy.’”
Because guys, as Brake said, hold their picks differently.
“If you look at male players, you’ll see a lot of them making a fist when they play,” said Brake. “If you get a medium gauge pick and not a light gauge pick and then cross your thumb over the side of your index finger … you’re much more controlled.”
How does that affect the sound?
“Oh, well, you can do lead then,” exclaimed Brake. “You can start playing a lot more aggressively. And girls weren’t taught anything about that.”
But Brake said “playing like a girl” goes beyond style. She said that the shape of guitars wasn’t modified until the 1990s to fit into a woman’s body also screams women weren’t welcome.
Ágnes Horvát is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Northwestern University in Chicago. Her recent study of more than 200,000 songs released between 1960 and 2000 finds a huge gender imbalance in recorded music. She finds males historically define music.
“That when female artists tried to do something, they oftentimes are just …” she paused with a nervous laugh to tactfully finish. “Kept in a very narrow genre.”
So what's missing from a music scene when men write, produce, promote, and perform a disproportionate amount of music, some things get left out, said Rhiannon Giddens.
“Do we really need more white male perspective?” she asked.
Giddens said she deals with representation issues as a female and as an African-American. She acknowledges white males bring more than one perspective.
“But when you multiply that by gender, race, different countries, all these different sexual orientations, all of a sudden you have … way more stories. And that’s just interesting,” said Giddens.
Many scholars believe a lack of representation can stifle inspiration. Illinois Wesleyan University sociologist Todd Fuist cited research showing college students tend to choose a major based on how they see people like themselves represented in college and in the profession the major leads to. Fuist said he believes that tendency to choose a course of study based on people who look, talk, and dress like you can be transferred to music.
“If from a young age you turn on a music video and see five guys playing in a band and you’re a young woman, the degree to which you’re going to get into it later or once you get into rock music what do you think your place in that is?” asked Fuist rhetorically, arguing representation matters … and can affect change.
TAYLOR SWIFT EFFECT
Look no further than Taylor Swift to see that power in action. Folk singer Marita Brake said the fast ascent of Swift brought along thousands of young girls who want to write songs just like her.
“Taylor Swift got so many young women and girls into guitar it is not even funny,” said Brake. who in addition to her performing career also teaches guitar at the Music Shoppe in Normal. She said companies emerged that only made guitars for young girls inspired by Swift.
“And they had ‘sparklies’ on them just like Taylor. Some of them were shaped like Daisy’s, and then you started seeing women making guitars,” she said.
Fender Guitars noticed. The company linked to male rockers and blues legends including Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and Stevie Ray Vaughan said females now account for 50% of guitar sales in the U.S. and U.K. Fender CEO Andy Mooney downplayed what many call the “Taylor Swift Effect,” but Brake has seen that effect firsthand at the Music Shoppe.
“Even though Taylor on-stage isn’t using a guitar much these days, it has continued. Now it just keeps going up, up, up, up,” said Brake.
It will be interesting to see if the Taylor Swift Effect will translate to more female performers over the next decade.
The power of representation extends to talent buyers and bookers. Though the sample size in the Twin Cities is small, WGLT’s research shows Morgan Schulte, one of the few female promoters in town, booked the highest percentage of female-led acts.
Jazz UpFront owner James Gaston, to our knowledge, is the only African-American booking shows in town. Though his club was among many that booked a low percentage of female-led acts, African-American musicians made up 30% of all musicians on his stage in 2019.
Everyone involved in this story agrees a vibrant music scene needs to be diverse in gender and genre. But even if society changed on a dime and historical barriers to women in music disappeared overnight, it might be years before the female-to-male performance ratio begins to even out.
So what can be done today?
Promoter Nick LeRoy said women must drive the change despite the hurdles.
“You just have to get out and do it. Nobody’s going to hand you anything in this life. So, if you really want it, go work really hard at it. Don’t let the norm hold you down from doing what you think you’re really good at and you love,” implored LeRoy.
Chris Golwitzer of Nightshop and local promoter Morgan Schulte reacted differently when learning of the low female numbers.
“I need to do better. And I want to do better,” said Golwitzer.
“Can I do a better job?” asked Schulte. “Yes. I can be more cognizant of that.”
But Schulte also pleaded for men and women to support female artists.
“It’s everybody’s responsibility. It’s the people going to the show. Go to the show. Go support these women,” said Schulte.
Artists themselves can affect change. Rhiannon Giddens tells promoters who book her that she only works with opening artists of color.
“And I’ve been to places like Australia and they say, ‘Oh we can’t find anybody.’ And I’m like, ‘Really? Really!? Try a little harder.’ And then they do and lo and behold, there they are,” said Giddens.
Bloodshot Records recording artist Jason Hawk Harris played Nightshop this summer. The Americana singer/songwriter knows opportunities for females are limited, so he has a rule: at least one member of his band will be female.
“I’m going to actively seek that out, because I know they’re out there, I just know they are fewer in number. I think that’s something we’re going to have to do because we just don’t give women the same confidence growing up as we give men in the music community. It’s a shame,” said Harris.
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This report early on noted the Englert Theatre in Iowa City books a much higher percentage of female-led bands than most venues and festivals in the region. Executive Director Andre Perry said the theatre does host shows by outside promoters, and like many venues, they react to what the market and music agencies present.
But he said the Englert is intentional about representation. It is written into the venue mission statement. He said a separate programming vision statement covers festivals, where the venue has 100% control of the programming.
“So that all the programmers and producers and everyone involved with the festival knows why we’re doing it, and as a guidance on why we’re making the choices we make on a daily or monthly basis,” said Perry.
He nudged all stakeholders, including record companies, studio engineers and producers, talent agencies, venues, and talent buyers, to understand and embrace their ability to affect change.
“And in each of our roles, we have to do what we can within our power, within our privileges to do the right thing,” said Perry.
Perry said people can feel what’s right in their hearts, but they must choose to act. And if that keeps happening, maybe in a generation or so, the numbers of women in music won’t be quite so low.
Note: Many interviewees told WGLT’s Mary Cullen and Jon Norton that gender imbalance in music can’t be talked about without mentioning women of color. Though this report didn’t do that, they did tally the number of African-Americans that played on Bloomington-Normal stages in 2019. They found that with two exceptions, no venue, club, festival, or series even approached a representative sample of African-Americans. Many had none on stage in 2019.