ONLY NOISE: This Is A Man’s World

Luci Turner performing on stage with her band, BEAU + LUCI, in 2018. Photo by Alexandra Scuffle.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Luci Turner takes stock of the trials, tribulations and triumphs she’s experienced as a young woman working in the music industry.

Life in the music industry isn’t easy. As Hunter S. Thompson said, “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” What Thompson never had to face, however, was a drunk fan telling him to smile more, or attempting to grope him behind the merch stand. 

As an indie musician, music journalist, and editor by trade, and publicist, social media manager, band manager, tour promoter, head of merchandising, marketing team, and handler by necessity, I’ve worked on every side of the industry, accomplished tasks I never thought I’d have to out of absolutely necessity, and learned skills I probably would’ve been just as happy never learning. I’ve seen the good, the bad, and the really ugly: the unfortunate (read: nonexistent) restroom situation at an off-road mud park in the middle of nowhere in south Georgia; the incident involving a very intoxicated young man who managed to land himself in a trash can in an attempt to get an arm around my sister’s waist; the Gollum-esque man who got a nice grip on my right buttocks and proceeded to tell me, “No, it’s okay. I’ve got daughters.” Obviously that did not make it okay, and I’ve still got questions.

As I look back on these occurrences, it’s obvious that despite the advances made over the decades, the music industry is, in many ways, still a man’s world. But my belief — and my hope — is that, with the music itself as an equalizer, it doesn’t have to be this way. 

I grew up in a very small town, a back-pew Baptist born with the somewhat shameful affliction of being a female. I learned to sit down, cover up, and keep my mouth shut at a young age, because that was what was acceptable and expected. I learned to cross my legs and hold my tongue, and I learned at the age of ten that I had to stand farther away from the microphone because I could belt out a song with greater volume and enthusiasm than the boys in the choir. 

But my “alternative education,” as I call the music my father exposed my siblings and me to, told a different story. There was power to be found in being a woman; pride, even. I remember seeing photos of Debbie Harry, clad in short, skin tight dresses or ratty oversized t-shirts, her hair bleached an impossible shade of white and her eyes lined with heavy black liner, glamorous and provocative and undeniably female, and thinking, “I want to be just like her one day.” She was strong, fearless, bold, and utterly unconcerned with what anyone thought of her. She was the antithesis of what a Southern Baptist girl should aspire to be. 

Debbie Harry opened a door for me. In fact, she blew the whole house up and put a whole new world on display. As I listened to Blondie obsessively and began to discover other bands fronted by powerful women — Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Heart, Patti Smith — I couldn’t help but wonder why it had taken me twelve years to discover them. Didn’t anyone ever wonder where the women were when listening to the classic rock stations? My exposure to rock wasn’t limited, so why were all of my favorite bands comprised solely of men? Hearing “Heart of Glass” for the first time was so impactful that it startled me, even at such a young age, with the realization that so few women were represented on the radio, or in the pile of CDs hidden away in a spare closet.

Years later, as my sister and I made our way into the music industry as singer-songwriters fronting a rock band, that realization — and the questions it sparked — never left the back of my mind. As we found ourselves leading a band of four young men, working with male producers and engineers, and dealing with various managers/snake oil salesmen looking for a quick buck and a plane ticket to Australia, Los Angeles, or New York, we were constantly reminded that we were girls — young girls, with little experience, no technical training, and no family or friends in the industry who knew the business and had already walked the path. But at the same time, we found ourselves in the precarious situation of being forced to learn our own lessons, own up to our mistakes, and take ownership of the victories, despite the producer who made a point to exclaim, “Who’s your daddy?” in the moments where tensions rose and creative control was questioned. 

Looking back, I still remember the sickening realization that I would never be considered an equal by that producer. His words spun around in my mind, infuriating, subjugating, and disrespectful. Would he have said “Who’s your daddy?” to a man — regardless of age — or simply considered the options and allowed the artist to follow his gut? We were faced with a similar maddening situation on the stage, as well, in a group of men hired to back us. All four were older, if only by a few years, set on holding their experience, credentials, and manly wisdom over the heads of two young women who, in their opinion, lacked everything but marketability. 

We weren’t considered equals. We were “the girls” — a product to be sold — and they were the musicians. We couldn’t possibly have the same knowledge, connection, or love of music; we were too young and too female. It was an attitude enforced by management, of systematic inequality and a lifelong belief that to be male was to be more: powerful, intelligent, worthy. It was with that group, however, that my sister and I experienced the most growth, because we were constantly and consistently challenged. There were private moments of great frustration, when I felt like I was either going to burst into tears or lose my temper, because it could never be easy; our opinions were always questioned, our ideas met with egos. 

Letting that group of players go was one of the most relieving moments of my life, but the endurance and sheer tenacity it created in me was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. Still, though, I had no answer to the question that haunted the back of my mind: where were the women, and what would happen if, instead of having to prove ourselves to men, we were surrounded and supported by other women? 

That question was answered, at least partially, in the span of a few short months, as we became more involved in the Atlanta music scene. We were befriended by musicians of every age — male and female — who made one thing very clear: there, and on stages across the country, we weren’t “the girls from Waycross.” All that mattered was the music and what we could do with it. 

The playing field was level when it came to the music. Worth was based on how good we were, how passionate we were, how willing we were to look foolish, make mistakes, and feel vulnerable, not our age or gender. Money and marketing teams can’t change that. Radio directors and talent buyers can’t, either, and while the issue of women’s presence on the radio, at festivals, and in the music industry as a whole — not only as artists, but as producers, engineers, journalists, and executives — demands to be addressed and improved, in my heart, there’s only one reason that it matters at all. 

In music, we are equal. Not in the festival lineups, the radio play, or the mindsets of too many — not yet — but we’ve tasted and felt the equality that some of us may have never known before. Once you get a taste of it, there’s no satisfying the hunger. As long as there’s music to be played, there will be women fighting for their place on the stage, men and women who rally around us and stand beside us, and generations of songwriters coming behind us, ready to prove again and again the revolutionizing, unifying, unspeakable power of music. 

While music, at its core, is equalizing, there’s a long way to go in equality for women in the music industry. For more information, check out these 5 Women in Music Organizations to get involved. 

NEWS ROUNDUP: The Grammys, New Study on Gender Disparity in Music & More

  • The Grammy Awards

    On Sunday night, the music industry’s most momentous ceremony returns to New York City after ten years in Los Angeles. The 60th Grammy Awards will be held at Madison Square Garden and this year the pressure is on for the Recording Academy to prove that they are still relevant within the cultural zeitgeist. In 2016, Taylor Swift’s 1989 was awarded album of the year over Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. The win prompted many, including Frank Ocean, to accuse The Academy of shutting out minorities. In a move that Ocean called his “Colin Kaepernick moment” he declined to submit his seminal sophomore album, Blonde, for 2017 consideration. This action was echoed by Drake who did not enter his immensely popular Views into the competition. A year later, at the 2017 ceremony, a collective “WTF!?” was felt across the music industry yet again when Album of the Year was awarded to Adele’s 25 (herself in disbelief) over Beyoncé’s Lemonade.

    This year, everyone is wondering if the Recording Academy will finally give artists of color the credit they are due. Will trophy wins match the Billboard charts, which have have proven that we are living in the age of hip-hop and R&B? If the nominations are any indication, all signs point to yes. Childish Gambino, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Bruno Mars are all up for album of the year (no rapper has ever won the honor). The last time that four non-white artists were included in this category was in 2005. However, we still have to ask, “Where the women at?” Lorde is the single female nominee in the group. In contrast, the 2018 Best New Artist selection bodes well for racial diversity and gender equality. SZA, Khalid, Lil Uzi Vert, Alessia Cara, and Julia Michaels round out that category.

  • Gender Disparity In The Music Industry

    A new study by USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism has confirmed something we already knew: women are vastly underrepresented in the music industry. To make its conclusion, the study analyzed the gender make-up of songwriters, performers, and producers of top-charting songs on the Billboard Hot 100 charts for a five-year period. From 2012-2017, female songwriters counted for only 12.3 percent of those hits; 22.4 percent of the performers were women. The study found that different veins of gender inequality within the music industry are all linked. It’s a chain reaction – female artists tend to work with female songwriters more than male artists do. Less ladies on stage mean less ladies behind the lyrics. However, the biggest industry disparity is present in the recording studio. Only two-percent of producers credited for the Billboard hits were women. In other words, male producers outnumbered the ladies, forty-nine to one.

    The Annenberg school is hoping that by highlighting these numbers, the music industry will be called to action and put hiring practices in place that are more beneficial to women.

  • RIP Mark E. Smith (March 5, 1957 – January 24, 2018)

    On Wednesday, post-punk legend Mark E. Smith passed away at the age of sixty. As lead singer and founder of The Fall, the Manchester musician was a complicated figure whose immense talent and vitriolic disposition simultaneously captivated and repelled his greatest collaborators & fans. Smith formed the Fall in 1976 after seeing the Sex Pistols in concert. Before his death, he churned out thirty-two records with a rotating cast of band members. Despite a lack of commercial success, the Fall proved to be a defining influence for future generations of punks and indie-rockers. The Fall’s last release New Facts Emerge came out last year.

  • Other Highlights

    According to Prince’s estate adviser, Troy Carter, the world will one day hear new music from the late musician. However, there’s no telling when the unreleased material will be available to the public as it is tied up in legal battles between record labels, Prince’s legal heirs, and his estate. Sir Elton John has announced that he will retire from touring but you still have several years to catch him on the road. The seventy-year-old Rocket Man will bid his farewell by playing three-hundred shows over the next three years. Two pop heavy-hitters gave us videos this week: Lady Gaga released the clip for a piano-centric version of “Joanne” while Justin Timberlake prompted Bon Iver comparisons (and insults) with “Say Something.” JT’s vid is produced and directed by La Blogothèque, the French collective best known for their YouTube performance series, the Take Away shows. The #MeToo movement is quickly making waves in music industry. This week, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and rapper Nelly were accused of sexual assault. Simmons has vehemently denied the accusations; Nelly has yet to make a statement.

    The Misfits may be returning to NYC with their original lineup. On January 26, Live Nation tweeted “#ALLHELLSGONNABREAKLOOSE” accompanied by the iconic skull logo in the shape of New Jersey, the band’s home state. Amanda Palmer and Jherek Bischoff paid tribute to the late Dolores O’Riordan by releasing covers of The Cranberries’ hits “No Need To Argue” and “Zombie.” Due to overwhelming demand, indie darlings Haim have added a second Radio City date to their Sister Sister Sister tour. They also released a new video directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. This month has been great for new albums – Hollie Cook, No Age, and Ty Segall all released new material today. No Age will be playing in Brooklyn on May 2.