The beat goes on: Reimagining equality in the Canadian electronic music scene

"As important as female solidarity is, it shouldn’t be just up to women to uplift each other."

March 8, 2019

For International Women’s Day, we’re passing the mic to the women on the frontlines. As part of this series, Sofie Mikhaylova, a writer, DJ, current editor of the Toronto issue of Dive Music Magazine, and founder of independent experimental label Biblioteka Records, explains her vision for the future Canadian electronic music scene more equitable for women.

In 2018, Ever After, the Kitchener-area EDM festival which featured artists like Flux Pavillion and Claude VonStroke, did not feature a single woman on their lineup. This just happened, and despite the well-documented fact that men aren’t the only ones making electronic music, the decision to book female artists slipped through the cracks.

This year, when Ever After released their 2019 lineup, I went through the list artist by artist. Technically, they’ve “improved,” though not by a lot. 2019’s festival lineup includes just one woman, Australian bass act GG Magree, among a slew of men. I have questions: Who booked this festival? Who didn’t see the problem? The lack of ongoing disregard for representation is painful. It’s tiring. I’m tired.

Women have been making electronic music since there was electronic music to make. We can credit experimental analogue pioneers like Suzanne Ciani and Delia Derbyshire for encouraging the acceptance of non-traditional instruments and gifting us with unique, unusual modular sounds, ushering in new sub-genres in the process. Today, there are more internationally recognized public facing female producers and electronic artists than ever (Rezz, SOPHIE, Holly Herndon, TOKiMONSTA, and Grimes, just to name a few across genres), with outlets like Mixmag covering Canadian talent like Marie Davidson, Ciel, E-Saggila, and more.

We’re moving somewhere, but, honestly, not fast enough. It’s still difficult to be a woman working in electronic music. Frankly, it’s difficult being a woman working in music in general. The whole industry stills feels like a boys’ club, and women continue to get overlooked for festival bookings and events in favour of their male peers and counterparts.

I’ve found that the people booking female and female-identifying talent—DJs and live performers—tend to be women themselves. Toronto collectives like On Earth, R.U.D.E, Raven’s Vision, and many others actively promote a diverse group of DJs, and Montreal festival Slut Island has made it their mandate to prioritize women, femmes, and LGBTQI+ performers in their application process. The success of the festival has demonstrated that there is no shortage of female and non-binary talent willing to perform or looking for an opportunity, and that there is no shortage of audiences willing to support them. More often than not, they’re just not getting the chance.

I’m tired of hearing the same few arguments from people, typically men, saying things like “I book based on talent, not gender,” or “I’m not trying to fill a quota.” Or even worse, the excuses that “it doesn’t matter,” that “nobody notices,” or that “nobody cares.” We do. We care.

I’m currently the editor of Dive Music Magazine, and for our upcoming Toronto issue I interviewed Toronto-based tech house DJ Ciel about some of the pain points in Toronto’s music scene. One of her statements still sticks out to me: “I wish that some promoters spent more than two seconds to research who makes sense to open for these artists. I’ve seen some terrible, just terrible lineups put on by promoters […] When the music doesn’t make sense to go together, it just really seems like they’re booking only based on gender, and I’m of course talking about male promoters […] laziness in a big thing; some people just say, Oh yeah, I need a female DJ, I’ll book this one, not one who makes sense on the bill musically.”

She’s right.

We’re moving somewhere, but, honestly, not fast enough. It’s still difficult to be a woman working in electronic music. Frankly, it’s difficult being a woman working in music in general.

I want more incubators. More meetups and collectives. More effort put into taking female musicians and moulding them. Too many of us have to navigate our way through this scary industry alone. We need mentors. When it comes to solutions, there are important examples that exist: Chippy Nonstop’s Intersessions series welcomes women and members of the LGBTQI community to learn DJ and production skills at various workshops and community meetings in Toronto and Vancouver; Sam Dharmasena’s Solidarity In Sound is an online resource that aims to help educate women in the music industry on touring, safety, promotion; and Women In Music Canada is a non-profit organization helping women meet other women in music, from mentoring opportunities to networking events. Despite all that’s been done, when I look at festival and party lineups I’m constantly disappointed.

I think the way to make the electronic music scene more equitable for women in Canada is through community. The groups I mentioned serve as community resources and, in the case of Intersessions, as physical meeting points where women and other  can meet and learn from each other.

As important as female solidarity is, it shouldn’t be just up to women to uplift each other. We need help from our male allies as well, from male bookers, promoters, and musicians who can hire female talent for their parties and venues, who can speak up when working on a festival lineup and say, “Hey, maybe something’s wrong here.” Cisgendered women need to support and encourage trans women. White women need to elevate women of colour. Straight folks need to support queer women. We all have a part to play.

When I was asked to write this piece, I was eager on the uptake. But when I started writing it, I realized I really have no actual plan on how we can improve women’s value in the Canadian electronic music scene. All I can really suggest is what I’ve already said: Working together, community focus, and more space for us to grow.

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