in the Australian Music Industry
Words by Charlotte Abroms
Edited by Jake Amy with contributions from Rose Bassett
19 July 2020
Charlotte Abroms with the Angie McMahon band crew. Photo: Lily Watkin
From Jake: Around March/April, Rose and I sat down to discuss an issue that had been getting on our nerves for some time. In late 2019, we both posted a Facebook status calling for specific experiences surrounding gendered discrimination. I couldn't believe how many comments and private messages I received... Crude passing comments. Inequitable opportunities. Belittlement. Unconscious discrimination. Stigmas I didn't think still existed. Wake the fuck up, Jake. My naivety as a privileged white male had blinded me from realising the blatant extent of the gender divide. It had been staring me in the face for years. Why was no one in my tertiary music course talking about this?! I was so angry at myself. I felt that my previous silence spoke volumes and it became so obvious that we (the male gender) disproportionately perpetuate this shit and how we must step up our game. It was so good to speak to Rose about this. Previously, I had liked to think that I was supportive of women in the scene. I realised that I needed to take any opportunity I could to facilitate so many more conversations. Rose and I knew we would have Attaboi as a platform to push minority voices, so, we both present this gender inequality series to you. I still have so much more to learn. As does any male reading this.
From Charlotte: I would like to preface this article by saying that I am writing from my personal experience as a female manager. I acknowledge that there are an array of genders people identify as. When I use the terms ‘male’ and ‘female’, I would like to acknowledge that there are also people who don’t fit into those terms and likely also experience prejudice. I would also like to acknowledge that there are men of varying races, ethnicities and sexualities that experience discrimination within the workplace. These answers are specifically addressing the misogyny I have experienced personally, without discounting or excluding the experiences of others.
Angie McMahon (left) and Charlotte Abroms (right). Photo: Ben McNamara
Could you describe, if any, the worst misogyny that you’ve experienced working in the music industry?
I have only worked in the music industry full time for three years. Prior to that I worked in acting and creative agencies. There’s the obvious misogyny I have experienced in the workplace; the boss who asked me to wear heels, the client who assumed I was an assistant and asked me to do a coffee run, the boss who joked that I had to wear a bikini on casual Fridays, the colleague who asked me when I was going to have babies (in a boardroom meeting in front of 15 clients I didn’t know), the few men who have raised their voices at me aggressively on the phone for no justifiable reason.
The notion of misogyny I have experienced within the music industry has taken me a long time to articulate. Historically, there is a music manager archetype. He wears a suit, he has slick hair, he drives an expensive car. He’s often controlling and dominant. He commands a lot of respect. He usually has money. Sometimes he’s a bit more rock ‘n roll, he gets loose with the band, he thrives off attention from female fans. He’s usually a middle aged man. He’s always a man (and he always has slick hair). Often we find out he’s robbed the band. He’s the guy we see in the films, we read about him in the news and the autobiographies. I’ve met him a couple of times in real life actually!
I’m nothing like him.
Like any ingrained discrimination, people cast judgements on people they perceive to be ‘different’. In my experience, some men within the music industry are more aligned with this archetype, or they have an expectation that managers should be like him. Occasionally from these men, I’ve experienced a subtle sense of hostility, a somewhat underhanded punishment. These punishments have come in all forms; in an office it might be a little put-down (negging I believe it’s called in the dating world), a disregard for the woman’s input, interrupting the women in the room, closed body language towards the women and open body language towards the men, encouraging her idea until it almost comes to fruition and then pulling it for no real reason. I’ve experienced men who have tried to prevent my progression.
In a venue it might be completely ignoring the women in the room, shaking the hands and greeting the men while not even making eye contact with the women. It might be the bouncers questioning the honesty and legitimacy of the female manager when she tries to go backstage with her AAA pass. It might be the venue manager asking the male session players to make key decisions and knowingly ignoring the manager who has just introduced herself. For an artist, it’s sometimes crew inferring that she doesn’t know how to use her own instruments and gear. What I have come to see and understand is that there is often an expectation for a female manager to provide feminine qualities. Women are supposed to be compassionate and empathetic, right? They are often nurturers. Sometimes these sensitive so-called ‘feminine’ qualities are perceived as maternal, you hear the term ‘Tour Mum’ thrown around a lot. If that’s your role, then there’s an expectation that you step aside to allow the men to fulfil their ‘masculine’ roles. As a female manager, I am taught not to rob him of respect or his position of leadership and authority. I learnt about this topic listening to a podcast with Ezra Klein and Kate Mann. I was searching for answers.
I’ve been victim to the unnecessary penalties for unknowingly competing for a leadership role. I have never seen it as competition, I like collaboration. My clients appointed me with this leadership role, so in order to fulfil it and be the best I can be as a manager, I’ve had to challenge these social norms and expectations. I’ve observed within myself that I carry a lot more guilt than my male counterparts. I’ve been a much more apologetic leader at times, than what I have observed of them. What if I am all of those things? What if I am nurturing, empathetic, compassionate, sensitive, but I am also a capable leader? I didn’t understand this narrative until I had experienced enough small ‘punishments’ to really delve into the psychology behind it. There were too many times I didn’t feel I was being heard. I’ve been faced with more resentment when I have challenged an idea, than when a male has challenged that very idea.
I’ve observed being interrupted more than the men in the room. I’ve wondered why the lack of eye contact, specifically with me? I might have come up with the idea, but I’ve been subtly excluded in an email thread because I am not a ‘Bro’ or a ‘Lad’ or a ‘Gent’ or a ‘Chap’ or a ‘Mate’.
The obvious solution to me is that we can’t just destroy these social norms around the expectation of the woman. We have to also look at societal expectations of men. It’s pivotal for everyone to understand that women are also capable leaders and that should not be threatening to other men in the room. There can also be more than one leader, it doesn’t matter what gender they identify as. It’s equally as important to acknowledge that men are allowed to be vulnerable, sensitive, compassionate and empathetic. Now more than ever!
Luckily I work for myself, so I’ve had the ability to be able to choose the people I work with. Our teams are made up of clever, kind, caring, respectful people who don’t showcase this kind of behaviour, regardless of their gender.
"Sadly, when I have seen powerful men call out gender inequality to other powerful men, the message has been understood more clearly and quickly than when I’ve tried."
Charlotte Abroms on calling out gender discrimination as a woman. Photo: Ben McNamara
What barriers have presented themselves with managing female artists?
I don’t know what it’s like to be a male manager working with a male band, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the barriers. What opportunities would any of us get, if we weren’t already who we are?
I’ve had the pleasure of working with both male and female artists. I cannot pinpoint a difference in the artists themselves, based on their genders. I work with artists because of how their music connects to me, their creative ideas, ambition, followed by their moral compass. Everyone I’ve managed (men and women) have strong feminist values. They all consistently have a great sense of humour, so that has worked out well.
The obvious barrier I’ve experienced is when the artists I manage are being asked to do something because of their gender. Often people are open about it, in saying that they are asking because they would like more women on the bill, or the panel or to feature more female-identifying artists on their playlist. I’m in two minds about this. I think this is showing signs of positive progression. People you least expect are becoming more considerate about diverse line ups when it comes to race and gender. At the same time, when they point out that it’s the primary reason they are asking, it can be devaluing to an artist. It’s not often you hear the term “male musician” or “male manager”, but we are often approached because they are looking to include more “female musicians” and “female managers”. It can be obvious (and again, devaluing) when it’s an afterthought. At the moment it’s a conscious effort, so I can see why people are spelling it out. The hope is that eventually it comes naturally to include people of all walks of life, because their music is good.
What barriers have you experienced as a female manager?
Again, I would need to have experienced being a male manager to answer this properly. I have a lot of close male friends who are managers, I don’t see too much of a difference in what we collectively experience. We go through similar challenges and successes. I am a firm believer that success comes first and foremost from the music. If the music connects to an audience, the manager’s job is to facilitate, build and guide. I have been lucky to work with artists whose music has resonated deeply with people and collectively we’ve been in receipt of some wonderful opportunities. When it comes to these opportunities, I haven’t noticed gender being a barrier, as a manager.
I was recently in a situation where I was a guest backstage at a festival where all of the managers of the bands playing the festival were men. I found myself more drawn to spending time with artist friends than the managers. It didn’t feel like I was part of their community. This stuff was never obvious to me when I was younger but through a number of disappointing experiences, I’ve become more aware of the energy in the room. I think I’ve probably received a few less high fives than some male managers, metaphorically and literally, when the artists I work with have achieved similar milestones to the artists they work with. I will say I’ve been interrupted a lot, by people who I don’t work directly with.
The people on our teams are progressive in their thinking. We work with people who don’t subscribe to that kind of behaviour. Within our team, we receive a lot of high fives. And we don’t need high fives these days anyway, there’s a viral pandemic!
In 2020, it’s bizarre to think we are working in an industry that still has gender inequality. Why do you think it’s such a persistent/resilient issue?
Sadly, it’s across every industry. I have only worked in creative industries which are probably a lot more progressive than most. I can’t imagine what it might be like in other fields and within other cultures. The most important thing is that people are educating themselves and others. It’s important that people are listening to experiences of minorities and becoming more inclusive and understanding.
Misogyny is engrained in our society, males aren’t the only people that can exhibit misogynistic behaviour. Like any movement, it can take time to make significant changes. I’m thankful to my mother’s generation who fought for women’s rights in the 70’s. Because of that, I never questioned if I was any different to a man when it came
came to my ambition. It took a long time to understand that I was experiencing sexism. We need to keep fast-tracking the process by opening everyone up to seeing people as people, as equals - no matter their gender, race, sexuality. It baffles me that anyone ever thought otherwise, but unfortunately I’ve learned a lot of people do. We can’t just speak about it though, we need to provide solutions.
Charlotte Abroms with the Angie McMahon band crew. Photo: Michelle Grace Hunder
In relation to the amazing artists you book on a global scale, and thinking about Australia and its music scene, where do you think we sit on a global scale regarding gender equality?
I have definitely observed a lot more women in senior positions within the music industry in other countries. I can see there are efforts being made by people in positions of power within Australia to bring this issue to the forefront and call out bad behaviour. It’s important that it’s not just women’s voices speaking about women’s issues. I’ve been in situations where high up men have called out possible gender-inequality in meetings and that’s also very effective… dare I say, more effective?
I was in London a couple of years ago where a study came out about the lack of women in senior roles at record labels in Australia. Being new to the full-time music world myself, I had noticed that it wasn’t just a lack of women, but a general lack of diversity. The person (the head of the company actually!) asked me why it was this way in Australia. She said, “What’s the deal with Australia, why don’t they hire more women in senior roles?”. I really didn’t know the answer. I don’t know. Does anyone know?
My friend and I discussed this yesterday and she thinks it’s because it benefits men to stay at the top of the pyramid as the most powerful, the face of the job. She said, “Learning more about the experiences of women and being more inclusive would be inconvenient/uncomfortable for them”. A young artist told me that they learnt at school that you have to “see it to be it”, so I’ve been forthcoming in speaking on panels and doing guest lectures, I want young women who love music to know that they can be a music manager. This is where I can forgive the sub-section phrase “female manager”, because if it encourages a younger generation, then it’s igniting change.
As a female-identifying manager, do you find that you are sought out more often than male-identifying managers to talk on these issues, and can you elaborate on whether you think it’s a good or a bad thing for men to reach out to women to discuss these issues?
Absolutely! There’s this great quote in Fleabag where they’re discussing the Women In Business Award and the fantastic character Belinda who was awarded the ‘Best Woman in Business’ (played by Kristin Scott Thomas) describes it as “infantilising bollocks.” She says, "It’s a subsection of success - it’s the fucking children’s table of awards".
This dialogue helped me understand why I felt uncomfortable about female-specific awards and events. I don’t want to be asked to do something purely because I am a woman, I want to be asked because I’m good at my job and work with fantastic artists. I don’t want to be considered a sub-section, I want to be a manager, not a ‘female manager.’ Where I have an internal debate though, is that I want to be proud that I’m a female manager, in a largely male dominated role, and I want to be the “see it to be it” for younger managers.
Talking on panels and writing interviews so frequently about this issue can sometimes be exhausting. I do it because I understand that it can help make positive changes, but sometimes I would prefer the focus was on the amazing things the artists I’ve worked with have achieved. It’s so important that everyone is asked to speak on gender inequality, not just women. If everyone is prompted to think about it in the same way, everyone will be more aware of the subtleties that it took me so long to understand.
As I’ve said, sadly, when I have seen powerful men call out gender inequality to other powerful men, the message has been understood more clearly and quickly than when I’ve tried. I will reiterate that it’s important that men (not just men, everyone!) are also encouraged to be vulnerable, gentle and emotionally-driven. It is unhealthy to feel like those raw, wonderful, expressive human traits are to be hidden.
Keep up to date with Charlotte here
We would like to acknowledge the Wurundjeri people who are the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we work and live, and recognise their continuing connection in our community. We would like to pay respect to the Elders both past and present of the Kulin Nation and extend that respect to other Indigenous Australians who have read this article.
Thank you dearly to Charlotte for your time.
Question responses written by Charlotte on 13 June 2020.
Article first published 19 July 2020.
Edited by Jake Amy with contributions from Rose Bassett.