Where The Boys Are: Feminism From The Front Of The Stage
(I wrote this piece as a guest writer for a music blog called Mind Equals Blown. The original piece can be seen online at
You’d think scheduling a rehearsal for a four piece rock band would be easier. We’re not the Polyphonic Spree for fuck’s sake, and we’re all adults with iphones and google cal and facebook and any number of other technical advancements created for the sole purpose of keeping one’s shit together. However, every time I send an email to the three guys I play with suggesting a time to meet, one of them inevitably forgets to answer.
Two out of three (a different two every time, mind you), typically respond within 24 hours. I wait for the straggler. And wait. And wait. Days, sometimes weeks go by. I start to worry. Should I send another email? What about a text? Is a text too invasive? I’ll see him at Rockwood on Saturday, I can just ask him then. Right? RIGHT?
I discussed the situation once with my lead guitarist, who fronts a band of his own. He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Why don’t you just call them?”
Call them? What, on the phone? That’s worse than texting. They’ll hate me for sure.
Indie music is a tough scene regardless of gender. Bandleading-while-female, however, seems to come with its own particular set of challenges. My female musician friends have told me they share my struggles in leading bands composed of men. We worry about looking like a bitch or a diva, we worry that our songs will be “too girly” for them, we worry that if we ask too much of them they’ll leave us behind and find some dudes to play with. Whenever I contact my bandmates, I slave over the tone of the email, peppering it with emoticons and terms of endearment so as not to appear too demanding. These insecurities stem from a cultural dialogue so deeply ingrained that not even my badass feminist mother could drown it out. Women are to take up as little space as possible. Women are to be seen and not heard. Women exist to please others. My guys are a forward-thinking bunch who would likely be baffled by my paranoia. Still, I find myself going out of my way to make the band as easy for them as humanly possible, because I feel beholden to them for being willing to play behind a woman.
I stand at the front. I am the focus of any attention the band receives, and I struggle with outside opinions as much as I do my nervous inner monologue. People frequently assume I am sleeping with my bandmates (I am not). Men on the street want to know if I can play the guitar I’m carrying on my back (no, asshole. I just like being encumbered). Men have introduced themselves to me as journalists and producers after our shows, and what I took for professional interest in the band turned out to be a sly attempt to hit on the redhead in the minidress. Other men have taken pictures during our sets without my consent, then asked for my email so they can “send me their work.”
I’m fortunate to live in New York City, a place where female musicians are generally accepted without prejudice. Sometimes I wonder, though, if my band is well received because I play with a group of men. Back in my solo acoustic days I frequented many open mic nights around the city, where “woman on stage” seemed to be cue for “time to chat in between Dylan covers”. I even caught myself adopting the attitude from time to time. “Please God,” I’d think, “not another girl with a ukulele.” How could I judge another performer based solely on the fact that she’s a woman?
Which leads me to a problem I am certain is unique to the female musician’s perspective. I worry constantly that I am not feminist enough. As a feminist in a highly visible leadership position, I feel I must be extra conscientious about my image and the songs I release into the world. Female artists have had a hard struggle, and are therefore subject to more scrutiny once we succeed, even amongst each other. The internet is rife with women speaking their peace about Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift, leveling complaints that would never be tossed at a male performer. Granted, Swift’s blind adherence to traditional gender roles and Cyrus’s forays into casual racism have earned them some well-deserved feminist side eye. Overall, however, women in music are held up to a completely different set of standards than their male counterparts. Does Justin Timberlake marketing his sexuality spark a war of concerned open letters? No. Does Justin Vernon penning an entire album about a broken heart make him a bad example for young boys? Of course not. I worry about the clothing I wear in promotional pictures being too sexy, because I don’t want to be seen as a woman who uses her body to sell her music. I worry about the number of love songs I write, because I don’t want to sound like a woman who only cares about finding a man. The thing is, I like sexy clothes. And I’ve dated a lot of dicks. So why shouldn’t that be a part of my persona as an artist? Male artists don’t perform with the weight of an age old struggle for equality on their shoulders. Every lyric I write, every choice I make, I wonder if I am forwarding the movement or failing it.
I don’t claim to have answers to these problems. I feel the biggest problem of all is that we’ve been gaslit into thinking we’re the only ones with these issues, and that they are too small to matter. The more we build a community of chicks who rock, the more we talk to each other and share resources, the stronger we’ll become. I’d like to close, if I may, with a message for my bandmates: enough with the funk jams during practice. I love you. Get back to work.
Swift Kicks Vol. 2: Out Of The Woods
This is a piece I wrote for my personal blog. Similar pieces can be found on my website at www.hannahvsthemany.com/ramblings.
Taylor Swift has been in the news a lot recently, for two reasons. One, she is dating noted tall Scotsman Calvin Harris and they take sexy photographs on swan boats with like, legs everywhere. Two, she has been making bold statements regarding internet streaming services and the ways that people pay for music.
It’s easy, given its ubiquity in our modern lives, to forget how young the Internet really is. Everyone is still fumbling around, trying to negotiate the new ways that art and information are being disseminated. It has made it much easier to reach out and connect to people, to find an audience outside of your friends and family. It has also, somehow, made it even harder to make a living off of music alone. Streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music and (gasp) Tidal put the power in the hands of the consumer, more or less. You either choose the convenience of the service and give them your money, or choose the livelihood of your favorite artists and give it to them directly. Full disclosure, I am an avid Spotify user. While I am happy to pay for albums from artists who I love (1989, for example), I like having the opportunity to try albums before I buy them. I also like having the ability to listen to “Timber” for free. That Ke$ha hook is on point, but I figure I need my 99 cents more than Pitbull does.
I quite liked Taylor’s letter. I especially appreciated her awareness of her own position of power within the industry. She has clearly taken note of the reaction to Tidal, and presented herself as a voice for the less fortunate (or less famous, as the case may be). I see how some musicians might find that irritating, but the fact of the matter is that if we want to see real change in the way music is valued, we need visible artists to stump for the community. If you have 203 Twitter followers (@hannahvsthemany, fyi), then only 203 people are going to hear you shouting for fair treatment. The second an artist with high demand stood up and said “no way," Apple listened. The day Taylor Swift published that open letter, Apple responded that they would in fact be paying artists during the free trial. The same day, friends. Behold the power of the Internet.
I’m of two minds about the future of paying for music. On the one hand, I put most of my bartending wages into my band and it would be nice to recoup some of my losses. On the other hand, my vaguely socialist heart aligns more closely with the Internet philosophy of Amanda Palmer. It is interesting to me that these two women, both of whose music I enjoy, take such starkly different views on the idea of paying for music. Swift, with her enormous fan base and visible wealth, lobbies for musicians to be paid fairly for their work. Palmer, who started with nothing and worked her way to cult stardom, suggests again and again that we give our music away for free.
Amanda Palmer has been in the news (in certain circles) lately for two reasons. One, she has created a yet-to-be-released human with the help of noted tall Englishman Neil Gaiman. Two, she recently published a book called The Art Of Asking, based on her TED talk of the same name. I have not yet read the book, but the TED talk is inspiring and lovely. Palmer speaks of her struggles within the music industry and paints a picture of a community of supportive fans, of artists who stand alongside their admirers instead of staring them down from the stage. I love this idea, in theory, but building an empire is harder than she makes it sound. How do I pay my bills while I’m waiting for people to love me?
Each of these women, in her own way, is trying to navigate our wild technological frontier as best she can. They have also experienced backlash, labeling their respective views hypocritical (The Internet has also made it much, much easier for strangers to hate you.) Taylor Swift has received criticism for reposting her fans’ photographs without crediting them. Amanda Palmer was given a lot of flack for asking her more musical fans to play with her for free. Now, in Taylor’s case I feel the complaint was valid, and if you check her socials (as I do, constantly), you’ll see that she has taken steps to give credit where credit is due. In Palmer’s case, however, the issue is a bit more complex. In such a situation, playing with a musician you admire is the payment. The act of the performance is the intended payoff. If you feel that playing with Amanda Palmer isn’t reward enough for your talents, fine, but then don’t go out for that gig. Go find a different gig that pays you what you feel is fair.
Of course, now I’m simplifying things. I’ve been doing music in some way or another for nearly twenty years now, and I’ve never made a living from it. My record take home for a gig is 250 USD, or approximately ¼ of my monthly rent. I have neither major label support nor a legion of rabid fans. This leaves me in a strange conundrum when it comes to the emerging schools of thought for musicians online. While both Swift and Palmer make valid points, I can’t ignore the fact that there is a clear demand for what both artists do. Where does that put someone who is still more or less at the bottom of the heap? Should I make my music widely available, in the hope that I will build a community who will support me? Or should I stand my ground and demand that my time and talent be taken seriously from a monetary standpoint? How much self promotion can I do without looking like an asshole? How much longer can I keep working two jobs at once? I’m writing to you now from the bar where I work. I came in two hours early to write this blog post because I don’t own a desk or a table, and typing in my bed feels...weird. And squishy. I would like to make enough money from music that I can purchase a table. I would also like to travel the country playing gigs at the tables of strangers. There is an art to asking, but how do you know whether you’re asking too much?
I took my music off Spotify a few months ago, neither as a sign of protest or a show of solidarity. I took my music off Spotify because keeping it on Spotify was a waste of my hard-earned money. That’s right, gentle readers: unsigned artists have to pay for the privilege of allowing you to listen to their music for free. My music is no longer on iTunes for the same reason; the cost was not worth the reward. You can stream and buy my albums at BandCamp, where I can release my music for free and you can be assured that nearly all of the money you spend on them goes directly into my digital pocket.
That’s the compromise I have found, for now. I make my music available for free in the same space where you can buy it. I play venues that charge cover in the hope of raising my profile, but I frequently offer to personally refund the cover for fans who can’t afford it. I wish I could believe that eventually these conflicts will iron themselves out as the Internet matures, but technology develops so quickly now that I’m not sure if that’s true. The second you find a way to wield one platform to your advantage, another innovation crops up with a whole new set of gray areas. Despite these issues, I can’t help but feel that it’s exciting to be making music at this time, because on top of everything else the Internet serves as a great equalizer. You can find my music as easily as you can find a picture of Taylor Swift’s latest barbecue or a video of Amanda Palmer playing her magic ukulele. We are all of us, artists of all possible stripes, lost together.
Best NYC Live Music Venues
This is a list I wrote for a tourist guide for a local backpacker’s hostel.
Looking for CBGB’s? Sorry, it’s a John Varvatos store now. Punk is dead. Don’t worry though, because there’s still tons of amazing places in New York City to discover your new favorite band.
- The Blue Note (131 W 3rd Street, Manhattan): The Blue Note is one of the most well known jazz venues in New York City. With shows every night of the week (and brunch on Sundays!), this venue offers access to some of the premier jazz artists in the country with fancy drinks and American cuisine. Be warned however, tickets and drink prices at this venue can be expensive. If you’re looking for jazz on a budget, check out…
- Cleopatra’s Needle (2485 Broadway, Manhattan): Cheap drinks and free music in a quirky Upper West Side setting. The kitschy, knick-knack themed decor creates a cozy atmosphere and the room is laid back enough for casual conversations. Pro Tip: this is a great place to impress a Tinder date.
- Cake Shop (152 Ludlow Street, Manhattan): Jazz isn’t your thing? No problem. At street level, Cake Shop is literally a cake shop with delicious vegan treats and indie records for sale. Head downstairs for a wide variety of local bands and local beers under a veil of Christmas lights. In its ten year history, this venue has successfully battled noise complaints and rent spikes and hosted bands like Vampire Weekend, Waaves and the Dirty Projectors. Cake Shop is the perfect place to discover the next big indie band before your friends do.
- Shea Stadium (20 Meadow Street, Brooklyn): If Cake Shop can’t provide enough hipster points for you, head to this awesome DIY venue in the middle of nowhere (AKA Bushwick). When it first opened in 2009, Shea Stadium was a loft space with a cooler of PBRs. It has upped its game considerably since then, acquiring a sound system, liquor license, and major cred in the process. Their engineers record every show performed there, so each set provides the audience with an opportunity to be a part of history.
- St. Vitus (1120 Manhattan Avenue, Brooklyn): If you’re looking to rock a little harder, St Vitus is your place. Their souvenir t-shirts proclaim “Satan is great, Whiskey is super”, which should give you some idea of what you’re getting yourself into. The bands here are mostly of the hard rock/metal variety, and they also serve pork buns! What more could you want?
- The Duplex (61 Christopher Street, Manhattan): Broadway style music at a fifth of the price of a Broadway style ticket. This multi-level venue, located down the block from NYC’s historic Stonewall Bar, provides a variety of entertainment from stand-up and drag, to cabaret and singer/songwriters. The Duplex also includes a piano bar where the bartenders belt out showtunes between beers. It’s the perfect late night destination for any theater nerd.