I performed with my band, Fierce Mild, on the Melbourne leg of Progfest at the end of January, and sadly my experience of playing the festival was the worst experience of discrimination and sexism in the music industry that I have ever experienced. This experience is also indicative that while problems of gender imbalance and treatment may be beginning to gain more attention in some music scenes, these issues are way more ingrained in others.
As I stood on the main stage of the Corner Hotel about to start I felt incredibly sad, holding myself back from crying. I had had to battle to be on that stage, and I felt angry that in a packed room no one, outside of my band, had any idea the massive struggle it was to be there. In the process of an unwanted battle with one of the organisers over trying to bring about an awareness of gender inclusivity to a scene that heavily needs it, I had been bullied to the point of being insecure and intimidated to be silent.
I was defeated to the point of no longer being able to fight.
I was done. I couldn’t play the game in this boys club anymore.
Prior to playing the festival I was yelled at for over an hour on the phone by one of the four male organisers over issues of gender representation. In what felt like an ‘education’ session, he explained over and over that women were a financial risk and that the heavy festival couldn’t afford to take that risk in booking more women because it had spent a huge amount of money on an international all male headliner.
To further his point, he then told me how he didn’t know of any other women good enough in Australia to be at the festival because the festival had a certain standard of quality to uphold. He proceeded to list the other women playing the festival and felt he had full entitlement to judge them, stating that each band’s position on the line up reflected their abilities. “They’re raw”, “They make stupid mistakes” he would say, all whilst describing how their compositions and playing weren’t up to scratch, but that the men had rightfully earned their positions because they had worked harder.
He ignored all the concerns I had, instead telling me that I knew nothing about the scene. He painted my experience as a female as irrelevant, citing that he had female friends in the prog scene that had never had any issues of discrimination, and gender discrimination didn’t exist in ‘his’ scene, of which he made sure to be clear that I wasn’t a part of.
He told me that he didn’t have a responsibility to promote women because it was a small festival (as opposed to, say, Falls). To add insult, he told me that I was asking for this; that I was asking to be yelled at! I was in utter shock after the call. I was bewildered on playing the call back by just how little of the time I had spent speaking, and how many times he had talked over the top of me and cut me off.
This phone call had all stemmed from an email that I had earlier sent in relation to the very low numbers of women on the lineup and the heavily skewed male advertising that was happening on social media. The festival itself had a mere 8 women – 90% of which fell in the first half of the show and 3 of which were in my band.
I had been diplomatic in my email and was very conscientious to approach this in a constructive manner. I was clear to state that I wasn’t asking for more women to be added to the lineup. I asked if they could promote the women they did have and offered to help if they needed it:
“As I said, I don’t want to have a go. I want to extend my help to you to try and make this more inclusive. I know that when it comes to heavier festivals there are less women musicians around… I’d be more than happy to chat over the phone or workshop some ideas with you over email. Like I said, I want to help as I think everyone benefits from a more diverse and inclusive space.”
The reply I received stated the predictable:
“We feel that we’ve curated the lineup as best as we possibly can in order for Progfest to be both a musical and financial success”.
I and everyone was supposed to accept that the reason there were so few women was because the festival needed to make money, and that women didn’t ‘musically’ fit. Why were women the problem? And why was the financial structure of the festival not?
And then of course there was the ‘musical’ gender bias that this guy was also consumed with. I couldn’t help but see the irony in how conservative his idea of progressive music was. He was deleting a whole history of the scene’s past and current narrative in order to fit a very structured box.
Women in progressive music is nothing new, so long as you don’t confine yourself to only progressive metal. Kate Bush, Bjork, Jefferson Airplane, early electronic pioneers Delia Derbyshire, Pauline Oliveros and the more current Princess Nokia, Grimes, Tune-yards, Julia Holter and of course Chelsea Wolfe are all fine examples of adventurous artists who experiment with all the necessary aesthetic tropes that define ‘progressive’ music – time signatures, instrumentation, sonic properties, and narrative. However, for a festival that “celebrates all things progressive”, there was clearly one aesthetic and that aesthetic was particularly masculine.
Alas, my encounters with this organiser didn’t end after the phone call and email. He also attempted to intimidate me at the festival not long before we were to play; fortunately my bandmates and I during band rehearsals had acted out scenarios and talked about our plan of attack of what to do on the day of the festival so that I felt safe. It is almost funny to have to write that in, but yes, as a band we had rehearsed the scene.
After the festival we decided to release a statement via Facebook. Then came a move straight out of Weinstein’s playbook in damage control. I personally received a threatening message from his lawyer; an intimidation tactic set at scaring me into silence and a calculated move at stripping me of any power. If he had an issue with the band’s collective status, then he could have addressed the band which consists of a team of eight people, half of which are men. But this wasn’t about starting a conversation. This was about continuing to assert power over us; over me.
His lawyer proceeded to call me, and explain how she was supposedly on my side because she was all about promoting women in the scene and had spoken at conferences ‘standing up’ for them. She would tell me that obviously his behaviour was a problem, and how would I suggest he fix it? Because like so many victims of bullying, his behaviour was being seen as my problem to solve, and furthermore according to her I was the problem by not giving him solutions. I was also reassured by this lawyer that I was indeed asking for the treatment I received from him. “I want this to be better for the both of you” she would tell me towards the end of our call. I told her that I was fine before her call, “I get he can be d..d..defensive” she would struggle to say, because you see, she was well aware of what he was like too.
And sadly, this lawyer, though masking as someone working for women, was just another layer of protection that this bully had built around himself. The worst part about my whole experience was the fact that this guy has a known reputation for this attitude and behaviour towards woman, and appears to have an active team who clean up his mess. The band has privately heard numerous stories from people of all genders about working with this person, from artists, industry professionals, and even one of the festival’s own organisers!
And the thing that is the most shocking is the depth that it goes in the industry, and the many layers that go about protecting image, over protecting the safety and wellbeing of individuals. All the other festival organisers knew about his behaviour, because our manager had told them directly. Yet, while it was ‘dealt with’ by the festival, there were no repercussions for his behaviour – only superficial words for the sake of protecting the festival’s brand.
But we faced repercussions. My whole band had to rehearse safety measures to protect me, we had to pull out of an interview due not feeling safe around him and I had certainly suffered a lot of anxiety and fear because of this. Not once did any of the festival organisers speak to me personally about the situation, nor did I ever receive an apology. While all my interactions with the other festival organisers were lovely and respectful, sadly their lack of action and part in cleaning up his mess also makes them a part of the toxic and sexist culture that exists within the heavy scene.
I certainly don’t believe the whole scene is like this. I have had many incredible experiences with other artists, organisers, interviewers and particularly fans and attendees, who have being incredibly supportive and who are beautifully passionate. I know that there are a lot of amazing people that exist in this scene, who would also like those that give it a bad name out.
The gender imbalance in the scene didn’t just suddenly happen, and the culture contains many players like the one I experienced, and many more who are willing to look the other way. These bullies get themselves into positions of power only to be protected by the culture around them – while those that stand up are victimised and have their career jeopardised. And I’m sure I have now jeopardised my career – my band may never be asked again to play in that scene again, because my actions have now deemed us ‘difficult’.
A sentence from the opening paragraph in the email I sent to Progfest haunts me:
“ I am concerned about this issue but have been a little hesitant [to contact you] because it’s often hard being female to feel like you have a place to express an opinion without the risk of getting a bad reputation or, in my case, giving my band a bad reputation.”
However, my bandmates and I don’t care, as we want change more than we want a bigger name on a poster. And I know that there are many others out there who feel this way too, and we would like hear from you.
“That’s just him” and “he gets stuff done” are no longer acceptable excuses for overlooking discriminatory and even, abusive behaviour.
Accountability needs to be taken for the sake of making a more inclusive, safe, and more welcoming music community. Simply booking diverse artists on a lineup isn’t representing them, unless you’re will to do work in many other areas including promoting, featuring, paying fairly, protecting and, above all, respecting them.