Needs x HeForShe took over Oval space on Sunday 11th March for this unique day-night event following International Women's Day.
Curated in association with Shesaidso, Aim, Mixcloud and Resident Advisor, we were treated to an afternoon of panel-discussions focussed on issues of gender in music and evening sets from the likes of Peggy Gou and Jackmaster. The panellists drew much-needed attention to both the performance and industry side of music, as well as the areas particularly lagging behind in terms of gender equality - sound production within performance and the higher echelons of management within the industry.
With the first discussions centering on 'Women in Parenthood' and music, we hear the assumptions projected by a wider culture, that parenthood and artistry are incompatible, an experience shared by singer-songwriter Kyra. Within the industry, it is actually larger multinationals such as Spotify who are leading the way in actively encouraging joint parental care and enacting progressive parenthood policies. The Shechanged me panel meanwhile, which included Snoochie Shy (Radar), Lily Mercer (Rinse) and Ty (Pyro/Soho Radio), waxed nostalgic and lyrical about inspirational women in music, including 80s dancehall artist Marion Hall and 90s British hip-hop due 'The Cookie Crew' – enough to appreciate how long women have been working within and challenging particular regressive genres in terms of gender and sexuality. When we think of the significance of Lil Kim's self-styled sexuality in the 90s, compared to the likes of Nicki Minaj (often considered the exception to the gender-rule of current breakthrough global stars), some ground may seem to have been lost amongst the progress. Whilst there was never parity, male sexuality was once marketable in the guise of 50 Cent, Shaggy, Vanilla Ice, where it emphatically no longer seems to be.
The third talk from AIM (Association of Independent Music) saw Keith Harris OBE, Stevie Wonder's former manager, now chairman of UK Music's Diversity Taskforce, draw attention to the discrepancy between the proportion of younger and older women working in the industry, as well as the levels of those positions. Between the ages of 25 to 34, women are said to account for 54.5% of the workforce, a number which drops to 41.4% in the 35 to 44 age range, and to 32.7% between 45 and 64. The encouraging figures regarding younger women can equally mask the fact that many of those roles are recruitment level roles. Indeed, the damaging comments of Recording Academy president Neil Portnow – [Women] 'need to step up' - highlights the old boys' club and attitudes that still exist in the higher echelons of the industry. His suggestion that women need to work harder in music brought an understandable note of incredulity and scorn amongst the AIM panelists, including Harris who has over 40 years in the industry, as well as everyone not entirely fastened to the dying animal of aggro masculinity.
Vanessa Reid, chief executive of PRS ('the UK's leading funder of new music and talent development across all genres'), also told the audience of the PRS 'KeyChange' initiative, which two weeks earlier brought together 45 international music festivals to pledge to achieve or maintain a 50/50 gender balance at their events, including live performances, talks and commissions, by 2022. With the figure at a mere 26% for UK festivals in 2014 and the likes of Wireless with a paltry three female artists on the lineup, such a pledge is a crucial move, even if you'd hope many festivals to have reached this target before then. The disappearing font syndrome of the festival poster and the way festival lineups are agreed and promoted - to take a label's large act, a festival must often take the label's smaller acts, no-matter if they have predominantly male acts - are also starting to be challenged, both by KeyChange and its founding partners such as Reeperbahn festival in Germany and Musikcentrum in Sweden.
With the final talk curated by SheSaidSo (a network of women in the music industry), the discussion broadened further to include the role of the consumer and reviewer. In case we hadn't realised, it may be time to put to end to the bristling non-question of 'what it feels like to be a female artist/singer-songwriter?' and the question perennially posed to the likes of 'Savages': 'How does it feel to be part of an all-female band?', unless invited by the artist.
Consumers, as they have done, can and should take to social media and choose not to attend festivals putting out Wireless-esque lineups. The responsibility, though, rests first with promoters and labels. Adopting the Rooney Rule more widely within the music industry, as Keith Harris suggests, would increase the onus on the latter of representing a range of talent. The Rooney Rule, initially conceived for football, would require agents to provide and labels to interview and consider a diverse range of candidates and artists: the affirmative action rebuttal doesn't quite hold, given there is no quote or preference given in the actual hiring. Indeed, the double-standards which saw Munroe Bergdof sacked by L'Oreal for criticising white privilege, after being hired as their first transgender model to front a campaign, needs to be called out at every opportunity within the music industry.
With Needs responsible for the latter half of the evening, sets from Bobby Pleasure, B-Traits, Jackmaster and Peggy Gou were a fitting prelude to the afternoon of discussions. The latter two have been particularly vocal in the last few years about the treatment and under representation of female DJs. Indeed, the massively-popular Glaswegian DJ, who had previously run afoul for ignorant comments on the issue, last year amended his performance contract to stipulate that he will only play on 25 per-cent female lineups.
With the sun starting to set behind the Oval Space curtains, canted rust and water-towers, the chairs are cleared and families depart. B-Traits, Radio 1's most eclectic track selector, offered an impressive, impromptu set of melodic tech alongside an anonymous friend, after a late cancellation. Jackmaster's set is a bundle of energy with very few letups, upbeat Bear-hug house, with the odd foray into soul and disco classics, and remixed Donna Summer. The extremely relaxed vibe of a not-packed-out Oval space, with everyone seemingly here to appreciate the music, very little lighting or effects but ample space to dance, made for a special end to the proceedings.
Peggy Gou, who spoke recently with MixMag about her initial forays into the music industry and being mocked both for her ethnicity (the pronunciation of her name) and gender, served up a real treat of a closing set. Fittingly, a theme has developed at her gigs of her name being unremittingly chanted to a very different tune. Her meteoric rise in 2017 saw her play over 170 sets globally and she performs here tonight on the back of an Essential Mix and a newly released EP 'Once' (on Ninja Tune). The standout single 'It makes You Forget (Itgehane)' is a cathartic piece of 1990s-influenced house, subtle production values, and also marks her singing debut (in Korean). Here, she teases the low end in and out in a two hour set of pumping house, with expert departures into acid house and disco, and infectious rhythms throughout.
'Peggy's zone' for tonight is the decks of Oval Space, not Panorama Bar. She infamously declared it her ambition early in 2017 to be the youngest female DJ and first Korean DJ to play the Berlin institution, and ascended the steps only a few months later. Whilst the proceedings ran until a sensible 12am, not midday Monday, this London crowd were grateful for a Sunday dance.
Look out for the vinyl and EP, Needs004, coming soon.