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Announcing Equalise My Vocals: A conversation about gender inequality in NZ music

Coco Solid and The Spinoff wants to have an actual conversation about gender equality in New Zealand music. That’s why we’ve teamed up to launch a new project focusing on sexism and sexual assault in the music community – and we’re inviting you to get involved.

Writing was always the more traditional interest of mine, the thing I mindfully pursued, studied and worked on. It was different to music, where I sorta just tripped over and found a huge part of myself and ironically most of my audience. Somehow I started in an all-girl punk rap band called The Pussies, fresh out of high school in relatively uptight Auckland, which is to say I started off with a bang.

It was a politicised joke, but I knew every time I wrote a song that maybe there was more to it for me. It was also my first taste of some seriously sexist bullshit, as you might expect. Perhaps the mental health that music offers me versus the mental health music takes away will always hold unfortunate hands, although the optimist in me hopes not.

I’ve always quietly known, no matter how insufferable I found the music industry to women, I can never get out of the racket completely. I am very Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon when it comes to this shit. Unfortunately, I’m invested. I’ve finally caved and accepted musicianship is just part of the deal and I’ll probably be resentfully putting on headphones when I’m 80, maybe testing an undeveloped banger in an elderly friend’s hovercraft in a carpark somewhere.

I converted my broom closet into a vocal booth recently you see, which is the Aotearoa way of saying I’ve started on my next record. Bands and steady collabs aside, it’s been five years since my last solo Coco Solid project and a couple of people have asked me why it’s been so long. I still think back to myself in my very first vocal booth recording, having fallen deep into the valley of mega-thrills but also feeling at home.

Someone in the studio said to me that day that I was as good as a guy. It was a strange backhanded compliment I couldn’t shake off. Back then I didn’t know music – something I loved with my entire being – had such a notorious underbelly. I didn’t know music would litter a big chunk of my adulthood with insincerity, predators, narcissists, reductive critique, insulting appraisals, a steady carousel of sexist bros and a casual array of power and trust abusers. But hey, let’s just say I know now. It’s buzzy that I still have the psychic strength to be making it in all honesty, outlasting a lot of the corny characters who almost put me off (and there were a lot). Maybe that’s enough of a vague but loaded explanation as to why it’s taken me so long to make another record.

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COCO SOLID (PHOTO: SUREN UNKA)

Making jams with my friends remains as fun and healing as ever. But the (haunted theremin sound) “industry” has always spooked me out. I am lucky that the push for makers to define the framework we work in has gained very real traction and respect. For every way in which one wants to produce music, there is now a fertile business model to suit (what a time to be alive etc). To some degree I love the flummoxed politics of musicianship as much as music. Or maybe I just had to learn to love industry discourse in order to survive it, not sure.

I love the whole 21st century ‘artists are behind this steering wheel and get to define where this machine is headed’ routine, it’s a big part of my schtick. We, especially marginalised artists, can do and say a lot of things we couldn’t previously. We don’t have to play every interaction like an overseas smartphone looking for a jailbreak; our transparency can find an audience that craves and supports such things and I have always awkwardly maintained this.

Locally, this has never been more obvious to me than The Spinoff story where a group of people came forward to speak against Andrew Tidball, a local promoter and music website personality who preyed on the trust of several young women. These survivors spoke out in an attempt to make their community safer, to validate and verify their experiences and to highlight a common figure that can be found in music scenes everywhere.

An eruption of critique, social media bullshit, hot takes, defences and power muteness broke out locally. The twist is: I know some of these wahine. I have always known these stories to be true. I also knew Tidball and I have my own stories of men in that scene (and other adjacent scenes) and how they have treated me personally. So I was jammed on pause when I saw the defensiveness, the apathy and the attacks – not on Tidball, but on those who spoke out.

I wasn’t duped by the lukewarm semantics of those who wanted to look righteous but also wanted to keep their hipster paychecks clean either. I watched guilt-ridden people make it about themselves. To me it was revealing, but sadly not surprising. Rape culture in New Zealand is still only being addressed as barely real. In my own circles, I saw people deeply and positively affected by the Tidball story starting to realise they had a valid account or two of similar experiences to share themselves. I saw friends get divided as the spectrum of trust got seriously tested, as is often the case when things hit close to home. There were even several examples of other known abusers in my community finally get the delayed confrontations they thought they were above getting.

This story, like many other stories where survivors found the courage to share, has had a significant impact. But too often there are no concrete outcomes with a productive or healing infrastructure. Socially, the awareness and concern is never adequately sustained and the beat literally goes on.

To let the issues that this story raised fade into the back of people’s minds would be disrespecting those who had the mana to tell it. I’m not looking to be an actual Danny Glover and I have no axe-grinding legal experience, but my suggestion is very real, and very simple: We have to start fostering music environments where this kind of hostile, exclusionary or predatory culture towards women isn’t possible anymore. That starts with talking about it as much as possible. Tasteful gripes aside, artists need to ask themselves if they wish to be a part of a scene or part of a community. I know which one I prefer and it requires that we hui, collab and conversate if it is to become real.

Last April, I got up in the NZ Music Month Twitter account and inbox just before May hit. I was feeling there was so much more to do as a community to raise new issues – surely that’s what artists (and their enablers) are supposed to facilitate? Although I understand the purpose of the month as directed by a government-funded trust, it is essentially showcasing the economic dexterity of our local canon as opposed to our cultural potential. I’m not a dumbass.

However I couldn’t watch another May pass and be told everything is thriving, we are marketable, we’re fine. Have a sponsored beer and listen to music from someone who is still living off the royalties from when the music business looked nothing like it does now. Countless people who make NZ Music Month possible – the musicians – should direct what that month looks like. If it is to remain productive and relevant it needs to diversify its purpose immediately. Why do we not hear from our bedroom producing digital giants finding a livelihood off the conventional grid? Closures of live venues is getting borderline dire – why don’t we talk about that? What about the race issues that finally got addressed at the last Vodafone Music Awards by Aaradhna, whenshe declined her dubious ‘urban’ award? How about workshops for financial management in music? And what about issues surrounding gender inequality in all its sprawling glory? Rape culture, safer venues, more inclusive line-ups?

After a pretty pedestrian response to my tweets (I was sent some emails and a survey, chur) I realised, bleakly, this may have to be an independent thing. This was confirmed even further recently, when one of the biggest art institutions in the country asked me to be a part of a high-profile panel series they were holding. The topic: inequality in music. The number of women on the panel? One. Me lol.

After a Monty Python email thread that would have you in stitches I swear (‘but the moderator is a woman’ being my favourite) I had to decline the offer. As a result from these two disheartening experiences I approached The Spinoff to collaborate on an event in 2017, in which known women and transgender artists in local music can be central to the conversations that affect us for once. I want us to talk about inequality in very real and productive terms and see what we can do to get this stale self-perception of what music is locally moving. I am so happy that The Spinoff is into this idea and a co-partnership. I just hope when we launch this that people support our plans and understand what it is we are trying to do.

There are snakes in the grass with music in every scene and in every country, from the booth, to the reviews, to the boardroom – it’s a distressing cut for a woman to be in sometimes. Certain industry ‘norms’ will inevitably attract and support such personalities, but I am not one to say ‘hey, that’s the nature of the biz’. It’s not the ‘80s and I’m not a male record exec stereotype. The moral fluidity within the arts allows for a toxic subjectivity that is too often milked by those wanting to take advantage.

We can open the can of discourse worms and hold up a journalistic mirror but that should be only the beginning. With necessary, game-changing conversations comes the responsibility of actually following up, building a new set of rules and centralising those who are constantly sweating just to be seen. A music community should fight to hear these stories, not fight these stories off. A music community is made up of 50% women, a community with a lot of women musicians and women industry professionals working behind the scenes. Music would fall on its fucking face without women to perform, produce, broadcast, promote and support the very thing it supposedly values.

Finally, I want anyone who comes forward to talk about these kind of issues in a bid to make their community safer to know that your story will never go unheard and many people, like myself, will be grateful to you. I want men who are just learning that this kind of danger not only exists but is common, to open their minds further. Support an influx in these kinds of conversations and pass the mic to the wahine in your life. I want people to support more authentic events, for facilitators to do the necessary work and rethink what ‘music equality’ looks like.

I have lots of projects ahead of me in 2017 and this broom closet mixtape already has me excited. What I would really like is to release and tour it in an environment that doesn’t put me off for another five years.

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Editor’s note: When Coco contacted us to ask whether we’d be interested in partnering on something like this, we felt instinctively like it was something we should support. We were aware in publishing our investigation earlier this year that it would start a lot of conversations, and be discussed by people with a far greater stake in the industry than us. We hoped that it would also go somewhere productive – that it might eventually lead somewhere which would prevent this kind of scenario arising again.

This is why we’re so determined to do what we can to help this project. And why we really want the team Coco puts together to have the time and space to really shape this thing. Too often the burden of events like these, which come from a fervent desire to effect real change for a whole community, is born by a tiny portion of those impacted by it. What we’re asking, then, is that if Coco’s essay moved you, and you have the money to spare, that you donate to help turn it into action.

This isn’t something she’s asked for – in fact, she’s resisted most of the way – but it’s something I think we should do. Because it will take time, and money, to bring a crew together, to give them the time and space to think on this, to come up with a true community-owned response to this situation.

We at The Spinoff will hold the money in trust, and gift it all to Coco and her team. We’re explicitly not saying how it will be spent. Flights, accommodation, venue hire, rent, food – we trust them to decide. And when it’s done, to return to us with a programme, a plan and a map for what they’ll do.

If you want to help, click here. If not, that’s cool too.

Duncan


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