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‘In all honesty it’s a hostile environment’: A music promoter on kicking down the boys’ club doors

As part of Equalise My Vocals, a new Spinoff project focusing on equality in the music community, Coco Solid speaks with Marie Celeste Lawrence about her work as a promoter, event manager and musician.

In Auckland, Marie Celeste Lawrence is a fixture within the male dominated worlds of event management and music promotion. A music community participant since she was a teenager, Lawrence is currently the general manager of Studio on Karangahape Rd; she’s also involved in the rehabilitation of the St James and various other music initiatives. These include a DJ rehearsal space at The Audio Foundation that encourages all genders to learn how to mix, as well as working to formalise signage and safety protocol for women who feel unsafe at venues. Lawrence has also played in bands, currently DJ’ing and producing under the name Jaded Nineties Raver. I asked Marie Celeste to share her bird’s eye view of a fraught local industry and the business side of live music.

Coco Solid: Equalise My Vocals is focusing on the wide spectrum of ‘music’ when listening to experiences and stories. So we need to look at every element of what comprises a music scene. I don’t only want to talk to necessarily musicians, I also need to talk to all people in the cut, those physically out there doing labour behind the scenes. Event managers and promoters are a huge part of that. So as a woman in your profession, are you in the minority or is it fairly diverse?

Marie Celeste Lawrence: Absolutely I am a minority. In saying that I feel like I’m very well-respected by my male colleagues, but I think that’s because I’m very good at what I do. I don’t think it’s right, but women have to be better than guys to come up even. So if you’re at the top of your game you can know you’re not just good, you’re fucking good! And when you have that security and confidence you feel happier about projecting your ideas and being direct within day-to-day business.

Ok. So no one can fuck with you?

No one can fuck with me.

(Both crack up)

They can’t. Because they know I know what I’m doing. But I’m also very prepared to listen, and learn, and be called out, and take it on when I’m not right and to not take all of that critique as being directed at me because I’m female. Shit needs to be said to people sometimes, regardless of what sex you are. Listen objectively and move on.

Do you think that’s the key to being a good promoter and event manager?

I think that’s the key to being a good person in any role.

Do you encounter people, let’s say the old problematic types … basically, how does someone make your job difficult?

Lying. There’s a lot of lying in this work. Everyone is on the make. That part of it can really get you down. You rarely feel like you can fully trust anyone.

It’s a male dominated realm in terms of technicians, promoters … people must make a lot of assumptions.

Like I said, I do feel respected by all the techs I work with and… 90 percent of the promoters I work with. The one thing I do really notice in regard to me being a female in this work is that because I am very direct, I will occasionally be accused of being angry, or getting too worked up. I’m not. This is in written correspondence – I’ll read back over it, show it to my partner, and it will be completely rational, and I know if it had come from a male…

It wouldn’t be an issue?

It wouldn’t. In saying that it doesn’t happen that often but when it does it really gets you down. It’s a highly stressful job, I read somewhere the other day that event management is one of the most stressful jobs out there. There’s a lot of egos to keep happy.

What other things come up for you that wouldn’t come up for a man in your position?

My team are really respectful, they can see I know what I’m doing. But the odd thing comes up. I had a bar manager say to me he should be the one to have lunch with a promoter like ‘just leave it to me, I can bro down with him’. I had to laugh in his face and he didn’t last long. It’s not about ‘bro-ing down’. He was just very immature and didn’t last long under my watch.

We were talking about other young women coming up in your profession …

Yeah, there’s not many – I’d like some more!

So there’s an inclination to want to help and mentor people who are learning that skillset that you’ve honed?

Absolutely. I’ve got experience and I want to see younger people doing things right. I’m also pro-action. As part of a collective I operate these ‘Haven’ nights and we only want people who can actually DJ without a controller. We really want more women. We had a fantastic show the other night with a woman headlining and a 50/50 line-up, two guys, two girls. That would be great to happen regularly.

Why can’t that happen regularly do you think?

It’s complex. It’s helping that I’m working with Audio Foundation in Auckland to set up rehearsal space so we can have turntables, CDJs, a mixer. It would be a cheap, easy solution to some of these problems. It won’t be exclusively for women but it will be an environment that would be welcoming to women.

So when we see this shortage, this disproportionate gender issue on line-ups …

We have to think of solutions. We can’t just be frustrated at how things are.

Right, not just berate the line-up and outcomes, interrogate the deeper issues …

We need to look at the whys …

What are those whys? If we’re going to touch on systemic solutions, one you’re offering is a place for women to learn how to DJ … so they’re more likely to get those opportunities. Having more diverse line-ups, trying to mentor more women in your profession …

Making an effort to actually fix and confront the problem. We don’t have enough female DJs, so set up a place where they feel comfortable rehearsing.

And get more genders working within the environment of music overall?

Yes. There’s not necessarily many women who want to … because in all honesty it’s a hostile environment.

But you obviously thrive in it.

(Bursts out laughing) Maybe I do! I don’t know. I feel like it’s going to kill me at times but maybe I do thrive in it.

In your mind, it’s only natural that other genders are reluctant to get involved though?

I had a friend who was always doing good work, she was professional and really lovely. She was one of the few other girls I knew in the industry and I always thought she had great potential, she was a cool person and I was always wanted to hire her. I finally got that opportunity and I called her up to which she said “I’m out of the industry, I’m over it and I can’t do it. I don’t want to be around that”. It’s hard, we get into this world because we love music, but you get to the point where I am and you look around you… and you wonder if all these people around you actually like music. These are music promoters. It’s actually really sad. It’s not about music, it’s about money.

It becomes like any other racket, as opposed to a music community, I’m guessing.

This is why I segment Studio as my work and why I want to still contribute to the things I really love about this industry. Things like bringing good, young, diverse music to an audience and trying to fill gaps that are missing. That’s why I think I’ll always remain active at an underground level. I always want to be there to support youth in this industry too, because I think they get a terrible deal and they don’t get good advice given to them half the time.

So if we’re talking about ‘hostile’ and ‘troubled’ environments in music, and you literally have a friend who tapped out because she could no longer withstand it, what exactly are we talking about?

I suppose it’s just a constant feeling of no matter who these people are, you can never 100 percent trust them. That’s not a nice environment, but that’s the nature of the business and it starts way up. The music industry is run essentially by 60-year-old men in America and Europe. That comes all the way down and that’s where it is at the moment. And we have to start from the ground up. I think we are, in New Zealand we are. I was in Europe last year joining my partner on tour and my God it was male dominated. It was a dick fest. I appreciated while I was there how many more women performers and musicians we have back here. Maybe not so much in the electronic world yet, but that I think we might be behind in general, with all genders.

So with building it up from the ground up and moving away from these older men who run the game at its nucleus, all these old patterns within the industry cement the dysfunction within the scene here …

I’m hoping time will change that. Action combined with time.

What does a renewed scene look like to you? What’s the big shift you want to see?

What I would like to see are more women promoters. That is what is noticeably male dominated. There’s often women in A&R, the liaison roles, the accounts, the promo. But I also want to see strong women promoters.

Why?

Because I’d like to actually work with some! So it’s not this sausage fest.

You want more friends up in here …

Yeah! I think women are thorough and organised and I think we make great promoters. But from the top up, it’s such an old-school heavy boys club.

And the archetype of the promoter is old, the cigar-chewing hard-man who will come through and ‘bust your balls’ for the $50 you owe them.

That is so true! Yes. Absolutely.

So when someone like you springs up in the scene, that must surprise a lot of people.

Yes, I’ve seen that. A few noses were out of joint when I was offered the St James position.

Simply because you’re a woman?

Sometimes yes, but with the St James I felt more like it was because I’m not an Aucklander.

I think a lot of women seldom enter an institutional situation with the assumption that they run the joint.

See, I do. Because I work hard and I know my shit. I’ve also been through some pretty harrowing personal experiences and I chose to recognise and value my own strength and survival skills from these. Therefore, I feel confident that I can handle anything life throws at me. Most of the time.

The whole ‘assuming this is mine’ mentality is something I still struggle to pull off every day. The entitlement some of us should really have.

I think women can be competitive against each other too. I’ve seen it and we can be our own worst enemy.

I personally think that’s because there is so little leeway, so few roles and environments for us safely carved out. To me that competitive conflict is always a set-up and it’s only natural that our insecurities are constantly tested.

There’s that constant fight to get into that one place I agree … but there is so much room for all of us.

It’s a myth isn’t it?

I’m on the end of that myth all the time. I see guys working so closely together and I know we can do the same thing, but there’s often an underlying competitiveness and distrust between women themselves. I find it incredibly disappointing whenever I see it.

If I can touch on the issue of safer venues and creating better spaces for people to enjoy music in – you’re working in live music, where some genders are more vulnerable than others. Is that something that is important to you?

I approached the police awhile ago to see what kind of signage they had because I felt we were lacking here. I wanted women to know they were able to come to the bar and get help. Women, men, any gender. So I contacted them and they didn’t have anything … women abuse centres had limited resources too. This week I’m about to get involved with a designer to do some artwork that we can put in all the bars locally. Just something that gives people options. It’s nothing new, I’ve seen it done abroad. Something along the lines of ‘are you on a Tinder date?’ or ‘are you uncomfortable?’ – maybe order a particular drink if you’re unsafe, we’ll know what you are talking about and we can help you out.

You being a wahine must impact your interest in that aspect of your work?

It does! It’s interesting because when I presented this to my male peers I could tell they were …

Apathetic?

A little bit. But I stressed the importance of it because I understand the importance of it myself. And it helps that I‘ve been encouraged by a female police officer on the initiative who also sees the importance.

Do you think it is more of a need for this kind of thing?

There’s a need for it definitely. I don’t think there’s more of a need for it than there ever was though.

So now’s the time to address it, isn’t it?

Exactly. It needs to be addressed.

In your line of work, what do you want to see change locally within music?

I would like to see more of an interest in support of local artists here in terms of support slots for internationals. We’ve got incredible talent in this country and a lot of promoters are blissfully unaware about what is going on. I think it’s their responsibility to be more aware. I think the net needs to be cast wider in a lot of ways. Don’t just give support to your mates.

So chill on the old Kiwi nepotism a bit? Get more invested in the quality of the art again?

Yes. I will book people I don’t like, but I think they’re fantastic musicians.

(Bursts out laughing) That is so not how we roll traditionally, it can be such a small, bitchy place. But I guess it is important for the culture isn’t it?

Absolutely. If people are only booking their mates for big opportunities, you are going to be stuck in mediocrity. If we want things to get good, we have to look at the musicians and the concerts we’re putting on. Because what should we want to be the best? The music.

What would you say to a thorough, bolshy hostile-environment friendly youngin’ who is thinking about getting into this profession? For those thinking ‘hmmm should I get into this racket or not’, what would you say to tip them over into your line of work?

Do this work because you love music. And try not to get too down when you realise that in much of the industry’s eyes music is simply another commodity.

Equalise My Vocals is a panel event and music showcase on gender equality in music happening in May 2017. As part of the project, Coco Solid will be conducting a series of interviews for The Spinoff, talking to a wide range of women, transgender and non-binary people, within all sectors of New Zealand music. Overall this project is about sharing stories and pooling knowledge and experience, while building a rolodex of resources for music-lovers (of all genders) who might need them in the future.

Read more here:

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

An update on Coco Solid’s campaign to fix NZ music’s gender problem

‘People want a reward for ticking the boxes … That’s not going to cut it. That’s not equality’: A conversation with Jessie Moss


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