Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyDecember 21, 2021

The music industry still isn’t safe for women – but they’re working on it

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Calls for change in the music industry have grown louder than ever. Jessie Moss finds out what needs to be done.

It’s been a quiet and frustrating year for the music industry. Gigs postponed and cancelled. Recording sessions on hold. It’s also been a year of recalibration and reflection for many who are working on improving the industry; in particular, how to make it safer. 

Years of media and personal stories documenting the abuse of women in the industry, and high rates of women dropping out of the music business altogether, show there’s an urgent need for change.

But one year on from APRA and Massey University’s impactful 2020 Gender Diversity report, Amplify Aotearoa, what tangible progress has been made? With musicians stepping back on stage this summer, will their workplaces and audiences be safer? 

Singer Katie McCarthy-Burke says she’s seen harassment often. When playing privately, she explains, “there’s no security, there’s no St. John’s. Because it’s a private party, there’s a lack of accountability. People will behave how they want.” She says alcohol and drug use is common at both public and private events. “In that situation, I already feel a loss of control. As a performer, that environment is quite dangerous.”

The APRA report showed 70% of its registered women writers experience bias, discrimination and disadvantage due to gender; that’s seven times the rate of men surveyed. Additionally, nearly half of them reported feeling unsafe in places where music is made and performed. Of all the disparities the report highlighted, it’s the findings of danger to women and their precarity in the industry that is most obvious and pressing.

Massey University senior lecturer Catherine Hoad and associate professor Oli Wilson, the report’s authors, were concerned when Tertiary Education Commission data showed first year enrolments in music study nationwide were led by men. “We were attracting a certain demographic to study music,” says Wilson.

Hoad added the trend across university study in other fields is slightly in favour of students who identify as women; the field of music is an anomaly. Wilson says on viewing the data, they immediately had an interest in correcting it. “We are motivated to get the best results for our students to work towards a fairer industry. That’s why we picked up the phone to APRA.”

Hoad says the numbers 60% men to 40% women in first year study send a clear message. “It’s a widespread problem, and we have numbers to back that up. We need to take a serious look at what we are actually doing to change the conditions on the ground for women and gender diverse people working in the industry.”

Tami Neilson at the 2021 Aotearoa Music Awards wearing a black dress emblazoned with "equality" and feminist imagery.
Tami Neilson attends the 2021 Aotearoa Music Awards at the Aotea Centre wearing a dress protesting the treatment of women in the music industry. (Photo: Dave Rowland/Getty Images)

RadioActive programme director Harri Robinson says her team is always striving to keep up to date with “current societal feelings about nuanced issues”. She’s committed to making her community safer, and says the work is never done.

“We have a 40 year history and a very dedicated fanbase. With that comes a social responsibility to make sure that we are maintaining ethical, inclusive, opportunistic environments as much as we possibly can. That kaupapa is never done.”

Coming into the station, you can’t miss the signage making clear their stand on sexual harm. “What does bystander intervention look like?” reads one poster. “When you see sexual harassment #dosomething”. The team is clear on its policies, and Robinson says no one is above reproach. “No one in this industry, regardless of the intentions in that space, is above things going wrong. It’s making sure that if things do go wrong, we are taking ‘a person who has experienced harm’ first approach.”

She knows it’s a difficult subject to navigate. “No one likes to talk about people being harmed, especially in an industry as tight knit and close as in New Zealand. It’s so important to give people safe spaces to talk. I found a whole bunch of new help foundations that I hadn’t heard of. I thought, if I haven’t heard of these, maybe our listeners haven’t either?” 

Promoter Lucy* is working hard to make her organisation’s expectations and policies clear. Prioritising women’s success and wellbeing has become central to her career. 

Having been in promotions for many years and seen the industry’s failings, Lucy found herself driven to run her own festival to create more opportunities for women, both on and off stage. As well as finding women to perform, the security team at her festival were mostly women to decrease intimidation and increase approachability. 

Lucy is very open about what she’s doing. “We are not going to hide away from it. This year we came up with a code of conduct and complaints process. We hire young women, [so] we need to have things in place so they feel secure, a professional boundary. We’re setting expectations. We’ve got zero tolerance for sexual harassment.”

Promoters, like venues and management, have to consider both musicians and the public, as musicians’ workspaces are often public leisure spaces. 

McCarthy-Burke often feels audiences don’t consider music a job, and that’s a problem. “We have the same rights as anybody in an office building. This is work. I don’t need people coming up and trying to kiss me while I’m doing my job. Whether it be other musicians or the crowd, it’s inappropriate and it’s not safe.”

For a year now, music industry action group SoundCheck Aotearoa has run professional respect training workshops with the aim of “developing and growing our industry through a safe and inclusive culture”. One of its aims is to empower musicians with knowledge of their working rights and responsibilities; while most are self-employed, this doesn’t diminish the fact that anyone hiring a musician is an employer. Both have responsibilities to ensure safe workplaces, including preventing and dealing with sexual harassment and harm. 

There is an employer-employee relationship between musicians, venues, and all other staff at a concert. (Photo: Getty)

However, dealing with harassment and harm on the job is not as easy as knowing your rights. 

When she experienced harassment, McCarthy-Burke appealed to her bandmates. More than once, she has been left to deal with situations herself. “If no one in your band does anything to keep you safe, you get this message that no one gives a shit about you, so get on with your job.”

She says the message was clear: “Don’t make a scene. You’re just there to sing and shut up. I’m put in a position where I have to choose whether I want to be viewed as a boat rocker or keep my head down.”

She knows that women in the industry suffer more, expressing her frustration that “it doesn’t happen to you guys”. She gets the sense that she is replaceable if she has a problem. She wishes musicians themselves would speak out, especially men. “[It would be good] to know that someone was willing to put their neck out. The trouble is that most people feel like they’re literally putting their neck on the chopping block to stop abuse. How did that become something you would get vilified for, being an ally for someone who’s a victim of abuse?”

Former bartender and artist manager Indigo* has seen and experienced sexual harassment on the job. “This stuff isn’t happening where no one can see it. The most humiliating thing is when you’re in public and the whole room can see you.”

Despite her experiences, Indigo feels hopeful. As a young woman who has worked in multiple areas of the industry, she has advice for promoters and venue owners. While she likes seeing Ask Angela signs in venues, the security staff need to be on board too. “It’s frustrating to see young women being assaulted and then the male security kicks them out because he doesn’t know how to handle that situation.”

When running a gig, Indigo makes sure to have a “kōrero with the band, venue management, the bar staff and the security. It doesn’t cost anything to do that.”

Wilson is hopeful. “My optimism comes from our graduates being the ones who drive that change, who are technologically equipped, but also equipped with a critical understanding of power, and how power relationships dictate labour relationships in our industry, which we know through our work is heavily gendered.”

For Lucy, an ideal world would be where “females have been booked for headline slots, and where the crowd is diverse and safe. Where sexual harm is low and intoxication is low. To enjoy live music experiences. That’s the vision for my event, to try and change what I can.’ 

*Lucy and Indigo were interviewed anonymously. These names protect their identities. 

Learn more or seek help:

Wellington, January 17: Safer Spaces in Music Education hui

SoundCheck Aotearoa training and events

SoundCheck Aotearoa reporting tools


Girls Rock! Aotearoa

Respect Ed Aotearoa

Rape Prevention Education 

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