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Girls Rock London: Challenging the under-representation of women in music head on

In 2017, a unique music project for girls and women, Girls Rock London (GRL), received investment, mentoring and support from Sound Connections' Innovate programme. The funding enabled GRL to centre the voices of young women in the design and facilitation of its work and to act as mentors during its Summer camps, Camp Co-ordinator, Geraldine Smith, explains.

In 2017, a unique music project for girls and women, Girls Rock London (GRL), received investment, mentoring and support from Sound Connections’ Innovate programme. The funding enabled GRL to centre the voices of young women in the design and facilitation of its work and to act as mentors during its Summer camps, Camp Co-ordinator Geraldine Smith explains.

‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is something we say a lot at Girls Rock London. In 2018, women are still combating a lack of visibility at all levels of the UK music industry. Nowhere shows this more starkly than the UK music festival scene, which provides such an important platform for emerging and established artists. Statistics from 2014 show that at the UK’s biggest mainstream festivals that year – Isle of Wight, Glastonbury, Latitude, Reading and Leeds, V Festival and Bestival – female bands made up only 3.5% of all scheduled acts. At Reading 2015, 78 out of 87 acts planned to perform were all-male with only three all-female and six mixed gender bands. That is a 90% all-male line-up.

Festival owners have lined up to provide explanations as to why women appear to be making music less than men and these explanations range from denial (‘there is no problem!’) to differing motivations (‘women just aren’t as inspired to make music as men!’) to genre (‘women don’t like making rock music!’). Depressingly, all of these are actual reasons given by festival bookers for the lack of women on the bill but at Girls Rock London, we don’t believe any of these explanations get to the truth of what is really happening.

We think that women and girls are less likely to perform music because of a lack of opportunity, confidence and role models and because of societal norms and expectations about what girls and women ‘do’ in music. For example, in our own work, we find that young women are much more attracted to vocals than playing instruments and this makes sense when you think about the number of successful female vocalists in the mainstream charts and media (Adele, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Katy Perry) versus representation of female bands in these areas where women are playing instruments, writing and producing as well singing.

So why does it matter that fewer women are making and performing music than men? We believe it is important for a range of reasons, not least because all of us are missing out on half the population’s creative output. But it also matters because music has the power to change people’s lives – and affect change in society. Music is a powerful vehicle for self-expression and making and performing music can improve people’s wellbeing. So when one half of our population is less likely to experience these benefits, we are talking about a societal injustice.

The context to this lack of representation is what is happening to young women in this country at high school age, which research shows is a time when their self-confidence drops off a cliff. Research also explains how low self-esteem and confidence can ‘journey’ with a person throughout life, meaning that, as many women get older, it is likely that their confidence levels will remain low, leading to a lower quality of life all-round.

These two facts combined – the under-representation of women in music and confidence issues with young women that can last a lifetime – were the motivating factors for a group of female musicians, including myself, to set up Girls Rock London. We aim to make an impact in both of these areas, using ‘rock camps’ to work intensively with girls and women over the course of a few days, giving their confidence and self-esteem a boost and increasing the number making and performing music.

We believe our approach is unique. We combine musical education with a therapeutic approach that centres young women’s voices and experiences. At our camps, participants learn the basics of an instrument, form a band with other young women, write a song and perform in front of a live audience in just six days. We want to banish the myth that only expert players have the right to be on stage and demystify the music-making process (the old adage about only needing to play three chords to play a rock song isn’t true – one will do!). In addition to equipping young women with the tools to create music, we book female bands and acts to perform at camp and hold Q&A sessions with these artists afterwards, allowing participants to speak directly to women in the industry. We facilitate workshops about body image, gender and the media, band identity and lyric-writing. We encourage young people to reflect on their experiences and lives, to be supportive of each other and to take risks in their music-making.

In encouraging young women to support each other to be brave, we place a lot of emphasis on kindness. In this environment – where we actively challenge the idea that a women-only environment will be ‘bitchy’ – we see girls and women who face major challenges in their lives begin to thrive.

Of course, gender is only one aspect of people’s lives and identities and the young people we work with also experience income inequality, racism, barriers related to disability and a range of other issues. We have worked hard since the beginning to ensure that young people from low-income backgrounds have been able to access our services. We provide a minimum of 50% of the places at our young people’s camp completely free and work with partners in Hackney to identify young women who they think would benefit from our approach. And we are always learning about the lives of the young people that we work with and trying to understand how we can support them best in their lives as musicians and young women.

It can be hard for some young women to imagine themselves in a role which they rarely see other women occupying. That’s why at our camps, all of the volunteers and staff are women and it’s also why we invite female acts down to the camps to perform to our young people – so that they can literally ‘see’ lots of other women making, producing and performing a diverse range of contemporary music.

This year, with help from Sound Connections‘ Innovate programme, we employed three young women to curate this element of the camp. We wanted to centre the voices of young women not only as participants but also in the design of our programme. Through this project, our three Young Music Leaders (YMLs) introduced new female artists to participants and the rest of us at Girls Rock London. The YMLs also worked at our camp, acting as inspirational role models and mentoring young women close to their age.

So where next? We have been overwhelmed with the response to our first two years of programming and our own research shows that the impact of the camps on young people’s confidence is significant. We want to develop this work and increase the impact so we are currently making plans to deliver a year-round programme of activities for young and adult women. To do this, we need funding and, like many in the sector, have found accessing this a challenge. To date, our only support has been from Sound Connections and fundraising in the form of donations, events and selling merchandise. But with support from Sound Connections, we are applying to a number of grant-makers and hope that they will see the value of our work and support it longer term. Watch this space!

About the author

Geraldine Smith is co-founder, manager and performer in all-woman pop choir, Lips.

Based in London, Lips has been performing original arrangements of pop, dance, garage and disco classics since 2009. The 85-strong choir has performed at festivals including Bestival and Wilderness, at iconic London venues such as the Union Chapel and Royal Festival Hall and on BBC TV and Radio. Lips has performed with Goldfrapp at the Royal Albert Hall and with Leona Lewis on the track, Fireflies. Lips is a non-auditioning choir which also puts on club nights in London, promoting non-professional DJs in all-women line-ups. It is also a supporter of the grassroots group, Women Asylum Seekers Together London.

Between 2012 and 2013, Geraldine lived in Canada where she volunteered at Girls Rock Camp Vancouver. She is also a qualified Personal Development Coach with 13 years experience in the education, arts and voluntary sectors.