By KELLEY KING and EMILY FALVEY
This is part 2 of a 2-part series on the topic of music production education in schools.
This is part 2 of a two-part series on the topic of music production education in schools. In part 1, we explored the rationale and recommendations for bringing music production education into schools. In this article, we examine the under-representation of women in music production and provide recommendations from female trail-blazers in the music industry.
The world of music production has always been, and continues to be, the ultimate boys’ club. In fact, according to a 2021 study by Stacy Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Institute, women make up only 2.6% of music producers. As a result, being in an audio class or in the recording studio can be a lonely and intimidating experience for women. At Writers Room U, we are committed to gender equality in all facets of music creation, so we found five women at various stages of their music industry careers. We asked them what advice they have for girls and young women who aspire to produce music. Here they are and what they had to say:
- Alex Kline: A Nashville-based songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer, Alex Kline is the first woman to solely produce a #1 country radio hit – which was also the first #1 country radio single to be written, performed and produced by an all-female team. Credits include Tenille Arts, Erin Enderlin, Adam Brand, Terri Clark and more.
- Leslie Richter: Leslie is a Nashville-based recording engineer and producer of over 20 years with credits including Sheryl Crow, Sara Bareilles, Rascal Flats and Kacey Musgraves. In addition to her work in the studio, Leslie is an instructor of Audio Engineering Technology at Belmont University.
- Beverly Keel: As Dean of College of Media and Entertainment at MTSU, Beverly is the first female dean in the college’s history. She is an award-winning journalist who co- founded the “Change the Conversation” coalition to help fight gender inequality and the “Nashville Music Equality” to address racism in country music.
- Jillian O’Shea: Jill is currently a senior at Belmont University majoring in Audio Engineering and she is the President of the “Women in Audio” student organization. Jill is focusing professionally on sound design for a variety of media including music, film, TV, advertising, and gaming.
- Jo Mackenzie: Jo is currently a senior at Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kansas. She is a self-taught producer who will be attending the University of Southern California on a full-ride scholarship to major in music production in fall 2022.
Barriers for women exist in the music industry, just as they exist in other fields. Leslie Richter shared that “people hire who they know – and in music production especially, men tend to know men; in fact, they may not even know a woman producer.” Richter also shared that when a female producer is in the room, “there is often an assumption that she is someone’s girlfriend.” Alex Kline commented that “female producers are more likely to be brought in to produce for female artists” and that producing for male artist is a bigger barrier to overcome. Additionally, Kline shared that “music is sometimes written in places where it is harder for a woman to work with men, like in a hotel room or on a tour bus.”
Other barriers present themselves closer to home. Jill O’Shea shared, “It’s a tough gig. It often requires late hours at the studio and a lot of time away from home. It’s a lot of sacrifice.” Similarly, Kline shared that working long hours in a windowless studio isn’t for everyone and that that can deter some people, especially women with families. Jo Mackenzie worries that when girls see only male producers, they get the subconscious message that “that’s who’s meant for the role” and that women may subsequently opt themselves out. Relatedly, women don’t always receive family encouragement early on. Beverly Keel shared that women are often steered into the public relations and marketing aspects of the industry. O’Shea noted that “It took a lot of convincing to get my parents on board with the idea of going into audio engineering as a profession.” Richter (whose own parents were supportive of her career choice) heard from a female student that her parents didn’t want her going into a man’s career. “That flabbergasted me,” stated Richter, “and lit a fire under me that if I can do nothing else in this world, I can represent.”
Despite the gender barriers, all five of our interviewees are motivated and enthusiastic advocates and role models for women. Three overarching recommendations emerged from the five interviews. Namely, women should 1) take initiative to further their own learning, 2) find and access support systems for women in music, and 3) network diligently.
Take Initiative to Learn:
- Kline learned by watching videos on YouTube, by observing other producers work, and by joining a women’s group who helped teach each other. O’Shea also learned a lot from free online production and mixing videos on a variety of websites. The message is that the learning can start today! As Mackenzie puts it, “The #1 most important thing you can do is start. Just start.”
- Richter encourages women to “choose your thing and become awesome at it. If it’s recording music or circuit design or programming or mixing for TV/film or creating content for YouTube or mixing monitors at your local club…. whatever it is… just go for it.”
Mackenzie shared an exercise that helps her to learn new techniques. She listens to songs she likes and then tries to re-produce them herself to see how closely she can match the production.
- O’Shea and Richter emphasized the importance of continuous learning – namely, knowing your strengths and weaknesses and working on improving your craft every day. Richter shared that “a degree in audio is just a step.”
- Keel shared the importance of staying abreast of current issues and trends in the field through reading, conferences and other opportunities.
- Welcome creative feedback. “Everyone has to start somewhere and getting feedback is the only way to grow,” shared O’Shea. Mackenzie encourages sharing your work and welcoming creative feedback in spite of any fear of rejection.
Connect with Formal & Informal Support Systems:
- Kline joined a small group of female music creators who helped each other grow tremendously – women with whom she met regularly to share stories, provide support and learn new techniques.
- Keel spoke to the importance of being a part of small groups of women who can talk openly – “‘Yes, that happened to me too.’ It’s important for women to realize they aren’t alone, how to handle it, how to learn from it.”
- O’Shea shared, “There were a lot of times when I didn’t feel cut out for this industry. It was always my friends who encouraged me to keep pushing.”
- Mackenzie recommended seeking out female mentors. “It is important to see women in the role, to be able to ask questions and share the journey.” Keel stated that “women can be it if they can see it.” She recommended that women seek out both male and female mentors.
- Put yourself out there and meet new people in the industry. O’Shea and Kline both emphasized the importance of building relationships in the industry as a means of opening doors to new opportunities.
- Keel and Richter recommended attending any and all available networking events for women and to join professional organizations.
- Richter encourages women to not get discouraged if they encounter bias: “Remember that if someone doesn’t want to work with you because you are a woman, they are probably someone you don’t want to work with anyway.”
- Keel recommended that female producers find an artist they believe in and build a creative team around that artist with other women. “Work with those who you believe have the best chance of breaking through.”
As in all aspects of society and forms of media, diversity is important. O’Shea asks, “If there are only male producers telling the stories of female artists, then are we getting the true creative vision there?” The good news is that awareness has grown. After decades in the industry, Richter is seeing some steps in the right direction. Several organizations for women in audio have emerged over the last decade (we have curated a list here) which offer an array of supports and opportunities. Women themselves play a role too: Let your work ethic and attitude speak for itself, know the challenges up front and be deliberate in pursuing your dreams. As O’Shea so aptly sums it up, “Women deserve to feel like they have an important place in the world, in ALL areas of life – and that includes music production.”
Dr. Kelley King, retired school principal, and Emily Falvey, Nashville-based songwriter, run Writers Room U, an organization which brings the music industry into K-12 classrooms across the country. With its deep industry connections, Writers Room U recruits top music creators to teach students about all aspects of the music industry, including music production. For more information about bringing these experiences to your school, go to writersroomu.com.