Is there a boys club behind the beats? An in-depth look at the EDM industryBy Sam DeLeo | August 16th, 2012 | 8 comments
To a generation raised in the computer age, electronic music is almost as intuitive as it is accessible. With a laptop and a few plug-ins, you can do it yourself. And while there are DJs all over the world creating electronic music full of orchestral movements, classical and jazz underpinnings, and old school turntable scratching, electronic dance music (EDM) is by far the industry breadwinner.
EDM event promoter NightCulture, Inc., saw its profits increase by 36 percent from 2010 to 2011, with a 139 percent increase in the first quarter of 2012, according to PR Newswire. Earlier this month, Forbes released a report on the highest-paid DJs in the world, with the top 10 earning between $7 and $22 million over the last year. Dubstep kingpin Skrillex was nominated for five Grammys this year and took home three. Over the last 12 months, he’s also made $15 million.
Dance culture is just as popular as it was during the days of disco, minus one notable exception: if you’re looking for the Donna Summers, the Gloria Gaynors or the Pointer Sisters of today, you don’t find many. During the reign of ‘90s house music, DJs hired and featured female gospel singers who, while not household names, helped define that dance era’s sound. But these days, EDM is largely a male-dominated music.
From the days of clandestine warehouse raves in the ‘80s to sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden in 2012, the party image that electronic dance music projects is one of people congregating simply to have a good time and dance. Some female DJs claim they see a different side of the industry.
“DJ culture seems to be based on the same principles as most classic music genres,” said Merrill Nisker, a.k.a. Peaches, the Toronto-born DJ and performance artist. “The male ego needs to be stroked over and over again. But for forward-thinking electronic music, women have been prominent, from electro-clash to witch house.” With rock, electro and performance elements in her music, Peaches has been able to avoid the confines of any single genre, including dance. “And I established from the beginning I wasn’t having the old sexist ways.”
Forbes’ list of the world’s 10 highest-paid DJs does not include any women. The only female DJ to ever break into DJ Mag’s top 10 was England’s Lisa Lashes in 2000. Lashes appeared somewhere in the magazine’s top 100 list for 10 years, leading to her website reference as the world’s No.1 female DJ. “It has always been very male dominated,” said Lashes. “So, I’d love to see a few more ladies featured in the poll to even out those numbers.” Still, Lashes feels she has not been treated any differently within the industry than men. “If you’re good at what you do and you hold your own, there is no need for any sexism in whatever job you choose to do.”
Los Angeles-based Charissa Saverio, a.k.a. DJ Rap, has been voted the No. 1 female DJ in the world by magazines, polls and Shejay.net, an online community that started in 2001 and is dedicated exclusively to the booking and promotion of female DJs. Her 1999 album “Learning Curve” sold over a million copies. Often referred to as the “First Lady of Drum ‘n Bass” for her pioneering work in that genre, Saverio’s presence in the industry has been expansive — she owns two record labels and also works as a producer, singer and actress.
And yet, her successes have not altered her belief that sexism exists in the industry. “Absolutely yes, and it continues,” said Saverio. “When I broke through, I got my brother on the phone to pretend he was DJ Rap, and that’s how I got booked. I’ve had promoters tell me they want to (bleep) me but they wouldn’t book me. It’s very much a boys club, and about five promoters decide who makes it and who doesn’t.” But Saverio also sees complexity in the different angles of sexism. “There’s also an expectation that all you have to do is look cute (as a woman),” said Saverio. “But why should you be great if you’re not putting in the time necessary to be great? Any idiot can play two records, especially with a computer telling you how, but it takes skill to create live mixes that are not pre-planned.”
The careers of those like Peaches, Lisa Lashes and DJ Rap encourage women that success is attainable.
“The hard part is breaking in as a woman,” said Ginger Perry, a Denver-based DJ. “I’ve had to open for a male DJ that I beat at the (Westword awards) showcase, for example. I had one promoter say to me, ‘I can’t book you because what if people think I’m booking you just because you’re a girl?’ And I hate the idea that when I say things like this to people, it’s like, ‘You’re just complaining.’ It’s always guys who say that to me.”
Working in New York with Prince Paul and DJ Licious to develop the duo Hypnotixx, Debby Sanden, a.k.a. DJ Desire, has gotten used to the idea of having to prove herself, even after relocating to Denver and broadening her focus from hip-hop to dance and other genres. “People, mostly men,” said Sanden, “still come up to the DJ booth to ‘investigate’ and see if I’m really DJing. I’ve been DJing for 10 years, I don’t really mind any more.” Realizing the highest-paid DJs are male, Sanden created Star DJ Agency to supplement her own career by booking and promoting other women in the field.
Critics sometimes reference the sexuality of female DJs, and there are women in the industry who clearly promote their sex appeal more than others to further their careers. The double standard cuts the other way, too, Perry said — gay DJs, for example, can play a set in a Speedo without having other men question whether they are using sexuality to compensate for a perceived lack of talent behind the decks.
“For me, sexism is about more than the ‘presence’ or ‘lack’ thereof in a field,” said Bianca Williams, assistant professor of Ethnic Studies the University of Colorado Boulder. “The lack of female DJs may be a symptom, but it’s not the marker of sexism itself. And the presence of more women DJs won’t automatically challenge sexism. People have to actually engage in discussions about why men are considered superior and women inferior in the same job.”
Whether that discussion has begun or not is debatable. Maybe we’re still looking for the right words. “The first year I won an award, guys were really pissed,” said Perry. “This year when I won, a lot of guys came up to me and said, ‘Hey, you’re doing great.’”
Denver-based writer Sam DeLeo is a published poet, has seen two of his plays produced and recently completed his novel, “As We Used to Sing.” His selected work can be read at samdeleo.com