Photo by Mara von Kummer
Despite its progressive rep, Berlin’s electronic music scene is a hard place to be a woman. In fact, the clubs may have gotten less inclusive since the 1990s. What’s causing the backslide?
“Are you a singer?” It’s a question Rachel Margetts has had to get used to hearing over the past three and a half years, ever since she started performing with an SP404 sampler, laptop, guitar, clarinet and home-built electronic instruments under the artist name Yr lovely dead moon. Sick of what she saw as a lack of opportunities in her native UK, she came to Berlin in January of 2016. In some ways, the city lived up to her expectations: within two weeks of arriving, she was in a band with two other expats, combining electronic effects, live samples and even poetry.
And yet: “People still assume I’m a singer, even here!” fumes Margetts. “When I show up to a venue with my equipment, when I’m talking to a guy I might want to collaborate with... all the time. It’s like people thinking that doctors are men and teachers are women: this idea that in electronic music, women sing and men produce.”
That kind of dismissal especially stings in Berlin, a city where “the queer and feminist history is so strong,” says Margetts. Like recent émigrés and internationally known musicians Holly Herndon and Laurel Halo, she moved here not just because of the German capital’s reputation for innovative techno and electronica, but because of the promise of an equal-opportunity music scene.
Unfortunately, despite outward appearances, Berlin seems to be full of the same old gender expectations she thought she’d left behind. A 2015 survey conducted by female:pressure – an international network of women in electronic music – found that female performers make up only 10.7 percent of bookings in Berlin’s major clubs, 12.7 percent of bookings at electronic festivals like Berlin Atonal and CTM, and 22.2 percent of electronic artists represented on German labels.
Then and now
More than most cities, Berlin has had a history of female electronic music pioneers. Among the most notable: Gudrun Gut of West Berlin all-female bands Mania D, Malaria! and Matador, now a producer, DJ and head of the label Monika Enterprise; Hanin Elias of 1990s punk-industrial outfit Atari Teenage Riot; and Ellen Allien of seminal techno label Bpitch Control. Gut co-founded Malaria! in the late 1970s, and remembers the atmosphere at the time as being more inclusive than today’s. “The scene had a lot of women involved at the start,” she says; which coincided with a creatively expansive atmosphere. “It wasn’t divided between electronic and non-electronic. Rock music was inventive, it was all mixed up.” When Berlin’s techno clubs emerged after the fall of the Wall, they too embodied this open-mindedness. “You’d always have the more eclectic room, the lounge, as well as the dancefloor. I used to play those rooms at the old Ocean club. It was always really exciting.”
But as the scene became more commercial and minimal techno took over, club diversity suffered. “Club acts have to follow the rules now: ‘bring the bass up, the drums down.’ There’s not much experimentation,” says Gut. “And when it got more professional, the women were kicked out.”
As techno has gone from a niche subculture to a bona fide industry, it’s men who have been pulling the strings. Desiree Vach is the owner of Snowhite Records, the label that released Elias’ current project Fantome. She’s also a board member of the national association of music companies in Germany. Her research found that only 7.4 percent of those companies are run by women, despite nearly half of all employees being female.
There have been situations that made this in equality painfully obvious to Vach. She recalls a meeting with a group of (male) music distributors. “When I entered the room, one of the men said, ‘Oh, good that you’ve come, I’ll take a coffee.’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not doing the coffee, I’m doing the presentation.’ At the time I laughed about it, but when I think about it now it makes me quite furious.”
Taking back tech
Men also rule the roost when it comes to music technology. “When I look for an Ableton Live production tutorial online, I find a ton of guys,” says Sky Deep, a Berlin-based DJ, producer and promoter. “Some are at different levels than others, but the fact that they see so many people who look like them doing it means that even if they’re a beginner they feel confident doing it. Women have to dream it up – they don’t see people who look like them doing it.”
Among the few females who present tutorials on Berlin’s production software of choice is Madeleine Bloom, a musician, producer, multi-instrumentalist and singer who once worked in tech support for Ableton. On her website, Bloom notes that during her time with the company (around 2011), only seven percent of its users were female. “As long as technology is associated with masculinity and stereotypical gender roles are supported, not much will change,” she says.
The assumption that men understand tech and women don’t is something even established figures face. “Just 10 days ago, my husband and I were at the Superbooth electronics fair at Funkhaus in Berlin,” says artist, musician and booker Mo Loschelder, who’s been producing and DJing since the early 1990s. “Some of the vendors gave us very detailed descriptions of their products, but always addressed my husband – who isn’t an electronic musician – and not me.”
What about feminism?
Loschelder is a co-founder of Heroines of Sound, an electronic festival that presents work by female pioneers like 20th century experimental composers Johanna Beyer, Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram alongside women of the current international scene. She worries that even as the history of the scene inspires new talent in the city, the women who shaped it aren’t being credited. “The scene was actively influenced by many women, but if you’re a student of electronic music it’s quite likely that you won’t be shown examples of female composers.” Berlin’s local pioneers are similarly excluded. Last year, the Goethe Institut’s international touring exhibition on the Geniale Dilettanten subculture failed to include Gudrun Gut’s band Malaria! (except for one iteration in Hamburg) – despite sending her to Australia to play at the opening in Sydney. “I told them: ‘It would be good to include Malaria! in the exhibition – I was in Malaria!,’” says Gut. “But they still didn’t feature us.”
Loschelder doesn’t necessarily agree that the scene is worse now than back in the day, but bemoans the depoliticisation of the club scene. “There are definitely many more female producers, performers and DJs than in the early 1990s – but the number of producers has increased in general, so the ratio of women to men stays low. And feminist activism is often seen as something that doesn’t need to exist any more, so the scene’s political awareness has slowed down.”
Elias has a similar diagnosis. During her early days in Atari Teenage Riot, her experience couldn't have been more different from Gut's. “I was mostly hanging with boys, and women were some kind of accessory for them – more like groupies. Being loud and sometimes nasty seemed to be the only way to be taken seriously. I think I only got heard because I really wanted to bring my point across, creatively and politically.” For her, that meant actively promoting other women in the scene through her own label and booking agency, Fatal Recordings, until she had to shut it down in the mid-2000s. “Our generation is very aware of what we had to fight for,” says Elias. “The next generation rather enjoys being pretty, sexy, cute. Which is how a woman wants to feel... up to a point of no return.”
Women helping women
Promoters will openly say, ‘I don’t need you, I already have a woman in my lineup.’ It creates a lot of competitive thinking; you don’t want to suggest your friends to the booker because you might lose your spot.
But all isn’t lost in Berlin, as the presence of myriad new support networks can attest. Musician and DJ Ena Lind co-founded Mint, a Berlin-based platform for women in electronic music, in 2013. At Mint’s educational workshops, Lind hears the problems that women face at the beginning of their careers. “They don’t have people that they can exchange ideas with; often it’s just their boyfriend and his buddies. They don’t know where to start, and when they ask boys, they get laughed at.” Professionally, female DJs are discouraged to support each other by promoters. “They’ll openly say, ‘I don’t need you, I already have a woman in my lineup.’ It creates a lot of competitive thinking; you don’t want to suggest your friends to the booker because you might lose your spot.”
Lind was able to bypass this at the start of her career by performing entirely within a “queer, sex-positive underground scene” where all-female lineups are the norm. But these networks can be restrictive. “It’s very important to create visibility,” she says. “We can’t be exclusive.” The growth of Mint from a club night to a professional network reflects this. Members can help each other professionally by suggesting other female producers as remixers for their tracks, increasing the presence of women on mixed labels like Allien’s BPitch Control (where only 20 percent of artists are female).
Vach has been working to provide a network for women in the record industry, too. Last year she launched Music Industry Women (MIW), which includes a mentor project in which women new to the industry meet monthly with highly positioned or experienced ones. “The mentee can ask about daily work, or get career advice,” she explains. “It’s cool because you often don’t get to meet the people you really admire professionally.” Along with the mentor programme, they hold meetings and workshops on different aspects of professional life. MIW has generated a lot of interest already, with a strong following on social media and “three to five women a week asking to participate.” But Vach is keen to stress that they’ll only be effective if they’re able to reach out to men as well. “That’s important for us. We don’t want it just to be women talking about this issue.”
For Lind, the old clichés will shift only when women cease to be an anomaly on the scene and when their work and not their gender is in the foreground. “Some people still really need to hear about sexism in the scene, but there’s a big audience that just needs to see a good example of a successful producer who is a woman. And if we don’t show that, we’re only talking about the problem. And it’s not gonna change much.”
Got something to say on the topic? Join in the conversation on support structures and strategies for women in the music industry at the Music Pool Berlin evening at Aquarium on March 8.