BY BRITNEY FREEMAN-FARR, AKA B~FREE
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How many women truly make up the music industry?
When you dwell in a vocational space where women are among the most undervalued and underrepresented, you will find yourself asking this fairly often. It’s more than you might think, but it’s still not enough.
According to a 2017 report on inclusion in popular music, 83.2 percent of artists were men and only 16.8 percent were women, while out of the study’s 651 producers, 98 percent were male and only two percent were female. Since the start of my professional career as an adult, I’ve prided myself in “bearing the torch” for multifaceted women like myself by attaching the full-length title of singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist in every introduction I made as B~Free. Yet, the daunting task of wearing my credentials on my sleeve has often felt very futile with no attainable sign of similar mentors or predecessors readily available—that was, until this June.
This month, 88Nine and The License Lab sent me to L.A. to join many of the other five percent of women in the music industry and the Women’s Audio Mission for their Women’s Recording Arts Conference at Capitol Records. This is what I learned, who I met and what inspired me while I was there.
In early April, I was approached by my friend/supporter, Tarik Moody of 88Nine Radio Milwaukee with a sly, yet simple inquiry: “What have you got goin’ on June ninth?” After a general amount of prying, he then revealed an opportunity that he’d be spearheading, for me to attend the Women’s Recording Arts Conference in Los Angeles, hosted by Women’s Audio Mission at the Capitol Records! I couldn’t think of a more incredible and timely opportunity.
For general support and sponsorship, we collaborated with Daniel Holter of The License Lab. He’s a cool, notable and experienced figure in the Milwaukee music industry who spearheads the rising music production and publishing company. Ironically, The License Lab was also in the midst of their own personal initiative to not only strengthen a partnership with Women’s Audio Mission, but to place more of a musical focus on women in their catalog of artists, writers and producers.
While I was incredibly honored to be chosen for this endeavor, I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a tinge of fear dwelling within me. Being the ambassador for myself, these two beacon companies and essentially the Milwaukee music scene as a whole, I didn’t want to leave anything out nor sell anything short in my chance encounters with anyone. (My first few trips to L.A. had all but enforced the importance of an “elevator pitch” when repping my brand.) Additionally, this would have been my first time flying to the City of Angels alone, not to mention with a suddenly developed head cold that I was sure would lead to a plane ride from hell. The physical and mental pressure was building up. However, I knew that delving into this uncharted experience would bring about more good than any horrendous scenario that I could drum up in my head, so when the day came, I took a deep breath, pulled up my big girl undies, boarded the plane, turned up Solange in my headphones and took off.
Upon landing, my eventual 90 minute, ear-clogged shuttle ride from LAX through several sectors of the city reminded me of a previously discovered reality: Hollywood is overridden with poverty. Growing up, the glitz and glam of TV and magazines had always led me to believe that the entire city was full of rich and famous celebrities. In reality, the appearance of wealth, splendor and palm trees from Rodeo Drive can quickly be doused by the sight of highways, hills and Hollywood street corners riddled with tents, shopping carts and disenfranchised humans in one car ride. This realization is always a bit somber for me and with my dwellings being somewhat centered within this setting, I made prominent attempts throughout my time to spare food, water and change whenever possible.
I stayed at the Mama Shelter in L.A., a hip downtown establishment with modern, southern-french touches and artistic infusions throughout the five floors of rooms, as well as the two restaurants and nightclubs located in the lobby and swanky upscale rooftop. I decided to partake in the beautiful night view and a meal on the rooftop. After indulging in a thirst-quenching Sunshine Mule and beautifully prepared grilled lamb chops and salad, I was rejuvenated and ready for the next day.
I woke up early the next day filled with vigor and anticipation. Having arrived a few moments early at the conference, I took some time to explore some of the stars on the nearby Hollywood Walk of Fame. I rarely get to see as many as I’d like when I’m there and found it very fitting to come across the stars of jazz greats Frank Sinatra and Dave Brubeck.
While approaching the Capitol Records building, I could see that the side was adorned with a large, colorful mural depicting musical greats such as Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and many more. After a short wait in a long line of women, I was let into that well air-conditioned part of musical history. It had walls of pictures showing everyone from Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Sam Smith and The Migos, recording studios that birthed some of the most incredible recordings and a rehearsal space all packed inside the building they’d dubbed as “the house that Nat King Cole built.”
While seated and waiting, I conversed with the immediate women in my surroundings of all ages and backgrounds. (Two women I’d spoke with flew in all the way from Australia!) Upon further observation, I realized that there were fellow females of all aspects of the music industry present: singers, songwriters, producers, musicians, sound engineers, DJs, radio hosts, voice-over actresses, college students and many, many more. I also really respected the fact that all of the soon-to-be-presented panelists were sitting among us as equals, conversing with us and each other. The high energy flowing through what seemed to be 150 of us in the room was incredible. The fact that we were such a diverse group who were all there to attain more knowledge on representation in our field was nothing short of inspiring.
The conference kicked off with a rousing introduction from Terri Winston, the head of the Women’s Audio Mission (whom I discovered in one-on-one conversation is actually from Milwaukee! Whoop-whoop!). For anyone who was unfamiliar with WAM, she gave a detailed overview of their 15-year-old organization. In that, I learned that they’ve trained over 12,000 women and girls in their 2,000+ audio music classes and internships, have placed 650 women in paid career positions within Google, Dolby, Pixar and Electronic Arts and they own the only professional recording studio in the world built and run by women. Their work addresses the sharp decline of women’s enrollment in the audio sciences and the five percent of women who make up the sound, music and media industry through the rightful use of their hashtagged motto: #ChangingTheFaceofSound
After a follow-up intro to Capitol Studios by their VP/Studio Manager Paula Salvatore, the first panel of the conference consisted of two bad-ass women: COO of Capitol Music Group Michelle Jubelirer and the Senior Vice President of Business and Legal Affairs of Universal Music Group Jennifer Baltimore. Together, they spoke about their day-to-day dealings and responsibilities within their positions, various challenges and obstacles they’ve overcame as women in their fields, and how their dual backgrounds in law have rightfully given them a foot in the door as well as respect in otherwise grim situations.
In Michelle’s own words, “Men are afraid of you when you have a law degree shield.” While listening to these women speak, I found their presence and candor to be imminent as well as infectious. Something about their assertive, yet casual nature filled me with inadvertent confidence of my own. They also served as a reminder that there are so many sectors of leadership throughout the music industry for one to aspire towards.
The second panel consisted of six women in mixing, engineering, songwriting and production within the mainstream music industry: Ms. Lago, Michel’le Baptiste, Jane Handcock, Blush, Trakgirl and Amanda Davis. As each woman gave a recount of their initial starts in their respective positions, I found it enlightening to know that some opportunities stemmed from college internships, the degree program at the famed Berklee College of Music or a simple DIY approach that lead to working with notable acts such as Raphael Saadiq and Missy Elliott. In total, all of the women preached the benefits of complete self-sufficiency with their craft. While each guest was equally inspiring, my peak interest was in Amanda Davis, whom I learned was the Front of House Engineer for Janelle Monae’s live shows. Besides the fact that she was working for my all-time favorite music idol, I found it quite impressive that she ultimately received her position because Janelle specifically requested to work with a woman, which spoke volumes.
Once the panels ended, the moment of truth came: the workshops. Attendance for the conference consisted of seven workshops being led by the second slate of panelists. When I learned we were only allowed to choose two of the workshops to attend in total, I lost my mind. There was literally something that I could learn from every woman that spoke—how was I supposed to narrow it down?! I started by heading towards the workshop with the most relevance to my own career: making beats with Trakgirl. However, halfway there I suddenly decided to attend a workshop in mixing and engineering. After running up and down the building and sitting for 90 seconds in my workshop of choice, it suddenly dawned on me that I could attend this one in the second hour. But which panelist was only going to be there for the first session? Which panelist did I connect with the most? Which experience held the possibility of not being replicated within the turnover?
The swirling thoughts in my head lead to the eventual realization of the importance of Amanda’s workshop. Earlier, I got a chance to speak with her briefly and reveal that I myself would be opening for Janelle Monae on her Milwaukee tour stop to Summerfest. We then connected, exchanged info and social media handles. Could attending her workshop on the life of a live sound engineer possibly connect me even further? I decided to find out. In a split second, I snuck out of the mixing workshop, ran up two flights of stairs and nestled myself in the back of Amanda’s group.
The minute I caught my breath and got settled, I opened my eyes to the most massively detailed master input lists I’d ever seen in my life. As an artist, I’m often responsible for delivering these to sound folks for different performance venues. As a Virgo, I consider myself to be extremely thorough in all of my important tasks, but this was an incredible, multi-page document of perfection that I could only dream of. For the rest of the workshop, I picked up as many tools of the trade as I could: from specific mic brands to use for specific sounds, stage plot arrangements to troubleshooting scenarios and what it was like for Amanda to engineer for Janelle and Prince. The realization that she’d engineered the very shows that I’d been in attendance for made it all the more worthwhile.
For the second shift of workshops, I was back to square one. I decided to return to the mixing and engineering segment with Ms. Lago, in hope that she wouldn’t recognize my olive green sundress that fled from the room in my hasty departure from the last session. This workshop made the most sense to attend as it was the subject that I knew the least about but needed to learn. She started with a very lax approach, using a demo of a song she’d already worked on to walk us through her process: singling out vocal stems, adjusting them to her liking and slowly adding in one instrument track at a time to mix and balance it all.
During the session, I asked her about tips and resources for getting started with mixing. I received good insight on things like Pensado’s Place, Lynda.com and even basic accessible tools like YouTube. One obstacle that I’ve often found difficult was my lack of knowledge on the terminology and EQ references that everyone in the room appeared to understand but me. This has always been frustrating to deal with as a producer, as it sometimes makes me feel inadequate. However, Ms. Lago gave a strong distinction between her knowledge of mixing and lack thereof for mastering, emphasizing that there’s nothing wrong with knowing your limitations and working within your own parameters. I took note of her advice, along with the terms that I needed to define for myself later on, and continued to receive all that I could from the session.
By the end, the WAM had put together a reception for all of the attendees and panelists. My particular group had a bit of a late arrival as we were finishing up our session with Ms. Lago with meet-and-greets (During which, I learned that her son’s father is from Beloit, WI once she heard I was from Milwaukee!). When I entered the reception space, in addition to the snacks and beverages, I was immersed into a wave of music provided by a youth group of little girls who DJ— and they were turnin’ up!
The pressure of the five hour-long day was removed as I made my rounds of introductions with fellow attendees. I connected with folks who respected my inquiries from our sessions (and vice versa), women who worked in fields that I aspire to delve into and with the head of WAM about The License Lab, 88Nine, living/working in Milwaukee and memories of Northridge Mall.
Later, as I departed the studio, I walked down Hollywood Boulevard once more, snapping pics of stars on the walk that I admire, filled with an unbridled amount of inspiration.
Since my return to Milwaukee, following a period of dust-settling and reflection, I’m left with the utmost respect for every woman that I encountered during this experience. Whether it was an attendee, a panelist, a COO or the head of an organization, each one of us gathered in a like-minded space with one goal in mind: to see more women succeed in the audio music industry. While the numbers and logistics of representation remain disparaging, seeing all of these women succeeding on different levels—despite the odds—was more than enough encouragement that anyone, not just myself, could use to press forward.
In the era of the #TimesUp and #MeToo movement, women in all aspects of the entertainment industry are finding the support and courage to stand up for their rights in the workplace. Artists like Alicia Keys are developing initiatives to increase the pipeline flow of opportunities in the music industry for more women.
In my continual work in this field, I hope to break more ground and inspire even more after me to do the same. With that, I believe we will indeed be able change the face of sound—one girl at a time—because women (should) make up more parts of this industry than what meets the eye.