Music Industry Post #1: The Tip of a Very Big Iceberg

NOTE TO READERS: I originally wrote this post on July 22, 2016 for my own upstart blog. I never announced the blog because I didn’t think it would mean anything to anyone but me. After spending a few months reading posts on Medium, and posting comments that even received responses (some readers followed me!), I decided to add a few of my pieces to the pot. Also, I made some minor edits to the original post.
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Yesterday proved to be another busy day in the world of politics, culture, and postmodern living in general. I sipped my homemade morning decaf almond milk mocha while reading headlines about everything from more of Donald Trump’s xenophobic, racist, sexist, violent spewings, to a female rape victim (of a convicted serial killer) being thrown in jail for thirty days because she broke down in court while testifying and fled the room. I know that I am not alone in my feelings of anger at the constant barrage of stories and pictures and videos of human divisiveness leading to violence and, at the very least, bad decisions that adversely affect humans, animals, and the planet.

Meanwhile, our culture remains addicted to entertaining ourselves in order to drown out the noisy inhumanity. While I make every attempt at using my free time to be creative rather than consumptive, I find myself binge watching Tim Minchin. With Tim, I get mostly enlightened messages with logic cradled in his virtuosic compositions and performing abilities, so I can count my viewing as not merely mindless entertainment!

Back to yesterday. I went online to our local CraigsList postings. The Musicians category contains posts about “lame bands” next to “book my band” posts and calls for “metal drummer” or “old school blues guitarist.” This morning, I saw an intriguing post titled “Where are all the female musicians?” As you can read for yourself, the author is Howard Sterling, owner of Musician’s Contact service. Sterling writes that, in 1975, he predicted “by the year 2000 there would be just as many females as males in bands, and there would be just as many all female bands as all male bands” and he invites readers to offer their ideas why his prediction was way, way off. I could not resist the temptation to reply, and here is what I wrote:

Dear Mr. Sterling,

Thank you for your thought-provoking post on CraigsList.

As a female musician (not just a lead vocalist, but that, too), I have over 15 years of experience living in Los Angeles and working hard to “make it” in the music business. After leaving the area in 2003, I can see that the situation has not improved and has actually gotten worse.

While there are “token” female musicians in professional posts, such as Felicia Collins of the CBS Orchestra (1993–2015), most female artists are offered a narrow role by Hollywood. This, of course, involves hyper-sexualization and what Kristin Lieb, author of Gender, Branding, and the Modern Music Industry: The Social Construction of Female Popular Music Stars, writes that industry insiders call the “short-term person-brand.” This model is based on the notion that female music performers don’t have much of a shot at stardom; that if they do achieve celebrity status, chances are they won’t stay there for long; and that if they do last, it’s because they and their handlers learned to successfully manage their person-brand. Tragically absent from the organizing principles of short-term person-brands: requirement of significant musical talent. Perhaps even more disturbing is that women music performers (ostensibly) knowingly trade their hyper-sexualized bodies as a productized money-making person-brand in order to maintain their status within the music business, which largely benefits a patriarchal system that stifles women while exalting and excessively rewarding mostly males and a few token female performers such as Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Miley Cyrus.

I recently returned to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo to earn my BA in Communication Studies, where I wrote extensively about such topics (see my research paper attached). Since I am a trained singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, all of my friends and family assumed (erroneously) that I would get my degree in music. Certainly, there would be some benefits to being able to teach “band” in junior high and high school, but having a BA in Music would not confer any clout on me in the music industry — not that I am at all interested in being part of an industry that would surely productize me and my work. During my time in Hollywood, I had my share of “casting couch” opportunities with degrading male A&R execs, club owners, and others, not to mention auditions with probably 200 male musicians who made it quite clear that being in a band or songwriting partnership with them meant I was consenting to sexual relations with them, and when I did not consent, the music making opportunity vanished. Being female, I learned quickly that it is an unwritten contract in our entertainment culture to accept that my talent alone is not enough, that I would have to sex it up to get in and hope to stay in. After so many years of living in that stifling, self-destructive environment of power-play and whimsy, I had to get out. Wisely, I had done the actual hard work of music along the way, and I continue to write, produce, perform, and record.

As I began to wrap up this message, I started to apologize to you for putting a feminist spin on my reply to your ad — but I am not sorry. What I am is saddened and, yes, even angered, by the twisted social construction of female musicians at the hands of industry power mongers who have coopted the second wave feminism upon which your prediction was made. In other words, you probably would have been right (or at least close!) if some brilliantly (/snark) oppressive industry insiders hadn’t seen Madonna’s early — and beautiful — assumption of power and turned it immediately into the hyper-sexualized model for all female music artists. Of course, they knew that if they didn’t do it, someone else would. Way to go, guys (and their blindly following girlfriends, wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters): way to keep women down at the expense of not only a diverse, thriving music industry, but a better world, period.

Mr. Howard, I respect the business that you have built and kept running for over 45 years (as is posted on your website), and I respect that you would be so bold as to post what you did on CraigsList. Even though your post was also an advertisement for your business, I appreciate your taking the time to think and write critically about this cultural problem and to ask for comments from your readers.

Photograph, lyrics, and visual composition by Sharine Borslien.

I also attached for him my December 2015 research paper, “On Coopted Feminism and The Normalization of Hyper-Sexualized Female Music Artists.” I feel proud of the work I did under the tutelage of Dr. Lauren (Archer) Kolodziejski, who is a brilliant rhetorical critic, because I believe it is vital for people to understand how sexism in the music industry is overt but it is also disguised as third wave feminism or “female empowerment.” This goes to my argument that the music industry has successfully coopted feminism, normalizing both the hyper-sexualization of its productized female artists and the way male artists depict women. (I will publish my paper in subsequent posts, but for a teaser, the paragraph in my letter to Mr. Sterling that begins “While there are ‘token’ female musicians in professional posts…” is taken verbatim from that paper.)

I love being a musician, and I had many positive experiences while living in L.A., cutting my music chops, and doing that Hollywood thing: trying to obtain that elusive major label recording deal with all its fame and fortune. But I cannot ignore the dark underbelly of an industry that remains a microcosm of female oppression throughout society. And, as I told Mr. Sterling in my letter, I will not apologize for shining a light on that darkness.

Thank you for reading. If you comment, kindly do so after a bit of thoughtful reflection.

-Sharine.

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