Illustrated by Jihyang Lim


Meet Some Of The Powerful Women Behind Music History

Stop leaving them out of the story

The DIY music scene has never been the most hospitable for girls to grow into. The stereotypical picture of punk is a bunch of white boys playing a bit too loud, opening up a mosh pit in someone’s run-down basement. Similar stories play out in the underground roots of every type of music, all the way up through the most successful artist fandoms. Regardless of the genre, almost any girl can distinctly recall having to prove her musical knowledge at one point or another to some shitty dude—Like, can you even name five of their songs? Their hits don’t count.

Another problem for women is that there is but a mere handful of artists to identify with on stage, even when you count out the token female of the average band of guys. And yet this handful still vastly outnumbers representation behind the music. Rarely do you hear of famous female producers, critics, anything today in the music industry, much less when many of today’s popular genres were in their formative years. This shouldn’t be surprising; it makes sense that as feminism continued to struggle in the mainstream, women would find more stable work in positions heavily relying on aesthetic and art rather than having control over production or curation. Still, there’s no reason for roundup articles of industry greats to not include powerful ladies; they existed, and they were damn good at their jobs.

During syllabus week at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, Vivien Goldman poses a question to her class. “What is punk?” Without hesitating for a response, Goldman gives her own answer, “Punk is getting off your bum and doing something.” Her take on punk was not solely attached to the genre, but to a lifestyle. Her knowledge of the topic is one of experience. Long before earning the title "Punk Professor," Goldman was living with Rough Trade founder, Geoff Travis, and dabbling all across London’s music industry. Goldman gives students glimpses of her life, as she fills out class lessons with anecdotes, quickly mentioning living with Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders, then moving on and leaving the class intrigued. Goldman and other women played a huge part in the inner workings of the music industry that is rarely brought up when discussing the greats. Finding their stories requires more digging than one would usually do when not presented with such a rich personal narrative.

Goldman was a certain jack of all trades. In between time spent working as a journalist, she acted as Bob Marley’s first British publicist, long before his commercial success. When women took center stage in punk, Goldman admits to feeling a sort of feminist spark. She found this new energy to be more female-friendly, especially in comparison to the “laddish” world of music critique.

Goldman’s enviable industry friendships were not only with performers. She met photographer Janette Beckman while working at Sounds Magazine together, and the pair has been close ever since. Beckman easily bridged the counterculture worlds of punk and hip-hop through her viewfinder, capturing some of the most iconic images of the industry.

In an interview with the Miami New Times, Beckman accepts being referred to as the antithesis to Annie Leibovitz as she photographed artists in a style true to who they were. Beckman’s work displayed her intimate relationships with whoever she worked with at the time, offering a more authentic feeling than any other photographer could hope for.

Beckman’s subjects spanned all genres, from Debbie Harry to Pete Townsend and Run DMC. Her mark on the industry is left not only by her portraits for magazines and press but also in a long list of record sleeves, including four albums for The Police and three for Salt-n-Pepa. She recounts the various stories behind some of her most famous work on her blog, as well as updates it with current magazine spreads.

Outside of this pair of friends, other women found their way in the industry and made their mark on rock and hip hop. As Pitchfork senior editor Jessica Hopper released her book The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, the need to explore the work of women music critics became all the more apparent. Hopper points to Ellen Willis, the first pop music critic for The New Yorker. Willis’ work was featured in her column “Rock, etc.” from 1968 through 1975, and also made appearances in Rolling Stone and The Village Voice. Similar to Goldman, Willis found a certain feminism in rock and punk, shifting to cultural critique in later years and using feminism as a lens through which she could write about women in music. She accurately placed figures like Patti Smith and Joan Jett in a much larger cultural narrative, even as they were still writing their own stories.

But, where are the female music executives? Outside of the movement for womyn’s music, women are not often seen among the upper ranks of record labels, as industry officials or as artist and repertoire representatives. The difficulties inherent to being a woman in the music industry only increase along with available power, so it makes sense that men have tried to keep women out of those positions, in order to retain power for themselves. It simply has always been a men’s club, and women have had to go above and beyond to prove their worth and secure whatever positions they could.

And when they do, the results are often spectacular, as was the case with Sylvia, aka Sylvia Robinson, who existed as a serious force to be reckoned within the hip-hop world (and may soon get the recognition she deserves with a potential biopic). Aside from finding commercial success with her solo career, Robinson gained the title “Mother of Hip-Hop” through her work as CEO and founder of Sugar Hill Records. Robinson was the driving force behind two hip-hop classics, “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugar Hill Gang and “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five.

In all honesty, the case for women in the industry does not seem to be getting much better; Caroline Elleray, head of A&R for Universal Music Publishing in the U.K., noted in an interview with The Guardian that while there isn’t an effort to keep women out of the industry, she feels that there isn’t the proper encouragement to invite them into an environment still laden with sexism. Kara DioGuardi was an industry powerhouse throughout the 2000s, acting as publisher, producer, songwriter, and A&R rep when she wasn’t a judge on American Idol. But as a producer, she is a part of an extreme minority; only 5 percent of producers and engineers are women. The Fader combatted the idea that there aren’t enough women rock critics; instead, proving that we simply don’t give them the time of day, with a crowdsourced list compiling hundreds of female critics. People such as Willis, Robinson, and all the way up to DioGuardi go to show that it isn’t that women aren’t interested in the industry, nor do they not have what it takes to make a mark. These women know music and kick ass when they get the chance—it’s just that they need that chance.