Women in music: a local look at a larger problem

Story and slideshow by TAYLOR LINES

Marny Proudfit pulls away from the microphone. She’s still singing but the melody is farther away and sounds eerie. Proudfit is doing it on purpose. It’s a technique she learned through years of performing. Stepping back from the mic gives her sound more depth.

The man in the sound booth turns the microphone’s volume much louder to combat the loss of vocal intensity. The microphone screeches with feedback.

Proudfit has told him not to do this two times before. “Come on, don’t touch the mic volume, dude,” Proudfit says sternly. “When I pull away I’m meaning to.”

This is a normal occurrence for Proudfit, a local musician in Salt Lake City. In an industry dominated by males, she often stands alone as a woman and has found people treat her like a damsel in distress.

It is no wonder Proudfit often is the only women in the room. According to Berklee College of Music, men make up 61 percent of professionals in the music industry. When it comes to promotion, live music and management, that number rises to 70 percent.

One week after the sound incident at WhySound in Logan, Utah, Proudfit sits at a friend’s house with her long brown hair covered by a baseball cap. She sips a hot toddy in the living room. The chatter of people in the kitchen buzzes down the hall.

Proudfit has a singing voice that commands attention but when she speaks she is calm and quiet.

“That was one of those moments I thought OK, this is because I’m a girl,” Proudfit says. “You didn’t do this to any of the other men who are playing. If they told you not to touch the sound anymore, you wouldn’t. But you are because it’s me.”

Proudfit is well traveled and has lived in Boston, Los Angeles and New York playing music and cultivating her sound.

She says her experience as a woman in the music industry didn’t change based on where she was living. Playing shows at venues that are popular tend to treat Proudfit like she doesn’t know what she’s doing.

Ben Thornton, also a musician, has played for many years with bands all over Salt Lake City. Currently he is the drummer for the female-fronted band, First Daze. Before playing with females, Thornton wasn’t aware of the issues women faced in the local music scene.

“Women go through experiences that men will never understand,” Thornton said while twirling his drum sticks. “Their experience creates stories that make really great music.”

By creating and performing music with women he believes he has gained a better understanding of certain attitudes within the industry. “People will say, ‘Wow she’s so cool, she can play the guitar.’ Well of course she can play guitar. Why couldn’t she?” Thornton said of his female bandmate, Gui Pelaez.

Pelaez has been playing music her entire life. She says music is an emotional connection, one she has spent the last five years developing.

Sitting at her volunteer job at Impact Hub in downtown Salt Lake City, Pelaez looks like she transported from the 1970s, sporting flared pants and a chunky belt. She is outspoken and passionate about the music she makes.

As the founder of an all-female fronted band, she says she regularly feels like a token. Venue workers will think the equipment she lugs to shows is for other people. Fellow musicians often don’t know how to acknowledge her because they aren’t sure if she’s performing.

“Sometimes I feel like it’s weird to meet other girl musicians. I sometimes don’t know how to act around them because they aren’t there that much,” Pelaez said.

The lack of women performing and tokenism within the industry is a problem on a large scope. Popular female musicians such as Grimes, Lily Allen, Lady Gaga and Beyonce have all come forward to talk about their struggle being taken seriously in the music industry.

Although women hold top spots in popular music, they are often overly sexualized or asked who the man behind their music is. A woman writing and producing her own music is unfortunately something that isn’t always widely accepted as fact.

Lari White, an R&B musician, highlighted the disconnect the music industry faces with women making music in a story by Nashville Scene. White was involved in every aspect, from writing to producing. When showing her album to a studio, executives turned to her husband and congratulated him on a job well done.

Music festival lineups are almost all predominantly male. A study by Huffington Post concluded half of the attendees at festivals are women, yet men make up 66 to 93 percent of lineups.

Pelaez said the hardest part about being a female musician was gaining the confidence to let go of insecurity and adversity and be comfortable calling herself an artist.

“I think that’s something empowered woman do,” Pelaez said of becoming comfortable in the music scene. “I think that they know who they are and I think they know what they’ve gone through and what hurdles are there. If you’re aware of the issues then it’s easy to talk about them and they aren’t mountains anymore.”

On every level of music, whether international or local, women are facing challenges to be heard and represented. Pelaez feels that not being afraid to shake things up within the industry can lead to change.

If women like Proudfit and Pelaez and men like Thornton continue to get up on stage or write music knowing what they are up against, change might not be that far away.

“Consider me for who I am and what I offer through my art,” Pelaez said. “Not what I am.”

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