Women's Audio Mission Trains the Next Generation of Female Music Producers

Terri Winston (far left) of Women's Audio Mission moderates "Evolution of the Producer" at NAMM featuring (left to right) Sylvia Massy, Merrill Garbus and Asma Maroof.
Terri Winston (far left) of Women's Audio Mission moderates "Evolution of the Producer" at NAMM featuring (left to right) Sylvia Massy, Merrill Garbus and Asma Maroof.
Liz Ohanesian

Terri Winston, founder of San Francisco-based Women's Audio Mission, has a sobering statistic that she shares with the crowd inside a small meeting room on the opening day of NAMM: Out of "all of the sounds and the media and the messages that make up that soundtrack of our lives every day," she says to the group, fewer than 5 percent of the people who work on them are women. 

Winston isn't just talking about the performers, those who are visibly part of the music-making process. She's talking about the producers, the recording engineers, the sound technicians at your local nightclub.

At NAMM, the annual music trade show held at the Anaheim Convention Center, that gender gap is obvious. Aisle after aisle is overwhelmingly male. There are corporate guys and metal guys, electronic guys and hip-hop guys. The women are so few and far between that, when you see them, you notice. One shows me how to make strange sounds with a Swarmatron. I spy another dropping the jams at one of the DJ gear booths. More appeared here and there, but the largest concentration of female attendees I see anywhere at NAMM are at Winston's panel — and even here, the women are visibly outnumbered by male attendees.

The panel, "Evolution of the Music Producer," is intentionally titled in a non-gender specific fashion, but the participants are all female. It's a technical talk, rather than a social justice one. Sylvia Massy, whose work producing Tool's breakthrough album Undertow is just one highlight on her standout list of credits, talks about working with a Swedish metal band inside an old prison on a Finnish island. Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards explains why she started producing her own music. Asma Maroof of Nguzunguzu speaks of the mobility that comes with working on a computer.

The conversation throughout the panel is lively and engaging. It's hard not to notice, however, that the crowd questions at the end of the session come entirely from men.

"That happens a lot," Winston says when I mention this to her later in the day. "Women aren't taking up a lot of space at the table."

Women's Audio Mission is trying to change this. The San Francisco-based nonprofit is behind the only recording studio with an all-female staff. Every year, they take on at least 1,200 female students, about 850 of which are middle school girls, and train them in recording arts. Of their school-aged students, Winston says that 94 percent come from low-income backgrounds. Many have no experience with musical instruments and don't have regular computer access.

For Winston, studio work merged two of her major interests. She trained in electrical engineering, but was also a singer, songwriter and guitarist who played in the '90s rock band Her Majesty the Baby. Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Group encouraged her to get into production. Eventually, she started teaching at City College of San Francisco and brought the number of female students in the recording arts program up to 52 percent. That led to the founding of WAM, now in its 13th year.

Winston says that at first, people had their misgivings about WAM's program. "Originally, people were worried that we were coddling [women and girls]," she says. Then they saw the results: Women who were involved with WAM were getting jobs with companies like Dolby, Pixar and Electronic Arts.

WAM has earned the support of both women and men in the industry. WInston points out that more than half of their social media followers are male. "Some people look at that as a bad thing. I see that as a good sign," she says. "Here are people who are really interested in what we do and they're also considering us a resource. That's progress. They can see women as experts. The more male allies, the better."

Programs like WAM alone can't make the change. Winston points out that some of the hurdles that women face in the industry are the result of cultural perceptions that have yet to change. "It kind of in some ways boils down to child care," she says. "This is a weird thing, but this comes up a lot."

But it's more than just taking care of children; society still pressures women, more than men, to be the ones who will handle family obligations and be there for friends. "Until we get to that place of equal participation, where everybody takes care of whatever we're calling family these days," Winston says, "that's going to be hard."

But it's not impossible. In the past year alone, we've seen more women making their presence heard in the music world. From the site female:pressure, which documents female producers in the studio, to the vast number of articles focusing on issues like the scarcity of female DJs booked at festivals, women's voices are continuing to rise, and that can be encouraging to the next generation of artists and technicians.

Laura Escudé, aka Alluxe, has worked with Kanye West, Miguel and Porter Robinson.EXPAND
Laura Escudé, aka Alluxe, has worked with Kanye West, Miguel and Porter Robinson.
Liz Ohanesian

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On Friday night, gear-loving and tech-savvy music lovers packed a small, downtown Los Angeles venue for Create Digital Music's NAMM-related (but not NAMM-affiliated) panel and party. After fans checked out Livid and Native Instruments gear and listened to artists talk about technology and their work, Laura Escudé, otherwise known as Alluxe, took to the stage. The L.A.-based controllerist and producer bounced between a violin, microphone and table full of gear as she played a handful of tracks.

Of late, Escudé has been very busy. In addition to making her own music, she's a partner in the company Electronic Creatives, which helps musicians put together the technology for their live shows. She has worked with Porter Robinson and Kanye West. Last year, she programmed Miguel's show. She also was the DJ for his tour and opened as Alluxe.

"When I was starting out, there was more of a stigma," says Escudé. "I feel like I had to prove myself a lot, time and time again. Now that I've done that and, also, have a little more time under my belt, it's gotten easier."

Now, she gets questions for women entering music. Often they ask for her advice for working in a male-dominated field. "For a long time, I almost felt like I had to be more masculine or be more alpha in order to stand up or to show that I belonged in this industry. Now, I'm sort of re-embracing my feminine energy because it's like I have all the knowledge now," she says. "I'm trying to impress upon young women that they don't have to lose who they are as a female, as a woman, that feminine energy to go into this game, this world. You can definitely bring that energy into this world and have a balance."

"Balance" is a word that Winston mentions often too. She talks about it in relationship to teaching women recording arts and noticing the caution with which women may approach technical projects. That's not a bad attribute to have, she says, especially when you're dealing with gear. Still, she tries to help instill enough confidence in her students that they can take the knowledge acquired in class and apply it to projects.

With the younger students, she's seeing that new sense of confidence emerge when the girls say that they want to be engineers. "They really own that word and they've got a sense of making something," she says. "I think they get that when they call themselves that, they're kind of badass. I think just that linguistic change for them is really powerful."

She adds, "I love to hear them say that."


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