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The All-Female Dance Music Festival That Takes Aim at Bro Club Culture

Perspectives is a two-day Berlin festival where girls get to go to the front (and behind the decks, too).

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Josie Thaddeus-Johns

Perera Elsewhere, one of the musicians playing Perspectives. Photo courtesy of female:pressure

When Pitchfork interviewed Björk earlier this year, the enigmatic musician expressed her irritation with how her co-producer credit on her record Vulnicura had been roundly ignored. Press assumed that her male collaborator, Arca, was fully responsible for masterminding the intricate strings that pervade the record. One of the ways to combat this perception, she suggested, would be to show more images of women at work behind the scenes on electronic music—not just on stage behind a microphone or half-naked on the front of a record. In response, an international network called female:pressure created a Tumblr collating photos of women at work: Here they were, noodling around on synths, focused eyes peeking out behind laptop lids, or hard at work behind mixing desks.

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Founded in 1989, this global collective of female DJs, producers and digital artists has long been pointing out inequality in the electronic music scene, most notably in their 2013 survey of festival lineups. "Apparently we were the first to count the lineups of festivals and publish the numbers," founder Electric Indigo told Broadly, somewhat amused. Using a similar strategy to the Guerilla Girls' takedown of the art world's androcentrism, the aim of this campaign was simply to offer facts, showing the electronic music world just how poorly it was doing at representing 50 percent of humans who inhabit this planet.

Sexism towards female musicians in the electronic scene is a global problem. In 2014, a miniscule 7.85 percent of artists at North American talent agencies were female. Despite vocal DJs like Venus X and Annie Mac speaking out on the issue, electronic lineups continue to overwhelmingly represent men. If dancefloors and clubs are supposed to be a place to escape, why do their bookings look as unassailably white and male as a FTSE 100 boardroom?

The all-female lineup for Perspectives. Image courtesy of female:pressure

This was the question that Electric Indigo—real name Susanne Kirchmayr—wanted answered, when she started the network 17 years ago. The Austrian producer and techno DJ found herself constantly being asked to list other female DJs. "This usually happened in the middle of the night, either shortly before I started to play, or at 4AM over loud music, after beer or vodka—so less than ideal..." Her network now numbers more than 1500 members, and provides an ongoing collection of names that ridicules the idea that there just "aren't enough female artists" to fill a lineup—a common objection by those defending the music industry's insistence on promoting solely male artists.

Taking their platform one step further, female:pressure will be hosting their second Perspectives festival in Berlin's ://about blank club on September 25, with an all-female lineup. The first event in 2013 came directly out of the survey's fact-finding mission examining other festivals. "It just happened in a very natural way: What can we do? How can we support more women here in Berlin?" Kaltès, one of the event's organizers, explained. The organization is purposely flexible, with members all busy working on their own projects while creating the festival as a labor of love. "It's really intense, so once every two years is enough!"

Some of these really big clubs keep on booking the same headliners. They don't take any risks or book more women and yet they are still talking about 'underground' music.

With an approach that focuses more on ideals than commercial success, the lineup showcases the network's members rather than relying on big-name bookings. That's partly due to funding, but also out of a desire to make new headliners out of female acts who can pull in crowds outside of female:pressure's girls-only lineup. Kaltès also runs female:pressure nights at Berlin's monolithic Tresor club and often feels resistance in reactions to her booking choices. "When I suggest a lineup, we're always discussing the headliner problem," she said. "Clubs, promoters and press are responsible for creating new headliners. There are women who are really great artists, but who need to be more visible and given more opportunities and support in order to become headliners."

This is one of the most frustrating issues with electronic music's gender problems. It's a scene that often prides itself in its roots in the underground and in avant-garde escapism from the mainstream, yet there is deep resistance to turning that risk-taking eclecticism to the problem of representation. "Some of these really big clubs, that are just making shitloads of money, keep on booking the same headliners," Kaltès said. "They don't take any risks or book more women and yet they are still talking about 'underground' music."

"I know so many festivals who do not want to represent commercial value only—they communicate the whole festival as some avant-garde art undertaking—and if you have that, you cannot rely on only the bestsellers," Kirchmayr said. "You need to do a little bit more research, and find artists and projects that have not had so much exposure." Bookers take note: The underground is not only white and male.

Often, the fear for commercial festivals is that female artists won't sell as many tickets. "You have to book popular artists. And who are the popular artists? The ones who have the most media presence, the most successful records and most fans on social media. These numbers depend on each other," Kirchmayr argued.

And yet, it's not only the male bestsellers that can make a successful festival. Back in Berlin, the recent Pop-Kultur festival sold out with over 50 percent female artists on its bill. "From the beginning, we said we want to do it this way," explained Musicboard Berlin director and festival organizer Katja Lucker. Alongside Musicboard's efforts for the event, which was headlined by Neneh Cherry and CocoRosie's Bianca Casady, the government-sponsored funding body is committed to equal gender representation throughout its work.

Kyoka playing at Perspectives 2013. Photo by Marco Microbi

"In my board, the artists we're supporting, there are half women: It's such a big topic for us," Lucker said. The Musicboard team itself is entirely female, which—even in 2015—is noteworthy within the music industry. We often talk about getting women to the top of an industry in order to support those at the bottom. In Lucker's case, it seems to be working. "It just became, very naturally, important. Because when I started my job, the first thing was that a lot of people said was 'I don't know, she's a woman, can she really be the head?' Or 'Ah, she only got the job because she's a woman.'"

It's not just women at the top who get these kinds of reactions, of course—as Pitchford editor Jess Hopper's recent Twitter thread discussed, constant misogyny is par for the course for women in the music industry. Perera Elsewhere, who will be playing at Perspectives, notes the "daily" recurrence of sexism in her job as a woman of color ("It's horrific!") to the mundane interjections of a sound guy's questions ("'What are you gonna DJ with?' I'm like, Why do you fucking care what I'm gonna DJ with? I DJ with Ableton, why do you give a shit?").

Having a lineup that has only females is a political statement, not a solution.

Women are constantly patronized by men about the technology they use, and getting something wrong is an excuse to discount everything they do. "Not only do you have to be a great DJ, but you also have to be a sound engineer, a technician," Kaltès said. "You have to know everything because if something is not happening quite the way it should, then [you hear], 'You don't know what you're doing.'"

But even if misogyny still exists, it's important that now, women are talking about it. Things are certainly different from when female:pressure started. When Kirchmayr launched the network, its criticism to festival bookers was founded on the line "Why don't you have any female acts on your lineup?" Now they ask the question "Why don't you have more female acts?"

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"If you show something related to electronic music, and you have all white males, you will have a critical public response," she said. "You have to accept it... The conversation has become a lot more sophisticated and deeper in a way."

Perera Elsewhere suggested another reason to be positive about the future of women in electronic music: That accelerating technology actually offered them the opportunity to try to make music without the approval or help of men. "Sometimes you're nervous about putting your ideas out with other people, whereas if you're making stuff on your own, you don't have anything to fear," she said. "I think generally, if you get on top of your technology as a musician, you can experiment much more."

Female-only safe spaces and all-female lineups are an important way for women to create more exposure for artists who are deserving of bigger stages. Yet this is only a step on the path towards equality, not the end of the road. As Kaltès puts it: "We don't want to have a girl club and a boy club, that's not the goal. Having a lineup that has only females is a political statement, not a solution."