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Women Lawyers, Bankers, and Presidents? Sure. Women Rockers? Not Just Yet.

David Singer

It's 2008, the 21st century -- we may not have reached full equality yet, but women have made huge strides in a number of industries. So why is that at show after show, on stage after stage, we still have to ask "Where are all the ladies at?"

Where are the women rock musicians? John Mayer had nine men and no women on stage this past summer. There were no women in Bonnie Raitt’s band, no women in Joan Osborne’s band, and one woman in Wynton Marsalis’ 15-member Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra -- and of course her one big solo of the night was on flute. The sad list goes on and on.

This summer, when the Doobie Brothers and Chicago joined together on stage after their double-billed shows, some 15 guys were on the stage -- but not even a female vocalist. You can talk to dozens of people who saw them, and not one will mention the absence of women. Because no one notices. You’re more likely to see a token woman on the board of a Fortune 500 company or at a construction site than playing an instrument on a national rock tour.

I review a little more than 50 concerts a year for a local paper in the Albany, NY, region, a two-hour drive north of New York City. Recently, I started tracking the gender make-up of the band members supporting the national acts. Counting back only 15 shows, I scored 151 men to eight women. Of the eight women, five were the lead singers -- for example, Laurie Anderson and Aimee Mann. The other three were in Lez Zeppelin, a female cover band. To be fair, some of these groups were old, established bands, like the Allman Brothers, Ratdog, and the Dickey Betts Band, all which, it can be argued, owe it to their mostly-male fans to protect their all-male brand.

I also included the 18 men in the Count Basie Orchestra, which isn’t rock at all. But it’s relevant to note that women were notoriously kept out of jazz bands -- specifically big bands -- right up to the '80s, partially for fear of provoking romantic rivalries, and because they required different sleeping and dressing arrangements, causing higher travel costs. And then, of course, there's also the fact that jazz has a history of blatant sexism and racism.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

The skewed numbers make the point. For rock music in the year 2008, women have virtually no access, and no one seems to care. There may be no other industry or form of entertainment -- outside of sports -- that has such institutional discrimination. Law firms and banks do better than the “progressive” world of rock music.

So what’s going on here? Is it blatant sexism at the highest level? Are the big bad record labels responsible? Are only a few special women capable of playing instruments at a professional level? Do we blame the high schools? Music programs at the colleges?

There seem to be obstacles at almost every entry point, from the social reality of teen garage bands to the indifference of large-grossing arena-tour promoters.

The Locker Room Culture

I saw Lez Zeppelin for the first time this summer -- four women who cover the Led Zeppelin songbook. While they fell short in most areas, Steph Paynes nailed Jimmy Page: not only with her guitar playing, but her posture and physical motion.

The seamy venue was packed, largely with men, because that’s the kind of audience Zeppelin attracts. But there were also men there eager to mock silly women trying to penetrate the men’s club. Paynes quickly quieted them (and me) with her patient, precise, and eventually ferocious Page licks -- note for note most of the time, which is what a crowd of inebriated men want to hear from a cover band.

Lez Zeppelin

It takes a brave woman to stand on stage and play Led Zeppelin music, particularly given the general behavior of men at these places, men who are hyped-up on adrenaline, eager for conflict. With their mob mentality and drunken sensibilities, one false move coupled by their access to arrogance... the mob could turn on the performer.

Admittedly, my first reaction was, "Not bad for a woman." After managing to swallow that reaction, it occurred to me that Paynes was the best female lead guitarist I had ever seen. I then realized that I couldn’t think of a female lead guitarist I’d seen in the past year. I’m not talking about the woman singer who plays an adequate slide guitar for two songs to show she has some chops. That’s more gimmick. I’m talking about the person who is hired as the lead guitarist, or even rhythm guitarist. I’ve seen a few bassists, lots of back-up singers, violinists, dancers, a few drummers, a dozen keyboardists -- “That’s my beautiful wife on the keyboards” -- but in my less-than-scientific survey, women made up barely 5% of the groups.

The Van Fraternity

Even today, there are very few ways for rock musicians to get to the top of the business without that experience of traveling and sleeping in vans as they move from city to city, explains Eastman School of Music professor John Covach, a rock historian and a guitarist who logged his own time on the road in his younger days. The rock band, he says, is a fraternity. “Most of the players today toured as 20-somethings, with a fraternity mentality. I can still feel that way when I play, like I’m stepping back into my early years.”

Given that scenario, the apprentice system of rock-n-roll remains a barrier of entry for women.


The median age for joining a band for women musicians was age 21, while nearly all the men had joined a band before graduating high school, according to a survey of 24 bands that competed in a Boston rock event. Conducted by Wesleyan University professor Mary Ann Clawson, the study found that the guys started their bands at the median ripe age of 15, a time when they are unlikely to include girls in the club. By contrast, Clawson found 75% of the women joined bands during or after college, a time when young men and women start integrating their social lives.

Women starting at this later age miss critical apprenticeship years as teens, when the guys are honing their playing and performing skills, writes Clawson in her paper titled “When Women Play the Bass.” And according to Clawson, at least one study suggests that women in rock played the bass more than other instruments because of its subtle, supportive role, as well as its general anonymity and ease of learning.

The lack of visible role models figures high for girls in high school and college who stop pursuing their instruments, according to a University of Wyoming study of high school and college jazz participation across genders. With so few on the road in pursuit of the dream, and even fewer succeeding, many don’t try, writes the study’s author, Kathleen McKeage.

Another route to success, says Kudisan Kai, is through auditions in Los Angeles or New York. Kai, a professor at the Berklee College of Music, was trained in opera before shifting to jazz vocals and touring with the likes of Anita Baker, Natalie Cole, Chaka Kahn, and six years with Elton John. “At the beginning of your career, you audition,” she says, noting that it’s a small circle who even learn about the auditions. “Once you play on a tour, do a good job, get along with everyone, you get referred.” This insularity creates a catch-22 cycle for those not on the inside.

Melanie Krahmer, drummer and lead singer of Sirsy, an upstate New York band that plays throughout the northeast, knows how good she had it as the only woman in a band. “Traveling is always tough, but I’d get my own room and the guys had to share,” she says.

“I’ve have a lot of people tell me, ‘You’re a pretty good drummer for a woman,'” Krahmer says. “But when they tell me I’m a good singer, they never say, ‘for a woman.’” Carrying in her drum kit, many assume she’s the drummer’s girlfriend. The problem bands face, even bands who want to add a woman for its novelty, says Krahmer, is that “there are far fewer women to choose from than men.” There are simply not a lot of women musicians out there.

“If they’re kicking ass, they’ll get the gig,” Kai said of women musicians, noting that many bands these days want that added character of a woman on stage. Kai contends here that women musicians can be more marketable than men.

Baby Steps

Kai held the first annual “Women in Rock” forum at Berklee earlier this year, inviting several women like Nona Hendryx, Joyce Kennedy, Siedah Garrett, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello, all successful models for young women. “I’m trying to bring attention to women,” Kai said. More specifically, she’s focused on African American women, who face an even higher mountain to climb. "African American women rockers do exist," Kai said, hoping the week-long celebration will resonate with those who want to pursue this path.

Next year, she is teaching a class on women in rock, where she will examine the historical and social forces that catapulted some women pop stars while closing out others. “I want to explore the kind of women who chose this path,” Kai said, adding that she plans to explore the influences and commitment a woman needs to penetrate this male arena.

Kai concedes that Boston’s Berklee is a male-dominated college, but is moving in the right direction. She cited the Sister Circle, a place for women in the college to support one another, the annual Women Musicians Network, and her upcoming class on women musicians as just a few of examples.

But these efforts, noble as they seem, are too little and a bit too late, and aren't sufficient to take on such a large issue. Changing the systems of institutional discrimination requires colossal efforts from all the stakeholders. Eastman’s School of Music undergraduate population is about 52% male and 48% female. That’s when you include strings, opera, voice, winds, piano, and other areas. For bass students only, it’s 81% male, and 19% female. For percussion, it’s 85% male, and 15% female. High school music programs focus on concert bands and orchestra, with some emphasis on jazz bands. Formal rock programs at the high school level are very rare. But traditional garage bands remain as popular as ever for boys. My 10th grade son can name six different rock bands in his high school: Not one has a girl, he told me.

While record labels and radio stations have traditionally controlled the music that gains national exposure at the top-level, it’s still a bottom-up, organic process, most groups rising on their own, stubbornly dogged bands that drive from town to town seeking to build a steady following. While some of the equation has changed due to the Internet, the labor-intensive road-tested performance portion remains critical. At the same time, this necessary entry into the professional rock world remains one of, if not the largest barrier for women who are more-or-less prohibited participation, given the male-centered formula for road travel on a struggling budget.

That rock bands have long been a masculine institution is not news. What should be news is that this institution hasn’t changed over half a century, nor is an end in sight. Ironically, rock’s culture is inherently rebellious; its DNA is wired to buck the power structure. That it lags far behind the corporate world in providing opportunities for women is a problem. While its performers and fans fancy themselves as progressive and anti-establishment -- this self-described spirit is essential to the success of the genre -- it remains a deficiently patriarchal system. And there seem to be no real solutions in sight at any of its levels, from the early educational ages of recruitment right up to the top of the pop charts.

We came very close to electing a woman president. Are we not ready for a female guitarist? Can we not imagine two female guitarists on one stage backing a male act? Perhaps our first woman president will put this on her agenda.

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