International Women's Day 2018: #PressForProgress
Words by Valerie Gritsch, Clara Cullen, Natalie Griffith, Lauren Johnson, Samlin Miller & Arabell Walter
- 08/03/2018 -
Welcome to Xtra Mile's fifth annual International Women's Day blog. This year we're featuring stories from a handful of inspiring women and non-binary folks who work with music. True to this years theme of IWD, they have all pressed for progress in their areas of the world and in doing so, have made the world a better and more inclusive space. We hope you enjoy their stories and come away from this page with some advice you could potentially apply to your own life, especially if you want to work in music.
Valerie Gritsch, Xtra Mile social media, Street Team and Market Rep Comptroller
Before we get to our guest pieces, allow me to briefly update you on what I've been up to since you read my story in last year's blog. My past has not changed, of course, and my advice remains the same: work hard and be kind. In the time that has passed, I have started grad school in the pursuit of a Masters degree. I'm studying music fandom - yes, really! It's something I find myself in awe of whenever I say it. Academia, like the music industry, is traditionally a 'boys club' and as I was weighing the pros and cons of applying to grad school this came up frequently in conversations with peers and mentors. I heard from some people that I would have to work twice as hard to prove myself in some instances because fan studies is a traditional field of study, and that the imposter syndrome I may experience would be rough. Yet this did not scare me away from applying. I faced those same hurdles on my journey to working with Xtra Mile Recordings, and so I thought I could handle it. And I did! Don't get me wrong, grad school is one of the hardest things I've ever done - but my advice from last year still stands as my guide. Work hard at what you care about and be kind to those around you, and you can do it just like I did. If there isn't space for you, make the space.
Natalie Griffith, founder of Identity Spark and Skinny Lister's social media cheerleader
From games to music – sometimes you’ve got to press a new play button.
My journey into the fringes of the music industry didn’t come from a conventional start point, if there is such a thing. I’ve been working with XMR's shanty punk heroes Skinny Lister for nearly three years but it isn’t something I ever imagined I’d be doing. It was one of those right-place-at-the-right-time, swept-away-with-my-own-enthusiasm things. That and the fact that the Skinnies are the nicest bunch of people you’d ever hope to meet.
My world is video games marketing. Yep, I’m a nerd. Luckily for me though, so is Skinny Lister’s guitarist Sam Brace (aka The Mule). We’ve known each other for years via Sam’s games PR day job and we often share clients between our businesses and work together on all sorts of cool and geeky projects. Weirdly though, I’d not actually encountered the band in its first few years.
That all changed in about January 2015. Sam and I had planned to meet up at SXSW in Austin that March (I was there for the geeky conference, him for the music) when he mentioned his band were playing one night during the festival and I should come along with my fellow conference mates. I readily agreed but then quickly hit YouTube to check them out. I was praying they wouldn’t be crap and I’d have to be polite and pretend to like them the next time I saw him.
It turned out they were very much not crap. Phew.
St Patrick’s Day 2015. BD Riley’s Irish Bar, 6th Street, Austin, Texas. It was the first of what would become many times that I’d see Skinny Lister live but it still holds a special place in my heart. It was the final night of a full-on but amazing week of business in one of my favourite cities, and it warmed me to my soles. And my soul. A tiny bar crammed to bursting point with drunk but friendly revellers, Sam sneaking me and my friends in via a back alley and through the kitchens, watching the much-missed Michael Camino crowdsurfing with his upright base just a couple of feet from the low ceiling, and me belting out the words to the handful of their set list that I knew.
Once we’d come back home and back down to Earth, I started paying more attention to what the band were up to, eagerly awaiting each new single to be released that spring off their second album Down On Deptford Broadway. Some of my specialisms in my day job are social media strategy and community management (albeit for video games) so I started to take a professional interest in the social stuff that the band were putting out. After seeing them live and seeing how much they loved their fans, and their fans loved them, I couldn’t help but think that their social media was missing a trick in terms of continuing that love affair and energy off-stage, so I rather presumptuously and somewhat meekly sent Sam a couple of ideas of things they could try. He foolishly said they’d welcome any other tips so I ran with it and sent them an email the size of War and Peace a day or so later.
Not long after that they actually asked me if I’d help in a slightly more regular way, so one afternoon in early May 2015 I was sitting on a Skype call with Sam, Lorna Thomas and Dan Hepstinstall talking about social media analytics and fan growth strategies. It was not especially rock and roll at all, except that it was.
I could ramble for several paragraphs now about the Facebook organic growth we achieved that summer, or the energising of the fan club page that we drove, or the new content ideas for Instagram, or the round-the-clock Twitter engagement while they toured Europe and the world.
But no-one reading an XMR blog is going to care about any of that.
The stuff that really matters is the music and the friendships. I desperately wanted to help the band get more of the recognition they deserved, and was keen to do and suggest whatever I could to make that happen. I was trying to keep my calm, cool ‘social media guru’ head on while simultaneously grappling with the thought that a 43-year-old mother of two doesn't generally get to hang out backstage at a Frank Turner gig or get AAA’d into a festival. I was constantly stretched between feeling useful and feeling unworthily uncool.
I will be eternally grateful to the whole band (especially the inspiring, energy-packed, life-affirming front lady Lorna) for their welcoming spirit, their open-mindedness, and most of all their patience while I found my feet and worked out my level with them all. At the risk of blowing my own trumpet, in my normal world I’m pretty well regarded at what I do and have a fairly good reputation in the games industry, but I'm not sure whether most of the band ever realised how terrified I was at working with them, even though it was just a friendly volunteer gig with no real expectations. I was paralysed with the fear of doing something eye-rollingly dumb in a space I wasn’t familiar with, or messing things up for them. Or having my innate lack of coolness exposed!
On this International Women’s Day, while the world continues to #pushforprogress on broader issues of gender and inclusion, I think it’s also important that we all continue to push for our own personal progress too. Sadly that’s often pushing against the system or against individuals, but sometimes it’s just pushing against our own ideas of self-worth and self-belief. It’s pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones, it’s risking embarrassment in the hope that something greater will come from that risk.
As women we’re often particularly bad at believing in ourselves and our abilities, but it’s hard for me to understate the impact that getting involved with Skinny Lister has had on me. I’ve discovered a huge amount during the journey so far and I hope it continues for years to come. I’ve not only discovered some amazing new music and musicians, I’ve discovered some incredible new friends-for-life throughout the community, I’ve discovered new industries and new skills professionally, but most of all I’ve discovered a new confidence in being myself.
Sometimes progress comes from the most unlikely of sources. You’ve got to keep pushing, even when you’re scared of what might push back. Just follow your fearless heart…
Lauren Johnson, vocals and keys, Brand New Friend
I’m Lauren, I’m 20 and I play keys and sing in Brand New Friend. The project was established roughly two years ago and started its life as a Soundcloud page filled with demos recorded with my brother in various rooms of our house. In this short time, Brand New Friend has evolved into a signed band with a studio album, playing shows all over the UK and Ireland. This has always been a dream of mine; however, it wasn’t one that I actually thought was achievable. As with many vocalists, singing has been an inherent part of my life for as long as I can remember. It is an unquestionable part of my being, something that I can’t help but do pretty much constantly throughout the day. I sang joyously and wholeheartedly as a child in my primary school choir, and I would then go home and sit in front of the TV watching the music channels and singing along to Destiny’s Child and No Doubt.
In my teenage years, I continued singing, but spent most of my time at school with my nose in a book (this part hasn’t changed!). When I was 17, I interviewed and was accepted onto the Volume Control project in The Oh Yeah Music Centre, Belfast. Naturally introverted and shy, plunging myself into a new situation with new people and new responsibilities was scary, but it was one of the best decisions I have ever made and helped me regain the sense of childhood enthusiasm and excitement surrounding music. Volume Control is a project that allows young people aged 14-19 to organise and run their own gigs, and it introduced me to so many inspiring and supportive people in the local music scene. I definitely consider this my gateway into the music industry, and I would really encourage any young girls who are interested in getting involved in music to do some research into similar projects in their area. Empowering young people to get involved in music and giving them the tools to develop their confidence is incredibly important! Without this project, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to start playing and performing with Brand New Friend.
One of my highlights since joining the band has been playing at Radio 1’s Big Weekend in Hull. After our set, I was approached by a woman and her young daughter in the queue for the burger van. They had watched our set and explained that they hadn’t seen many girls playing in bands over the weekend, and that her daughter loved watching us on stage. This moment reinforced why I do what I do. I really want to show young girls that being in a touring and recording band is something that is not out of your grasp. It takes a lot of guts to take the first step, but I promise it is the most rewarding experience to stand on a stage and play your instrument and allow your voice to be heard!
You can preorder Brand New Friends' debut album Seatbelts for Aeroplanes on vinyl, CD and download - out 27 April 2018
Arabell Walter, Booking Agent, This Is Now Agency and Suitcaselife Booking
I went to my first ever gig at the age of 13 and immediately fell in love with everything I found there: loud live musi and, being part of a community. Even if it was only for some hours, it was a door that suddenly opened a way to a world I didn’t know, and the wider I pushed it open while going to more gigs, the more I wanted to make this a part of my daily life. So at the age of 17 I started my first beloved German music blog „Lieblingstape“ (favourite mixtape), which gave me a reason to go to gigs and somehow provided the people around me with an explanation for my excessive gigging across the whole country and the whole of Europe – I was now able to say I did it to do interviews with artists I liked. I wrote an awful lot of reviews about gigs and new and old records which meant something to me, and I tried to support my favourite artists as much as possible.
After finishing school and traveling around the world for even more gigs, it was time to decide what kind of job I wanted to do. I somehow ended up with two internships at a booking company and a local promoter, both in the media and press department. But I didn’t want to end up doing press related stuff – I didn’t want to make people write about music and do interviews, I wanted to do it myself and be involved at the gigs exactly at the point where they actually happened. And luckily the people around me, people I knew because they went to gigs with me or because they played in the bands I went to see live, encouraged me to go a step further.
So at the end of 2013, I started to look into getting an apprenticeship to become an event manager. I was more than lucky and got one at my favourite venues, the Lido in Berlin. After six months, I was already putting shows on by myself, and even better one of the first shows was for a German artist I really admired for his music and who I had interviewed some years ago. He even remembered me from said interview. It was funny to see for myself how I turned from a supportive fan into a person who made his show happen - in Berlin, no less!
Time moved on, I did lots of shows, some of them with even more artists I’m in love with, like Joey Cape, Emily Barker, Austin Lucas, CKY, Me First And the Gimme Gimmes and more, while I continued to travel around Europe to see even more gigs in my free time. In November 2015, some of my friends and I went to the UK to see Frank Turner and his support acts Skinny Lister and Will Varley. It was the first time I heard about this Varley guy and I fell in love with him and his music within the first seconds of his gig at Barrowlands, Glasgow. Two gigs later, I was already able to sing along to his songs during his gig and on the fourth and last night I decided I needed to get a tattoo of his lyrics, as they were (and are) top notch. As soon as I was back in Berlin, I got in contact with Xtra Mile, who then gave me the contact of his agent. I had to organise a gig for this guy in Berlin! Some mails later Adam Gainsborough, head of This Is Now Agency, decided to let me book a whole Germany tour - I only did this once before, but I believed in Will's music and I was sure people in Germany would at least love it as much as the people in the UK. During the summer of 2016 we announced a nine-day tour and to be honest, I couldn’t believe it was me who had done this. December 2016 arrived quicker than I expected it to and the tour went nuts - we sold out six out of the nine shows and in the middle of the whole thing I got a message from Adam asking me if I wanted to book shows over here for Beans On Toast too. Hell yeah, why not? Four months later Jay came over for his first proper Germany tour and again gigs sold out pretty quickly and Jay declared me his new favourite person. Once again I couldn’t believe what had actually happened. Somehow I was still a simple fan who just did her part of supporting musicians she liked and somehow I ended up being a part of their business. Even nowadays it’s hard for me to wrap my head around this.
When I got my first contact with this whole music and concert business a close person told me not to be a fan when it comes down to the business - people wouldn’t take you seriously. From what I've experienced, it's the opposite. I think I got my internships and my apprenticeship because the people knew about my passion and love for live music. Adam of This Is Now Agency trusted me with both artists (Will Varley and Beans On Toast) while I was pretty open about being a fan from the very beginning. If I was to give anyone any advice about starting a job in the music business, it would be: remain true to yourself, dare to break out of your comfort zone, be ready to work long and hard and long. At some point it will all pay off.
Samlin Miller, valued XMR Market Rep
Some people figure out what they want to do early in life. Some people decide around age 5 or 6 that they want to be a doctor and they follow that dream and succeed. I’m not that person. I’m 23 with a degree and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, but when I went to college and was surrounded by a thriving music scene for the first time, I was compelled to do something, to get involved somehow. Conveniently, Xtra Mile started a street team around that time.
Being on a street team is a great way to get involved in the music industry on your own terms. I tend to explain it to non-music people as a remote internship where you set your own hours and level of commitment. With the wonders of social media, you can participate from anywhere in the world, and it’s an incredible way to meet new people in your scene. I can’t count the number of friends I have made because I was tweeting about a band we both like, or posted online looking for a gig buddy.
Street teaming allows you to carve out a space for yourself in this weird industry. You can make yourself known and valued for your unbridled enthusiasm (something that non-male fans are often shamed for). You can learn about all different aspects of music promotion, from flyering to Thunderclaps. Most importantly, a street team is an incredible community to be a part of. You always have someone to talk to about a new album that you love, or a music video that blew your mind. Whether it’s a stepping stone toward a career in the industry or just something fun you do on the weekends, street teaming has something to offer everyone.
You can find out more about the XMR Street Team here.
Clara Cullen, Music Venue Trust
Music Venue Trust is a registered charity founded in January 2014 with the aim of protecting, securing and improving grassroots music venues. In London alone, in the last decade, 34.7% of grassroots music venues have closed. This is a broad trend we have witnessed across the country. Of the grassroots music venues that remain, many are struggling in an increasingly harsh economic climate. With noise complaints continuing to force venues to close, coupled with lingering licencing issues, massive rises in business rates, and the constant threat of redevelopment, running a grassroots music venue is an intense labour of love.
My personal story with music started with Banquet Records in Kingston Upon Thames. I firmly believe that finding Banquet Records as a teenager changed my life. I started a blog and went to as many gigs as I could. Soon I was staying up late interviewing bands after shows and writing reviews. Somehow, I still managed to make it to class the next day. Immersing myself in punk’s DIY culture, I watched as all my friends formed bands. This eventually led me to think ‘hey, I can do that’. So I got together with my best friends and we formed our own girl gang called Foreign Correspondence, playing shows around the country. After spending many nights hanging out in beer-stained venues and dimly lit dive bars; my love of live music eventually led me to join Music Venue Trust in late 2017.
A project that I am particularly proud to have helped with is Music Venue Trust’s push for the adoption of the Agent of Change principle. In early 2018, the government pledged to adopt Agent of Change into the National Planning Policy Framework. This is a considerable win for small venues and will help halt the decline of grassroots music venues across the country. I also assist in patron development, helping Music Venue Trust cultivate diverse relationships with artist and industry figures. Frank Turner is one of our patrons and fronted our Agent of Change campaign. I feel incredibly fortunate to be doing a job that stands at an intersection between my interests in music, politics and the charity sector.
However, breaking into the music industry took time and persistence. Here are a few tips that I have picked up along the way. Firstly, you don’t need to do this all by yourself! There are some great networking groups and organisations for women that are working to help press for progress. In the UK, they include: She Said So, Girls I Rate, Women In Music, and Let’s Be The Change. I would suggest checking them all out as they offer great panels, networking events, and chances to meet other interesting and empowering women.
The second practical tip I have is to volunteer at music industry conferences. Working these conferences and showcases (for example The Great Escape or Liverpool Sound City etc) not only gives you something tangible to put on your CV but also, more crucially, allows you access to industry figures you would not normally get to meet. Once you’ve had your initial introduction make sure you always send a follow-up email. This can help get you remembered when the next round of jobs is advertised. Practical things like putting yourself out there and being a bit tenacious in asking for meetings with people already working in the industry and then following up on them can really help solidify important relationships.
Having written all this, landing my job was not down to my own deluded mix of unbridled enthusiasm and bloody-mindedness alone. For many years, I have had the good fortune to have mentors who have helped me along the way. Looking back over my attempts at breaking into this industry, one constant I have had is the women who have shared their knowledge, expertise, and extended a helping hand to me when it wasn’t expected of them. Although this is likely to make all of them incredibly embarrassed (this is terribly un-British after all), I would like to take a moment to shout out a few of these fantastic women.
I first met Maryam Hassan when I was 16 years old and just discovering punk music. Maryam was the photo editor at Punktastic, a music website I used to write for, and she was one of the first people to guide me through London’s punk scene. Some of our early days of hanging out in pubs in Camden are still some of my favourite memories. With her own characteristically joyous brand of exuberance and compassion, Maryam helped me break out of my shell and walk with confidence.
XMR’s own Head of PR Dani Cotter was also someone who, luckily for me, took a chance on me. Dani has over the years been incredibly gracious with the time she has given me, as well as the willingness she has shown in passing on her knowledge. Often going above and beyond in helping me succeed I couldn’t ask for a cooler champion.
Finally, my boss, Beverley Whitrick is Music Venue Trust’s Strategic Director. One of the reasons I enjoy working at Music Venue Trust is the scope I am given to grow in my current role. I think this is a really important aspect in pressing for progress in the workplace. From the offset, Beverley has keenly encouraged me to learn new skills, given me the freedom to involve myself in the larger running of MVT, and trusted me with important projects that go beyond my job description. In doing so, I have quickly been able to grow the scope of my work and diversify my interests. When you work alongside people who actively want you to succeed and give you opportunities to do so, it really is the best of all worlds.
I could keep going but this would quickly risk turning into an Oscars acceptance speech. As such, I hope that my anecdotal stories highlight how important it is to surround yourself with women who want you to succeed. It is my number one tip. If you take only one thing from this garble of words, get yourself a mentor! This is a tough industry, but having a strong support system of people who help challenge you whilst raising you up, is an incredible privilege.
If I had to sum up my advice into one sentence it would be to work hard, be kind, surround yourself with inspiring people, and always remember your own worth.
For more information on Music Venue Trust, please head here: http://musicvenuetrust.com/