Femmes, DJs, Raves: Towards More Inclusive Club Cultures

We still see male-dominated lineup after male-dominated lineup, at clubs and festivals predominantly run by male bookers and promoters.

by Alyce Currier on November 3rd, 2015

Like the tech industry, the electronic music scene is often seen as a progressive space. We align ourselves in opposition to the mainstream, thrive on the sense that we’re building something new, something counterculture — that we might someday change the world.

But how much of that fantasy lines up with reality? In her 1996 book, Club Cultures, Sarah Thornton writes: “Despite their discourse of liberty, fraternity and harmony, raves had distinct demographics — chiefly white, working-class, heterosexual and dominated by the lads. Raves may have involved large numbers of people and they may have trespassed on new territories, finding new spaces for youthful leisure, but they did little to rearrange its social affairs.”

Not much has changed in 2015. We still see male-dominated lineup after male-dominated lineup, at clubs and festivals predominantly run by male bookers and promoters. As someone heavily involved in the tech industry (working at a software company as a content strategist) and the techno scene (as a DJ, writer, and occasional event organizer), I frequently find myself disappointed with the groups represented at events I attend in either field. This article is my attempt to outline ways that everyone can help make both club scenes and music technology more accessible for people of non-masculine identities.

Support community-oriented femme-centric collectives or events

I’m close with many men in the local music scene where I DJ, and many of them have been important musical mentors — but I’ve felt much more confident and comfortable since finding pockets of supportive women and femmes to practice and exchange wisdom with. If you’re doubting the value of a non-masculine space, I suggest tallying up who does most of the talking at the next tech or music meetup you go to. Sometimes, it’s just easier to speak up in a room full of non-masculine people.

I’ve attended femme DJ skillshare events and played together on femme-centric lineups with Jamaican-born, Boston-based DJ and engineer R*Q-L, whose genre-boundary-defying sets always light up the dancefloor:

“I think femme-centric lineups are awesome and completely necessary at this time. Space is limited for us in the industry right now. These femme-centric lineups are a good way of getting our voices heard and changing that.” – R*Q~L

R*Q~L at the DJ set-up, standing next to Leah McFly on the computer.

R*Q~L and Leah McFly. Photo by Daniella Rascón.

Female Pressure, a network of female artists in electronic music and digital arts, found that across festival lineups, female representation averaged a mere 10.8% this past year. Since performing live is often one of the best ways to practice and hone a sound, improving this number may sometimes require booking based on potential, rather than demonstrated experience, or spending some extra time seeking out performers who don’t have pre-established reputations.

If an all-female lineup isn’t quite your jam, there’s still plenty of room to book more balanced parties. New York festival Sustain-Release curated a well-balanced lineup without much fanfare, and female performers like The Black Madonna, Paula Temple, Via App, and Volvox blew away the crowd. In an interview with The Fader, festival founders Aurora Halal and Zara Wladawsky summarized their philosophy: “Great art is all about reflecting on the human experience, so including a variety [of] perspectives is essential.”

Too often, femme-centric lineups are employed as a gimmick, a marketing tool pushing events organized by men who reap their financial and reputational benefits. These one-off events check off a box; they can be referenced to deflect criticism of otherwise predominantly male-centric nights. The most powerful femme-centric events are those organized with the goal of building real community, paying artists from marginalized groups, and bringing underrepresented talent to the forefront.

Boston scene staple and Zuesday queer dance party resident DJ Leah McFly and Los Angeles-based DJ and Broad Bassed collective member Bianca Oblivion both shared great insights on what makes for a community-centric event rather than an exploitative lineup:

“Compare something purposefully curated, such as Discwoman in NYC, to something like a random ‘ladies night’ at a college bar on a Friday. The bill could be the same, but the way it’s marketed completely changes the vibe. The differences are night and day. Empowerment and Exploitation.” – Leah McFly

“It really depends on who books the event and how they present it. If it’s a group of male-identified promoters who have women on the bill as a novelty to pump up a ‘ladies’ night,’­­ it merely highlights the fact that women do not get equal representation on a ‘regular’ night. Alternatively, an event that has all or majority femme artists without explicitly being billed ‘ladies’ night,’ or an event organized by and promoting femme artists works toward building a community and opening up more opportunities.” – Bianca Oblivion

Bianca Oblivion performing at the DJ set, a "Bianca Oblivion" logo across the computer.

Bianca Oblivion

Be proactive in creating safe spaces

“It’s the female dancers they harass. Simple example, try going to Middlesex Lounge on a Thursday night. Be the female self you are, whether standing, holding your drink and listening, or moving your body. Some douchebag is bound to grab your butt, and blame you for it.” LBCT, Boston-based producer

Clubs can feel like incredibly hostile spaces, but sometimes all it takes is setting the tone to help attendees think before acting on impulse. Seattle’s Decibel Festival designated their entire event this year as a “safer space.” They handed out consent cards and hung posters explaining what this meant in venues throughout the city. In a similar vein, Boston and Brooklyn dance night Picó Picante added a disclaimer to all of their Facebook event pages after a conversation with Azucar – A Queer Latin Dance Party:

Picó loves you! But, harassment (of any kind), violence, unconsentual touching, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, or any other disrespectful behavior will not be tolerated and you will be asked to leave.”

New York-based Ecuadorian-Lithuanian DJ, event organizer, and writer Sara Skolnick, whose DJ sets as Riobamba reflect her interest in global dance culture and often feel as educational as they are fun, described the thought process behind Picó Picante’s disclaimer:

I think it’s important to underline that the disclaimer is us setting our intentions for the space, and saying that we have your back if anything happens in the club. We wish we could prevent shit from happening, but unfortunately there are always variables that are out of our control in the moment depending on who’s in the crowd, etc. What the disclaimer does do, however, is guarantee that we hold ourselves accountable to do what we can in the space, and that we’ll advocate for whatever changes need to happen to make the party safer during/after.” – Riobamba

It would be great to see more club nights and festivals take a proactive stance on the serious and pervasive issue of sexual harassment and other ill behavior on the dancefloor — and follow through on that stance by making it crystal clear who to turn to for help when issues occur. For example, should someone experiencing a negative situation talk to the club staff, or a party organizer? Choosing the right spaces is essential, too — will the club back you up if something goes awry?

Working with a bar that’s open to this type of dialogue is key. If we become aware of a situation, it’s essential to know that you can count on the management and staff to back you up. For example, we had a live performer in the space earlier this year, and seeing that there was security on either side of her to make sure no one would cross into her space without consent, or that she could feel safe as the center of attention in a packed space, was really key and reassuring. Visible signifiers of support like that I think go a long way.” – Riobamba

Riobamba performing at the DJ set.

Riobamba. Photo by Nicky Digital.

As a woman who frequently attends clubs alone, I’ve developed a thick skin to tolerate some of the things men say and do to me. There’ve been many instances when I’ve found myself moving to the sidelines from the center of the dance floor to avoid further attention, and in rarer instances, I’ve felt so shaken and violated by interactions that I had to leave an event altogether. Even if you’re direct in telling someone you’re not interested in interacting, there’s no guaranteeing how a stranger (or acquaintance) will react, and others may perceive you as rude or “bitchy” for not being friendly to men demanding your attention.

I often find myself wishing I could become invisible and simply enjoy the music that I love (an activity I find quite energizing); instead, I sometimes find myself opting out of attending events because I don’t have the energy to deal with the people. Because of this, I’ve missed out on inspiring performances, failed to support my friends’ sets, and likely missed out on opportunities to meet potential collaborators. 

If women don’t feel comfortable attending club events, how can we possibly feel comfortable drawing even more attention to ourselves as performers? Why invite further objectification and harassment by placing ourselves at the center of attention?

When you’re out: Don’t touch non-consensually. (That goes for people and gear.) Don’t assume I don’t know anything about the music just because of my gender. Try engaging me in conversation about something of substance. Even an “I like your vibe” can go further than “you’re cute” in making someone feel like they’re more than an object. It seems basic, but it’s a matter of treating everybody equally and respecting how others want to spend their time and attention.

Talk to us about our tech

I’ve played tag team DJ sets with numerous male friends, where we’re both behind the booth controlling the music together. Too frequently, people approaching us to ask a question default to asking my partner and barely regard my existence. Most of the women I spoke to for this article brought up frustrations with the assumptions that club attendees, and even fellow performers, made about their technical prowess.

For example, Mei Ohara, a Boston-based electronic artist, vocalist, and electric violinist whose futuristic, classical-influenced work emphasizes opposites combining in unity (paralleled by her binary hair and half-Japanese, half American identity), described how people sometimes talk to her in spite of her deep technical education:

I spent 2 1/2 years doing audio engineering for a research lab at MIT, and even knowing this people will still sometimes speak to me as if I don’t know basic audio concepts. Yes, I have heard the term ‘panning’ before, thank you. You’re welcome to read my published research paper where I moved sounds in multi-channels to test multi-stable illusory opportunities exploiting front-back confusion.” – Mei Ohara

Photo of Mei Ohara playing a stringed instrument on stage.

Mei Ohara. Photo by Eddy Leiva.

Before you offer to help with something, ask yourself whether you’d offer the same help to a man. Don’t ask patronizing questions about gear or offer unsolicited advice, especially while a performer is playing. Don’t arbitrarily compare us to other female performers. Be cognizant of others’ space and time.

Keep mentorship and sex/romance separate

“Want to play music together sometime?” “Would you like for me to teach you about that thing you’re having trouble with?” I’ve often taken these questions at face value, only to realize a bit too late, when a hand snuck its way onto the small of my back, or a bit too much wine was offered, what the underlying intentions were. This is not flattering, it’s deflating; and in some instances, it’s sexual harassment or assault. You believe that someone saw enough potential in you to want to help you advance your skills, then recognize 30 minutes into hanging out that they just wanted to touch your butt.

If you’re already romantically or sexually involved, of course, practicing together can be really fun. But don’t create confusing, awkward situations by using your position in a scene to coerce women into spending time with you.

“You will meet people who want to exploit or use you for reasons beyond your creative vision. You will also meet people that will appreciate your vision, who may believe in you more than even you do. Remember who you are and what you want, determine your boundaries, and don’t let yourself become jaded just because some people are unprofessional.” – Mei Ohara

Remember that style and taste are subjective

Across many artistic fields, sentimentality and emotionality get a bad rap. Personal narrative writing is viewed as less valuable than “objective” journalism. We all know what happened when Zoe Quinn’s “Depression Quest” shook up perceptions of what a video game should look and feel like. And in music subcultures, the same demeaning tone is often taken for creations and performances that feel more “feminine.”

“I hate when people look down on genres for being ‘all fake computer sounds’ or ‘pop music, therefore inherently vapid.’ Sometimes music is for the creator. Sometimes it is for the listener. It is sound made into meaning both within and outside of language. So many people are quick to forget that their tastes are subjective.” – Mei Ohara

Overly emotional art by women is often dismissed more easily than similar works by men. A 2013 article in Fact titled “Rise of the Sad Boys” describes how labels like Kompakt and Border Community have brought sentiment to the forefront, but what of female emotion? Women need to work harder for their more openly emotive work to be read as legitimate. For example, artists like Dasha Rush who’ve produced blistering techno can then produce Sleepstep, incorporating vocals and melodies while still being read as art.

In his rave history tome Energy Flash, Simon Reynolds concisely delineates the “intelligent techno” movement pioneered by Warp Records, summarizing its elitism in one line, used to describe “pure techno” clubs: “The words ‘no breakbeats, no lycra’ conflated racism, classism, and sexism into a rallying cry for a mostly male connoisseur élite, self-appointed custodians of the techno canon.” (157)

Elitism is exclusionary, disproportionately so for groups newly breaking into a hobby or interest. Whether it’s policing a particular sound or choice in equipment (i.e. digital vs. analog tools), ask yourself if feeling a little better about your own choices is worth making someone else feel unwelcome or inadequate.

Some of the most inspiring nights of my life have taken place in clubs. From pure exuberance with friends letting go of our respective realities in unison, to meditative solo experiences taking in cerebral musical performances, these experiences are central to my happiness. It’s because of my deep love for these spaces, and my gratitude for the many things I’ve learned there, that I care so much about making them comfortable for everyone.

Beyond attending events, learning how to DJ has changed the way I think about music. When I first started going out to see DJs and producers play, it didn’t occur to me that perhaps I, too, could play with that technology. Most of my favorite musicians were men, and it was hard to see myself in their position. More accessible technology certainly played a role (I still use a laptop and controller, rather than vinyl or CDJs, to actively engage with my music collection). But as I discovered more female DJs and producers — I remember TOKiMONSTA being one of the first — I became even more interested in learning to DJ myself.

There are a wide array of complex reasons why technological subcultures sometimes feel less hospitable, or even hostile, to women and femmes, but I believe that if we all work to better ourselves individually and exchange honest feedback, we can make these spaces more universally welcoming. We’ll all benefit artistically from a broader range of contributors.