8th March is International Women’s Day. To celebrate this year we’ve caught up with the founders of a couple of Brighton based women’s projects to talk to them about their work as well as their experiences in the Brighton music industry. Bex Fidler is one of the founders of Miss Represented, but also used to put on the Spectrum nights at the Dome and sings in a Blues & Soul group. Jo Bramli and Bee Adamic are the founders of MAMI – Jo makes electronic music on her own (and will be supporting Ulrich Schnauss at St Luke’s on 22nd March) as well being part of Fröst and The Larsens and a tutor at one of the local music colleges. Bee is one of the founders of Liberty PR and has run the Girl Power stage at the Great Escape for the last few years and has run other live music nights around Brighton for many years.
BMB : Let’s kick off talking about Miss Represented
Bex : Me and Jo Bates started it, Jo’s a social worker, and it’s an arts project working with young women who have experienced quite a lot of challenges in life, and as a result of that, exclusion from school, usually have contact with the criminal justice system, often don’t really have a space where they feel they can be safe and bring down their barriers, where they try and understand their lives a bit more deeply and the world around them. Me and Jo had done quite a lot of projects together and found that mostly all the girls were dropping out. They’re not always music projects, everything we’ve done is across art really, but music is a strong feature. If a young person gets excluded from school they go to a pupil referral unit or if they have contact with the police they’ll end up being involved with the youth offending service, usually male dominated spaces so it’s very difficult for a young woman in the projects that we were doing to feel like they can express themselves, often feeling quite intimidated in the space so we felt that there was a real need to have a space that is just female for those girls basically. That was seven and a bit years ago.
BMB : was that something you started at the Dome?
Bex : In the spirit of inspirational women, I was the creative learning manager at the Dome, and Pippa Smith was the head of creative learning and she had supported me in doing various projects and then when I said that there was a need for these young women she said OK, here’s however many thousand pounds, go and do it, and was there to nurture and support me and give me the freedom to try it. So the project is still at the Dome, but I’m part time now, just doing Miss Rep. But the project is about the girls development and their personal journeys, but it’s also about making shows and exhibitions that go out and connect with the wider community and ask those questions that address the stigma around poverty and people who are in the benefits system. That’s often what comes up, whatever the shows and exhibitions are about come from the girls – they lead it and it’s whatever comes out of those creative conversations that we have.
Jo : How old are they?
Bex : between 13 and 20. We’ve been running for seven years so two of the girls are now in their early 20s who have been with us a long long time and now we can really see the change that can happen when you’ve got sustained projects like that and they now co-facilitate mini Miss Rep sessions in schools and they’ve started Park Life, these two really strong young women from Whitehawk, now campaigning for better parks in the area for their children. It’s not just about that though, it’s about bringing together the whole community for events, so the council have now pledged 150 grand, they’re going to build a new park. They’ve also been raising money themselves to put on events and just have a stronger community where they live which hasn’t happened for a long time. The ripple effect’s been amazing.
Jo : Have some of these women carried on their creative output outside of Miss Rep?
Bex : Yes, in the sense that those two women for example are wanting to run projects that are creative for people in their community. Some young women have gone on to BIMM and carried on music education, some young women have gone back into school and continued their education there. So it’s slightly different to a lot of other creative projects in that we’re not honing them to be artists necessarily, it’s about them discovering who they are and what they want to do. What’s amazing recently, in 2017 we took our show out on tour, it was called Can You See Me Now and it was about the girls experiences of the systems and institutions, the care system, social services, school, and we went to different schools and we started in Brighton, went to Liverpool and Manchester, and Battersea Arts Centre in London and that tour was really powerful and transformative. So all our work now is about continuing that dialogue. We had Q&As after every show, with the girls developing their vocabulary and finding that confidence to speak in public, to connect with other members of the community, other adults and young people, and spread that message of empathy and understanding and through doing that tour we’ve started doing a bit of a strand, getting Cate Ferris on board. We’ve always had really amazing musicians, Kassia (Zermon who performs Bunty and also runs the Rose Hill Arts Centre) has been part of Miss Rep for a long time and when we started touring our shows with Cate on board, who’s gone down more of a songwriting route with the girls we’ve now got this collection of incredible songs that some of the girls have written with Cate. So I think the music strand of the project is going to grow and how we release those songs, what we do with them – Cate’s produced them as well – we’re still deciding. It’s a very exciting time.
Jo : Is there a selection process for who gets involved?
Bex : It depends. A lot of girls usually get referred from their social worker, maybe from their school, maybe from the youth offending service and at the beginning there’ll be a lot of trepidation but quite soon they realise we’re not like the other services. They don’t have to come, it’s totally up to them, they choose what they do, we’re not forcing them into anything and they have total autonomy and ownership over the process. So the engagement level is quite high and often girls who don’t engage in anything else find that they have a space that they can engage in. And then through that sometimes we get self referrals where it’s friends of girls who. And some girls will find it’s not for them, maybe it is a bit too free flowing, and also it’s totally self led by them, it’s not like it’s a three year course and then they’re off. Some might stay for a year and ask themselves if they’ve got what they need from that then go back to school, and others will stay for seven years. And there’s a lot of conversation about how people exit, it’s not just “now you’re off”.
BMB : I’m going to ask about MAMI now
Bee : So we launched it on International Women’s Day last year – myself and Jo co-founded it and I guess the background was that from a personal perspective I fell pregnant in 2016, I’d recently launched a music PR agency and I felt that I couldn’t tell people within the industry that I was pregnant, especially Men. Some of my male clients I felt that if I told them I was pregnant they’d assume I was written off, so that was something that was bugging me. So soon after giving birth I went to a women’s networking event in London, talking to quite a few young women in music they felt you had to choose between either raising a family or having a successful career in music, and that you couldn’t have the two and it hit a lightbulb in my had because you can. I manage to do it, albeit with a lot of support. So for me personally, launching MAMI is about educating women who might be thinking about wanting to start a family who are in music, so if they’re a musician or in the business in another capacity, and also empowering the next generation who are coming through as well, doing it through positive stories. We’ve got our first panel on 27th as part of the Spring Forward Festival. We’ve got an amazing panel of speakers – everyone from Alice Russell to the Director of International at Sony Music to the live engineer who’s looked after people like Metronomy, Django Django, Jagwar Mar, loads of people. She actually went on the road a month after giving birth and was gone for six weeks. And she’s got such a great story to tell. So all these positive stories, we’re hoping to educate and support people in the industry or are coming into the industry.
Jo : I guess that’s the first step, to have shared, positive testimonials just to empower. When Bee contacted me just over a year ago to say that she wanted to do something about women in music it really echoed with me because as a teacher I was a long time the only woman in the department and now we’ve got two others. A lot of my students were giving exactly the same feedback that they had a feeling that you try to have a career in music until whenever and if you decide to have a family then you park your musical career and this is it. A platform for positive messages is the focus. But hopefully we’ve got wider ambitions and try to see if it’s possible to get some funding to maybe have some childcare at key music festivals, and get some things with positive concrete outcomes. Just keeping it positive and solution focussed.
Bee : We don’t want to just sit there and moan about what’s wrong with what’s happening, we also want to find solutions.
Bex : That’s amazing. Sometimes there’s just a lot of wringing of hands, isn’t there?
Jo : I guess the first stage is having the discussions with everyone who’s in those situations. Talk first, then do.
Bex : So do you have focus groups?
Jo : So far, it’s more of an idea of bringing people together and building the network, and we’ve got the event coming up and hopefully a second one as well, so it’s early days and we’re still finding the best way of focussing this. I feel like it’s got potential and everyone we’ve been speaking to has been putting posts out on social media and the response has been really amazing, so there’s definitely a thirst for it.
BMB : Do you think Brighton is a good for place for women in music?
Bex : I think it’s changed a lot – when I started doing Spectrum seven years ago as Source New Music I’d be thinking “oh my god, I can’t have another line up of all guys” but back then it did seem hard to be finding female acts, but these days there’s been an explosion, an excitement around a lot of female acts in Brighton
Jo : It feels like it’s really changed in the last three / four years
BMB : But you’ve had people like Bitchcraft and Femrock and Rixson music did a Support Your Local Girl Gang night.
Jo : In the past I’ve definitely felt like I was a tick in the box, just to have a female member performing, whereas now I don’t feel like that any more.
Bee : I think also with me curating a lot of nights – I had a regular night at the green door store – I always had that in the forefront of my mind when I was putting together my lineups, I wanted it to be really balanced and even more so at Great Escape – I put on a Girl Power stage. I’ve been doing that every year for the last three years, giving people I think really should have that platform to play. I think Great Escape’s really good in that sense.
Jo : I feel like I’m often defined as a “female electronic artist” and there’s still the word female associated to my creative output. I have a bit of a problem with that. I hate my gender to be part of my stylistic definition. And I think that’s still the case. So even though it’s better in terms of representation, we’re not quite there.
Bex : We did a women in music event at Lighthouse when I was working there and Anna Moulson (who runs Melting Vinyl) said something really brilliant when someone in the audience asked her whether there’s still sexism in the music industry and she was like “well, you can’t really see it as much, but you can smell it”! It takes a long time for cultures to shift – it has been a very male dominated industry for a long time and it takes a long time for change to happen
Bee : But also with our project MAMI we want it to be quite balanced so we don’t want an all female panel of mums, we’d actually quite like some dads. So we almost got Dexter, who’s the new music Friday editor at Spotify, because he’s based in Brighton. He’s amazing – he took six months paternity leave to look after his first son. To have that balanced discussion would be great and that’s what we want.
Jo : For me fifteen years ago I was studying in London and doing lots of session work in lots of studios and that’s the reason I came down to Brighton to learn about music – the way I was spoken to in the studio as someone who obviously wouldn’t know anything about the technology or anything because of my gender was what pushed me to study it so I know it like the back of my hand and I don’t think that young women get as much of that stereotyping any more. So again, I think things are changing but just not quick enough yet.
Bex : Yeah, there’s still a long way to go.
Bee : I’ve heard some nightmare stories about some of the major labels dropping women who have announced that they’re pregnant midway through their contract and it’s awful to think that could happen. But at the opposite end of the scale you’ve got people like Cardi B who totally champions being pregnant when she’s onstage, and Beyonce too, but they’re at a completely different level.
Jo : They’re helping change the stigma though.
Bex : What have you observed in the changes over the years?
BMB : It’s hard to say because I don’t know how much I didn’t know before, but it feels like there are a lot more female promoters, female organised things – it’s not just about women in bands, it’s about the women making it happen. But Anna Moulson’s been putting on gigs for twenty years now
Jo : A lot of the top promoters in Brighton are women – Lisa Lout, Kassia running the Rose Hill
Bex : Most of the programmers at the Dome are women
Bee : Are we in a bubble though?
Bex : A lot of it is the female led things. It does feel quite separated in some ways
BMB : But does it need to be separated so you can say “right, we’ve established that we’re as good as the men and then you merge back together again once people take notice?
Bex : Possibly. I think people are really aware of it. There’s a consciousness around it. Who was it who pointed out the Australian festival with no women artists (2017’s Day’s Like This . This is also a good read on the same subject)
Jo : I don’t think you can get away with it any more these days
BMB : I think there’s enough people in Brighton that would call it out as well.
Bex : When we went to Bloc a few years ago I think there were only two women on the entire weekend. That is a male dominated music
Jo : Electronic? It really is.
Bex : Techno in particular.
BMB : I’m a big fan of Dream Wife, who are formed in Brighton.
Bee : They’re really cool live.
BMB : At their gigs they got all the women (now to be more inclusive it’s all those who identify as “bad bitches”), and they say front three rows, nobody else.
Bex : Is that because the gigs are so rowdy and groping is an issue
BMB : There’s an element of that. Men are always at the front of gigs – I’ll admit to working my way to the front of gigs – after years of gig going I know how to find the gaps that aren’t there with elbows although nowadays it’s easy because I just hold up a camera and people let you through – but they also support an organisation called Girls Against, and I’m a little surprised given that people in Brighton are willing to call things out that there hasn’t been a local group set up
Jo : So where are they based?
BMB : I think they started in London but I know last time Dream Wife played at the Haunt they had their mailing list on the merch stand. It’s good that more venues are taking it seriously these days and that when you speak to a bouncer they do something about it rather than dismissing it.
Bex : It’s good – organisers, venues are all seeing it as a collective responsibility now. It’s good to have that dialogue.
BMB : One other thing I’ve noticed changing is that there are a lot more female photographers now doing stuff that I’m actually quite jealous of – they’re photographing for national publications, and going off on tour, and actually making a proper career of it. A few names that spring to mind are Bridie Florence, Chloe Hashemi and Jessie Morgan
Bex : I did this project at Lighthouse called Viral and we did these open sessions with lots of different artists coming in and talking and one of the photographers who came in and talked was Vicky Grout – when she was young in her teens she was going into Grime clubs with her camera, she didn’t really know much, she just really wanted to do it and taught herself. She was at a lot of the very early gigs for the top grime artists now – she’s got these raw, fresh, alive, close, intimate shots of these artists and now she’s the go to Grime photographer. And she’s only 21. A really great story. Rosie Matheson as well, she’s Brighton based, she’s done some great stuff.
Bee : For me, one of the reasons I launched my own business I was always in a male dominated environment, and especially when you’re around a table and trying to make a point and being spoken over or ignored.
Bex : This is why female only groups spring up, because if you’re not going to listen, then we’ll do our own thing.
Jo : That’s actually the main reason why we started the Larsens, which is this female experimental noise and feedback choir, and that’s interesting what you were saying about speaking and not being heard. We explored “what is it to have a woman’s voice” in terms of tonality and structure and I noticed that in my teaching sometimes you get to a point with a rowdy class and your voice doesn’t cut through and a male comes in and just says “Right” and their tone of voice cuts through everything, so there’s something in the tone which we’re exploring where we manipulate our voice to make ourselves sound more manually, deeper, authoritative, and observe how that’s going to be perceived differently.
As well as the events mentioned above, Brighton Dome is hosting a day of events for International Women’s Day