Women and the UK music press

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a magazine or newspaper without a picture of Rihanna in her underwear was the exception rather than the rule in 2011. Whatever you might think of Adele and Florence Welch, the pair sold a lot of records last year and, in doing so, consolidated the comparatively recent idea that women can sell records in large numbers. PJ Harvey also became the only person to win a Mercury twice, Laura Marling won a Brit Award and Lady Gaga steadily built on her success.

Without getting into a discussion as to what constitutes a valid victory for women in the world of music, or the world in general, there is something that all of the above artists had in common: whatever the occasion, whatever the time and whatever the publication, these women were very likely to have had their successes and failures reported on and generally dissected by men.

The music press is not only written for men but also, largely, by men

They were also very likely to have had the resulting features, reviews and reports concerning them largely read, discussed and dissected predominantly by men.

This is not a story of women in music; it is a story of how men and women are written about by the music press. It’s also a story of how the music press is marketed, sold and created. And of how the model of the conventional print media is being challenged, not just by the internet, but by economics and, ultimately, by women and younger music fans.

Marketing the music press

Q magazine.jpgWe begin our story in the sales departments of the conventional British music press. A media pack is a document made available to would be advertisers that contains useful statistical information about the magazine’s readers. I obtained media packs for: Classic Rock, NME, Kerrang!, Record Collector, Mojo, Q and The Word.

The Word describes its average reader in this way:

“He is a very high-earning ABC1 male aged between 30 and 55.” It adds: “Our research shows that 44% of Word’s readership earn over £50,000 and 11% earn over £100,000.”

Striking a similar note, Classic Rock believes its readers make up a “loyal following of 35+ affluent informed influential men, many of whom are entering a lifestyle when they are regaining their wallets, freedom and teen spirit”.

Mojo’s target audience meanwhile is “37, a passionate and discerning music fan, long-time musician himself and dedicated record collector”.

Mojo’s Bauer stable-mate Q is targeted at a younger audience, but one central tenet remains the same:

“The Q reader is late 20s/early 30s and a passionate music fan. He’s inspired by the rock’n’roll swagger of Liam, Noel, Blur and the whole Britpop scene.”

If we take the average age of the target reader down a few notches in order to focus on the two remaining music weeklies – NME and Kerrang! – while NME (median age of reader: 25) has shied away from the narrative approach in describing its average reader, keeping to statistics and feedback from readers instead, Kerrang! has a clear picture of its average reader:

“Jim, 22, lives and breathes rock music,” the magazine says, “it informs his choice of friends, his hobbies, leisure time, attitudes, fashion sense and lifestyle.”

The message resounds loud and clear: when the music press is being marketed, it is being marketed to men.

Spar shelves music magazines on the top shelf of its magazine section, next to the lads’ mags, such as Nuts and FHM. Anyone wanting to see whether it’s worth buying Mojo that month is going to have to pan across a tableaux of breasts in order to even locate the magazine, let alone reach it or peruse it.

Conversely, The Economist, Private Eye and New Statesman tend to occupy the end of the top shelf next to Q, Mojo and Classic Rock, which would seem to suggest politics, economics and satire, like music, are men’s business, and that women (especially the short ones) should be busying themselves with Good Housekeeping or Cosmo.

At WH Smith the magazine shelves are arranged by hobby. Here the music mags are on the same side of the floor as photography, gardening, politics and current affairs. The other side of the floor is taken up with cooking, home, crafts, weddings, and babies. It’s more subtle than the layout at Spar, but the implications are much the same.

Creating the music press

If the music press is marketed to men, who is creating the final product? As I suggested earlier, the music press is not only written for men but also, largely, by men.

Mojo, the biggest selling paid-for music magazine in the UK, has a circulation of 87,262 according to August 2011’s ABC figures. Of its 15 editors, 12 are men, while 46 of the 55 freelance writers listed in its December 2011 issue were men, and 14 of its 17 photographers were men.

At Classic Rock, which is the fourth biggest selling UK music magazine (after Mojo, Q and Uncut) of the 12 editors and one publisher listed, nine were male, and if Alex Burrows and Chris Ingham are also guys, that would make Siân Llewellyn the lone female editor at the magazine. Of the writers, 36 of the 43 listed in the December 2011 issue were men. Of the 35 photographers listed, 30 were men.

I went to school with boys who liked Mötley Crüe and as such know a pastiche when I see one

Over at the UK’s leading weekly, Kerrang!, which has a circulation of 43,033, roughly half of the 12 editors are men, but of their writers, 16 out of 20 are men. Of their photographers 10 of the 14 are men.

NME, with a circulation of 29,000, has 22 names in its list of editors, directors, designers, researchers and PAs – 11 of which are female. NME is also, following Nichola Browne’s departure from Kerrang!, the only UK music magazine with a female editor-in-chief. Unlike Kerrang!, NME doesn’t list its writers and photographers, but in their November 5 2011 issue, the features were written by one man, one woman and by several writers collaboratively. In the reviews section there appears to be 10 male names to five female.

Music magazines.jpgIf we examine these magazines more closely, a complex picture emerges in regard to how men and women are written about and photographed.

The cover of the 5 November, 2011 issue of Kerrang! is taken up with The Blackout, who the magazine have dubbed “The best live band in Britain!” Despite the magazine’s regular cartoon strip Pandora by Ray Zell, not many women are featured in the magazine. There is a poster of Paramore’s Hayley Williams, a small advert for Emilie Autumn’s upcoming tour and a short interview with Evanescence’s Amy Lee. Zell’s account of the birth of Pandora would suggest that her role in Kerrang! is dual purpose: to encourage girls to read Kerrang! and to serve as a fantasy girlfriend figure for the boys.

There’s also a classic piece of so-called post-feminist irony in Kerrang! In the form of the spoof metal band Steel Panther, who Kerrang! seem happy to take purely at face value, hailing the bands return with the following standfirst:

Only a town as sleazy as Las Vegas would have Steel Panther as its house band. We packed Matt Allen off to Sin City, who discovered that they’re still sexist potty-mouths. Feminists, look away now.

Kerrang! has been discussed on The F-Word before, and I suppose as a feminist I should be appalled by Steel Panther, but I went to school with boys who liked Mötley Crüe and as such know a pastiche when I see one.

That said, the presence of the Steel Panther interview reveals more about Kerrang! than its editors are perhaps aware. The band boast about sexually transmitted diseases, prostitutes as rock’n’roll accessories and seem generally obsessed with their cocks, suggesting that the Steel Panther interview serves to reassure those traditionalists amongst the Kerrang! readership. The kind of readers liable to be freaked out by Christian rock acts like The Devil Wears Prada, Evanescence and emo.

The rock canon, much like the literary canon, does not have much room for women

Over at NME the same week, the Arctic Monkeys are on the cover. The picture shows Alex Turner at the centre, all quiff, leather jacket and sunglasses, looking the bona fide rock star. “Are you ready for us then?” asks the headline, the subheading is “On the road and on the run with the new-look Arctic Monkeys.” Lest readers were to think the Sheffield four-piece had given into the inevitable rock’n’roll temptations and clichés, which, it could be argued, are specifically masculine in nature, Matt Wilkinson’s interview makes for contradictory reading.

Not only does it reveal NME’s continuing London-centric take on the world (as with all bands interviewed for NME who hail from areas north of Watford, conversation is written in dialect, making “something” into “summat” in this case), it also reveals a tug of war between how the interviewer would like to portray the band and how the band are behaving. It is set up as a tale of rock’n’roll debauchery, a considerably funnier and more down to earth picture emerges. A particularly ridiculous dissection of the band’s haircuts and image leads to the following exchange between Alex and Jamie:

Alex: Sonically, your beard was all over everything [on current album Suck it and see]. And then you just had to let it go.

Jamie: Aye, I don’t think it could have toured.

Another revealing aspect of that week’s NME would be the short piece hailing Patrick Wolf’s EP, Brumalia, and a Florence + the Machine live review. Wolf, who compares the London riots to the annual Walpurgisnacht celebration in many European countries, is merely “flamboyant”, whereas Welch is a “drama queen”.

The music press pigeonholes and categorises female artists: you can be a posh, ditzy kook, but what you can’t be is a serious artist

The band Slowdance, who make an appearance in that week’s live reviews, also fall prey to lazy journalism. The review begins “Move over Florence, there’s a new style icon to aspire to.” Next – without any trace of irony – it urges readers to “look beyond those mainly surface considerations” in appreciating the band. It might not be up there with Steel Panther and their dubious theory as to why fucking male fan’s girlfriends is great for the male fan as well as the member of Steel Panther, but NME’s ongoing fascination with Welch, and its use of her as a marker by which to measure other women in bands, is damaging both to her and to other women performers, because such comparisons are not about the music.

The coverage of Welch in the UK music press, and the stereotypes and myths much of that coverage has drawn on in creating her public image would be an essay in itself. It is a subtle, drip-drip kind of misrepresentation and characterisation, but it reveals much about how the music press still seeks to pigeonhole and categorise female artists: you can be a posh, ditzy kook much of it seems to say, but what you can’t be is a serious artist.

The December 2011 edition of Mojo has The Who on the cover, which ties in with the free CD, a mod compilation celebrating the film Quadraphenia. Simon Butcher’s interview with Salford singer/songwriter Ren Harvieu gives NME a lesson in how to write about northern artists, and the resulting piece artfully dodges gender and regional stereotypes while creating a clear and vivid picture of an up and coming artist and what she might sound like. This is so unusual on both counts that I feel compelled to mention it.

Paul Brannigan’s five-page piece on Fugazi takes in a detailed discussion of the relationship between the band and Nirvana. Sadly, no room was found for a discussion of the bands’ relationship with Bikini Kill, which is interesting given I can think of at least two books that suggest it was a three-way, not a two-way, relationship.

The 20 pages devoted to The Who reflects an observation made by Ian MacDonald in Paul Gorman’s oral history of the music press, In their own write, namely that Mojo, thanks to its modus operandus and audience, can “draw on almost the entire rock era for their subject matter. Plus they have more time to get it right and make it look good.”

He struck a note of caution when he concluded: “In the end though, they too will run out of source material.”

The concern with Mojo, unlike NME and Kerrang! is not so much how artists are written about but the artists the magazine editors choose to cover: the rock canon, much like the literary canon, does not have much room for women.

It isn’t just that Bikini Kill are not being mentioned in a five-page piece about Fugazi and Nirvana, it’s that coverage of The Who, Marc Bolan, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, U2, Bruce Springsteen, REM, Brian Wilson and The Beatles mean that there’s little or no room for Suzi Quatro, Janis Joplin, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Patti Smith, The Go-Go’s, the Shangri Las, Sandy Denny, Aretha Franklin and Dusty Springfield.

Joan Jett.jpgThese are not exact counterpoints by any means, but I would go so far as to say that the position Kate Bush occupies within the rock canon is akin to the position Virginia Woolf has in literature: an exceptional woman surrounded by men.

The problem is even worse at Classic Rock because the term ‘classic rock’ itself is an even narrower, masculine tag: being in thrall to Lemmy, Led Zep and Dave Grohl, you would think that there’d be room for artists like Heart, Joan Jett and Melissa Auf Der Maur, but evidence suggests not.

The December 2011 issue of Classic Rock is the awards issue, and the cover features Jeff Beck. The ghost of Quadraphenia, as with Mojo, looms large. Steel Panther also feature but, in a departure from the approach employed by Kerrang!, the band’s spoof nature is acknowledged from the get-go. But a feature on the Misfits hits an almost Kerrang! like tone:

When you’ve influenced Slayer, Pantera and Megadeth, you really don’t need strippers to sell your band.

A piece on Placebo’s ‘Nancy Boy’, by contrast, writes of the band as not being “in thrall to the laddish, oddly conservative sounds that defined what was ultimately a very insular period in British rock.” Which insular period of British rock would that be then? That would be Britpop.

The band St Jude, who have a female singer, make for the only female interviewee in the magazine whereas the pullout feature, ‘The live albums that changed the world’, features no women at all.

It comes as no surprise to me that 77% of the readers of Mojo are men and NME’s readership is 70% male. Is this a confirmation of the success of their respective marketing plans? Or is it a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The impact of the recession and the internet on the UK music press

While the impact of the recession on the music industry at large is fairly well documented – HMV’s profits warnings, also the sale of EMI – as part of an industry that is becoming increasingly risk averse, the music press is no exception.

Big names sell magazines, not new names – as the presence of The Who, Jeff Beck and Marc Bolan (on the October issue of Uncut) all testify. Even the more youth-orientated NME will pad out issues with distinctly un-topical features on Radiohead and Ian Curtis, plus it recently put The Beatles on the cover.

NME and Kerrang! are both prone to a disease contracted by many monthly music magazines: list-orientated features which are often an excuse to rake over the ashes of the good old days.

This drift towards conservatism includes an increasing reliance on sponsorship and advertising, which also has an impact on content, up to and including October 2011’s issue of Q, and its frankly vile cover. The chances of seeing fair even and consistent coverage of new female and male artists alike is arguably going to be affected, and for this and other reasons readers will vote with their feet: The Guardian reported in February 2011 that NME’s circulation had dropped by 16.4% in six months. The magazines circulation had fallen by another 14.3% by August 2011.

Mojo lost 4.8% of its circulation between February and August 2011, Q lost 10.1%, Uncut 10.9%. Kerrang!, against trend, had a 0.2% increase in circulation.

Online music magazines: young, gifted, multinational and skint?

Billie Holiday.jpgOnline music magazines such as the Quietus and Drowned in Sound do not represent the only time the UK music press has had to fight for its life.

In the 1980s, style magazines such as The Face and teen magazines such as Smash Hits managed to steal an impressive chunk of the then weekly music magazines’ audience. The job was repeated by broadsheet and tabloid coverage of music in the 1990s and 2000s and, it could be argued, the internet and the recession represent a final nail in the coffin.

But it isn’t just that the Quietus and Drowned in Sound provide free online alternatives to print magazines – the magazines themselves, on the whole, have strong online presences, particularly NME , Kerrang!, Mojo and Q, who are all essentially trading on multiple platforms these days.

What is different about Quietus and Drowned in Sound is their approach: younger, often global in outlook, and frequently unpaid.

In the case of the Quietus, which gets 750,000 hits a month on its editorial content, the approach is distinct from the monthly music magazines such as Mojo and Classic Rock.

As well as wanting to improve online music journalism, founders John Doran and Luke Turner also “thought there was a gap in the market for a magazine that treated music of all genres from the last 30 years with the same reverence that titles such as Mojo and Word treat the rock’n’roll hall of fame”.

I asked John Doran if he had an image of a particular reader in his head when he started the site and, if so, how he would characterise that reader?

His full answer is too long to print, but on the subject of gender he was candid:

If there was a gun pressed to my head and I was forced to comment, I’d say that I was 99% sure that we have more male readers than female but we (I co-edit the site with Luke Turner) have always said privately that regardless we would act as if the gender balance of readers was equally spread.

Ironically, this is the first time I’ve mentioned this in public. Our own harshest critics in this respect are our own female writers who have let us know when they have found the site too masculine in the past (no-one has ever accused us of being laddish or blokey) but this hasn’t happened for a few years now, and the majority of people I ask advice from in regards to how we present ourselves happen to be women who again, will shoot first and ask questions later if they think there’s something dodgy on the site.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we don’t have 50% female writers (male music and film writers far outnumber the number of female writers) but in our top tier of writers the numbers are equally balanced. I feel confident in saying that any publication that has Frances Morgan, Jude Rogers, Melissa Bradshaw, Emily Mackay, Laura Snapes, Meryl Trussler, Abi Bliss, Nicola Meighan, Emily Bick, Cay McDermott, Dale Berning, Emma Johnston, Hannah Gregory, Val Phoenix, Zoe Street Howe, Yasmeen Khan, and has previously included Petra Davis and Carol Clerk, is a publication worth taking seriously.

When asked who he thought the site was aimed at primarily, Doran said:

People who like discussing music in certain ways. People who like digging a little bit deeper. People who have broad tastes. People who see music and film as existing in a broader social context. People who think that good music writing can be a noble, artistic end in its own right. We very rarely publish list features, we’re not interested in tedious debates about genre definitions and defining superlatives and some people would say that these things would be the hallmark of a male-orientated site, but that’s not something I’m really that interested in. In a way the site is aimed at people like me, but by me, I mean a music obsessive rather than a man.

If Doran sounds defensive it is likely to be far less to do with The F-Word, or this writer, and more to do with a feature the Quietus ran recently on misogyny in dance music, and the response it had got from readers.

When music magazines say that they cannot find women to work for them they aren’t looking hard enough

While the Quietus is a relative youngster, having launched in 2008, Drowned in Sound is approaching its 10th birthday. Unusually for an online magazine, it has a media pack, which reveals that the site has 350,000 users and that 73% of its readers are male. Readers are generally 18-34 years old which, along with the gender ratio, would suggest a similar target audience to Q magazine.

“DiS concerns itself mainly with indie/alt music but is open to all genres,” it reports. As its contributors are concerned, of the 34 names listed, 25 are definitely male, and six of their eight photographers are men.

Do DiS and the Quietus represent a brighter environment for women writers, photographers, musicians and readers? Doran’s response to my questions would suggest that the Quietus at least is aware that gender is an issue, and the site is doing its best to be proactive.

Alternative voices

If the conventional music press is failing women, and the Quietus and DiS have been unable to resolve the issue themselves, are there any other alternatives?

Female DJ.jpgOne of the first challenges to the conventional male-dominated music press was Revolution, which was launched by Leonie Cooper as a print monthly specifically aimed at women in 2005. It lasted two issues. In 2008, the Lipster was launched by Jude Rogers and Rebecca Nicholson as an alternative online women’s magazine, which covered music as part of its remit. It disappeared in 2009.

Wears The Trousers was initially launched in 2005 and successfully re-launched in 2008, the same year as the Quietus began. But it focuses entirely on female artists. According to the site’s about page, this is:

Because the UK needs a magazine that answers back to the sexism, casual indifference and sometimes outright hostility afforded to female artists.

In developing the site, editor Alan Pedder told The F-Word that he steered away from launching a site exclusively by women for women because “while not necessarily a criticism, [that] was not what I had imagined in my idealistic view of a magazine about women in music”.

He adds :

We try to be very careful about the language we use, avoiding the sort of expressions that the mainstream media has widely adopted to discredit women – and these are often very subtle. But the publication is not overtly political in terms of its feminist perspective; in my mind, Wears The Trousers is feminist simply by the fact that it exists, and any greater political agenda is inextricably tied into our passion for music.

The women we support are not supported just because they are women, but because they are women who have something of musical value to give – women with a perspective that isn’t necessarily centred around beauty, sexuality or feminist beliefs. Of course, we are always delighted if and when it turns out that those women share our views on the industry, and are only too happy to support feminist initiatives when we can, provided that they are in the context of music.

The site gets “around 60,000” hits a month “at the moment, and its growing year on year”, he adds.

In terms of readership, he told me by email:

Funnily enough, as I had hoped for when I began Wears The Trousers, our readership is almost evenly split between men and women. We are a UK-focused publication so it makes sense that our readership is predominantly British, but we also have a lot of readers throughout the rest of Europe, in the US and Canada, and, actually, a surprisingly large number of readers in Australia and New Zealand.

In common with the site’s raison d’être, the magazine has a roughly 50:50 gender split across its editors, review team, photographers and occasional contributors.

The Girls Are, whose editors were invited to be interviewed for this piece but did not respond, are the youngest of all the publications and websites I have looked at. The site was launched by Annette Barlow in 2009 and has recently undergone a re-design and recruited extra editors, writers and photographers. Like Wears The Trousers, it focuses entirely on women artists. The stats I gathered from their website were recorded as their re-design and re-launch was ongoing, so may already be out of date. That said, in October 2011, the site’s staff and contributors appeared to be made up of seven men, 39 women, and eight names I wasn’t sure about.

We need to ensure that men and women are written about on equal terms, according to talent and originality

That both Wears The Trousers and Girls Are have such high numbers of women working for them is significant. It reveals that when music magazines say that they cannot find women to work for them that they aren’t looking hard enough. It also serves to provide future role models for aspiring music journalists and photographers.

When I was a teenager in the mid 1990s, it wasn’t that unusual to see women and teenage girls writing for the music press: Bidisha, Caitlin Moran and Emma Forrest all started their careers in music journalism.

Caitlin Moran even had her own TV show, Naked City.

My favourite NME writer was Gina Morris, while my favourite Melody Maker writer was Sally Margaret Joy.

The future of the UK music press is very uncertain. We can’t known if print media will survive, or how much traffic will be picked up by the internet. As with journalism in general, the music press is in a state of flux. What I would like to see emerge from any new form of music press, online, multi platform, or in print, is an equality of opportunity for male and female artists regarding coverage, also equality of opportunity for male and female journalists, editors and photographers, regardless of background.

We also need to see fairness at the level of writing: we need to ensure that men and women are written about on equal terms, according to talent and originality which, while subjective, should not be clouded by financial interests and physical concepts of beauty. In short, we need to tear up the style guide and start again.

Image of music magazines in a shop uploaded by Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs. Image of Joan Jett obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Image of Billie Holiday also obtained from Wikimedia Commons. Image of a DJ uploaded by Flickr user the_tabor.

Cazz Blase began a life-long love/hate relationship with the UK music press as a Smash Hits and Big! reading seven-year-old. She read NME between the ages of 13 and 16, Q between the ages of 17 and 21, and the late Manchester listings magazine City Life between the ages 24 and 26. She wrote for Record Collector between 2005 and 2007, during which time she also read Word and Mojo for comparison purposes. Between 2008 and 2010 she subscribed to The Economist instead. She is now, along with Holly Combe, one of two music review editors at The F-Word