Women Writing Rights

The discrimination of female music journalists



The Commissioning Years: Everything But Few Girls

Female journalists slowly fought their way into editorial staff positions with major music publications during the '90s. Kerrang! even announced its first female editor, Robyn Dorian. However, generally speaking, female section and commissioning editors remained a minority. Andrew Mueller who was the reviews editor of Melody Maker in the early 1990s recalls that two out of six people on the editorial staff were female.

“Female writers, like Carol Clerk who was the news editor at Melody Maker, were considered to be reaching beyond themselves to go into these men's roles,” says Martin James, Professor of the Music Industries. NME had a female sub editor and a female personal assistant of the editor (June 1994). So much to giving women a voice in print.


Andy Prevezer, Vice President of Warner Music UK's Press
and Publicity on the climate at NME in the '90s


Andrew Mueller on the
Def Leppard junket to Tangiers
Mueller says: “In the period of reviews editor, in terms of the work I commissioned I would be surprised to discover that more than 10% was written by female contributors.” Women writers almost had to tick three criteria aside from having the writing skills and being passionate. They had to be interested in the main ‘canon’ of significant male artists that shaped popular music discourse to begin with. Ideally from a time before any feminist movement kicked in. Secondly, as former NME news editor Iestyn George recalls, if female writers didn't have an edge, people wouldn't respect them. Finally, pregnant female critics or women having children were a ‘no no’.


Martin James, Professor of the Music Industries, on pregnant music writers


Former Melody Maker journalist Ngaire Ruth didn't fit into this ‘extra’ criteria box. She was completely enlightened by hearing a female voice, by hearing bands such as Lush, Babes in Toyland or Silverfish. Ruth says: “These bands were laughable to the other writers so I think that their attitude was taking me with a pinch of salt.” Music journalist Everett True said in a Melody Maker issue from September 1992 that any strong woman artist that came along was immediately put-down, categorised and dismissed by the male-dominated press. According to Emma Mayhew this was pursued by male writers deeming the female voice a natural given rather than a skill. It served to eliminate their threat towards male supremacy in rock. Female artists were pushed into outsider status, as were women journalists with a keen interest in female musicians. As a result, Ngaire Ruth earned less financially due to the marginalised nature of the subject material she wanted to write about.


Ngaire Ruth on the discrimination at Melody Maker and how it made her feel


Ngaire Ruth in the '90s: Hiding behind a Melody Maker issue.Photo by Michael CraddockNgaire Ruth's interest in female artists wasn't ‘edgy’ enough. She says: “My friend Carol Clerk who was the news editor at the time had to learn how to drink the rock bands under the table. That was how she got respect in interviews.” It is this ‘edginess’, the embracing of the music ‘canon’ and the frequent adoption of male identified characteristics by female writers that Martin James, Professor of the Music Industries, compares to the phenomenon of women in the board room. He says that females become almost more masculine than the other men there. It suggests that to be successful, a woman had to “become one of the boys”, detaching themselves from their female colleagues or the female artists they wrote about.

The prospect of motherhood represented another stagnating factor to women's careers. Most female critics felt held back by the struggle to integrate lifestyle and work, and so did Ngaire Ruth. She says: “In those days, when you went to gigs people were smoking. If you're pregnant then the smoking makes you quite nauseous. Being a mum, I wasn't able to go to the pub, networking and pushing forward.”


Former The Face editor Sheryl Garratt on how children can affect a woman's career


Melody Maker's Andrew Mueller can't recall any pregnancies during his time at the magazine. He stresses that it wouldn't have influenced his commissioning decision in the slightest. He is generally careful in choosing his words when being asked about the male journalists' approach to female writers. Mueller says: “I suspect it probably wasn't the easiest of work places for women as music journalism always has been such a boys' club. I'd like to think it could have been worse.”


Andrew Mueller on the attitudes of male Melody Maker journalists


Mueller clarifies that he didn't think about particular artists as “boys' acts” or “girls' acts.” Commissioning live reviews, he didn't distinguish between male and female freelancers. He hired writers who he thought had qualitative contributions to make, not taking their gender into account. However, Mueller “never made an effort to attract, recruit or encourage female journalists.”

Sexism and misogyny weren't restricted to the magazine environments, but reflected the perceptions of the music industry as a whole. Women music writers were often trivialised for liking male bands for the ‘wrong’ reasons.


Martin James on women journalists' association with groupies


Academic Helen Davies says in her paper All Rock and Roll is Homosocial: “The word ‘groupie’ can mean any female fan, any woman working in the music industry, or any wife of a rock star, and is used as a way of ridiculing and denigrating all women with an interest in music.” Of course, a groupie can only be female.


Melody Maker's Ngaire Ruth opens up about discrimination
by Henry Rollins and the Smashing Pumpkins


Ruth doesn't believe that some of her male Melody Maker colleagues were purposefully sexist. She remembers one commissioning editor who seemed to give work to women who were "very, very flirty." Ruth says: “It upset me not just because I needed the work too, but because they were setting a precedence and that was what he'd expect in the future.” Men's lack of awareness for their actions goes hand in hand with the view of '70s Melody Maker star writer Caroline Coon. She says: “Sexist men don't understand what sexism is; they don't understand when they're being sexist. Or they can't be bothered to learn.”

Ngaire Ruth's question “Did I quit or was I pushed?” was probably reflected in the thought of many female music journalists at the end of the 1990s.




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© Ines Punessen 2013