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MFM Public Musicians Forum #4 Focuses Upon Women's Issues in the Music Business

Ladies Night!

Review by Dawoud Kringle

MFM Public Musicians Forum #4
Billy Harper, Sohrab, Roger Blanc and Jimmy Owens (photo by Dawod Kringle)

On Tuesday, March 27th, MFM held its fourth Public Musicians Forum at Yeoryia Studios in New York run by Billy Harper and MFM’s President Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi.

Saadat opened the meeting by bringing up the recent gun control protests. Here are a group of mostly teens who, overnight, organized a nationwide protest. He wondered aloud why Musicians can’t organize like that. The idea of a mass march for musician’s rights is a bit idealistic (let’s face it: musicians are not easily disposed toward the kind of organizational skills such a march would require). But it’s also not an impossibility.

Saadat also stated that he wishes to redefine MFM’s mission with more clarity. MFM is an association; it’s financed by its members. This, and other contours and characteristics of MFM need to be clearly explained so as to avoid misconceptions.

The meeting was largely devoted to women musicians’ rights and issues. This is something Saadat had wanted to address for a long time.

MFM Public Musicians Forum #4
Melanie Frey (photo by Dawoud Kringle)

MFM member Melanie Frey offered a presentation, and spoke on women’s issues in music. There is what is best described as “Unconscious Sexism” in music industry hiring. It is something that is often unconsciously practiced by people of good will, without their consciously realizing it. Yet others deliberately intend to discriminate against women.

In the April 2017 issue of International Musician magazine, “The gender gap of instrumental musicians has changed noticeably since 1978. It began narrowing significantly in the early 1990s, and the percentage of women musicians in orchestras has climbed to 46%-49% of the total musician pool in the two decades since. Most attribute this improvement to the advent of screened auditions.”

Orchestras implemented a process of screened auditions. Judges are prevented from knowing the gender or ethnicity of the person auditioning before and during the audition. Some discussion was devoted to this, and how it may be applied to the process for hiring for jazz club dates. Jazz ensembles and venues do not operate the way classical orchestras do: screened auditions will not produce the same result. With the exception of Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra adopting and new selecting procedures for jazz orchestra in 2016. This change was achieved by San Francisco’s jazz musician, activist and Chairperson of JazzWomen and Girls Advocates Ellen Seeling.

It was suggested that where the process goes wrong is that musicians only hire who they know or someone recommended by a friend. This process often starts – and ends with men. There is, of course, no easy way to circumvent this.

Frey handed out a few documents she’d prepared, and discoursed on four general related topics:

  1. Unconscious sexism in the music industry
  2. Music instructors discouraging
  3. Salesmen in music stores belittling female musicians
  4. Emails sent to Saadat regarding these women’s issues
MFM Public Musicians Forum #4
Michelle Shocked (photo by Dawoud Kringle)

The first and second topics seem to be interconnected and interchangeable. The dynamics of how female musicians (and musicians of diverse ethnicity) were discussed. There are multiple factors that determine how female musicians are seen and how they prosper. It was mentioned that the best way for female musicians to prosper may be for them to produce themselves.

The third topic dealt with presumptions about what a woman can and can’t play. Bottom line, just like some teachers, some music salesmen are idiots. Such people may exploit the vulnerability of women or young people, students, or people of milder temperament. Part of it is how women are educated, how they play (hard vs soft), the actual nature of the instrument they’re playing, the nature of the music that’s being played, etc.

The fourth topic centered around a letter from Francesca Tanksley. It was read aloud. Her letter addressed important points such as:

  1. Human beings having the right to be treated according to inherent human dignity.
  2. We have purpose, dreams, and aspirations, and are not mere objects that are used as a means to another person’s ends. In treating that person as less than human, one has stolen from that person, and from oneself, our inherent human dignity.
  3. We relate to each other by seeing in each other those human attributes – our dreams and aspirations – that we have all been given.
  4. Unconditionally acknowledging the undeniable fact that whosoever de-humanizes others de-humanized themselves. And whoever uplifts others, uplifts themselves.

The general consensus is that women need to stand up for themselves. Expecting some men to change their misogynistic ways without a more proactive (and possibly aggressive) holding of one’s ground in the face of such bullying is probably unrealistic.

On a personal note, I must state that the problems facing female musicians can very easily be solved with the simple foundation of logic, common sense, and good manners. If a woman can play the music well, she should be allowed to do so without having to qualify herself beyond her musicianship. This and embodying an attitude of common courtesy and respect. For years – millennia – this has not been the case with much of humanity. The thing that is needed is, to quote Tanksley’s letter, “a cultural shift in the way men view women, the way men view their fellow men, as well as in the way women view themselves, and their fellow women.” It’s simple; but the inevitable fact of human hubris and stupidity need to be overcome.

MFM Public Musicians Forum #4
Carla Maria Ruppy, Blue Ray, Ken Hatfield and Jimmy Owens (photo by Dawoud Kringle)

The final part of the meeting was devoted to the Music Modernization Act (MMA). Ken Hatfield, who just joined MFM’s Advisory Committee, spoke about this at some length. Hatfield mentioned that if MMA is passed, it will probably not get a lot of publicity. So we all need to pay close attention as things develop, especially regarding our concerns with it’s problems (which were addressed at the previous MFM Jazz Musicians Meeting #3). Hatfield also suggested we support the points that MusicAnswers advocates regarding our issues with the current version of MMA, such as (1) the makeup of the Mechanical Licensing Collective (MLC) Board and (2) issues of transparency (i.e. the right to audit the distribution of the funds, especially those that are unidentified). For more details on these issues please watch MusicAnswers’ Maria Schneider‘s video here explaining the issues and advising how to take action to improve the MMA by emailing to members of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives and a few key senators.

The pros and cons of the MMA are a detailed subject requiring a separate article. A great deal of it was touched upon in the review of the MFM Public Musicians Forum #3.

MFM Public Musicians Forum #4
On Ka’a Davis and Reggie Sylvester (photo by Dawoud Kringle)

The fundamental changes that are occurring in the music business are rewriting the rules of how our business is conducted – and the fundamental attitudes toward music as a profession. It is essential to be on top of these issues. This is one of the reasons MFM exists; music professionals must take control of their own affairs and secure their own power in order to survive and avoid the exploitation they’d endured in decades past.