Creating Spaces for Diversity, Inclusion and Equality in the Music Industry

By: Purna Bhattacharya

 

As a female producer of Indo-Canadian descent, it became clear to me ten years ago as I began my career that there was a disparity in how women in technical positions were treated by most men. Upon calling various recording studios for internship possibilities, one male had answered and said they don’t use interns. A close friend – white, heterosexual male – was interested in interning as well, and asked for my list. He called the next day, and a few days later, he became an intern at the very same studio. That was the first experience in my long history of sexism in the music industry.

I quickly learned sexist comments and experiences were going to be a regular occurrence. I remember being so excited to become an intern at Quebec’s then biggest recording studio (which has since shut down). The most well-known Francophone artists went there to record and master their albums, and an opportunity like this while still being a student was not one my peers at university had accomplished.

The owner/manager – a white, heterosexual man in his 50s or so – quickly moved me from being an intern in the studio to doing administrative tasks, far away from the production room, and hired a Caucasian male about my age at the time – in his 20s – to take my position. This was not at all what we had discussed nor agreed upon. Then there was more. A major French artist walked in one day and looked at me uncomfortably, like I didn’t belong there. When I walked into the main room, two white men stop talking and stared at me (for no reason that I could decipher). I refused to get anyone coffee, and let’s just say the washrooms were not accommodating for women. Thankfully, I left the internship quickly and created my own research program with the help of my Caucasian male professor, who was overlooking the internship as it counted for credit. He was the only one who understood the prevalent issue and helped me get through it (I’ll be forever grateful for him).

Around the same time, I walked into an affordable gear rental store with the owner/manager of the studio. About three men – all white – were working there, and only males were potential customers. I looked at a big, badass compressor in awe and excitement, because I knew I would love to have it in my own studio one day. One of the employees approached me and asked if I like compressors (or something of that nature). When I dropped technical knowledge about the piece of machinery, like anyone knowledgeable about gear would while discussing it, his jaw opened and almost hit the counter. Apparently, a woman informed about technology is a big shock.

These are amongst only a few experiences that made it clear to me something needed to change. I began to envision owning my own studio, where gender – male or female – didn’t matter. A place where women could apply for various technical positions without fear that their knowledge would be automatically judged based on their looks, the sound of their voice, or anything we often associate with being a woman.

While looking for opportunities in music studios as well as a teacher in audio engineering at CEGEPs, I remember telling myself that I would rather fail at anything in life except for music. So I spent a few years working hard starting various businesses and taking self-employed routes in fields outside music. I learned a tremendous amount about management, team leadership, branding, marketing, social media strategic planning and implementation, customer appreciation, administration tools, finances, business models, and more.

 

Purna Bhattacharya

 

Fast forward to early 2017. Two weeks into pursuing music full-time, a minor accident left me with major neurological issues due to a concussion, and an immense pain in my throat. This left me unable to speak, eat, drink or even function on my own.

During this time, I looked for part-time work for positions that required zero talking. Companies were quick to dismiss me – as soon as they found out about the vocal disability. I saw how biased our system is and with research, found that, “Among Canadians with a disability, 12% reported having been refused a job in the previous five years as a result of their condition. The percentage was 33% among 25- to 34-year-olds with a severe or very severe disability.[…] Specifically, the employment rate among individuals aged 25 to 64 with a mild disability was 68%, compared with 54% among those with a moderate disability.” (Stat Canada).

I was frustrated, angry and personally offended. I felt like I was living in a world that denied me as a human, simply for being a woman, for my skin color, my association with the LGBT community, and now, a disability. I felt lost, hopeless and completely betrayed by my own government. Why wasn’t there more being done for people like myself? I knew I wasn’t the only one facing these types of challenges – and let’s be real, none of these factors should be a challenge in our era.

About a month into the long period of healing that followed (which still continues today), I found myself wide awake one night, full of creative energy. Then, it hit me.

I decided to create my first demo and first album exclusively with those who use American Sign Language (ASL), which I had started learning to lend their artistic talents to its creation. This can, in a sense, allow their voices to be heard. Be it a graphic designer, photographer, musicians, etc. – there ARE talents that are out there amongst this group of people.

I have since adjusted and expanded this concept to create the new demo and my first three albums, exclusively hiring women, LGBTQ and those with disabilities (especially ASL users) to be a part of their fruition. This includes an integrative, multidisciplinary performance to allow for representation amongst many audience members, an immersive and engaging experience outside the traditional concert, plus equal work opportunities for those who are part of the performance and production team. Furthermore, my future recording studio concept has changed as well – but I can’t give the details away just yet. The foundational concept of equal employment (REAL equal employment, not just the “visible minority” box we check off when we apply for jobs) and working with minority groups will be at the forefront, while ensuring everyone is comfortable in a safe place where all their needs, regardless of their identities, are met.

The interesting thing is, I networked like there was no tomorrow for over a year – and much of that time, I was struggling to speak (I still do sometimes). It helped me see who was open to diverse individuals, and who was not. The people who have been interested in this cause and collaborating in any way possible have also expressed sensitivity with an open-minded nature. Somehow, the top organizations across the country and the UK know who I am – all because I embraced my diversity instead of hiding behind it, the way much of the world tells us we should.

 

 

As artists, it’s crucial to consider what particular talents and knowledge we have. Where do we excel outside of music? We can use these skills to our advantage. Personally, I have a deep sensitivity and understanding for various minority groups due to my own life experiences and education. It’s no wonder I have attracted women and artists of various cultural backgrounds interested in my production and artist development services.

Furthermore, never forget we run our own business the moment we hire someone. Be thoughtful in who you hire – ask yourself why you need that specific person. There are a plethora of guitarists – why do you want a given/specific guitarist standing in front of you to be a part of your project? What extra factor do they have that you are looking for to help you create change, in whichever way you are seeking? What about the production team? Who do you want to see in every position around you and why? Or, does it matter to you at all?

While I’ve seen a shift more recently in terms of how these minority groups are treated in the music industry (for example, one local rental store seems to be at much more ease discussing gear with me), the disparities continue and are issues that keep individuals from getting the professional opportunities they deserve. We don’t all have to be entrepreneurial to create change using music and art, but we can all take small actions to voice our beliefs, what we support, and implement a little bit of it into our work. When there’s a will, there’s a way.

For me, I want everyone – all genders, all LGBTQ individuals, those with disabilities, and of course all races – to be able to do what they love in judgement-free zones where they are loved, accepted, and celebrated for their knowledge, talents, skills and desire to do something great in the world. This is my way of doing it at the moment. What’s yours?

We are in the year 2018 – this is only the beginning for social and cultural change, especially we work collectively to see it through. I’m looking forward to working with serious, optimistic artists in the Montreal music scene who are ambitious and have similar vision.

Stat Canada. Accessed Nov.13, 2018.
https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/75-006-x/2014001/article/14115-eng.htm

 

 

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