I am sixteen and I sneak into a bar to watch my brother’s band play. I slink in the corner and try to blend in with the booze-stained walls. It is a school night but I am exhilarated and full of inspiration.
I am eighteen and study music at university. I attend esoteric and experimental music performances and record nonsense that no-one will ever listen to on vintage cassette tapes.
I am twenty-one and have joined my first band, and then I join another. I play shows almost every weekend with my friends. We get drunk and think that, soon, we are going to ‘make it’.
I am thirty-two and I will not come to your gig. I don’t play music anymore and I don’t want to go out. The sight of a keyboard – my instrument – fills me with anxiety. I will not come to your gig.
I am twenty-four and when the glow and excitement of playing live music disappears, I begin to feel something else. I see a room full of people, and I begin to feel exposed. Judged. Sized up. I start to hear more than the dull feedback of an amplifier.
What a slut.
If her keyboard was lower we could probably see down her shirt.
Is she even legal?
The audience hurl nonsensical abuse between songs, then demand we fucking play another one. I am front and centre: an object to be sized up and taken down.
On stage, it’s easy enough to let the abuse and judgement wash over me in the buzz of adrenaline. But as soon as I step off, the abuse steps up. It seems I am now fair game and must be punished for taking up space and time. I am the height of the unwashed armpit, the rogue cigarette ashing, the awkward breast hug. Strangers pick me up and twirl me around like a child. Men look me up and down, laugh, ask me if I’m old enough to be there. Women eliminate me as a threat by calling me cute and resting their arms on my head. People see a space in the crowd where a person’s head should be and assume there is no-one there. I am replaced, my spot taken. The combination of alcohol and music creates a blanket effect where I am either invisible or seen purely for the judgement of others, mostly men, but women as well.
Was it all in my head? For a long time, I wondered. But there are only so many times that you can be referred to in the same sentence as ‘stupid slut’ before you start to think that, actually, maybe this shit is real. Sometimes I tried a rebuttal, but then I was an angry lesbian or a rabid feminist who couldn’t take a joke. ‘Everyone is just having a laugh, why can’t you be more fun and relax?’
It wasn’t until years later that I realised I wasn’t alone. That if I had taken the time to look around me, I would have seen the constant abuse women in the industry were experiencing. Women who have suppressed their anger surround me, their voices pushed to the margins. But since the emergence of #MeToo, stories of harassment in the music industry are finally rising to the surface. Not all of them are stories of sexual abuse, but they are stories that shed light on an industry rife with sexism, disadvantage and harassment.
The Industry Observer recently published ‘#MeNoMore: An Open Letter to the Australian Music Industry’, listing some of the many stories from women who have experienced sexist behaviour in the music scene. There is space for victims to sign their names and add a story. So far, there are 1,109 signatures and the list continues to grow. Stories range from everyday sexism to completely horrific abuse. There are stories of women being chosen to perform in showcases based on their looks, of being groomed and sexually abused by male musicians, of being touched inappropriately, of being raped.
I’ve spoken with many women from the music scene; overwhelmingly, they feel that it’s a ‘boy’s club’ that continues to view women as objects rather than artists, or even human beings. When I asked some friends to recount something they’d experienced, the responses that dominated were ‘I don’t know how to pick just one story’ and ‘does this count?’ Their stories left me reeling. It’s clear that women are strategically made to feel unsure of their experiences and to doubt their reactions towards them. If we can’t be sure, then there can’t be a problem … right?
Of my own stories, there’s one that stays with me above all others. It was near midnight. I was standing beside the stage in a dingy bar, rolling cables and packing away my keyboard as quickly as possible so that I could leave. Lingering at the end of a show made me uncomfortable. Being the centre of attention on stage for a solid forty minutes tended to make me the target for post-gig banter or abuse from strangers. Almost always, the punters were drunk and incoherent.
‘That was an interesting performance,’ said a man who emerged from the fog of a smoke machine. He was tall and skinny. Youngish, but swollen with arrogance and beer. I recognised him from a local band I had seen live once.
‘Thanks,’ I said. What else could I say? It wasn’t a question or a compliment, but still something that demanded a response by the look on his face.
‘You know, your fingering is all over the place,’ he said, stepping close to me. ‘I actually teach piano, and I can tell that you have no idea about fingering.’
I looked past him, trying to find another person I could latch onto, but there was no-one.
‘Well,’’ I sighed, ‘I’m sorry that I wasn’t up to standard.’
‘I could teach you, you know.’
‘I know how to play,’ I said, stuffing the last of the cables into my case. ‘I don’t need your help.’
‘Well, clearly you do, because you are terrible.’ He smirked and stepped a little closer still. ‘I hope no-one hears us,’ he mock whispered in my ear. ‘People might think I’m a paedophile for talking about fingering to someone who looks like a child.’
I picked up my keyboard case and left through the back entrance.
After my encounter, I packed my gear into my car before heading back into the venue to say goodnight to my band mates. But he found me again. He followed me around the venue, interrupted my conversations by resting his arm on my head, and made cracks about my height and inability to play the piano. My band mates, all men, said nothing. I finally escaped into the night and tried to forget about it. After all, this sort of thing happened to me on a pretty regular basis. It’s part of the job, I would tell myself. The next morning, I opened my laptop to see that the man from the last night’s gig had found me and sent me a Facebook message. I thought that this would be an apology and I softened.
But it wasn’t. The messages – and there were many – were more paedophilia jokes, more insults. I blocked him, deleted the messages, and cried all morning. This was the moment I snapped. ‘I can’t do this anymore,’ I told my boyfriend. And so I didn’t. And so I don’t.
I am thirty-two and I still harbour scars. It’s not petty, it’s real – these ‘little things’ add up. Yes, I saw the Facebook invite, but sorry, I won’t be coming to your gig.
Image: Gig / flickr