The Indian electronic music industry is a powerhouse of talent that is growing exponentially. As with most fields, the representation of female talent is not satisfactory. In this article, the writer details the status quo of the industry and what factors are at play to lead us to this point.
Women in the Indian electronic music industry: Where do we stand?
Surbhi Mittal (aka tsurbhi) is a creative soul attempting to understand life’s mysteries through creation and consumption of art. After spending almost a decade in marketing, she’s currently honing her skills as a writer, musician and healer.
Google ‘Top 10 Female DJs in India’ and the results will tell you a story that you might think would save you from reading further. So why should you keep reading? In this article, I attempt to bring you closer to the rapidly changing narrative around female talent in electronic music. Five years ago, you could count on the fingers of one hand, the number of female artists in the industry. While that has changed (thankfully), there is an ecosystem that needs to change along with it.
Female representation in musical pursuits in India has always been dominated by a few stars so bright that they seem to make up for the lack in numbers. Many of these stars are born in artist families with access or with upper caste privileges to achieve their dreams. Even as the country opens up to making its women self sufficient, most creative careers still lack practices that would support a gender neutral meritocracy. Even in metropolitan areas, young girls are dissuaded from pursuing creative careers due to the ‘element of risk’ as well other socio-cultural biases. As a result, few sign up to be educated in music and even fewer continue to make it into a career. Be it in Indian classical music academies or private schools of music learning and production, only 9-10% of total students are women: especially in Delhi, Bangalore and Bombay.
Like any other, the electronic music industry is one with a robust ecosystem. As we go through the networks at different layers, we see the number of women dwindling drastically. To begin with, if we look at the talent on the ‘front lines’ as music producers and DJs, it is estimated that 9-10% are women. The average representation sits at 27%, which while still low, is much better than the 9-10% in the electronic music industry. Perhaps, the most accurate representation of female talent on the front line would be at music festivals. Those like NH7 Weekender and Sunburn, which tap into the masses, would be ideal platforms to showcase female talent and inspire the masses to take it up. After all, Bollywood has inspired participation for years by producing mass entertainment. However, in the past 4 years, the number of female artists at NH7 was a mere 16% of the total lineup. At Sunburn, India’s prime dance music property, it doesn’t even go in double numbers, although it is difficult to accurately determine it given that access to parts of the festival is restricted. An online stream launched by Sunburn with its global artists to ‘ease’ the pandemic, will have you hard pressed to find any females on the lineup.
The uphill struggle of breaking the glass ceiling has moved quicker for female photographers and chefs, perhaps driven by the adequate representation of both fields in popular culture as well as media. This is clear from the ever popular example of mass Bollywood’s ground-breaking feminist movie, Queen, where the protaganist seeks emancipation by cooking for a restauranteur in a foreign land. Through the act of cooking, not to serve her family or husband but as a sous-chef to gain financial independence, she gains respect in her own eyes and eventually projects that in every other field of her life.
In other parts of the electronic dance music ecosphere, there are line producers, sound engineers, music journalists, artist managers, bartenders who work behind the scenes. Historically, given the socio-cultural biases and the preconceived notion that women cannot handle the ‘demands of the job’, women have been ‘protected’ from joining the business altogether. There are perhaps one or two female talents, such as Ritnika Nayan (artist manager) or Sandunes (music producer), across each profile whose names are rattled out everytime the question of equal representation arises. However, these are not nearly enough to create a momentum strong enough to bring about radical change.
The Observer Research Foundation (ORF), while studying women at work in India, concluded a few reasons for the abysmal numbers that we see of women across workforces and in leadership teams. Quite a few of them would be relevant to the Indian scenario as well. First and foremost of these, is the socio cultural environment mired by patriarchal norms, that hinder women’s agency, mobility and freedom to work. There has been change in India, where women have started protesting against the status quo and standing up for their rights. The road is a long one, and battles against patriarchal mindsets are important ones that need to be relentlessly fought. It is no secret that the streets of the country are generally unsafe. The National Crime Records Bureau in 2011 reported 228,650 crimes against women, including murder, rape, kidnapping, and sexual harassment. A survey conducted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2018, ranked India as the world’s most dangerous country for women, ahead of Afghanistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Dance music being primarily a nightlife based profession, leaves women to choose between risking their safety for their passion or giving up their passion to be safe – a choice that at its core, is unfair.
If safety was the only concern though, the battle would be a logistical one. In a country like India, the more baffling problem is navigating the intricacies of a socio-cultural setup where women are expected to stay at home and bear the brunt of ‘unpaid work’. More than a third of Indian women (both urban and rural) primarily engaged in housework report wanting to work for pay if a job were available. However, complicated socio-cultural patterns ranging from which jobs are considered ‘respectable for a woman’ to restrictions of the physical mobility of the woman placed by her family (whether before or after marriage) dissuade them from even considering the electronic music industry as a viable career.
An argument can be made that these are complicated social issues that are hard to solve all at once across a country as diverse as India. Their direct bearing on the Indian electronic music industry might not be immediately apparent. When we look at those with access and means to enter the electronic music industry, we find obstacles abound here as well. Based on years of conditioning doled out by Bollywood, popular culture has mastered the art of objectifying women who do end up on the frontlines. Over time, women have internalized a bias that promotes ‘glamour over talent’, blissfully unaware of discounting themselves for those who successfully seek and win the glamour game. Biases propagated by nepotism, favouritism, “broism” and many other isms make the situation a nightmare in the waiting.
Finally, when we look at those who overcome all the above and do step into the world of electronic music, they are proof that the road is not an easy one. Obstacles in the form of being stereotyped as less talented in comparison to their male counterparts, huge gender pay gaps and dearth of access to quality equipment to learn on, lead to a further filtration where those who refuse to compromise, rarely make it through. Speaking to artists who are currently in the industry, the need to be indifferent to inequality to be able to focus on their work emerges. Many of them speak about encouraging female talent in the industry by producing more. As Laura Snapes, Guardian’s music editor and a strong voice in the music industry points out “While the noise has grown louder, little has changed. The only glimmer of hope is the continually renewing stream of brilliant female and non-binary acts who change the game from the sidelines. Change isn’t out of reach, which is why it’s frustrating to see the industry continually shrug off its power to make it happen.”
India’s electronic music industry, when put on a global map, is in a very nascent stage. The novelty of the industry and the point of time in the country’s history that it has started to take off, make it optimum to form a firm ground for women to take back forms of artistic expression that have been reserved for the men or the upper echelons.
Why should there be change? Do women deserve it? Are they really as talented as we make them out to be? The short answer is yes. And if you need a long answer, then the problem isn’t the women, it is you.