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STOMPING ON THE GLASS CEILING: WOMEN OF INDIE ROCK
We gathered a diverse group of female professionals to address pressing concerns—and then we broke it to them that the results would be printed in this magazine.

How has the biz changed for women, especially in the independent sector? What’s special about working at an indie label? How do you compete with the majors? We gathered a diverse group of female professionals to address these and other pressing concerns—and then we broke it to them that the results would be printed in this magazine.

PANELISTS:
Lori Kampa. Head of Promotion, Dualtone
Meredith Chinn, A&R/Creative Direction, Red Bull Records
Hannah Carlen, Director of Radio, Secretly Group (Dead Oceans, Jagjaguwar, Secretly Canadian Records)
Christina Rentz, Publicist, Merge Records
Susan Busch, Director of A&R, Domino Records/Domino Publishing North America 
Jenni Sperandeo, President, Dangerbird Records + Publishing

 



When did you decide that the music business could be your career? Did that differ from your original goals when you went to college?

Lori: I think I always knew that I wanted to work in the music biz. I come from a really small town in rural Wisconsin; I knew I wanted to leave and do something a bit more exciting in life.  After college I knew I needed to break out, but NYC and L.A. seemed too intimidating; Nashville seemed fairly safe, and I thought I might have a shot of getting a career in the music business here. Luckily, it worked out for me.  


Meredith: After I graduated music school, I came to L.A. to work for a well-known film and TV composer. He'd go on 3-4 month sabbaticals, and I had to find temp work to pay my rent. You hooked me up with a few record company temp agencies. When I got to work in the A&R Department, I couldn't believe that there was an actual job where I could get paid to go to shows, find new music and make records.

Hannah: I was definitely one of those people for whom “goals” and “college” weren’t really unified. I had no plan and maybe still don’t. But I love what I do and somewhere along the line it started to feel more like a career. That said, I haven’t ruled out dropping everything and making a beeline for Costa Rica. 

Christina: I decided to try radio promotion, because I loved college radio so much. My original post-college plan was academia.

Susan: I thought I was going to be a music writer. As a kid I obsessively read Spin, NME, Q, Mojo, Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Magnet, etc. I went to University of Texas at Austin and graduated with a Journalism degree, but even my advisor knew I wasn’t going to continue to write. Once I started working at KVRX and start interacting with labels, I knew that’s where I wanted to be. 

Jenni: When, as MD at my college station (WDBM East Lansing), I realized there were people whose job it was to advocate for music. Yes, Paul Westerberg saved me from becoming a lawyer. I still don’t know whether to thank him or punch him.

Was it important to you to work at an indie label?
Lori: When I first started out I didn’t even know why an indie label might be a better fit for me than a major. Thank goodness I ended up where I did. I’ve been really happy to call an indie label like Dualtone my home for so many years; we’ve got a great group of people here, and the support and freedom I feel is truly invaluable.

Meredith: I've been lucky, because I've always been able to do both.  My first job as an A&R executive was at Warner Bros. I had an indie label on the side, Fingerpaint Records (we put out one of Beck's first record and Grog, which was Greg Kursten's first solo project, Radar Bros., etc.).

Christina: Yes.

Susan: I was a college rep for BMG and a sales assistant, so I’ve worked a little bit in the major label system.  But working at an indie just seemed more like the dream rather than what was actually possible. I’m not sure I’d still be working in music if I hadn’t gotten that job at Sub Pop. I realized very early on in my career that if I didn’t love what I was working on and the people I was working with that I wasn’t going to be happy. For me, that music and those people have been at indies. 

Jenni: I was an indie snob for sure, but I would have worked anyplace that gave me the chance.  Turned out that of nine jobs only one was with a major label. 

Indie music was, in essence, post-macho—free of dinosaur sexism. In your experience, is that still true?
Meredith: Yes. I don't see that ever changing.

Hannah: I might sound cynical, but I don’t think that was ever true. I do think we’ve come a long way with regard to female leadership, with female label owners/GMs, and in particular some amazing and inspiring A&R women. 

Christina: Sexism is everywhere, but having a strong female boss has certainly helped!

Susan: The answer, at least in my experience, is no. I can’t speak for how it is at majors or for any of my fellow females at indies, but I still run into occasional sexism. Luckily, it’s not too often—and I’m always surprised when it happens—but it’s still there. 

Jenni: For the most part, yes. The dicks that are still out there are pretty easy to spot.

People working in alternative radio and indie rock used to be amateurs with passion—now we're pros. How do you sustain your passion while navigating this business?
Lori: Wow, it's crazy to even think of putting myself in that “pro” category; most of the time I’d still put myself in that "amateurs with passion" group. I still feel like I’ve got so much to learn in this business and lately it seems I find myself with way more questions than answers.  I just finished the Leadership Music program and I was surrounded by so many enormously talented, intelligent professionals. It was a hugely rewarding and validating experience that continues to motivate and inspire me.

Hannah: I get burned out and frustrated at times, like everyone else, but as long as I keep loving our artists and watching our scope widen, my dedication level isn't in danger.

Christina: I just love the people I work with. 

Jenni: I’ve got bottomless passion for the music and artists. It’s tougher to maintain a sense of sanity when so many fundamentals in our business have been upended, largely by the hands of those who have never had any real skin in the game.  

Can you compete with others in the same position who work for major labels? Has the digital world leveled the playing field?
Lori: I think it can be done, but it certainly doesn’t happen every day. I’ll always be the one pulling for the underdog to win big. 

Meredith: I believe so. It depends on what aspect of the digital world you’re talking about. With press, yes. A Rolling Stone review is still a big deal, but kids these days care about who's at the top of Hype Machine and who's trending on YouTube. There are so many ways to discover music on the Internet. People don't have to just rely on the radio or magazines to tell us what to listen to.

Christina: I think the digital world probably has leveled the playing field. It's hard out there for all of us. I think the artists we work with exist in a whole different world than many major label artists, though.

Susan: I believe I can! We’re an international company that’s able to nurture rather esoteric artists, but we’ve also got the bandwidth to run a massive campaign for a band like Arctic Monkeys. I think that’s very attractive to artists. I’m not sure the digital world has leveled the playing field but I do think it’s filled it with a lot more players. The digital realm offers up tons of tools for discovery which is great, but the reliance on stats to do A&R is troubling. Just because something has 300k Soundcloud plays doesn’t mean it’s great. 

Jenni: It’s possible, but that first shot is a lot tougher to get when you’re small and can’t do the same volume of horse-trading.  

Is having a mentor important? Who were yours? Is it important to mentor others, especially women, or is it even a consideration?
Lori: Of course. It may sound cheesy but my mom has undoubtedly been one of my biggest. And within the music industry, you, Karen Glauber, have undoubtedly been one of my biggest mentors. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve turned to you for advice over the years.  Honestly, just hearing your giggle on the other end of the phone is sometimes all that’s needed to turn a particularly tough, stressful day around. You’ve definitely taught me the importance of keeping a good sense of humor, always. Plus, you’ll always be my fashion mentor—I love your style!

Meredith: Yes. Nothing works in a vacuum. When I started in the music industry, I saw your passion for music and ability to push a little boulder up that hill until it reached great heights. It was intimidating in the music industry at first, because I had a different skill set than those around me. You taught me that was OK (well, you actually, told me to tell anyone who didn't like me to fuck off), and little by little I gained the confidence I needed to be an executive. We all need each other.

Hannah
: I don’t know if mentorship is important so much as true collaboration is. When you share your expertise and really listen to the rookie in the room, that’s when the mentor/mentee thing takes root and gets really rewarding. I could name quite a few women I consider mentors, but for me it all goes back to Jessica Weber, who now runs Co-Sign. Jess showed me what’s possible when you balance the brute force side of promo with confidence and true positivity.

Christina
: Yes! Mac & Laura are my mentors. They know who they are and what kind of people they want to be. Both are absolute champions of good music and treating artists and employees with respect. I have also learned a lot about being a woman in this business from Laura and my female co-workers. Our label manager, head of retail, art director and warehouse manager are all women; we’ve been given every opportunity to succeed. 

Susan
: I’ve been very lucky in the mentors department. Karen Glauber, Megan Jasper, Jonathan Poneman, Laurence Bell and Tony Kiewel have all given me invaluable insight into the business. I’ve bent all of their ears on numerous occasions and it’s their knowledge, genuine enthusiasm for music and willingness to take the time to talk that has helped me get to where I’m at. And yes, I do think it’s important to mentor young women in the business—it seems foolish not to pay it forward. 

Jenni
: Hugely important, coming and going. Biggies for me have been Dyana Kass, Michael Plen, Steve Leeds, Jim Neill, Warren Christensen, Ray Gmeiner and, of course, my Lady President hero, Karen Glauber, who has seen and done it all, knows where the bodies are buried, and yet was always unfailingly generous with her vast experience.  I hope to be half as gracious in some other people’s careers as my mentors have been for me.

Do you think it's easier or harder for women now? 
Lori: Working in this biz certainly isn’t easy, but it’s gotta be easier for women today than it was in the past. Just look at the number of super accomplished women in our industry that are totally kicking ass right now. Besides all of the amazing ladies on the records side of the equation doing what we do, look at all of the women on the radio side like Lisa Worden, Lesley James, Wendy Rollins, Michelle Rutkowski, Aly Young, Haley Jones, Kelly Ransford, etc. succeeding at their jobs. It’s totally inspiring to watch them!

Meredith
: It used to be that a successful woman was considered a "bitch,” while a successful man was cool. You see less of that these days. 

Hannah
:  That’s such a tricky question because I’ve always had outspoken, confident women around me, and lo and behold, I became one. But maybe my answer proves that it must be easier now.

Christina
: I would like to think it is easier, but I suspect things haven't changed all that much.

Susan
: When I started my first job at an indie, I was one of two women on the marketing staff. By the time I left that job it was at least 50/50 male-female. And we’ve got lots of amazing women here at Domino. Just from a numbers standpoint, I’d say things are getting better. It’s hard to say if it’s easier, but I like to think it’s getting better. 

Jenni
: It’s harder for everyone, but in my gut I believe that having more women in diverse positions of power is helping. 

Observation: The four moms in this roundtable (myself included) have young boys. How is it, juggling a career and motherhood? What advice would you give other participants, who might consider motherhood, at some point?
Meredith: Before I had a child, I worried about having a child because I couldn't see how my career and being a mom could co-exist. Now I don't have the time or energy to worry about things that haven't happened yet. I go to shows when my son goes to bed, and Red Bull Records is extremely supportive. It's a real bonus to do what I love for a living and be able to share it with my son!

Christina
:  I live in an affordable city with bosses who are parents, so it’s been the best possible situation for me. It is hard, though. I’m not at shows until 3 am every night. Travel is more complicated. I have to leave the office at 5pm every day. I love juggling, though. I love to work and I love my family.

Jenni
: The travel is really tough, but I’m lucky to have a husband who makes being me possible.  

Any parting thoughts?
Hannah: For a long time, I was one of those girls with only male friends. It wasn’t until I started working in the music business that I found this overabundance of smart, passionate, fun and determined women hiding in plain sight. I have no doubt that 25 years from now, women will find this article totally quaint for its focus on this separate “women in music” sector. 

 

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Are they coming for Kanye? Yes.
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