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International Women's Day: Female Perspectives On Getting In To Electronic Music



At the very top of the industry we often see a complete gender imbalance in the majority of festival lineups. At the entry level it pains me personally to see how few female clients I get at The Sound Kitchen for music production or DJ tuition. I’ve wanted to do something for International Women's Day for a few years now to try and do my bit to encourage participation, other than just celebrating successful role models. I’ve thought about running free courses, writing opinion pieces and more, but without wanting to appear like a male saviour swooping in to save the world of DJing for women, it’s been a tricky one to tackle. After much thought, I’ve enlisted the help of some super talented female DJs, in a much better position than me to speak on the subject, to share their own experiences and answer two key questions… how they got into it, followed by what advice they’d give anyone today. Hopefully you’ll find what they’ve got to say useful and inspiring, maybe even encouraging enough for some to take the next steps in getting involved with electronic music. Thank you to Holly Lester, Mother Earth and to Aalice for their excellent insight.


Holly Lester

Holly Lester had an attention-grabbing ascent into dance music. She first rose to prominence when regularly playing for institutions Shine and Chibuku Shake Shake before a residency at the Warehouse Project beckoned. Commanding familiar dancefloors around Europe was naturally followed by launching her own record label in 2020, Duality Trax. Since then she has gone on to found a non-profit organisation Free The Night, a lobbying and advocacy group for Northern Ireland nightlife. With another record label in the works for spring, with the founder of Gestalt Records, it's fair to say she is fully committed to electronic music.


How did you get into the world of DJing?


Holly: "I got into DJing through my dad's love of electronic music and learnt to mix when I was fourteen years old, after begging my parents for a set of CDJs. I did feel that in the early stages, it was extremely hard for me to break into the scene in the capital of Belfast, perhaps for two reasons - there were basically no female DJs in the house and techno scene at the time and I also lived in rural Armagh, so had very few friends who liked the music or were involved in the scene. I didn't meet any like-minded individuals until I was 18, and then I moved to Liverpool shortly afterwards, which is really where I found my footing. For me, it was essential that I moved away to establish myself, as I found the scene at home very close knit and hard to crack. I think that is a common theme for many with their hometown scene. Don't get me wrong, I still faced challenges in Liverpool and there were definitely some people who were not encouraging or supportive, but I was also very lucky in that there were a select few who did believe in me and wanted to give me a chance. I think persistence is key in overcoming these sorts of obstacles, and putting yourself out of your comfort zone."


Do you have any advice for females considering getting started?


Holly: "It's easy to try DJing now with the amount of affordable digital controllers on the market and you can really get a grip on the basics with them, but at some stage I would recommend trying out CDJs or turntables so you learn how to beatmatch manually. Don't let the fact that you don't have money to get proper CDJs or vinyl turn you off - I didn't either and I still managed to get where I am. It is a bit of a rich kids game and it's something that has frustrated the hell out of me many times in my career, but if you have the passion and the drive you will make it work.

"How to DJ Properly" by Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster is a great resource which I recommend to anyone starting out; I had read it cover to cover before I even owned a set of decks.


And some final advice if you have got to grips with mixing and are seriously considering your next steps - if you know the place where you are currently based isn't conducive to a successful DJ career, you need to really consider moving to somewhere that will be. And this next bit is a non negotiable for me really, unless you have production skills that are going to outweigh this - you need to be out there in the scene that you want to be a part of as much as possible. Networking is so important and you need to make yourself as familiar as possible with these individuals. Finding your sound is something that can take a couple of years and it can also change over time, but know where you want to position yourself and make yourself known to the relevant people in your city who are doing the same. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy other types of events - they can be great to refresh your creativity and to draw inspiration from other sounds - as long as you are making moves in the right direction elsewhere too."


Mother Earth

Two best friends and female DJs who run an event and podcast series called Mother Earth Sounds. Suz and Bella have been DJing together for nearly 3 years, having hosted and played at multiple events with some of their favourite DJs, also running a podcast series that supports up and coming female artists. They have a big focus on 'celebrating and supporting electronic music, making it a place to express yourself, celebrate equality, have fun and appreciate sick tunes.' Couldn't agree more.


How did you get into the world of DJing?


Suz: "We’ve both had fairly different experiences, I’ve been DJing since I was 17 after my Dad (who is an absolute don) got me decks as a well done for achieving my A Level results. This meant I then spent most of my late teens and early 20s travelling up to London to spend time with my older cousin and DJ at parties across East London, I also played at a monthly local party in Southend called KLIK run by DJ & Producer Pierre Codarin. This is where I really got a taste for how it felt to be behind the booth, blending tunes together to a “more-than-up-for-it” crowd and played alongside some exiting and well established artists such as Paranoid London, Varhat, Truly Madly, East End Dubs & more. For me the feeling of playing a tune that you absolutely adore, and watching other people around you buzz off it the same way you do is what made me realise that I needed it to be a big part of my life. Bella on the other hand started a lot later… I’ll let her explain that. But it’s always been clear to me how into her music she was, and not just house music but a range of genres, I always remember her telling me a the story of her mum catching her bopping along as a baby in her high chair to her favourite old school tune - Gangsters Paradise."


Bella: "Haha yeah I have always loved a range of different music. My family were big into music, I used to love listening to Zero 7 with my mum back in the day and they influenced me a lot in my love for music. As I got older and experienced going out, I grew more and more passionate for house and electronic music, and after a couple of years of seeing suz DJ, and going out with friends, I would regularly send her tunes (that she would then steal to play out). Eventually Suzie just suggested that I learn so that we could mix together and I could experience what it would feel like to be able to play the music out myself…So, we ended up taking tune sharing away from YouTube playlists and on to the decks together. It was the start of a lot of fun and something very special… especially playing with Suz as she is super talented."

Suz: "Yeah thats really when it properly started… after many weekends of mixing at mine, Bella got her own pair of turntables and started building up her record collection. Three years later and watching her kill it behind the booth fills me with joy, and it’s an even bigger pleasure getting to share the booth with her as the duo Mother Earth. Encouraging other female artists to feel confident and express themselves through electronic music is something I believe massively in, so being able to watch Bels learn and fall in love with it so quickly was super rewarding. "


Do you have any advice for females considering getting started?

Bella: "As cliché as it sounds, my advice would be to just go for it. I was fortunate enough to have Suz and some super talented friends who are also DJs to support and guide me, however that aside I’ve always felt like the industry has been very supportive of female artists and I am seeing a lot of changes in the gender splits across line ups. That by no means is to say that it is perfect, but there is definitely a growing appreciation for female artists and a high level of support for making the industry fair and equal. I’d say we’ve encountered a couple of experiences that could have knocked us down or made us feel more vulnerable as women – but in all honestly the appreciation we continue to feel as female artists who are in a largely male dominated industry is what continues to spur us on. The euphoria and happiness that we both feel behind the booth will always counteract any negative experiences we have had. My advice to female artists would be that you should aim high and never doubt yourself, it’s sometime hard to see, but you are even more respected and admired for putting yourself forward and shining in an environment that can sometimes feel intimidating."


Suz: I'd echo every word of that, I started DJing and playing out at a very young age and would sometimes feel intimidated by DJs who had been collecting records for years. However, I found that for the most part the energy that crowds brought to the dance floor would always dull any nerves or doubts I had. Ultimately, getting to look at faces of other people enjoying tunes I love on the dancefloor, and buzzing off that energy, will always push me to keep pushing myself. I'd always encourage you to push and challenge yourself no matter how daunting the situation might feel.


Aalice

Best known for being one quarter of female-led techno party Meat Free, aalice has taken her sound across the UK and further afield playing parties and festivals from the infamous AVA Boiler Room to Field Maneuvers, Festival No. 6 and Innercity Electronic. A regular on the Manchester club circuit, where she can often be found at The White Hotel, Soup (and unlikely pub-turned rave - The DBA) aalice currently holds a residency at Hidden in Manchester, supporting the likes of Jeff Mills, Mall Grab and SPFDJ in recent months. Aalice is also well known for running Under One Roof, a fully accessible club night for adults with disabilities. As well as local endeavours, she has spoken and hosted a number of panel discussions and talks, including the illustrious IMS in Ibiza on various issues in the music industry - including mental health, accessibility and intersectionality.


How did you get into the world of DJing?


Aalice: "I'd grown up in the clubs and festivals of Belfast, but always behind the scenes. With no real female role models or anyone to even ask how to get started it seems impossible. But after moving to Manchester with no real plan other than to broaden my horizons in life I had a chance encounter with Steffi AKA Allatt, who I now run Meat Free with, in Sankeys (cliche I know). Both being new to the city we soon formed a friendship - bound by our mutual love of music of course. Through Steffi I then met with Lucy ironmonger and Natasha Carter (Blasha) through Steffi's attendance at SEM, and Meat Free was born not too long afterwards.


After around a year of running Meat Free I decided it was finally time to pluck up the courage and ask for some help. The girls showed me the basics, I bought a pair of old 1000s and that was how it began. Learning the technicalities of DJing is one thing but for me confidence has always been what has held me back - if it wasn't for the support and non judgemental environment I found myself in with the Meat Free girls, I'm not sure I ever would've even tried. I still feel like an imposter most times I step behind the decks but at least I've now learnt how to have fun too."


Do you have any advice for females considering getting started?


Aalice: "For me the biggest thing is believing in yourself. Luckily the DJ environment today is a much more welcoming and inclusive one and the one I began in, and I feel honoured and humbled that Meat Free has hopefully been a part of that. There are so many open deck nights and workshops available now to female and non-binary people I would encourage anyone to go and give it a go. Often the problem with something like DJing is the gatekeeping, a curated air of mystique around it the other people create to keep people out - but hopefully those barriers are being broken down day by day and the industry is finally being slightly more equalised.


It should be about having fun, a creative outlet for your passion for music and that's something everyone is entitled to so go and take up your space. I've faced plenty of patronising promoters, fellow djs, sound engineers and even been kicked off the decks once by a boy who proceeded to play with *my usb*. Stand your ground, and believe in your right to be there. Try to use the negative times to push you harder, and believe me those people who tried to pull you back won't be waiting for you at the next stop. Don't forget the people who helped and supported you, and if you're in a position to do so then try to help the next person up behind you too.


Shouts to all the female and non-binary crews (and our allies) who are not only claiming their rightful spaces in clubs but paving the way for those behind them - for anyone in the North West I'd encourage you to check out Shifting Spheres, Glasshouses, BLOOM, Frixion, all hands on deck, Non Binary/Trans Artist Database, The Beatriarcy, Fat Out, Not Bad for a Girl and Tough Act to name a few!"