Tess Bury spoke to local Perth musician, band manager, RTR presenter and former UWA student Xanthea O’Connor about her experience as a female in the Perth music scene. Xanthea has been organising meetings in which people can come together and discuss making Perth venues safer spaces for all people.
Tess Bury – Being on radio and organising and performing at gigs, you’re obviously quite involved in music. What is your experience of the Perth music scene? Do you think being a female changes your experience at all?
Xanthea O’Connor – I started off really wanting to manage band. That was what I knew of the music industry – management. I didn’t go through school or anything, but I was always really interested in music. Not so much interested in genre or style, but more about bringing about social change within music and how artists operate within themselves.
I’ve mainly settled into managing artists now, but I always make sure that I have my own self outside of that – I found it to be quite emotionally exhausting for me. So I do radio because I feel like it’s a nice broad sort of thing, similar to management in that it facilitates and promotes artists that you love, but less directly.
However, I do feel like I am working within a broken system. There’s a complete disparity between the amount of women and men in this industry. You get to a certain point where you see it and think, that’s just part of the job, and I am one of the more privileged, so I’m just going to work with it. But at this point I feel frustrated and I want to work towards a system that is more equal, and that would require removing a lot of structures in place.
TB – Would you say that you even if you reach a certain prominent position, there’s still barriers placed upon you because you are a woman?
XO – Yeah, it’s like systemic barriers. Historically, music has always been shown in public houses – bars and pubs – and is always based around the sale of alcohol. So, due to that fact, a lot of promoter’s book acts that have audiences that drink more, and that is automatically geared towards a largely male audience. And a largely male audience is geared towards a male performer. Socially, women’s music has always been sidelined into something different.
TB – I fee like women’s music comes with a performance, like most of the attention is on how you look rather than sound.
XO- It’s produced for the male gaze still. For the large part, if women want to be mainstream artists, they have to adhere towards the male gaze. That’s why I admire artists like Courtney Barnett, who seems to strip away the idea that female musicians need to look a certain way.
Working in the industry I get really frustrated because the people who are being booked and played all feed into this system which I don’t necessarily agree with. It’s a matter of accepting the system or questioning it, and I think it’s always more important to question the system.
TB – When did you come up with the idea of women getting together and discussing these issues?
XO – For starters, it’s really important for it to not just be a nebulous online thing. Women in music don’t have the same culture of getting together at a young age and forming bands like men do. Women who are getting together now and forming bands like Bell’s Rapids and Boat Show all played in other bands that are mainly guys. Now they’re in their early 20’s they are realising they can do it by themselves. I think there’s that social consciousness developing.
Going along to listening conferences you can see how productive they are when they’re had in person. There is an organisation called Listen (www.listenlistenlisten.org) in Melbourne that was started by Evelyn Morris (also known as Pikelet). It first started out as a blog for female musicians to air their grievances online about the music industry, and it’s now turned into a full not-for-profit organisation where they run a conference every year. They’re doing so much – I went to a conference last year and there was a real pleasure in being around so many women, including women of colour, trans women and non-gender conforming individuals, who are comfortable speaking. Also just being able to listen to them, because they’re not just the token person on stage who has to explain what’s it’s like to be “this” in a place that doesn’t necessarily support “that”.
Naturally, after seeing that happen, and being so inspired by those women, I realised we have to start coming together and talking about it.
TB – Did you use this as a model for your own meetings?
XO – Well, we’ve really only had one big one so far. We definitely want to be informed by what they’ve done, because they’re in a no way a perfect organisation and are still making mistakes and learning from them. But the biggest thing is that everyone is heard. When it’s all women speaking in a group, we still need to acknowledge that we are not all equal and haven’t all had the same experiences.
The structure is still very loose because it still so new, but the main thing is there are heaps of people showing up, because they want there to be change. More and more people who aren’t women want to be told what they need to do as well. People are aware of it, and they know it’s wrong, but they’re not really sure of what to do about it. So I thinking coming all together and creating practical solutions to problems is a step in the right direction.
TB – What practical steps would you recommend for someone who doesn’t feel safe at a gig?
XO – It’s all about developing trust and empowerment. Mainly it’s educating people that they can call stuff out, not in a direct way that could put them in a potentially dangerous situation, but rather going to a bar manager and talking about it. Education and empowerment are the main things. Feeling more empowered is going to encourage more women to want to play in venues as well. Going up on stage is terrifying for anyone, but if a woman is performing in a place where she has been sexually harassed or made to feel uncomfortable in other ways, it doesn’t make them feel welcome.
We’re also working for people to develop the confidence to be able to call something out, and not feeling ashamed about it. It’s not a shameful thing for a woman to be sexually harassed, it’s a shameful thing for someone to harass you, and they need to be educated as to why it isn’t right. We’re developing signs to put up in venues to that say that the space is working on becoming a safer one and that if anyone makes you feel unsafe in the venue to talk to management.
But putting up signs isn’t the end of it – it’s also important to make sure the staff are educated and know how to act in case they are approached. If people are genuinely listened to when they approach management it will develop trust. As soon as something happens that is not dealt with then trust is lost between the patron and the venue.
I did a small survey of 120 people (roughly 50 men and 50 women) and a lot of women said that they were deterred from going to a venue if they were harassed and they weren’t comfortable taking to bar staff about it.
And men as well can have really bad experiences. The venue safety strategy promotes the idea that venues can be fun, but we can avoid shitty situations.
TB – Whereabouts do men, non-binary individuals or trans people fit into this? Evidently you work for everyone to be safe and happy, but are there any specific things to address to these people?
XO – Anything that we put in place will also benefit men – it’s not necessarily something that will put women at an outrageous advantage to them. Especially with trans and gender non-conforming individuals, its not that we are just setting aside thought for them, but they are directly involved in the process. I would hate for it to be a white, cis women’s league, it’s a bigger problem.
Gender-neutral toilets, disabled access all come into it as well. There are so many aspects of this that we can address. It’s not necessarily going to make everybody thousands of dollars, but it’ll be more inclusive.
Interview by Tess Bury
This article first appeared in print volume 88 edition 1 HEAT