In the year 2000, the music industry was on a high. CDs were selling at a rate of 2.5 billion units a year and, throughout the previous decade, the robust music press had declared women to be ascendent: the ‘90s belonged to Kathleen Hanna and Aaliyah, Fiona Apple and TLC. Whitney Houston was about to sign what was then the biggest record deal in history ($100 million!) and Madonna was running her own record label. The music industry had power—and it finally felt like women would get some of it. What could go wrong?
Well, everything. In June 1999, Napster came online. In 2001, the first iPod hit the market. Nearly 20 years later, here’s where we’re at: a recent study found that only 2.1 percent of music producers are female. Women have fewer hit songs. Men sweep the Grammys. And there are still hardly any major labels fronted by women.
For Topic’s Music issue, we sought out and interviewed 17 women who were immersed in the music world at the turn of the millennium, from artists to songwriters to critics, to find out: what was it like to work in the industry when the money was flowing, magazines had influence, and CDs were flying off the shelves—right before the internet changed everything?
Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.
THE RIOT GRRRL: Allison Wolfe
Lead singer in the band Bratmobile (1991–94, 1998–2002). Also fronted the groups Sex Stains, Partyline, and Cold Cold Hearts. Currently a freelance writer and radio producer currently working on an oral-history book on riot grrrls.
The late 1990s was a hard time to be in a girl band. By then, riot grrrl was labeled as a fad or passé. There was a lot of shame among various bands that the riot grrrl movement fell apart and didn’t achieve more—shame that there was a lot of infighting, shame that it wasn’t more inclusive. The purpose of riot grrrl was to take over the means of production, to represent ourselves. We didn’t see ourselves or our values reflected in the mainstream media—that’s why we made fanzines, manifestos, and flyers. It’s why we started bands and wrote our own lyrics. We were purposefully vague about defining “riot grrrl” because it was what you made of it. We wanted to empower punk girls and create our own community. But I also wish we had more concrete goals that we could have worked toward.
In either ’96 or ’97, there was a panel that MCA [Adam Yauch] from the Beastie Boys was asked to pull together by CMJ [College Music Journal] in New York: “Punk Rock and Social Activism—Do They Mix?” Or something like that. Kathleen Hanna was supposed to be on the panel with Chuck D and Sean Lennon, but she didn’t live in New York at the time and the organizers didn’t have any money to fly her to the panel. So she called me and said, “Allison, are you going to be in New York? You need to be on this panel. If I drop out, they won’t find another woman.” I was living in D.C. at the time, but my band, Cold Cold Hearts, was already planning on playing at the CMJ festival, and we drove to New York in our touring vehicle, a white cargo van with a loft and no seating in the back.
If you’re a woman in a band, when you walk into the venue that you’re playing, club security often treats you like, ‘What are you doing? Who are you here to see? Why are you here?’
This was a few years after Bratmobile had broken up for the first time, in 1994. I was burnt out with the band and with the riot grrrl movement in general, and I had become a little disillusioned. I had decided to move across the country from Olympia, Washington, to D.C. I ended up getting a job at the Washington Post as a news aide in the Style and Arts section, but I didn’t go there pursuing a journalism career: I went there because a couple of other punks started getting jobs there, working as lowly news aides. You could go on tour and still come back and have a job. And even part-timers got benefits. A lot of us within riot grrrl had become anti-media and anti-press, so it was weird to work at one of the country’s biggest newspapers.
While I was at the Post, I still wanted to keep being in a band. [Wolfe formed several while Bratmobile was on its four-year hiatus.] Some people within the riot grrrl community ended up going into the music industry. I always wondered, How could you do that? I would end up hating music if I did that.
In 1998, Bratmobile got back together, and it was a much different experience. The first time around, there was conflict between me and Molly Neuman [Bratmobile’s drummer]. She had always run the show, and we’d had a falling out. When the band reunited, we were friends again and we knew how to do things now: how to tour, how to practice, how to record. We were all better at songwriting and at playing our instruments. Now we were also paid better, and we were treated better. Suddenly, we were playing places that actually had a backstage and a bathroom.
At the Washington Post, though, no one knew I had been in Bratmobile. In 2000, we played CMJ and were profiled on the front page of the arts section of the New York Times. I was in one of the photos and, all of a sudden, all the editors and writers in my section respected me when I came back to work. Editors who wouldn’t speak to me if we got in the same elevator were now talking to me.
If you’re a woman in a band, when you walk into the venue that you’re playing—especially if you’re early, before the doors open—club security often treats you like, “What are you doing? Who are you here to see? Why are you here?” It’s like, “I’m playing tonight, fucker.” When Bratmobile got back together, I wrote a song about it called “I’m in the Band.”
I never really felt I made the kind of music that was marketable, but a lot has changed. People now look back at bands like Bratmobile for a stamp of authenticity. It’s funny—all these people ask us, “Is Bratmobile going to get back together now that Bikini Kill did?” And my answer is, “But why didn’t you care more then?”
And it’s not that I think people didn’t care. They just weren’t willing to pay for it.
THE EXECUTIVE: Amy Finnerty
Music programming and talent relations at MTV (1989–2000); A&R at Sony Music (2000–3). Has recently worked on various projects with artists including the Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam, and Beastie Boys.
I’ve had a really unique career. I hope it doesn’t sound cliché, but I never tried to step up the ladder of traditional executive positions. In 1989, MTV hired me at 21 to work for the network’s music-programming department—I was part of the group that decided which videos to play on MTV, and how often to play them.
I first saw Nirvana in concert a year later, at the Pyramid Club in New York. It was part of the Bleach tour, which was before Nevermind. Because of that show, I advocated for the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video to be played in heavy rotation on MTV. I became good friends with the band, and with their friends and family. After Kurt Cobain died in 1994, I felt like an animal at the zoo: my grief was on display, and people wanted to look at me. At MTV, I was asked daily about Kurt, the band, and his death. I didn’t choose for that to be my everyday existence. I was still a kid in my 20s in New York City, going out seven nights a week to five different clubs. I had to find something new. I wanted to feel myself in music outside of Kurt’s death.
We all know that the music industry was run by white males at that point, but I felt supported by both men and women that I worked with.
I became part of a growing community of electronic dance music—I felt it coming up from the streets. I had a tremendous amount of support to bring electronic dance music onto the channel—like Fatboy Slim, the Crystal Method, and Prodigy—by booking artists on primetime MTV shows like Fashionably Loud, which started as a news program. MTV didn’t have a reputation within the fashion industry, and I was asked to find artists who would be interested in playing on this new show. Before Fashionably Loud, there was no mainstream outlet for electronic dance music on television; it was the first time any of these musicians had performed live.
We all know that the music industry was run by white males at that point, but I felt supported by both men and women that I worked with. When my mom was dying of cancer, I was living in New York and she was living in Los Angeles. She didn’t have too long to live. MTV, which was then run by Judy McGrath and Van Toffler, created an additional position for me, on top of my programming gig. I moved out to L.A. to be with my mom, taking care of her while working on music supervision for MTV Films; Dead Man on Campus (1998) was the first film we did. I was conscious of the politics within the entertainment business, but I was in such a unique position: I came in as a young kid at the very beginning, and I was passionate about getting music on the air that really shifted MTV. Because of that, I was greatly supported at the network.
I was still passionate about music, but I left MTV in 2000, in part because the network began to play fewer music videos and more reality-show content. Steve [Rifkind, founder of Loud Records, a subsidiary of Sony] reached out to me and asked if I would take the label’s catalog and do some rap-rock remixes, which were popular at that time. I worked with the Alkaholiks, Three 6 Mafia, Prodigy [of Mobb Deep], and Wu-Tang Clan, which is how I met RZA. He asked me if I wanted to be the group’s A&R. “Sure, I’ve never done it before,” I said. And he said, “I’ve never had an A&R before!” I wasn’t concerned; I had been in the music business for ten years, and I was friends with A&Rs.
You don’t think about corporate ambition when you’re in the studio with Wu-Tang Clan, or sitting front row at Nirvana’s Unplugged taping. Maybe if I had stayed in line, I would have had the opportunity to become the president of a record company. But I had an incredible experience working with creators and musicians. What I helped them create has been more valuable than what I ever could have done in any position on the corporate ladder.
THE SONGWRITER: Danielle Brisebois
Songwriter, soloist, and member of New Radicals; wrote the Billboard Top 10 hits “Unwritten” (2004) and “Pocketful of Sunshine” (2008). Currently a singer-songwriter who received an Oscar nomination in 2015 for Best Original Song (“Lost Stars” from the film Begin Again).
As a child actor growing up in New York City, I took singing lessons at Phil Black Studios in Times Square, which was right across the street from the Brill Building. Somebody told me, “That’s where they write songs.” So I was always aware that making records is a group effort. I found songwriting to be the most interesting part of this process. When you’re singing a song, you’re not the artist; you’re just singing music and words written by other people.
I was hoping to be a big, famous artist on my own, and to be quite honest, I think my first record, Arrive All Over You (1994), actually had the bones to do it. But I was at Epic Records at the time, the same label as Pearl Jam and Nirvana. My album wasn’t the popular kind of female music at the time—it was pop with an edge. I was doing Alanis Morissette before Alanis Morissette. Alanis was fortunate enough to have all the stars align—along with a great album—to make it all happen for her. I don’t know why my album didn’t take over the charts, but as with everything, it’s a combination of a lot of elements.
And I said, ‘Well, how about you’re playing someone your demo tape, and they start masturbating in front of you in the meeting?’
So I started learning how to write songs. You read these stories about songwriters who walk into the room, go in the corner, and, five minutes later, they lay it down and they leave and the song is brilliant. It’s like, “Who is this unicorn? How do they do this?” That’s not me. One of the most important things I’ve learned throughout the years is to not dislike myself for not being somebody else. I hustled and met with whoever would meet with me to help me. Luckily enough, I met some really wonderful people, and that got me in good situations. It also led to some weird situations.
A lot of women in that era really suffered from men taking advantage of a girl who just wanted to do something with her life. In 1995, a magazine called Seconds interviewed me. I was asked, “What’s something that has happened to you as a woman in the music industry that doesn’t happen to guys?” And I said, “Well, how about you’re playing someone your demo tape, and they start masturbating in front of you in the meeting?” I didn’t think anybody would read the interview, but then the Los Angeles Times picked up on it.
It had happened five or six years before, when I was around 18 years old. It was this guy named Mark Hudson—he was in the Hudson Brothers. For years after the interview came out, he tried to paint me as crazy, but we had the same mutual friends. When all the #MeToo stuff was happening, I would send him messages on Twitter—“Hey Mark, have you been reading this?”—and then he finally sent me a private email apologizing for what he did. He said he was a drug addict, and that he did stuff, but he apologized. But, you know, whatever. I accepted his apology, which was a bit disingenuous, but it felt good to have someone go, “You know what? Yeah. I’m sorry.”
I still warn other people to be careful. You couldn’t confront those kinds of things if you were a woman in the music industry at that time. I instinctively knew I couldn’t tell anyone; I thought if I said something, I would never get a meeting. But it was always my right to tell my story, which is why, in that interview, I finally mentioned it.
THE TALENT SCOUT: Erika Elliott
Assistant at William Morris (1999); assistant in artist development at RCA (1999–2001); talent buyer at SOB’s, New York (2001–4). Currently executive artistic director at New York’s City Parks Foundation (2004–).
My first job was as an assistant in the radio promotions department at Loud Records in New York City. My first big assignment was negotiating a double-fold ad for Wu-Tang Forever in Spin magazine. It was a lot of money—more than my rent in my Murray Hill apartment at the time—for the mainstream press.
Eventually, I realized the pathway at Loud wasn’t going that far; it was a small label. I had the opportunity to interview for Cara Lewis at William Morris Agency to work as one of her three assistants. It was a big deal to work for someone of that stature, and she really respected my opinion, so I got the job.
The late 1990s and early 2000s were exciting times in New York: every friggin’ single had a release party, and there’d be a sponsored event with an open bar every night. The invitations seemed endless. I don’t know if being seen out in all of these clubs was valuable from a career standpoint, but it definitely was an exciting time. I eventually left WMA and moved to RCA, where I worked with Christina Aguilera and NSYNC. The biggest thing I had worked on before was Wu-Tang Clan, which was big, but it wasn’t Dave Matthews Band big.
At RCA, there were assistants and there were executives, and very little in between. There was no middle management, and I didn’t have much growth opportunity. And while there absolutely were senior-level female executives in positions of power—I worked as an assistant for two of them—I just didn’t know how I could go from being an assistant to becoming an executive. I wasn’t going to suddenly become one of them. I would have had to leave and then come back.
Now, being older, I think if I were a man, I would have negotiated way harder when I first started working at SOB’s.
I transitioned to the live music business at the moment when record labels were having to contend with the digital landscape. Around 2000, I started working nights and weekends as a talent buyer at SOB’s, a club on Varick Street. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but I was getting to book bands that I cared about. I had this great sense of music and curation, bringing groups like Black Star and OutKast and artists like Kanye West and John Legend into the venue. John Legend wasn’t John Legend when he started playing there—he was a venue regular, and we supported the development of his career and showcased him regularly. He was nice enough to credit me on his first album.
I was so excited about what I was doing at SOB’s, but after four years, it just became so obvious to me that, from booking as many as eight shows a week, I was bringing in a lot of money to the club but wasn’t being fairly compensated. It got to the point where I felt I needed to assert myself and say to Larry [Gold, the club’s founder and owner], “I haven’t gotten a raise, and I should be making more money.”
In the end, my discontent was taken like, “She’s gotta go.” I came in one day during the holiday season, expecting it to be a regular day, and Larry told me that I was being laid off. To me, though, it felt like I had been fired. Now, being older, I think if I were a man, I would have negotiated way harder when I first started working at SOB’s. I did push back in terms of health-care benefits; I never had a contract, and when I agreed to the job, I wasn’t offered any benefits, and that was nonnegotiable to me. In the end, I think gender wouldn’t have mattered—SOB’s’ owner would have handled it in the same way—but I would have asserted myself earlier about my value if I were a man. This was my first position of any kind of power, as a young woman. I was so grateful to get my foot in the door and have a job that I loved. It was hard to stand my ground and be willing to walk away. That’s a hard thing to do.
I now work at City Parks Foundation, booking hundreds of shows across NYC’s five boroughs, including Central Park. We’re a nonprofit, and what I’ve noticed is that nonprofits are, for the most part, run by women. Everywhere else I’ve worked has been a corporate business, where the only things that mattered were ticket sales or album sales. The foundation is largely staffed with women, and it just has a different vibe.
THE CRITIC: Evelyn McDonnell
Contributor to Rolling Stone, Spin, the New York Times, and Billboard, among many other publications; writer or editor of seven books, including Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé and Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl (2018). Currently an associate professor of journalism at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.
After I graduated from Brown in 1986, I moved to New York without a full-time job. I had a part-time copyediting gig at Billboard, which turned into writing short pieces for the magazine. I was able to leverage that I knew how words worked and how sentences were constructed. I was also freelancing for the Village Voice, which I turned into a full-time job as its music editor in 1996. That was my foot in the door. The year before, I had written my first-ever cover story for the Voice, on Patti Smith’s return to performing after her sort of exile.
There just weren’t that many women to talk to in the press box at shows. Before I started working at the Voice, I had gone to San Francisco [McDonnell became the music editor at SF Weekly in 1991]. That city’s music journalism scene was dominated by women. That was really revelatory. Back in New York, there was definitely a feeling that the Voice was a boys’ club. The guys all hung out together at the shows, and the girls who were with them were the girlfriends. I definitely didn’t want to be the girlfriend, so I did a Chrissie Hynde thing and tried to be a tomboy instead. I acted like one of the guys instead of a potential girlfriend.
We don’t have a good system for working parents, and there were always a bunch of little things that contributed to my unease: the feeling of not getting taken seriously, or seeing guys with less experience getting promotions or cover stories.
There wasn’t a lot of room for feminists at the shows. Information was a status card—you had to be able to converse in a very inside-baseball way about music, books, and independent film—and politics wasn’t as important as musical purity. Gender wasn’t supposed to matter, but of course it did matter, and if the male critics looked around them, they’d see it shaped everything.
What first brought it all home for me was when I pitched a story to a male editor at Spin in the early 1990s about magazines that were on videotapes. It was a little story, and I gave the editor copies of the tapes so he could check them out. I later talked to a male critic friend, and he said, “Oh yeah, I was watching these videotapes, and I’m thinking of doing a story on them.” I was like, “That’s funny—I pitched that to Joe.” “Yeah, Joe is the one who gave them to me,” he said. I don’t think either necessarily intended to diss me, but both just followed the network. It’s just so classic.
I left New York again to become the music critic of the Miami Herald in 2001. One of the early things I noticed was that the internet was allowing women to make end runs around some of the usual hurdles, in terms of writing about music. I wrote a piece for Salon.com about the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and its poor gender representation. I don’t know if I could have published that story when I was starting out.
I didn’t want to just work in a support role for the male critics. But this persisted until even the 2010s, when I turned down an editing job at the Los Angeles Times because I was going to be editing a white male critic. I had applied for his critic job, but since he was already the editor, they were just going to “move” him to critic. It was the pecking order, but it just felt wrong. I knew he wasn’t as qualified as I was to get that job.
As much fun as it was to be at the clubs late into the night for a long period of my life, that became harder once I decided to have my son. It’s been really, really hard to be a primary breadwinner, a parent, and a music critic. We don’t have a good system for working parents, and there were always a bunch of little things that contributed to my unease: the feeling of not getting taken seriously, or seeing guys with less experience getting promotions or cover stories. It was death by a thousand cuts. Nowadays, I’m looking at the big-picture music stories that involve more historical research. That shift has been very healthy. I have nostalgia for the good ol’ days of club-hopping, but I think if I did it for a month, I’d be burnt out, even without a kid. Soon that kid will be in college, and I could go back to that lifestyle, but I doubt I will.
THE TALENT SCOUT: Faith Newman
VP of A&R at Def Jam (1987–1991); senior director A&R at Columbia (1991–96); VP of A&R at Jive Records (1997–2000). Currently senior vice president of A&R and catalog development at Reservoir Media (2011–).
In 1986, when I was a junior in college, I got an internship at Columbia Records, working in the promotions department with all these holdovers from the 1970s. It was just gross, the way these guys would come on to me. But I was 19 years old, and I was young and hungry enough to know that that shit would never bother me. I was smarter. I knew that I wasn’t going to be somebody’s assistant, or just be somebody in publicity, which is where all the women worked at that time.
Def Jam allowed me to not be those things. I was one of the first five people to be hired at the company, in 1987. Then one day, the founder, Russell Simmons, decided to make me the vice president of A&R. I was 22 years old. A&R, in general, was very male—there were very few women at the time—so there was no one to give me sage advice on how to navigate the music industry. I was making records. I was listening to demos. I was doing all the things an A&R person does, going to A&R meetings. I’d be in these meetings at Columbia, and the label president at the time [Don Ienner] would refer to women as “bitches.” I’d sit there and just take it all in. It’s part of the game. You didn’t get angry, you didn’t get sad. You just dealt with it.
I was part of a little group in NYC that we called the Ladies of Hip-Hop. All of us worked at record labels in some capacity—women from publicity, marketing, radio promo—and we met informally. It was a chance to get together and talk about what everyone was working on and the new stuff we were excited by. We’d meet in a conference room in the Sony Building. We had planned to meet regularly—we wanted it to be bigger than it was—but then we all got too busy.
I’d helped mentor someone at Columbia—a man who ultimately became my boss. He was hired over me.
In 1991, I moved to Columbia Records. I was happy there. I had a lot of success with Nas, and we were working on It Was Written, his second album. I had success with Big L. I had success with Jamiroquai and was traveling back and forth to London. I was spending a lot of time in Jamaica, working with Super Cat and Mad Cobra and Tiger. I was the golden child of A&R—I had an unlimited expense account. The credit card went straight to business affairs. I never had to do expense reports. When I wanted to go live in Jamaica for a month and work there, I did it. When I had to be in London to work with Jamiroquai, I did it. There were no questions.
Then the rug was pulled out from under me. I’d helped mentor someone at Columbia—a man who ultimately became my boss. He was hired over me. I wanted to leave on my own terms, so I went to see the president of Columbia. In his office, he pointed to the pictures of his kids and said, “You know, this is really what matters.” I looked at him like, Are you fucking out of your mind? Dude, really? I told him, “Fuck you. You’ll speak with my lawyer.” We threatened a lawsuit against the company for hiring someone above me that I had introduced to the label, but ultimately, we didn’t file it. That threat was enough for the label to take action, as they didn’t want a lawsuit on their hands. [Both sides eventually came to an agreement.]
After Columbia, I took a job at Jive as head of rap A&R, but I was not happy with the way rap music was going. The Puffy effect changed hip-hop into this glittery, materialistic kind of thing. The grittiness was gone. The late 1990s was all about consumption and labels, and that just wasn’t for me. I was burnt out, and the business had taken a nosedive.
The music industry had been so lavish, with money free-flowing, thanks to CD sales, and I just saw it all about to crash and burn—so I checked out for one year. I came back to work with Mariah Carey [at MonarC Entertainment], and that was fucking painful. I did a bunch of different things for her, like bringing in a film project we worked on, but it was very difficult to get anything done with her. I think Mariah was just being pulled in so many different directions at that time.
I couldn’t see myself going back to a label and doing A&R today the way I used to. All the things that mattered to me as an A&R, like artist development, have fallen by the wayside. I still look for beats for artists, but ultimately publishers have a larger hand in terms of making records. I work with Offset and Takeoff [from Migos], but I am not A&R-ing a Migos album. I may bring Offset an opportunity for a feature, or he may come to me with that opportunity. It’s pretty different now.
It took us two years to make Nas’s first album, and I realized I would never have that kind of freedom ever again. If people now had to wait two years for an album to drop, they would forget about the artist, but when we were working on Illmatic, people stayed engaged. They had to wait for the album. Now, though, there is so much content. Singles come out every month.
Since I was a little kid, I had only ever wanted to be in the music industry. And I was. And I was very successful at it. And then I just got tired. I was like, “Is this it?”
THE TOUR MANAGER: Ginny Suss
Tour manager for the Roots, 2003–5; cofounder and manager of protest choir the Resistance Revival Chorus; owner of Ginny Suss Productions.
My first day as the Roots’ tour manager was in late 2003. The other tour manager, Tina Farris, who was a great mentor to me, picked me up in an SUV. I looked to my left, and I realized I was sitting next to Black Thought [Tariq Trotter]. My heart jumped—I admired him as a lyricist and as a performer. I’ve still never told him how intimidated I was that first day. I had to keep my cool while Tina drove us to the video shoot for “The Seed” with Cody ChesnuTT. That was my first day of work.
In the early 2000s, I had been substitute-teaching third grade in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, during the day and DJing at night. I was terrible at scratching and blending, but I was a great collector. I could put together a flow. I’d become friends with Richard Nichols, the Roots’ manager. He was a mentor to me. About three years into my teaching gig, I had to decide if I wanted to stay on as a permanent substitute teacher and get my master’s, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that. I had lunch with Rich, and he said, “I think you should come on the road and manage the Roots. It’s a ticket to see the world.” Everything just clicked. Rich liked having a woman tour manager, because he thought there was too much male energy on the road and it had to be broken up a bit.
There were a few moments that were beyond egregious, but I can’t talk about those.
Teaching was great preparation for being a tour manager. A lot of skills I learned managing a classroom of 35 wild eight-year-olds helped when I was on the road with 15 grown men, trying to multitask efficiently. Tina helped teach me the ropes of tour management: how to skillfully maneuver from interacting with the talent to talking with promoters, travel agents, or bus drivers.
As a tour manager, you are the in-between person. There would be times where I was walking around with bags full of cash to bring back to management in Philadelphia. Once, we were going through an airport, and there was a limit to how much cash you could carry—$10,000 was the limit, and I had at least double that—so I had split it up and put it into the guys’ bags: “Here, hold this. Give it to me when we land.”
There were micro-aggressions, but they weren’t something I was really tracking. There were a few moments that were beyond egregious, but I can’t talk about those. I will say I often found myself in spaces where I’d walk into a club, and a promoter or a sound man would say, “Hey, hey, I need to talk to the Roots’ tour manager. Where can I find him?” I had to raise my hand: “She’s right here, standing right in front of you.”
THE ARTIST: JD Samson
DJ and musician, mixed-multimedia artist, and member of Le Tigre (2001–now). Currently an assistant professor at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music.
Whenever I do interviews about women in music, I feel that the subject is really complicated for me. My experience was way more than just being a woman in music—for me, it felt like a genderqueer experience in music. I almost feel like I’m just the wrong person to ask because I see things in a more complicated way.
Growing up, I was really interested in being a filmmaker; I would watch experimental feminist films at the arts school in my Ohio town. I saw this space for me to be as experimental as I wanted to be with my art, and do it from a feminist perspective. Music was more of a passion or recreation. I was not a riot grrrl in high school, because that scene didn’t exist around me. The music I was listening to—Ani DiFranco, Tribe 8, even Melissa Etheridge—was more about content and context. The style didn’t even particularly matter; I wanted every “LGBTQ” record on the CD rack at my local record store. I was drawn to finding the music that felt relevant to my experience of being queer.
There often were no mirrors backstage, which signaled that a festival was unwilling to accept the fact that you might need to put on makeup, or get dressed, or have any privacy.
I was still in college when I joined Le Tigre; they were looking for someone to help them with their projections. After a two-week tour, Kathleen Hanna was basically like, “OK, you’re in the band now.” My last semester in college became an independent study; I was writing papers while on the road, and going to the library to study whenever we showed up to a college to play a show.
Our first record label was Mr. Lady Records, which was run by a friend of ours. They were supportive of everything we did, and since our records were selling really well, we were making them a good amount of money. When Le Tigre was active in the early 2000s, we paid ourselves $1,500 a month, giving ourselves the bare minimum in order to survive in NYC.
I didn’t feel like we were part of the industry until we decided we needed a manager: we had hired a feminist lawyer who had never managed anyone before, but that didn’t work, and once we started interviewing male managers, there was this sense of, “Well, they managed XYZ, so they must be good.” We had engineers and producers who were men, but we worked together on our terms, which would be, at most, five days or so. A lot of things got tainted once we involved the music industry in Le Tigre.
We moved to the Strummer/Universal record label [in 2004] and tried to quiet the voices in our head about going mainstream. The problem when you get in a room with the industry is that they want to tell you that you have to grow and grow and grow, and in order to do that, you have to change your music or the way you do things. All of those things gently massaged our happiness into a feeling of fear.
I have so much gratitude to Johanna Fateman and Kathleen for being so adamant about what we wanted and what we needed, and I learned a lot from them about speaking up for myself. But, of course, we also felt lonely. We played festivals all over the world, and we were the only women on the bill. People booed us when we got on stage at festivals. There often were no mirrors backstage, which signaled that a festival was unwilling to accept the fact that you might need to put on makeup, or get dressed, or have any privacy. Bathrooms were disgusting—some didn’t have a toilet seat. The press asked me, “Why do you look like a man?” Stylists wanted Jo and Kathleen to wear more makeup, or to put mascara on my mustache to make it look bigger.
But it also felt important that we were there. All the time, people would come up to me and say, “You saved my life.” For a while, I didn’t know what to say. And then one day it hit me, and I started responding, “You saved my life, too.” We wouldn’t have been who we were without the audience. Those people in that room, thinking about those things, sweating, feeling safe in our bodies, taking up that space, breathing the same air—that’s what we needed.
We were punk and people liked that we messed up, and people liked that we started songs over in the middle ‘cause we fucked up. We existed in this weird space where it was fashion-forward, and in both the art world and the music world. We occupied this space in which we were kind of celebrated for being weirdos, and then also, at the same time, people were confused about how to deal with us.
THE CREATIVE DIRECTOR: Jodi Peckman
Director of photography at Rolling Stone (1994–99, 2001–10); director of photography at FHM (1999–2001); creative director at Rolling Stone (2010–18). Currently a freelance visuals creative consultant.
I was the longest employee that ever worked for Rolling Stone. I was hired by photography director Laurie Kratochvil in 1987 to get photos for “Random Notes,” which is the publication’s gossipy news section. It was a boys’ club there, but I somehow got accepted as part of it. I think I wasn’t excluded because it was evident from the get-go that I was going to have a career and forgo having children—that was a decision I made even before I worked at Rolling Stone.
For over 20 years, I wrote the visual narrative for that organization. After becoming the director of photography in the 1990s, I produced more than 400 covers. Then I became the creative director, crossing over and working for the marketing and business side, helping with documentary films, and producing visuals for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s annual ceremony. I also consulted on the exhibition for the magazine’s 50th anniversary.
When I was the director of photography, there was no break from it. The job always occupied my mind. I didn’t take much vacation time, and there were photo shoots constantly. The job was always there, especially if you had a direct line to Jann [Wenner, co-founder of Rolling Stone]. He doesn’t have any boundaries, which I liked.
I was like, ‘What woman wouldn’t want to be the only woman in the room with all men?’ He was like, ‘A lot of them.’
I was never afraid to give my opinions. I was never afraid to speak up. I like covers in which the subject doesn’t make eye contact, and Jann thought this was the worst thing in the world. I managed to get quite a few covers in there with no eye contact, but he pushed back a lot: “No, I don’t like that. I’m not putting it on the cover.” I’d wait a few days and ask him to look at it again, and after going back at him a million times, I would wear him down: “Come on, admit it, you know this is a better cover photo.”
I remember the first cover I shot: Aerosmith, in 1990. Steven Tyler made me really aware that I was a woman; he was super flirtatious, and I found it intimidating. The goal was to get a photo of him alone, apart from the band. I was expected to use my gender in a way that would help get that shot. Ultimately, Tyler did listen to me. I’m amazed that I went to these shoots so young and naive and persuaded people to listen to me. I’ve always been very passionate and opinionated. If you’re going to throw out an opinion, you have to be confident you know it’s right. And if you feel it’s right creatively, it’s easier to convince someone else.
I left Rolling Stone in 1999 for FHM, which was all men. Talk about a boys’ club. Really intelligent guys, really snarky, but it was all men. FHM was really a strange situation for a woman to be in, because we photographed mostly naked women. FHM had to have sexy pictures. If a woman didn’t want to be photographed that way, she wasn’t going in the magazine. It probably sounds really terrible when I say it out loud, but I kind of became known for the art director of those kinds of images—which Jann really appreciated when I came back to Rolling Stone in 2001. He liked provocative, sexy photos of both men and women. It sells.
Motherhood was not something I ever aspired to. I was more career-driven. As I got older, though, I did start to feel people were looking at me and questioning my decisions, but they never asked me about them.
After Jay Penske bought Rolling Stone in 2017, he asked me two questions: Why did I stay at the magazine so long? Why did I work with so many men? He didn’t like my answer very much: “Are you kidding? It’s the greatest thing in the world!” He was taken aback. I was like, “What woman wouldn’t want to be the only woman in the room with all men?” He was like, “A lot of them.” I answered in a joking tone, but I meant it: “Well, it didn’t bother me.” That probably put him off. I think he wanted me to be like, “It’s been unfair,” and “gender inequality,” and “I demand more women work here.”
People ask me about this all the time, but I always felt really accepted and part of the gang. I was just never bothered by any comments my male coworkers made. I think I’m laid-back, though I don’t think any of my Rolling Stone colleagues would agree. If someone said something I disagreed with, I’d stand up for myself. If it didn’t bother me, I’d let it roll off my back. Since there weren’t many women at Rolling Stone—and if the guys knew what they were saying would only affect one person—maybe they were more sensitive. People are perceptive and pick up on what affects you. But often it just didn’t matter, because I had good ideas, and after years and years of always getting a good result with the cover photos, I had a good reputation.
THE LABEL FOUNDER: Laura Ballance
Bass player in Superchunk (1989–); cofounder, with bandmate Mac McCaughan, of Merge Records, which has signed bands including Arcade Fire, Spoon, and the Magnetic Fields.
When I first met Mac McCaughan, I was working at a pizza place in Chapel Hill called Pepper’s Pizza. He’d decided to take a year off from Columbia University, and I was at UNC. We were friends first. Mac always used to make fun of my then-boyfriend. That was what everybody did in Chapel Hill: make fun of each other. We started dating and decided to form a band that same summer.
Mac has this funny way of getting people to do things, even if they don’t want to. He’ll say, “It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to play bass. Just do it. It’ll be fine.” And I think that made it possible for me to play, because otherwise I was terrified. Onstage, I would get tunnel vision. I’d feel like I couldn’t breathe and forget everything I was trying to do. But if you do things enough, eventually it gets easier.
I feel like the same kinds of things happen in the music industry as in the rest of the western world outside of music. Men get credit for the ideas of women.
When I joined this band, I didn’t realize I was essentially marrying three guys. It was common among young men in Chapel Hill at the time to communicate in sarcasm and mean jabs. Sometimes it was funny, but sometimes it wasn’t, especially when you were trapped in a van for weeks. I would be like, “You guys are a bunch of fucking mynah birds. Shut the fuck up.”
I remember that Mac and I took a road trip in 1989. We wanted to start a label. We were thinking about what it should be called. I remember driving down the highway going: “Cactus? Exit sign? Merge?” After the band and the label had been going for a few years, Mac and I split up. A lot of the time when you break up, you certainly don’t want to be around the person, but it felt like what we were doing was bigger than us. I didn’t want to kill it; I knew it was valuable.
Our bands feel like family to me. I’ve listened to their records so many times, and every record we put out feels like it’s part of my history. It all gets intertwined with my life. It’s less this way now because of the nature of what the business has evolved into, but I used to feel like we got to be close friends with everyone we worked with. It’s such an intimate relationship: they’re trusting you with this work of art they’ve made, and you’re representing them in the world.
It’s become a lot more work than it used to be, promoting records and generating enough income for an artist to support themselves. We have more people working in the office, but there’s less money to pay them. It feels a lot more lonely than it used to, but also busier. It’s no longer about going to the record store and talking to the intimidating person who works behind the counter. That’s unthinkable now. I wonder how long it’ll be before a computer is making music for us.
I feel like the same kinds of things happen in the music industry as in the rest of the western world outside of music. Men get credit for the ideas of women. It’s amazing how I can put an idea out there and two minutes later hear credit for it given to a man sitting at the table. Men talk over women, either interrupting or just talking loudly to claim all the space and project confidence in whatever they are saying, and women tend to yield, because we are taught that is good manners.
People judge women based on their appearance and age, and other women do this, too. It’s part of our culture. Women are constantly objectified, and we objectify ourselves. We all need to become more aware of our biases and gender training and learn to resist them. I am excited to see more and more young people growing up with a more fluid idea of gender identity than my generation had. I have hope. My inclination is always to persevere.
THE SECOND CHANCE: Louise Goffin
Singer-songwriter who has recorded and released ten albums; played guitar with Tears for Fears as part of an international tour. Her most recent album, All These Hellos, was released in November 2018.
My first record, Kid Blue, was released in 1979 when I was just 19, and by 1995 I figured it was over for me. All that was going on at that time was either super grungy bands or very young pop stars like Britney Spears. I thought there was no place for me in the music business; I had an edgy quirkiness to my demos and home recordings, but when I took these demos into a record company, the direction and sound would change. I was sometimes happy with going more pop, but often frustrated that I couldn’t translate my home-studio quirkiness once I went into a proper recording studio. I just felt that I wasn’t going to be able to continue as an artist.
Sometimes people would ask why I considered staying with this passion. In my family, it was seen as a childish indulgence. I came from a family of people who make money from music. [Goffin’s mother is Carole King, and her father is lyricist Gerry Goffin.] And at that time, I clearly was not making money. There were lots of years of, “What are you going to do, Louise?”
I was going to radio stations and touring, and I carried my breast pump with me, pumping milk and then freezing it.
I had considered doing a publishing deal as just a songwriter, writing a certain number of songs a year. I had too much music to get out to allow my time to be controlled by the whims of other people, and I knew each day was precious in terms of creating something new. I spent about a year and a half writing songs with other artists for their records. But I’d make these beautiful demos, and then nothing would happen with them. The artist would be dropped, or the song wasn’t recorded. I can’t do this, I thought. I’m not capable of just being a factory, throwing songs out.
I didn’t think I would get another record deal as long as I lived. [Goffin hadn’t released an album since 1988’s This Is the Place, with Warner Bros.] Cut to 1998: I met producer Lenny Waronker at DreamWorks, and he signed me for a record deal when I was eight months pregnant. My husband at the time, Greg Wells, and I made that record, Sometimes a Circle, in 1998, but the label didn’t release it until 2002.
Marc Ratner, who was in charge of promotion, said, “I don’t want to release this record until we really have time to promote it.” I just kept getting bumped and bumped and bumped. When they finally did promote it, I got a three-month window. When the record went to radio, it was shocking. I got 19 adds [when radio station programmers add a new record to the rotation list] in the first week, and it was like, “Who the hell is this Louise Goffin, who knocked us off the charts?” Even though we waited all that time to release Sometimes a Circle, I was lucky to even have that record come out and get attention.
I was a nursing mother with my child at home as we were promoting the album. I was going to radio stations and touring, and I carried my breast pump with me, pumping milk and then freezing it. There was one time when we actually left the breast pump on a luggage carousel at an airport. We had driven 50 miles before I realized it: “Oh God, I’ve got to go back.”
From this period, I learned that you need to be in a position to nourish your own work. If you’re relying on other people to sustain it and nourish it for you, that’s a dangerous place for an artist. You run the risk of self-doubt robbing you of the opportunity to see new possibilities. It can destroy a person’s soul to have their work not come out—to not be treated with reverence or value. It drives some people’s lives into the ground, just the pain of lost opportunities and lost years. If, however, you create a momentum sustained by your own belief, you are far less likely to fall prey to other people’s agendas. Sometimes a Circle was the result of this self-momentum.
People would look at my family and their success and say to me, “It must have been so hard for you.” I’d respond, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I’m burning in the ways I burn artistically. It’s patronizing when people say things like that. It’s like a pity party or something, and I don’t feel sorry for myself. I’m badass.
THE ACCIDENTAL ROCK STAR: Melissa Auf der Maur
Bassist for Hole (1994–99) and Smashing Pumpkins (2000); solo artist. Founded art space Basilica Hudson in Hudson, New York, in 2010.
I was not looking to be in a huge rock band at all. I wanted to be a photographer. I was either going to go to RISD or San Francisco Art Institute, and I was looking into my master’s. I considered myself a photographer and artist, with music as a passion, but never a career.
I’d always planned on ending up in the United States—I have dual citizenship here and in Canada. My parents are both massive figures in Montreal, so I would have very much lived in their shadows. [Her mother, Linda Gaboriau is a literary translator; her father, Nick Auf der Maur was a journalist and politician.] I first met Billy Corgan, lead singer of the Smashing Pumpkins, in 1988, when I was 15 years old. I was working as a ticket girl at Les Foufounes Électriques, which is the CBGB of Montreal, and Tuesday nights were Loonie Tuesdays—you could see a band for just $2. Smashing Pumpkins had just released a 12-inch on Sub Pop and were playing a Loonie Tuesday. They were one of the best bands I had ever seen—and I had also watched Nirvana and Sonic Youth play at the club in front of about 15 people.
I was so inspired that I started a band and began playing the bass. Smashing Pumpkins had opened my eyes to the musical landscape. In 1993, just after their album Siamese Dream came out, I wrote a letter to the band’s fan-club address asking if my band could open for Smashing Pumpkins when they came to Montreal: “Dear Billy—Remember me? I finally have a band!” And we did. Afterward, Billy told me I was better than his bass player and that I’d be in his band one day. Billy then recommended me to Courtney Love.
Courtney asked me to meet her so I could join Hole. I did not want to be in corporate American rock music. That was the last place I wanted to be. I said, “No, thank you. I’m in art school. I’m not interested.” She was very persuasive. She called me a few times and had a very simple request: get on a plane and come to Seattle, so you can tell me to my face that you don’t want to be in my band. When I got there, it was a life-changing moment.
When I entered the music industry, I never thought of gender as an issue—I was shocked at how blind I was to a sexist reality that I lived in. I didn’t see that Courtney was being burned at the stake by a fucking sexist culture.
It was June or July 1994, about two months after Kurt Cobain’s death, and shortly after Kristen Pfaff, Hole’s original bassist, had overdosed and died. Courtney was trying to replace death. I was coming down the escalator at the airport, and I saw Courtney, Patty [Schemel, Hole’s drummer], and Frances [Bean, Love and Cobain’s daughter].
I understood in this moment that this wasn’t about music; this wasn’t about corporate versus indie rock. This was about the power of my generation of women, and I needed to embark on this journey with them.
I look back now and am blown away by how fearless I was. I felt a higher calling about women in rock, and quickly understood that this was much bigger than me. It was about women in general. This was a visceral sense—not some intellectual, art-school-girl thing. To participate in Hole meant something bigger than my generation. I felt that this was my moment, and this moment in rock in my generation was going to make an impact on the long-term trajectory of women in the world.
My mother has always been my mentor. She led the charge as a first-wave feminist, and I am a direct result of her fierce independence. So when I entered the music industry, I never thought of gender as an issue—I was shocked at how blind I was to a sexist reality that I lived in. I didn’t see that Courtney was being burned at the stake by a fucking sexist culture. What I saw were people trying to take her down because she was dangerous and unpredictable.
I didn’t give a shit about journalists’ perspectives about Courtney or Hole, because I was in the trenches. I saw Hole’s rise to success, but I also saw the problems in the band. Courtney’s self-sabotage, her inability to cope with the pressures of being a mother. I assumed other people saw that and would have some compassion for what she was going through.
Once, a woman in a holier-than-thou hipster band talked shit about her to me, the new bass player. I still hold it against that person: why would this person, a woman in music in a legendary alt band, talk shit about Courtney? Her husband had just killed himself. She was a wreck. Of course she was on drugs! I was blind to the overarching systemic hatred of outspoken women when I was watching them destroy Courtney. She’s dangerous. She’s challenging. But what I see now is just how deeply it’s programmed in women to hate women like her. That’s the only thing I can really see: this deep systemic fear of outspoken women.
I’ve always made decisions based on big strokes of inspiration. I have a deep trust in my gut, and at age 39, I decided to have a baby. I had enough life experiences so I could move forward as a mother. I knew I had done as much as I could before becoming a mother. When I signed my solo deal with Capitol Records in 2004, Andy Slater, the president, brought me to a Radiohead concert, and as he drove me home I told him, “You don’t know how much this means for me to have this [recording] budget. I want to do it to be a good mother.” He said, “That’s weird—I’ve never heard that before.”
To be a good example for my child, I didn’t want to stop my life short. I founded Basilica Hudson because I wanted to re-create the environment I grew up in in Montreal, where arts and culture are so supported. I wanted to re-create this world I grew up in for my daughter.
THE BLOGGER: Sarah Lewitinn (Ultragrrrl)
Assistant editor at Spin magazine (2002–5); wrote the print column “Making Out with Ultragrrrl” (March 2003–November 2004); creator of Ultragrrrl.blogspot.com; manager for stellastarr* and My Chemical Romance (2001–2); founder of the record label Stolen Transmission; currently the music manager for the clothing brand Aritzia.
Growing up, I was terrible at school, so my parents were like, “Figure out what you want to do, because your grades are not going to get you there.” I was always really into music as a teenager, and two weeks after I finished high school, I started interning at Spin at age 18 in 1998. I was probably a month into my internship when I asked Sia Michel, our editor-in-chief, “What’s an adult party like?” She and Marc Spitz, who was another writer at Spin, took me under their wing. They’d take me to bars and tolerate me; they’d make sure I got home OK, and talk to my parents if they needed to. I was a virgin with braces, and all my friends had gone away to college, so these editors became my best friends. Sometimes they’d treat me like a little toy, like, “Guess what, guys? For our next act, we have Sarah, or Ultragrrrl.”
In 1999, I was working for an internet marketing company called Ultra14, named after me and a 14-year-old wunderkind called Chris Kelly. We shared an office and an owner with Some Records, and they received a demo from Interpol. Thirty seconds into the first song, I said: “This is my new favorite band.” In 2002, I went back as an assistant editor to Spin, where I started writing a column called “Making Out with Ultragrrrl,” about what it was like to party with the bands I was obsessed with, like Interpol and the Killers.
The way I approached it was: most readers didn’t have the access I did to the music industry. What could they possibly want to know about? While writing the column, I also had a personal blog called Sarah’s So Boring Ever Since She Stopped Drinking, which I started in July 2003 as a way for my friends and family to track my sobriety efforts.
I love being friendly with everybody, and I just love attention, or I did at the time. What didn’t feel awesome was when people started being really mean to me online
At the time I was seeing around two to three shows each night, so it accidentally turned into a music blog about up-and-coming bands during the heyday of the NYC rock scene. I didn’t know anyone was reading it until people started commenting on my posts—a lot. Suddenly, I became famous and infamous all at once, since my face was in Spin every month and I was constantly on TV as a talking head for VH1 and MTV.
You have to understand that, back then, the gatekeepers were so few and far between. Now there’s a nonstop flow of accessible music and music writing. When I was working at Spin, nobody gave a fuck about the internet—so, in their minds, 2,000 people looking at my blog a day was nothing.
I love being friendly with everybody, and I just love attention, or I did at the time. What didn’t feel awesome was when people started being really mean to me online. If you were a rock music fan from 2000 to 2006, I was ubiquitous. I guess people found it annoying as fuck. I’d write my blog while I was still drunk, or hungover. It was all stream-of-consciousness writing, and my grammar went out the window. I didn’t really think people were reading it at first, and then I just didn’t care.
I wrote about music and musicians with a fierce and unabashed sexuality, which was ironic because at that point I’d had sexual encounters (not even sex!) four times in my life. If you went to school to study journalism and you saw this uneducated chick getting all the accolades you felt you deserved, you’d be pissed, too, and assume I fucked my way there. But what wasn’t taken into account is that while everyone was enjoying college life, I was working at Spin, at various management companies, as a manager for bands, and also at VH1. I was putting in my time and hard work in a way that was unconventional, which most people didn’t know about.
It wasn’t fun for me to see my name in the title of a popular message-board thread saying, “I want to shoot Ultragrrrl in the head,” because I had said Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” was one of the best songs ever on VH1. I would cry to my friends at Spin: “I’m being picked on, I’m really upset. I fear for my life at times.” They’d say, “You’re overreacting.” I really was trailblazing in the most terrible way.
In 2007, I ended up on the cover of the Village Voice for a piece called “In Defense of Ultragrrrl.” It was meant to be part of Tricia Romano’s “A Night Out” column, so we hung out and that was it. Then someone said, “This is going to be a bigger story.” I said OK and did a photo shoot where I was burned at the stake, wearing a low-cut white dress. I just figured I’d be a cover line.
I was at SXSW when the issue hit stands. Everyone I ran into that week in Austin couldn’t keep their eyes off my boobs. That was weird, but I laughed it off. The comments on the blogs that wrote about it were jarring and mean. Gawker was cruel and made it their mission to drag me.
There were a lot of women in the industry who I later found out were the cause of many rumors and a lot of nastiness. They were the ones reporting back to message boards about me. There were people who got passed over for jobs that I got and were angry. I’m friends with a lot of them now, by the way.
My parents now have a poster-sized copy of my Village Voice cover in their house, but it’s still rolled up. I have a framed copy on the wall of my Lower East Side apartment. I put googly eyes over my face.
THE EDITOR: Sia Michel
Editor at Spin magazine (1996–2002); first female editor-in-chief at Spin (2002–6); deputy culture editor at the New York Times (2018–).
In the 1990s and early 2000s, music journalism was more male-dominated than it is now. But in the Bay Area, where I was working for the SF Weekly, I wasn’t necessarily aware of it, because there were so many women doing music journalism. At SF Weekly, I interned for Evelyn McDonnell; Ann Powers was also there, and Gina Arnold was at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. In my mind, music journalism was something that women did.
I always wanted to work at Spin—it was my favorite magazine—and I started there at the end of 1996, doing a combination of writing and editing smaller pieces. But at the time I arrived, the magazine had a lot of issues. It was very male, but that didn’t necessarily bother me; I always had a lot of male friends that I went to shows with, and I never felt isolated.
I was aware of harassment, though; it was a constant barrage. It was everything from people groping you to warnings about certain people in the workplace: Never get in an elevator with this person. Never sit on his couch in his office. [In 1997, a federal jury ruled that a female freelancer had been discriminated against through “hostile environment sexual harassment” under Spin’s parent company and Bob Guccione Jr., the magazine’s editor and publisher.] When I became editor-in-chief in 2002, I was told by a boss on the business side I should dress sexier—wear stuff like leather miniskirts and high-heeled boots. I was stunned that someone would actually say that to a female employee.
When I was promoted at Spin, I became aware that when men negotiated salary, they would always ask for more, while women would accept whatever salary you gave them.
When I was in a position where I could hire people, I obviously hired both great men and women. But for a while, we had an all-female photo department. [Former Spin editor and current New York Times pop music editor] Caryn Ganz was rising through the ranks. Melissa Maerz came in as the reviews editor. We used to joke that Spin was becoming a matriarchy.
Before I was editor-in-chief, I used to count the people at the table. We had a meeting about a punk anniversary issue, and there were 14 men at the table—and me. I would have to go on sales calls with the advertising team, and there’d be 22 people in a room, and I was the only woman.
When I was promoted at Spin, I became aware that when men negotiated salary, they would always ask for more, while women would accept whatever salary you gave them. There were a couple of times when I’d tell people I was interviewing, “I’m not supposed to do this, but don’t take the salary. You’re supposed to come back to me and ask for a lot more. And then we can negotiate and I will give you more.” I often talk to women about salaries and what to ask for. Don’t be afraid to ask for more vacation, ask for signing bonuses. I’ve always tried to encourage women to ask for what they really deserve.
THE MANAGER: Susan Silver
Manager for Soundgarden (1985–2010), Screaming Trees (1989–92), Sponge (1995–97), and Alice in Chains (1988–).
In 1995, I started to feel the fissures begin. Everyone—from the management team to the band and the record company—was feeling the pressure that came with the success of Alice in Chains and Soundgarden. There was so much time spent on helping everyone in these bands survive the fallout of their success, whether that was extreme addiction, or discontent within the groups, or differences in creative opinions.
By this point, people had a certain modicum of respect for me, because as a talent manager I had experienced success. I don’t doubt that I was the butt of a lot of jokes—between being a woman, a novice, and the singer’s girlfriend, it was like Spinal Tap Lite. [Silver and Chris Cornell, lead vocalist for Soundgarden, were married from 1990 to 2004.] But I wasn’t going to give it enough credence to make a difference in how I operated. The only really overt thing was just a stupidly rude comment: when Soundgarden was playing at the Lingerie [a since-closed club in Hollywood], a bunch of record-company folks came up to the bar, and I could feel this guy sitting at the end of the bar giving me the “up one side and down the other” look. He said, “You know, you just don’t look like a rock-and-roll manager.” I told him, “And you don’t look like an asshole, so there you go.” And that was that.
Perhaps it was a certain level of protection, being in a partnership with Chris. People weren’t going to take that shot at me. But really, none of it mattered to me. I was just focused on doing my job.
When you’re the mother of a young child, there is no way to easily divide parenting and your job. The priority is always parenthood.
Two people were really significant mentors for me; they were both incredibly supportive and very generous with their time and knowledge. One was Sharon Osbourne, who would always be a phone call away with sage advice. Sharon had the shared experience of managing a client who also happened to be her husband. That was good for a lot of insight and laughter.
The other friend was Michele Anthony [currently the executive VP of Universal Music]. She helped guide me when I started managing Alice in Chains. She then worked at the law firm that handled legal for Soundgarden. I had brought Alice to this firm because record companies were beginning to offer them contracts, but no one had signed them yet. I was meeting with the attorney who oversaw Soundgarden, and as Michele walked by the office, the attorney called out, “Hey, Michele, come in here and meet Susan. She’s a chick, you’re a chick, and the band’s got a chick name. You guys should work on this together!”
Michele was incredibly instrumental helping Alice make a decision on which label to pick, and because of her intense negotiating prowess, Columbia [which signed Alice in Chains] wooed her to come work for them. They didn’t want to be on the opposite side of Michele Anthony any longer.
By 1998, I started to try to have a family, which was a larger endeavor than I realized when I scheduled it into my day planner. Soundgarden had broken up and Alice wasn’t functioning, but I still oversaw the administration of the catalogs—things like licensing requests and bookkeeping—and I helped Chris find a new manager, which I also did for Jerry [Cantrell, guitarist for Alice in Chains]. My daughter was born in 2000, and at that point my focus was really on trying to bring her into the world. But when she was four, I hit a real personal low. I got divorced, and Chris started on his new career of litigation. It was just a really difficult time. I was a mom and really feeling the weight of that responsibility and grief from the end of my marriage, and the uncertainty in why this other avenue had opened up in my life—one filled with post-divorce litigation from an ex-husband.
And that’s when Alice gave me back a piece of myself. I never stopped managing the band, but Alice had become inactive. [Lead singer Layne Staley died of an overdose in 2002.] So after they decided to “go around the horn one more time,” they said they wouldn’t do it without me. The band’s confidence in me was reassuring, making me feel that I had something to offer. It was catalytic. We all went on a process of reclamation, of both of our careers and places in the music business. I went full force to try and find them work, which took some time. In three years, they went from the Roxy to Madison Square Garden—without a new record, by the way—but that’s what it took for all of us to literally heal from all the traumas that we’d been through. I’m forever indebted and loyal to them to this day for that.
When you’re the mother of a young child, there is no way to easily divide parenting and your job. The priority is always parenthood. I was 42 when I had a kid, and I remember thinking, “Oh my God, you have to wipe their butts? And this might have to happen for a couple of years?” It was overwhelming in the beginning.
Once Alice in Chains became active again, I took more frequent trips, but for shorter time periods. I shifted the method of my business tremendously; the most important thing was to be available to my daughter as much as possible. It was a blessing to have a lot of family nearby—Chris’s mom and sisters are amazing, and a particular woman in my office essentially helped co-parent—but it meant staying up later on the road to call and check in. Or getting up earlier in whatever time zone I was in so I could Skype with her. Now that my daughter is older, there are still so many activities that I don’t want to miss.
THE CHOREOGRAPHER: Tina Landon
Backup dancer for Janet Jackson (1990–93); choreographer for artists including Britney Spears, Pink, Mýa, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson, and Christina Aguilera (1998–).
I grew up in Lancaster, California, which is in the high desert of Los Angeles. My mom probably would have been a dancer if she had the opportunity, but my dad was a books guy.
I taught dance in high school, so choreography seemed like the next step. First you start making up steps for five-year-olds, then teenagers, then beginners—and, the next thing you know, it’s Janet Jackson.
Paula Abdul and I were Laker Girls together. When Paula was offered the opportunity to choreograph for Janet, she hired me as Janet’s backup dancer right away. While I was dancing for Janet, I got to learn what I liked to see on her body, but it took me a while to find my style as a choreographer. Eventually I realized, “This is how my body wants to move, and I have to trust it.”
It’s hard when you’re working with a star who has been a kid for so long. They want to grow up, and no one will let them.
My dance style is a cross between toughness and sensuality. I bet it has to do with my hips, because they’re in every move I do. The videos I’m most proud of, like “If” with Janet Jackson, “Livin’ La Vida Loca” with Ricky Martin, and “Whenever, Wherever” with Shakira, are all extremely different, but I felt like I got to do my thing.
I love working with women. I think I understand where they are coming from and understand the movement of their bodies. I love encouraging and inspiring the women I work with, and watching them gain confidence throughout a project. In the beginning, Janet Jackson was very uncomfortable with sexy or sensual movement; she would get really shy and giggle a lot. We were able to capture some organic movement in the “Love Will Never Do (Without You)” video because of her laughter and her trust in me.
For the “Oops! ... I Did It Again” video, Britney called my agent. There aren’t many artists I’d say this about, but I would definitely hire Britney as a dancer. I still can’t believe how much people loved that video, because I felt at the time like it was borderline corny. The “Oops!” video was the beginning of the world seeing 19-year-old Britney Spears as a woman. It’s hard when you’re working with a star who has been a kid for so long. They want to grow up, and no one will let them. I tried to listen and do what they wanted, but in a classy way, so everyone came across as sexy and not slutty. Slutty is just not an artistic vision I want to work with.
THE PUBLICIST: Tonya Hurley
Publicist for Prince, George Michael, Depeche Mode, The Cure, and Morrissey, among others, at Reach Media (1992–2003); author of the young adult book series Ghostgirl and The Blessed.
I moved from a very small town outside of western Pennsylvania to New York City in 1992, and I listened to these bands that I would end up handling, so to speak. I moved here not having a job. I actually cleaned the toilets at a record company, just to be around music.
That year, while I was cleaning toilets, I applied to a company called Reach Media to be a PR person. I really connected with the owner of the company, Michael Pagnotta, who I married in 2003, because we connected so much over music; it’s the bond we had and still have.
Reach was such a small, boutique organization. We went that extra mile, especially because we had clients who didn’t particularly like to talk to the media, like Prince and George Michael, Morrissey and Depeche Mode, The Cure and Erasure. At the time, I was so naive that I just didn’t even consider that I had anything to contribute to these musicians’ careers and their success. I got to work with these people in such a personal, intimate way. But we also really connected because a lot of them are from small towns like me. You can have so much in common with a person, just because of the way you were raised.
During the mid-’90s, the industry worked in a very different way than it does now. We just wouldn’t email someone or tweet something out—we had to fax MTV News first. When Prince changed his name to a symbol, we faxed that symbol. And there were only so many music writers. Now anyone can have an important blog or have a voice, telling an audience what they like and what they don’t like.
I have a panic disorder, so it was hard to process things like David Bowie lighting my cigarette. I would work 24 hours a day during that time. And I think the bands that I handled knew that about me; I wasn’t just someone at a label who got assigned this band and did a mailing. I was taught by Michael to be strategic. How do you promote a Prince album when he’s not doing any interviews?
I worked with men; all of our clients were men. I was the only woman. Those were the best and the worst days of my life.
Michael and I both connected over music on such a deep level, but it was hard in the workplace when your boss was your boyfriend. I did work very hard, and I did stay long hours, and I was friends with a lot of the bands. And I felt like it was hard for me in particular because I was with Michael, but I’d also be out with bands. It was a secretive thing for a while, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was getting special treatment because I was with him. I do not recommend it to anyone. But since it did happen, I think it happened in the best possible way it could have.
There were no other women I connected with who did what I was doing. And again, I wasn’t at a record label, so it’s not like I had access to other women to talk to, commiserate with, or get support from. I worked with men; all of our clients were men. I was the only woman. Those were the best and the worst days of my life. I hate to say I didn’t want any other women around. I didn’t feel that need to have another woman there.
It couldn’t have gone on longer than it went on, let’s just put it that way. The job was very taxing, physically and mentally. We went through traumatic times with these bands, too: getting sick, death, people having drug problems and legal issues. There were a lot of lawsuits, a lot of marriages and divorces, all this kind of life stuff amplified. It took up my personal life and my professional life, completely, 100 percent.
Our company also had been doing PR for the Olsen twins, and in 2000 I went to work for them directly, helping them with their branding. I began creating content for their films and speaking directly to young girls. I was also doing my own writing on the site. That’s when I wrote my book Ghostgirl, when I was working for the Olsens. I wrote it as a feature film script, and then it became a book series.
In the music industry, you have to find your way in no matter what: into a story, into representing a band, getting jobs, anything. You always are thinking, How can I get a story out of this person? What can I do? Is there an item that they did? Is there something that happened that I can get them in the news for?
As an author, I wasn’t trying to sell somebody else’s work anymore. I was creating work, and I was creating the message to go along with it. So it was fulfilling to me, because that’s who I am deep down: I’m a creator.