Atelier Diva: Work, Play, Love
May 11, 2022
Women Unplugged
April 11, 2022 COMMENT comment
Women Unplugged
By Juhi Baveja
The music industry has turned into a fertile career ground for women professionals with an inclination towards people management, event planning and a love for music. The more industry-related people I met – including artists, promoters, organisers – the more drawn I felt. Women are increasingly taking up positions on-stage and backstage in the music industry. From composers, promoters, singers to writers – women are finding their own sound.
Afrenetic crowd latches onto the promise of a visceral collision of sound and sights, as the lush-esque power performer Monica Dogra takes the stage at a live music gig. Dogra is one half of the electronica band Shaa’ir+func, and grew into prominence by belting out tracks at impromptu gigs in niche bars in Mumbai, singing for the movie Break Ke Baad, and starring in Dhobi Ghat. She performs in a cloud of smoke, and drags higher notes on a bass-heavy song. Her number is a hit with the crowd – who seemed to be enthralled by her theatrics on the stage – as she is joined by the bassist on the vocals.

Meanwhile, Leilah Zeenat – a public relations manager for Little Big Noise and a music blogger – is busy announcing the other lineups to her social media followers, sending live updates about the gig, and following up with journalists about the coverage of the event. “I think Monica Dogra is a vocal goddess. Not only can she sing, but at her gigs, she channels this energy through the vibe in her music, lyrics, and stage presence, that captures your attention throughout,” gushes Zeenat, repeating it to the many industry insiders she greets. Behind the synchronised performances one sees on stage is the backbone of the music industry, a space
populated by roles that are now increasingly being chosen by women who wish to opt for a creative line of work or career.  From composers, promoters, singers to writers – women in the music industry are finding their own sound.

Little Big Noise, for instance, founded by Neysaa Mendes, is a PR firm that specifically handles musicians and singers – including their promotion, concerts, and interactions. Zeenat, who has been with the firm for the past two years, first caught the music bug when she met DJ Avicii (Tim Berg). “It was a bit like being thrown into the deep end without a float. Luckily, I had a wonderful team who helped me sift through the material and put together a PR release for Avicii. The more industryrelated people I met over time – including artists, promoters and organisers – the more I felt drawn to it,” she explains.

The musical spectrum in the country is constantly expanding with sold-out concerts, mid-week performances, big music festivals like NH7 Weekender and Submerge – which is headlined by DJ Pearl, one of the first female DJs in the country. These emerging platforms, which now have more sponsors and promoters behind them, are attracting international artists like David Guetta, Norah Jones, Tiesto, Richi Hawtin, Swedish House Mafia and Imogen Heap. “There was a point where you could only dream of such events, but last year itself has seen a phenomenal number of artists come down and play with Indian underground pop music artists. Five years back, I wouldn’t have had a clue about such talent, since Bollywood music has eclipsed everything for years. It is thanks to firms like Little Big Noise that so many artists have become relevant to us,” says Mary Thomas, an online music reviewer. With the growth in the number of international artists performing in India, more roles have opened up for women looking to work in the sector, behind the scenes or on stage, in the news or across the Internet.

After an encore, during which Dogra does her best to shrug off the exhaustion, it is time for the venue to shut down. But instead of heading home, Dogra sits and brainstorms with studio owners about her next recording session. “For any artist to stay relevant, recording their music is essential. This is why choosing a recording studio is important,” provides Thomas. There are many kinds of recording equipment, instruments and backup singers that bands rent to record their albums. “It is not hard to sign artists if they are a regular on the music circuit. We found some really enthusiastic ones, who love performing and even venue owners are quite happy to lend us the space,” says Yashita Tripathi, founder of SoundSpeaks studio, which is nestled in the heart of the capital. The studio offers equipment of sound design that can be used for composing music, corporate jingles, and airing live sound. Tripathi, along with Sonal Chanana, also handles event management for musicians.

Tripathi, a 24-year-old graduate of audio engineering from SAE Singapore, loves working with female artists and counts Anoushka Shankar as one of her favourites: “Her fingers move like magic on the sitar and she has complete control over the melodies she makes. She started playing classical music when she was 10 and dedicated herself to becoming better and better since then – this is what I really respect.” Tripathi hopes to showcase new musical talent and even work with musicians at the grass-root level, because they represent the country’s cultural heritage to her. “I am working in collaboration with Manzil Mystics – a musical group by the female students of Manzil, a school for underprivileged children in Delhi. Our aim is to spread awareness of classical music to India’s youth,” she says about her current project.

In spite of all these new influences, Tripathi still finds it hard to be taken seriously in the industry. “The status quo of male composers has a great deal to do with gender-specific interests that are not so much innate, but are a result of choices women are forced to make through their lives. Though the situation is improving, the skewed ratio of male composers to their female counterparts is a reflection of this pervasive problem we’re dealing with. I can only hope that the status quo changes and women can bring in innovative sounds,” she says.

Citing the same reason for her struggle to break into Bollywood music, singercomposer Sneha Khanwalkar still finds a way to incorporate these musical genres in her compositions. Known for composing the music for Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, Love, Sex, Aur Dhoka, and Gangs of Wasseypur part I and II, Khanwalkar is the second woman to earn a nomination for best music director in the history of the industry. Khanwalkar has also anchored the musical travelogue show MTV Soundtrippin – in which she travelled in search of ‘authentic’ Indian sounds. Her collaborations with rural musicians have produced some of the most musically innovative numbers, including the famous Tung Tung Da Sound, which uses Punjabi vocals and meshes them with fast dubstep. Like Dogra, she is in the minority when it comes to women in the music industry (other than Bollywood singers), but shrugs it off if you ask her about touring with an all-male team, having complete authority of the projects, and navigating in a maledominated industry. “My inexperience was the biggest hindrance, as I had not assisted anyone or trained for the technical aspects. But I made my way,” she says.

Unlike Khanwalkar, who is tired of the question, Zeenat is vociferous about the industry she has been entwined with for over two years. “The music industry is multi-faceted and there are women in every aspect of it – organising, writing, singing, and promoting. As a woman in the industry, I’ve never really felt like a ‘woman’. We all work for this industry (in whichever way) for the love of music and because we love what we do (and get paid for it!) I like that I’m not treated preferentially just because I’m a woman. You’re treated like a fellow industry person,” she quips.

However, Tripathi and Chanana disagree. “Since I started working, which is not too long ago, I felt that as a woman, we sometimes have to try harder to prove ourselves. But that hasn’t stopped us. We have great Indian women in our music industry, from presenters to beautiful musicians, and I am pretty sure it’s just going to get better and stronger,” says Tripathi.
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