Amplifying Women in the Recording Industry

Ebonie Smith wants to bring music technology to the masses of women who are in the minority of the recording industry. And she's not alone.

By Jamilah King Oct 02, 2013

It’s not unusual for aspiring music producers to gather on a New York City college campus. After all, the city’s home to institutions like Julliard, the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music and the New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. But last Saturday, at the second Gender Amplified Music Festival at Barnard College, the gathering had a specific purpose: to offer women practical tools to break into an industry overwhelmingly dominated by men.

Gender Amplified was produced by Ebonie Smith, 28, a 2007 Barnard graduate who now works as an audio engineer and producer for Atlantic Records. After hosting the initial convening during her senior year of college, Smith hosted this year’s event as part of a fellowship she’d earned for the school’s alumnae. "[This festival] started as an idea I had while making beats alone in my dorm room as a senior," Smith said. "I wondered about the possibility of bringing women from all walks of life together to discuss music technology, to create music and to affirm one another."

The festival is part of what Smith describes as a broader movement for more supportive spaces for women who are serious about their art. But a large part of the initiative is centered on education, and the festival was filled with workshops that offered practical, hands-on tools for everyone ranging from ambitious musicians to curious onlookers.

Fewer than five percent of music industry record producers are women, according to Women’s Audio Mission, a San Francisco-based non-profit that trains women and girls in audio production. So even while female artists like Nicki Minaj and Rihanna dominate the pop charts, the people behind the scenes of those records, who are charged with everything from establishing the mood of an album to dictating its tempo, are overwhelmingly men.

Asked what keeps women away from recording studios, longtime producer, songwriter and recording artist Barb Morrison said that the answer isn’t so simple. Morrison, whose work has landed at the top of Billboard’s dance chart, said it’s an issue of technical proficiency and sexism inside of the studio. "The first and most important thing to establish when I’m working with an artist is to let them know that my studio is a safe space," she said. "A lot of studios just aren’t; you’ll hear artists talking all the time about producers who’ve made them cry."

"One of the things that impressed me most when I first met Ebonie was that she knew exactly where everything was," Morrison continued. "You usually don’t see women in the studio who are that confident."

In a workshop on how to create beats using smartphone applications, Smith had an easygoing way of demystifying the production process. In a room of just over 30 women and men, Smith broke down the concepts of loops, tempo and audio files with a sense of humor that made her approachable. "You can [use it] on the train, plane or in a hurricane," she said, referring to  BeatMaker 2, an audio production app for iPhones.

In another workshop on music publishing, attendees got to hear industry advice in an intimate setting from Grammy Award-winning songwriter Angela Hunte, who wrote and co-produced her hometown anthem "Empire State of Mind" by Jay Z and Alicia Keys.

"Challenge yourself over and over," Hunte told the room of about two dozen aspiring musicians. "Some of the best things I’ve written have been in the darkest moments of my life," she said about penning "Empire State of Mind." "I did everything to escape [New York City] and then I was living abroad [in Sweden] all I wanted to do was get back."

For other artists, the day was an opportunity to pass along practical advice. "As women, it’s kind of hard to get what you want without someone trying to take something from you," said Pri the Honeydark, a self-taught Brooklyn-based battle MC and producer who’s been a longtime member of the group ANOMALIES. "You don’t need a gazillion dollars. You just need YouTube and Barnes and Noble."

Perhaps the most important aspect of the conference was the visibility it gave to the vast gender disparity in record producing. "I feel like a lot of people who are marginalized are debilitated by our fear of failure — and success," said Invincible, a gender non-conforming Detroit-based MC who’s also a member of ANOMOLIES.*

And for many attendees, the day was all they could ask for. "I think if someone doesn’t raise the discussion of gender in the production world, the status quo stays the same," says Sophie Luo, a 21-year-old aspiring music producer.

*Post has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of ANOMOLIES