Frances Morgan of Plan B talks Women in Music Journalism

Frances Morgan of Plan B talks Women in Music Journalism

Having featured Micachu, MIA, and Bat For Lashes on the cover, Plan B is certainly a very forward-thinking and female-friendly magazine. It’s no wonder, then, that Ladyfest Goldsmiths had invited ex-editor, current publisher and co owner of the magazine, Frances Morgan, to impart her wisdom on the subject of women in music journalism.

“Music Journalism and Gender Issues are two things that are very important to me” Morgan admitted to the pretty large crowd gathered in The Stretch for her talk. The crowd turned out to be made up of a lot of aspiring and eager budding journalists, so when Morgan started by saying “Music journalism is not a great career” everyone in the room seemed to take a sharp intake of breath.

Morgan went on to explain that she is often approached by young women telling her that all they’ve ever wanted to do is to be a music critic. This worries her slightly, since ‘music critic’ really isn’t a full time job (Plan B uses a lot of free-lancers) and doesn’t pay very well. In reality most ‘music journalists’ tend to have other things on the side, other ways to make money. Of course, this could be other journalistic ventures, but it could also be another vocation. At this point Morgan told us that she especially enjoys the occasional writings that come from one particular free-lancer whose day job is a teacher. It’s “the quiet voices” that really excite Morgan, those who might sit and muse for a long while and then suddenly and surprisingly come out with something incredibly insightful.

Morgan’s advice then is that, whatever we are in to (working hard as a teacher, studying art at Goldsmiths etc.), it’s important for aspiring music journalists to keep an ongoing dialogue with the music industry in our spare time. This could be in the form of a zine, blog, student mag, or even just writing notes on facebook. All this acts to keep us engaged, and hones our writing skills!

Morgan went on to talk about the fact that a lot of people say the music industry is doomed due to illegal downloading. Although conceding that it is worrying at times, she presented a very positive spin on the whole situation. With music moving underground,  people are taking the industry into their own hands and that opens up other avenues…such as promotions and criticism at grassroots level. In the past, there has been a uniformity to those who write, in terms of gender, race and class. However, this is opening up, allowing fresh voices to become music journalists.

“Music belongs to all of us and discourse about music belongs to all of us” Morgan reminded us. It seems an obvious statement, but it’s a point that should be made more often. After all, we live in a world where NME tells us all we need to know about exactly how patriarchal the music industry is. In such a world it’s all too easy to give up and leave it up to the men to deal with.

I remember having to write my first album review for Amelia’s magazine. Although Amelia’s is incredibly female friendly, and no-one would chide me for my review, I felt real nervousness. I felt out of my depth, because my experiences of music reviewing told me that what I wrote had to be very technical, almost cold. All that technical knowledge seemed very male, and I think I had picked up on this as a pre-requisite in music criticism from reading copies of Kerrang back in the day (yes, really) or listening to my boyfriend reeling off genres and sub-genres until my head starts spinning.

I eventually found refuge in what Morgan identified in her talk as a more ‘female’ style of writing. Female writers tend to offer a more personal and responsive approach to music reviewing. We later found out that some of those in the audience found this approach too personal, anecdotal and even self indulgent (I know I have been guilty of this!), but Morgan didn’t agree. Whilst she tends to find this style more interesting, female names are still not commonly seen on mast heads.

This is why Morgan believes that women writers should actively be promoted and put on mast heads to increase visibility to encourage other female voices to come through. To help put her point across Morgan quoted a comment she had left on the Ladyfest  thread on the Plan B message-board. The whole thread makes for an interesting read, but I’ve copied below the point Morgan read to us as part of her talk.

Now, as former editor of the mag, I know for absolutely fucking sure that the reason there aren’t more female music critics isn’t because women aren’t good at it, isn’t because they don’t like music as much as men or don’t have such fancy record collections, isn’t because they can’t ‘cut it’ in the (let’s face it not particularly scary) world of music journalism. I know this, because Plan B prints the writing of many fantastic female writers on a monthly basis, who write about music made by men and women in a variety of genres.

We don’t do that because we feel sorry for them. It’s not positive discrimination. We do that because, like any other journalist, they’re the right person for that review/interview/whatever. But also, we are mindful of gender issues. We are aware of the relative lack of female viewpoints in the music media. So we set up a magazine where women were encouraged to take part and seen to be visible from the off, and now (I think) this is reflected in a regular contributors list full of confident, contrasting writers, many of whom are women. That is now, for us, the norm.

The way I look at it is (quite simply) that the more women who are seen to be writing about music, the more women will write about music, and the more the dynamics and conventions and hierarchies of writing about music (by both women and men) change because of more equal participation in it, the more we all benefit, the more the form progresses.

After this, the discussion was opened up to the floor.We pinpointed that music criticism is needed because there’s so much music out there, we need a filter. Specialist music publications will astutely define their audience and the reader will trust a certain publication so that any positive reviews read like a friendly tip off.

We felt it was important to have a good mix of male and female journalists covering a wide range of artists; women writing about male musicians, men writing about female musicians etc. so it’s not just women writing about women (which is often the way female writers tend to be pigeon holed on more male dominated publications). It was worth noting, though, that often having a female writer for a female artist can be good as women writers tend not (as male writers might), when writing about women performers, to focus on looks, sexuality or even the fact the woman is a woman. The fact the woman is a woman should no longer be reported on as a novelty.

It was at this point that a really interesting question came from the audience. The gist was ‘If a music publication were to only cover one female musician and you, as the female staffer assigned to the task, perhaps didn’t think much of that artist should you still have some sort of feminist obligation to give them a positive write-up?’ Morgan found this amusing, pointing out that there should be more than one woman featured in the  magazine! Also, the editor should be able to find at least one person who likes the artist enough to write their profile in a positive light. Everyone agreed that in such a case a person should be judged on their talent and not on their gender, and readers should be intelligent enough to understand this.

Since the talk, this has all struck a chord with me when struggling to write my reviews of Ladyfest Goldsmiths. Should I be honest and express disappointment even though I hold the concept of Ladyfest close to my heart? I hope that I have been fair and constructive with my criticism.

Lastly, we wondered about a way forward for women in music journalism. Would we prefer a route of amalgamation or of separation? Perhaps a woman-only music magazine is needed to re-address the balance? Or is it counter productive? And, for that matter, is Ladyfest counterproductive? These are all big questions, and quite old questions that have been argued about over and over.

Still, Morgan left us with some final food for thought on the subject. “Many want to ‘make it’ in the male world and that’s great, but if you do reach the top and look around to see you’re the only woman there, can you still argue it’s all fair?” So perhaps succeeding within the patriarchy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. “On whose terms are we achieving?”

With those words ringing in our ears, all us little, eager, budding journalists parted ways – hopefully to set out our own terms and to succeed on them.

By: Sarah Barnes, 27.02.2009 | Comments (8)
  • Liv
    March 1st, 2009
    1:34 am

    Thanks so much for writing this up in such depth, it’s great to get a recap on all that was said, and the points that were made (including the reality check that music journalism won’t necessarily result in enough money to really get by on!)

    It was also really great to meet you at the ‘fest – hope you enjoyed yr issue of Shebang, and let me know if you’d ever fancy writing anything for it!

  • Frances
    November 9th, 2009
    11:29 pm

    My name is Frances Morgan too…. YAHHHHH!!!!!

  • Stephanie Phillips
    November 23rd, 2009
    3:59 pm

    I’ve only just stumbled across this. I used to intern at Plan B magazine last year and the cold fact that music journalism is not the place to make any money was the first thing I learnt.

    I had a lovely time working there and miss Plan B too. it was such a different working environment to anywhere I’ve ever worked before. Everyone was really welcoming and friendly.

    I’m hoping an online Plan B spin off will pop up soon, fingers crossed x.x.x

  • Gavin
    June 15th, 2010
    12:05 am

    Frances is my ex! Gobby as always x

  • [...] presently constructed has an undeniable tendency to discourage female participation. Sarah Barnes recalls that when writing her first album review: I felt out of my depth, because my experiences of music [...]

  • [...] presently constructed has an undeniable tendency to discourage female participation. Sarah Barnes recalls that when writing her first album [...]

  • [...] hard to find your voice when you’re surrounded by guys with tendencies to discuss music by rattling off entire catalogs of album release dates and sub-genres of sub-genres as though they are baseball [...]

  • Caroline Bottomley
    September 29th, 2011
    10:34 am

    Here here!

    I’ve worked in quite a few music-related businesses and used to often ponder why music was so often male-oriented and laddish behind the scenes. And I recently came to the conclusion it’s all about VISIBILTY. We’re social animals with a lot more herd mentality than we like to admit. Which is all good stuff, because as enough women get into male-dominated roles then it all starts snowballing.

    As as aside, I was just thinking the other day about the huge grime and dubstep channels that have developed on YouTube and that there aren’t eg indie channels that compare at the moment. I’m hypothesising that’s because grime and dubstep enthusiasts/(SBTV = black kid living on sink estate) don’t live in the mainstream, so somewhere like YouTube where it’s easier to create and own your own identity is where you can take off.
    I’m also noticing a huge number of female music bloggers out there.

    Hurray for the internet. And hurray for the front-runners, who make a place for others to more comfortably follow.

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