INTERVIEW: Vicki Gordon (AUSTRALIAN WOMEN IN MUSIC AWARDS)
"Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women"
In an industry historically prone to seismic technological and socio-cultural advances, the music realm has remained on the forefront of adaptation and evolution. But for an industry so intrinsically renowned for its artistic evolution and progression, it sure as hell had a lot of growing up to do; once a stomping ground prone to celebrating masculinity, the tide has slowly turned with more and more female and marginalised players in the scene taking the bull by the horns and declaring "time's up" on inequality and lack of representation. A noble effort, without question. But also an effort fraught with backlash and resistance as women all over the globe continue to strive to be heard and respected alongside their male counterparts without attracting negative attention for rocking the musical boat.
For the Australian music industry, the conversations surrounding gender and cultural equity are on the rise, which is certainly a credit to the trailblazers who have come before us. But for many, the conversations are just the beginning of a full-blown revolution in an attempt to break down the barriers for so many gender groups and cultural minorities, and one such pioneer who has tirelessly spent her life seeking to create opportunities for other women and marginalised voices is non other than Vicki Gordon.
Spending years in a variety of roles including working on the ARIA Board, running independent record labels and working in women's welfare services, Vicki Gordon displays a startlingly refreshing blend of altruism and fearless tenacity in her quest for creating opportunities for others and restoring balance. And to add to her long list of achievements, one of Vicki's most recent creations, the Australian Women in Music Awards, now returns for a second year this October after a hugely successful launch in 2018, and Tiana grabbed some time with the lady herself ahead of round two to chat innovation, passion and the true might of female empowerment.
TIANA SPETER: Hi Vicki! Thank you so much for chatting, I know you are a very busy lady! And part of that is obviously the second year of the Australian Women in Music Awards looming in October, which is your own personal baby...but before we touch on that, I'm a little intrigued to know a bit more about the woman bringing women to the forefront in the industry. How did you come to find yourself working in the music industry? Did you grow up lusting after a creative career?
VICKI GORDON: I started playing the guitar when I was eight years old, I actually came from a broken family. And it was music, really, from a very early age that really, I think, kept me sane to be honest. My mother also was an incredible musician, but from tragic circumstances as well. But I was very, very influenced by my mother at an early age. And I think...without going into my whole history (laughs), I learned to play the guitar, I left New Zealand when I was 19 with $300 to come to Australia. I knew no one, I came here with my guitar to get a job in the music industry - and the rest is history, really! But I worked as a musician till I was about 25, and I also have run record labels for years. I've always worked in the creative space, and when I haven't worked in music I've worked in welfare, in women services, rape crisis centres and things like that.
TIANA: Far out. And that combination has led to you being such an innovator along the way. And I guess to ask the question that I loathe asking, but one I'm always intrigued by: as a female working in the whacky world of music and beyond, what challenges or roadblocks have you faced along the way on a personal level, and how did you overcome them?
VICKI: You know, it's an interesting question because there are enormous challenges for women in the industry. But what I can say about my own personal journey has been that: I've always been very driven by what I have wanted to do, and I've had an incredible capacity to believe in my own ability to do what I want to do. And I think that's something that can be very difficult for women. I've always worked in the independent space, so even when I was running record labels, I was running independent labels. And when I sat on the ARIA board, I represented the independents. I've always really had this thing in me, and I don't know where it comes from...but I've always know that for me, the best journey has been to believe in my own vision of the world that I want to be a part of, and the world that I want to create. As far as challenges? There's been numerous challenges. But I have really not focused on them, my focus has been on creating opportunities for other women. And that really is very sincere, when I say that.
TIANA: It certainly does ring true, especially seeing your pathway that has led to this. For me, I had always wanted to work in music but was so intimidated back in my teenage years and early 20s. And literally just over two years ago finally I stood up and said "no, I'm going to do it!". And what I'm especially blown away by is the increased support and acknowledgement of women in the industry, and I have people like yourself to thank for that, and obviously events like the Australian Women in Music Awards. Can you tell me about the series of events that led to the creation of the AWMAs?
VICKI: In my heart I've always wanted to run an awards ceremony for women. In the 90s I established a the Australian Rock Institute, and that was the first organisation in Australia set-up to improve the status of women in the Australian music industry. And at that time, there were a number of big events that I produced. I produced Australia's first training program for female DJs, I produced Australia's first all-girl rock festival. I also produced Australia's first Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women's Contemporary Music Festival at that time. And just through my journey, through having been a musician and having run record labels and all these years later working as a creative producer...I had always wanted to produce an event that celebrated the achievements of women. It was something that I knew I wanted to do 20 years ago! And given the challenges around gender and gender equity, and the challenges around creating a space for First Nations women as well...there's just never been a better time to do it. And it's come to fruition, I really believe that if you're committed to creating change, change will come not only when the timing is right, but when the people are ready. And I believe that time is now. Even though I've wanted to do this for a long time, it's really taken the support of the Queensland Government, and other sponsors like Canon and the Queensland Council of Unions who really helped me to realise my vision for this. But it's also the right time, and even though I was ready, and I believe many, many people were ready for something like this a long time ago. But I don't think the world's been quite ready, I don't think Australia was ready. And I think we're ready now.
TIANA: Absolutely, and clearly it's something that's just going to get bigger and better. The AWMAs are only in its second year, and last year so so extremely well received...from your perspective, what was the reaction like to the inaugural awards last year?
VICKI: It's been an incredible journey. When you do something like this, it can be very frightening and very daunting because the issues of gender equity in the music industry have been such a challenge for such a long time. And there have been so many people railing against the idea of even doing anything to improve the status of women. But most of the industry is on-board with the AWMAs, men and women are on-board with this, First Nations women and multicultural women, LGBTQI...in many ways I think AWMAs, for me, really represents the opportunity to realise something about the music industry that the industry's almost forgotten - and that is the importance of actually acknowledging the forgotten voices. And those who have not had access to opportunity, and those minority groups that we really need to look after to build a stronger and more diverse community for the industry.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN IN MUSIC AWARDS PANELS, 2018
TIANA: What I really love about how you've approached and fostered the AWMAs is that it's not just looking at one particular minority here, there's a focus on gender and cultural equity and beyond, and empowering these people so often overlooked. I've read you speak in the past that sometimes change can take a long time to happen, but when it happens - it happens quickly. Have you noticed any significant changes in the industry even since the inaugural Australian Women in Music Awards last year?
VICKI: Well for example, there were four women put onto the ARIA Board earlier this year. Up until then I was one of the last women on the ARIA Board, that was in 2002. So there's been no women on the ARIA Board between 2002 and 2019. We've also seen other changes, I sat on the Music Australia round table a couple of weeks ago, and there's definitely a cultural shift happening there, there are definitely more men engaging with this conversation and who are really excited and playing a strong role in trying to help us deliver more equity. We still need to see more women in decision-making roles, and we certainly need to see much more women involved on the Boards of our peak bodies, etc. But I think there's a cultural shift happening, and I think if you speak with anybody, most people are going to say that they can feel that too at this point.
TIANA: It does definitely feel like it's on an exciting precipice and, like you said, it's obviously been such a long time coming. But now it feels so quick because it's finally happening, it's very interesting to watch it unfold...
VICKI: It feels quick, and yet it's not been quick! It's that thing, isn't it? It certainly doesn't feel quick for me.
TIANA: Yes, quite literally decades!!
VICKI: Yes, decades! But it certainly does feel like things are moving, and I think this new generation of women, young women and also young men - it's really exciting. But there's still a lot of work to do. I mean, let's not kid ourselves, you know? If you think about it, I often say to people: in 1901, women actually got the vote. And we still don't have gender equity in parliament. So whilst the change that we're seeing is a very positive conversation, and there's a lot less resistance to the conversation...the systemic change that needs to happen within the industry is seriously going to take some time.
TIANA: On that note, I do like how there's an inclusion in the conversation with men and with people who may not necessarily be under this umbrella of being "women in music". But it's nice to have multiple facets involved, it embraces the true definition of equity. I really like that aspect of it.
VICKI: Yeah, and I also think there's been this old, old argument that mostly white men rail out which is: "oh, well we're only going to employ women on merit, we're only going to employ people on merit". This is an argument that people who really don't want to create change use all the time to hold women back. It's absolute nonsense. The idea of merit is based on who's idea of merit? Well normally, it's certainly not women's idea of merit. And I think this is another thing that the industry, and even the broader arts sector, really needs to get off, the excuse-making around why women are not given equal opportunity.
AUSTRALIAN WOMEN IN MUSIC AWARDS 2018 HIGHLIGHTS
TIANA: With the AWMAs, it's proving that while things aren't necessarly happening swiftly, change is being more and more accepted. And in its second year this year, there's already been an expansion with award categories and forum programs. What do you hope for the future of these awards?
VICKI: What's been really wonderful for me has been how much people are really interested to engage in conversation. And I think that the AWMAs really provide...as much as we're obviously going to be handing out 15 awards and we're going to have an awards ceremony and a concert and a party - we've also created a platform for people to have a conversation about those things that really matter. And not just in the context of music, but also more broadly in their own personal lives. Obviously music is a great vehicle to be able to do that, so our forum on hip hop really enables us to have that much-needed conversation about why in hip hop traditionally women's voices haven't been empowered, and why is it so difficult for women to lead and find their rightful place in the hip hop music scene in Australia. And actually worldwide, to be honest. Things like the other forum 'The Art of Rebellion', this is looking at the intersection of music and politics. And I think at the heart of every creative person there is a rebel, for want of a better word. Or an agitator. And I think it's really important through the industry to look at the voices that we are listening to, the voices that are appropriated and the voices that are fundamentally silenced. And then of course the other forum is 'The Changing Face of Music' about image-making. This is all about: how do we stop objectifying women? And representations of women's body image, and how can we move forward to promote realistic messages of confidence for women. These things are really, really important. This is allowing more engagement with people around what I would say are more thought-provoking, more controversial and more areas of debate rather than floating over the surface of a whole lot of things that don't really matter.
TIANA: Yes, that's the tricky part in all of this, circling around the same conversations doesn't really propel anything. It's really interesting to have more opportunities to get below the surfaces of a lot of these opportunities.
VICKI: Yeah, yeah, I think so too! My experience with women in the music industry has always been this: when we've provided opportunities for women to talk or to perform or to be a part of something that they don't usually get access to because those areas have been traditionally male-dominated...women will flock to them! Women will flock to them because women are really hungry to be a part of that conversation, and to form a part of that space. And that's a space that's not been provided to women previously.
TIANA: I often find because a lot of the things I focus on for my work is dominantly in the heavier genres in the music industry...I've found more and more lately that those conversations have been welcomed and encouraged by the people in that world, and actually being taken notice of. It can be such a minefield behind the scenes, and it's not always an intentional act to put up roadblocks or make assumptions based on gender. But, like you said, the objectifying thing is rampant! A women comes out onstage and it's all about what she looks like and fitting to an unspoken aesthetic at times. Meanwhile, a guy can come out with a beer gut and no one cares what he looks like.
VICKI: The double standards in our industry have just been appalling on that level. Exactly what you said, a guy will come out with a beer gut and everyone will talk about what a brilliant musician he is. A woman can do exactly the same thing and, again, it's all about what she looks like. But these are challenges that great feminists have been challenging for a long time. I mean, even in leadership, when we think about women! Women who are assertive, women who are strong, women who know what they want - they are always described as being angry and often aggressive. Whereas when men come out with the exact same behaviour, they are hailed as being leaders. And this is just absolute crap. There are many women in our industry who have done extraordinary work, who've been great leaders but haven't been hailed as leaders because they've not been men.
TIANA: It's slightly exciting to be able to feel like there is a voice, and not be made to feel bad about it. I know every time I feel like I'm being a bit mouthy of late, I've realised - I'm actually just speaking the truth and not being irrational or aggressive. It's nice to not feel guilty about it for a change!
VICKI: It's great if you have come to that! Because I think for a lot of women, they haven't come to that yet. I think for a lot of women, women are still unpicking what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. And in the context of "who decides what is acceptable for us?", you know? And if you speak to anybody that was in the room at the AWMAs last year, particularly the awards ceremony - it was unbelievable. It was just so powerful and there was so much support and love in the room, it was unprecedented, I certainly hadn't experienced anything like that before. And I know a lot of others hadn't either. Just the idea of being able to empower women with so much support around them was really phenomenal last year.
TIANA: It's so exciting, and having it on such a public platform as well. And on the note of support and empowering, I suppose that leads me to the question I would love to close out on with you: it's a no brainer the music industry has needed a huge shake-up, but as someone who has led the charge for change and equality, what are you key words of advice for any girls or women looking to work in the music or broader creative industries?
VICKI: I have spent a life where I've had to constantly dig into my guts and continue to believe in a vision that I've had for a very long time. And that's not an easy thing to do when you're railing against an industry that's been traditionally very misogynistic. So, in terms of younger women - I think that we all have the capacity to be whatever we want to be. But we have to be able to have the strength and the courage and the tenacity to continue to believe in ourselves way beyond when other people have given up on you. Whenever you're doing anything in the industry, whether as a creative person or not - it's always going to be a difficult challenging road. There's no straight line, there's no guarantee in the music industry that you can have a career. Those that actually manage to make careers even out of being singer-songwriters, the numbers of women are not that great! But because I now work as a music producer, a theatre producer and a film documentary producer...I've utilised my skills across a number of creative industries, and that's how I've managed to keep myself afloat as an independent practitioner. And let's face it - that's not something that everybody can do. I think that for younger women more and more what's important is to surround yourself with people who support you, to surround yourself with good people who believe in you - and to just keep moving forward. At the end of the day, what it all comes down to is your capacity to actually just keep going (laughs). It's pretty simple, really, but it's a big deal to just keep going!
TIANA: Definitely wise words, and it's so inspiring that you've been able to broaden the industry for so many, not only with the Australian Women in Music Awards, but everything that you've done in your career along the way. Thank you for making the music world a more positive and inspiring place, and I'm so excited to see how it continues to unfurl. Thank you so much for your time, Vicki.
VICKI: Yes, thanks so much, it's really great to speak with you!
THE 2019 AUSTRALIAN WOMEN IN MUSIC AWARDS WILL TAKE PLACE ON THE 8TH AND 9TH OF OCTOBER AT THE BRISBANE POWERHOUSE IN BRISBANE.
BY TIANA SPETER