XANI on Women in the Music Biz
Updated: Feb 14
‘I never liked to be stereotyped in any way’.
Xani insisted at an early age that stigma was not going to hold her back. Now, this refusal to back down translates to a passion for advocacy – and for getting women onto Australian stages.
A Melbourne-based violinist and singer-songwriter, XANI is one of Melbourne’s most distinguished freelance musicians. She has shared the stage with high profile performers such as Clare Bowditch, Tim Rogers, Eddie Perfect and Kate Ceberano, and has performed with the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and Malthouse Theatre. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment, however, is her original music: after receiving a nomination for an AU Review Best Live Instrumentalist Award and completely a 10-year stint as a member of The Twoks, XANI released her EP, 1 in 2017, and her album, 3 in 2018.
While performing in Brisbane with multi-award-winning musical, Come From Away, Xani announced that she will tour Victoria to launch her latest album, From The Bottom Of The Well.
Images by Oli Sansom, Michelle Grace Hunder and Bea Shot This. Image Source: https://www.xanikolac.com/about/
Despite a wealth of experience on Australia’s stages, Xani has played through multiple experiences of institutionalised misogyny and gender stereotyping in Melbourne’s music industry. ‘There are actual examples where I have been told that I won’t be doing the job because I’m a woman’, she says.
Greta Brereton posted an article in Beat about gender equality in the music industry, quoting that in a 2017 report published by the University of Sydney’s Women, Work and Leadership Research Group, it was found that women in the music industry were chronically disadvantaged when compared with their male counterparts. ‘We all know that it doesn’t come down to a lack of qualified women or talented musicians’, she writes. ‘It comes down to culture and attitudes.’
In Xani’s experience, these attitudes impact fiercely on women supporting themselves as freelance musicians in Melbourne. ‘I have been dressed up like a man… and then dressed very provocatively as a woman’, she shares. Female musos are told that there can’t be more than one woman onstage as a single woman meets the token expectation; conversely, female musos are hired to meet this quota and to make performance committees seem forward-thinking or edgy.
In an article posted by Rolling Stone in 2020, Amy Wang writes that female songwriters and producers have to encounter and overcome objectification, stereotyping and labelling because they are simply a statistical minority. In another study shared in a piece by Forbes, over 40% of female songwriters and producers interviewed admitted that others in the industry discounted their skills and their work, and that 39% experience stereotyping and sexualisation as a result of their gender. Clearly, the industry's perception of female musicians is heavily influenced by stereotyping: many women are sexualised while their abilities are dismissed.
Gendered remarks have been thrown at Xani throughout her time as a freelance musician. 'I get called a "girl" a lot', she says with a wry smile. Encountering some members of a technical crew during sound check can also be traumatic. Despite her experience as an accomplished performer and her knowledge of her craft, she says that sound problems are often blamed on her. ‘I’ve had to have such a fight to be taken seriously and listened to before even playing a gig, that when it comes to playing I am so frazzled that I can’t even perform at my best.’
In January 2020, Laura Snapes from The Guardian wrote that the music industry is still a boy's club – and that recognition for female artists and musicians is not possible without opportunity. In 2017, Xani noted that this opportunity wasn’t available for women. Many of the programs and gigs designed to celebrate all women were, in fact, only celebrating a certain type of woman – female front musicians backed by all-male bands. The men forming the band were hugely supportive of gender equality and successful musicians in their own right, but Xani wanted to change the narrative.
Refusing to believe that female improvisers weren’t out there, Xani planned Stand By Your Woman, a musical showcase featuring only women and their instruments. The show premiered at the Melbourne Arts Centre and was one of the biggest projects Xani has ever organised. ‘I look at some of those women and who they are performing with now and it fills me with a lot of pride and a lot of joy,’ she says. This performance, organised by women, for women, gave capable musicians a chance to become gig-fit. Stand By Your Woman gave them a boot in the door and helped them to nudge it open.
The exclusion currently experienced by many female musos may be the result of unconscious bias. While studying her masters degree at the Victorian College of the Arts, Xani wrote a paper on gender inequality in the Melbourne improvisation industry and gave a presentation to the class. This presentation asked some questions… Do curators of music programs in Melbourne refuse to believe in the creative potential of female musicians, or do they simply not believe that female improvisers exist?
Many studies have failed to find any differences in creative potential according to gender, as Noah Askin revealed in his article. Whenever there is discussion about the nature of gender inequality in the Australian music industry, someone asks the question: isn’t there a possibility that men are simply more interested in music than women? Statistics revealed by the ABC, however, debunk this theory – an even split of male and female students studying a music subject in Year 12 remains stable over time. Undergraduate students studying a music degree at University is tipping toward a male dominated figure (56% male and 44% female in 2018), but this still doesn’t account for the whopping gender disparities in the music industry as a whole. According to Grammy figures presented by Forbes, only 10.4% of nominees between 2013 and 2019 were women. Something is clearly happening in the time between the education of women and their inclusion in the broader Melbourne music scene.
Xani presented her research findings to the class, announcing that at a recent festival, the lineup of 32 improvising musicians only included 2 women. The response from her class was visceral and immediate – ‘I copped it in that class. It was one of the worst experiences of my life,’ she confides. One fellow student, a man, questioned the relevance of her research, claiming that when musos form bands or line-ups, they just pick their mates. As a result, the chosen group of musicians is from a specific circle of people – and apparently no one is open to diversifying that circle. The act of exclusion (any kind of exclusion) overlooks the creative benefits of different perspectives. Because of this boys’ club mentality, women get overlooked and forgotten; continued unemployment causes them to lose their gig-fitness, which starts the cycle all over again.
Images by Oli Sansom, Michelle Grace Hunder and Bea Shot This. Concept design by Meg Kolac.
Image Source: https://www.xanikolac.com/
In the aftermath of Stand By Your Woman, Xani employed musicians within her own chosen group – ‘it has been a long time since I have played with or employed male musicians in my own projects,’ Xani says. The musicians she works with now are brilliant at their craft - and also happen to be women.
One of these musicians is drummer Brooke Custerson. Brooke and Xani hit it off as soon as they played together: ‘she got a lot of what I was trying to do musically – and she is a beautiful person as well,’ Xani explains. ‘Another thing that I learn from Brooke is that she knows what she wants to pursue and what she can do.’ With a laugh, Xani proudly declares that soon it will be hard to book her: ‘I watch her career and it’s blossoming.’ It’s through these close relationships with women that Xani supports women on stage - and is supported reciprocally.
Brooke performs frequently with Xani, most recently at an International Women's Day gig in March. During the performance, a man from the audience put his hand in the air as Xani was discussing her work. ‘Don’t you think this is discrimination against men?’ he asked. While recounting this incident, Xani slaps her hand audibly against her forehead and laughs. But she explains how her thoughts shifted in that moment, as she worked out how to publicly respond. 'The world that I want to live in is one where anyone can feel like they are in a safe enough space to ask a genuine question, and to be talked to with respect,’ she asserts with a nod. There is a balancing act, she says, when you have a personal brand and strong values. ‘I’m not trying to say that we shouldn’t get angry, because there’s a lot to be angry about,’ she reasons. ‘I’m trying to look at the end game.’ And this game, hopefully, means explaining the gender gap in the music industry while attempting to fill it.
International Women’s Day in 2021 was a celebration of our successes as women of the music industry, but was also an opportunity to take stock of where we sit. Quotas are being insisted on, despite protests claiming that hiring musicians simply because they’re women is a whole new form of discrimination. Xani supports the idea of quotas in different areas of the music industry, as it is her view that they help to speed up the rate of change for equality. In her experience, they’re not perfect and they do encourage tokenism of women, but they grant female musicians a seat at the table, which gets them gigging fitness in turn. ‘I got here because of this quota,’ is her response to quotas, ‘but I’m going to stay here because of my abilities.’
One solution posed by Xani is the introduction of stronger quotas in the education system of Australia – that 50% of university music staff should be women. ‘There is a hugely toxic culture where it is very intimidating for women to enter into that scene’. Men are not listening to women, according to Xani, and this comes from men heading departments without any female colleagues. Women in positions of authority would create spaces that the female students can go to feel supported and understood. This is hugely important, according to Xani.
Despite the insistence on quotas placed on much of the industry, the musical ambitions of women are still largely unsupported financially. Much of this stems from stigma in legal contracts for musicians (or simply the lack of them). Creasing her forehead, Xani admits, ‘the music industry is so broken in terms of the way that they pay musicians.’ This shattering revelation is supported by non-existent superannuation and maternity leave for freelance musos, contracts that can be terminated on a whim by a producer or venue and insecure funding. According to Ange McCormack from the ABC, Australia council grants slightly favour male musicians; Xani also suggests that female, nonbinary and trans women who are musicians had it tougher in lockdown than male musicians, due to societal expectations relating to pregnancy and childcare.
Xani widens her eyes and nods her head slowly, before summing it up: 'a lot needs to change in the overall culture of this country.'
Clearly, there is a lot of work to do.