Guitarist Laura B Whitmore is well-aware of the complexity of shifting gender inequality at America's favorite amalgamation of music and capitalism, the NAMM Show. Whitmore and her Women's International Music Network crew are working to change NAMM's old boys' club reputation with the She Rocks Awards, now in its fourth year, dedicated to honoring women who display leadership and stand out within the music industry.
Past honorees include icons such as Sheila E, Janie Hendrix, the Bangles and Dinah Gretsch. Friday's event at the Anaheim Hilton brings 14 new women to their ranks, including incomparable funk songstress Chaka Khan, Tom Tom Magazine's Mindy Abovitz, bassist and Rock N' Roll Camp for Girls LA organizer Becky Gebhardt, and Michael Jackson guitarist Jennifer Batten. While the show has plenty of celebrating to do, change is at the forefront of its agenda.
Whitmore started playing music in elementary school, but she realized the need for women's spaces in the musical-instrument world after writing a column for Guitar World Magazine called Guitar Girl'd. "I spoke to one artist after the other [and] saw a trend: Women didn't have a voice in this industry," says Whitmore. Her column was well-received by readers of all genders, and Whitmore began hosting events, panels and workshops, which led to the formation of the She Rocks Awards. "As a woman in the music business, I've found myself the butt of sexist jokes, been groped [and] been made to feel like my opinion matters less," Whitmore says. "But I am optimistic. I think members of the industry, both male and female, are ready for change and a new conversation."
She Rocks Award recipient Gebhardt has shaped new conversations surrounding gender since co-founding the Rock N' Roll Camp for Girls LA in 2009. Empowering girls to create music is a cause close to Gebhardt's heart, as music has been an integral part of her identity since age 13. "I became obsessed with listening to KROQ, KXLU, Pirate Radio and KNAC," she says. She remembers digging through record crates with her brother and practicing bass before attending UCLA and joining the eclectic indie group Raining Jane. Gebhardt has recorded and performed guitar, bass and sitar over 10 years, most recently with Jason Mraz as a collaborator on his 2014 release, YES!, which thrust her on a world tour that included appearances on TV shows such as American Idol.
"The [Rock N' Roll Camp for Girls] community inspires and teaches me and makes me feel part of something bigger than myself," Gebhardt says. "The award is significant to me because it means that [the camps] are being noticed in communities outside of our own, and that gives me hope for the future of girls and women in music."
As with many musicians, Gebhardt enjoys attending NAMM, but, she concedes, "due to a few exhibitors who choose to objectify women in their marketing, it's not a [totally] hospitable environment to be in as a woman" when "women are already viewed as the minority in many aspects of music, including the trade-show floor."
New York-based drummer and Tom Tom Magazine founder Abovitz understands the necessity of diverse representations of women in music marketing and media. As a modern Orthodox Jewish teen, Abovitz's intellectual trajectory was shaped by family celebrations and riot grrrl music, a scrappy and rebellious spirit that lives on in her dedication to "representations [that] promote compassion and connectivity and eradicate fear of difference through media." Her post-college DIY fantasy of a print publication wholly committed to covering women drummers became a reality in 2009 and has since become a full-fledged social movement thanks to its much-needed coverage of female drummers and involvement with Hit Like a Girl, a worldwide online drum competition centering on girls and women.
Abovitz feels honored to be among the She Rocks recipients and "hope[s] NAMM has been paying attention" and will recognize the revolutionary potential to actively include individuals conventionally considered on the fringe of the music world. "Often when people look around a room and only see one kind of people, they don't ask themselves where everyone else is," she says. "And if they do, they frequently assume those people chose not to come. It takes one extra step of compassion and effort to invite someone new or open the door to a group of people who, in my opinion, are waiting right outside the door in the hopes of being invited in."
Guitar legend Batten thought the revolution had begun when [she] joined Michael Jackson's tour in 1987. But while touring, Batten witnessed a possible period of change that stagnated. "It's been a 30-year delay, but now, in part due to the Internet, loads of young girls are kicking ass and taking music much more seriously," she says. Batten never felt limited because of her gender, but she did "get comments every once in a while that let me know that my being female was a big deal to them, but it wasn't to me."
Batten is excited to join the ranks of She Rocks honorees. "To be recognized for influencing other female musicians is just plain cool," she says, adding that she hopes the awards will inspire other women to pursue their musical ambitions in business and performance. "To shine a light, especially on those behind-the-scenes of the industry, helps create awareness [of those who] have carved a path, so it's wide open to women in the future."
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Whitmore views She Rocks as an opportunity not only to "shine a spotlight on female role models," but also "to bring men and women of the industry into the conversation." Four years ago, there were no dedicated spaces honoring women at the NAMM Show, and Whitmore did not personally know her female colleagues after nearly 30 years in the business. Moving from virtual isolation to creating a community and a space for women to engage with one another while hyper-visibly celebrating their accomplishments at a trade show notorious for its stagnation is phenomenal growth.
As amazing as She Rocks is, Whitmore hopes that one day her organization is obsolete and can aid in the normalization of women in business and performance sectors of music. Her long-term desire is to retire the phrase "she's pretty good for a girl."
"Maybe one company will hire one more woman," Whitmore says. "Maybe a parent will encourage their daughter to work at a music store. Maybe one girl will become a major producer. Then two. And then, who knows . . . world domination!"