Who Says Girls Can't Find Music? We Talked to the Female A&R Who Signed Grimes
Jane Abernethy signed Grimes and tUnE-yArDs to 4AD and in this frank interview she discusses her decade's worth of experience, seeking out new music, and quashing sexism in the industry.
Last November, Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine attracted universal condemnation, when he suggested that his technology, now part of Apple Music, was helpful for women because they “find it very difficult at times—some women—to find music,” and that women need music for when they are “sitting around talking about boys. Or complaining about boys, when they have their heart broken or whatever.”
Though Iovine later apologized, and his interviewer, Gayle King, said his words been taken out of context, the remarks left many wondering if Iovine’s slip of the tongue was a glimpse into a mindset that pervades the upper echelons of the music industry. Having spent a nearly a decade in the music industry, both as a musician and a writer, this idea—that those at the top of the structure hold archaic, damaging views about women, which then trickle down to affect our standing in the industry overall—didn’t surprise me. In the weeks after Iovine’s comments, I found myself digging into old memories of meetings and encounters throughout my career. Had I lost opportunities because of my gender, or simply because of the way things were? Had this label head barked orders at me because I was a woman, or just because he was mean overall? While trawling through these incidents for clues, it suddenly hit me that I was missing something entirely obvious. Not a clue, but the smoking gun: every single label executive, publisher, and A&R I had worked with was a man. Even if you removed the issue of sexism from the investigation, you only need to look at the numbers to see a severe crisis of gender imbalance in the music industry, leading to an overall culture biased towards, created by, and perpetuated by men.
At this point, I thought about my friend Jane Abernethy, a successful A&R at the label 4AD. I met Jane at the University of Westminster, where we were both studying Commercial Music. She was the person at parties who was always guiding the music away from the obvious, the person whose playlists introduced you to the artists you would cherish for a lifetime. By the time we graduated, Jane was a scout at 4AD, and before she was thirty, as an A&R, she had signed some of the most exciting and influential artists of the recent past, including tUnE-yArDs and Grimes, launching their careers internationally. When Iovine’s remarks went public, a tweet of hers ended up in the Guardian, “I’m a woman and I make my living finding music. Jimmy Iovine is the one who needs help.”
Jane and I started sharing our experiences and thoughts on the subject. One day, she noted that, while articles are often written about the experience of women making music, they are few about the women who work in the business. Maybe, she mused, if we found balance behind the scenes, female artist wouldn’t have such a tough time trying to be afforded the same privileges as their male counterparts. Like so many of the simple concepts we have been conditioned as a society to overlook, it shouldn’t have been a revelation, but it was.
According to the British Performing Rights Society, in 2013, only 13 percent of the people in the UK drawing an income from music publishing were women, while the Music Producer’s Guild counted only 4 percent of women amongst its members. While awards ceremonies or album covers might appear to show a high number of women in music, anyone who has ever walked into a studio or a music business office will know that, no matter how many women are in your band or your personally-curated team, as you reach out into networks like publishing, distribution, live performance, production, law, and every other corner of the machine, you are more likely to come across a man.
Here’s what we spoke about when Jane agreed to let me interview her. Hopefully we can if begin a wider conversation about women in the music business, and encourage more women who might be making their first steps into the industry to look at A&R as a possible path.
Noisey: You started working at 4AD as an intern in college, tell me about that.
Jane Abernethy: When I first applied to intern at 4AD, it was 2004 and I was twenty, and I didn’t know much about the label. When I looked at the back catalogue I thought, “I love the Cocteau Twins and the Pixies.” I remember thinking I liked some of the current roster, but the label was emerging from a difficult period where the founder had left and there wasn’t a lot of exciting new artists.
The label was starting to rejuvenate around the time I started. The Pixies actually reformed during my interview, and I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, the planets have aligned, I’m going to get this internship.” At the time, my future colleague seemed impressed that I was a 20-year-old who liked music like Joni Mitchell, and I was interested that they were a company who seemed to want to reward me for my music tastes, which was different from other people my age at the time.
How did the internet affect your music tastes back then, in those golden Myspace days?
I worked in an internet cafe for one of my first jobs actually, and through that I learned about Napster. Then Myspace became an even better discovery tool for me, it was about your whole social life, using music to define who you are, which is incredibly important when you’re young. Myspace Top 8 was a big part of my life, it was how I connected with a musical community—I met Larkin Grimm on tour and through her discovered Dirty Projectors at a crucial point in their formation. The first time I saw them, it was an all-male seven piece, then the second time, it was a four piece with Amber and Angel. It was an extraordinary revelation. I was blown away by their musicianship and utter coolness. It was really refreshing to see women play complex bass and guitar parts while also singing using the hocket technique.
At what point did you transition from a scout to A&R?
I think I was essentially always an A&R. I think that’s something people should know, how you become an A&R is to just be one, and eventually someone will pay you. Very few people advertise for A&R jobs, because there are so many willing people who will say let me do it for you, here are all these bands. I feel like I was always doing it, and eventually I found a company.
What was your first signing?
tUnE-yArDs was my first signing, but the first thing I brought in as a scout was Bon Iver.
The Bon Iver thing was great, because it was just about how much I loved his music, and I told my bosses, and they went and signed the deal (for Europe). At that point I realized that I didn’t want that to be where my role ends. I wanted more involvement, more ownership of something I bring in, so I could nurture it. 4AD were great because they realized this and they let me try product management. It was important for my development because I wasn’t just sitting with bands and talking about what music we liked, I was able to talk about the structure of our company and our campaigns. The first campaigns I product managed were Deerhunter and Bon Iver and those were really important learning experiences for me.
So then you signed tUnE-yArDs?
Yes, my bosses saw that I was ready to take something on for myself, and they wanted to give me the opportunity to grow, and the next thing I found was tUnE-yArDs. I believe this was actually via Dirty Projectors’ Top 8 Myspace friends.
Now I know my headline: “Top 8 gave me my career”!
That’s how Katie from Young Turks discovered the XX too…
We should talk to her about Myspace! You did tell me once that there’s hardly any discussion of women in the music business…
I really think that should be part of the discussion about sexism towards female artists, because it baffles me that you read so many articles about it, and there’s no mention of the fact that the way to improve things for the female artists is to put more women in higher positions in the music industry. And not just at labels. Gender balance should be reflected across every area, be it in a gear shop, a guitar shop, at a booking agency, in a publishing company. I know lots of women in lots of roles, and I feel good that things are growing, but it’s interesting that this growth or striving towards balance is never mentioned, when it’s so obviously crucial.
It’s a question of mirroring as well. Like a boutique label at a major might have one female solo artist and five all male bands, and that might feel normal because people look round the office and see the same ratio.
It’s about the role as well. There’s certain roles which are dominated by women, which makes it look balanced on paper. PR and marketing are traditionally roles which have been inhabited more by women, and it’s helped create overall gender balance in the industry, but I meet a lot of interns who are young women, and I ask them what they want to be doing, and they seem to be gravitating towards those roles. I ask them about A&R and they tell you they never thought they could do it. The fact is they can do that. Not that they have to do it, but I'd like them to know they have the choice.
Let’s discuss Grimes, because I feel so amazed by what you’ve achieved with her. When did she first come onto your radar, and what was it like to sign her?
Because of the internet, there’s so much information all the time. It’s not about when you hear about someone, it’s about when they grab your attention so hard you can’t ignore it anymore. With Grimes, I was already aware of her, she’d made two albums and an EP. I was on my way to Pop Montreal, and I met her manager at the time, who ran the label she was on, and found out that they were looking for a partnership, someone that they could work with outside of Canada. Her music at that point was not obviously commercial, so they were talking to independent labels. There were a lot who really liked her, but I remember Claire saying we were pretty much the only ones who would take Visions and put it out just as it was, other labels apparently asked for her to rework it with a producer.
The other thing I would say about Grimes is that there was so much happening around her at that time that I assumed she was already working with a bigger label. The first time I went to see her play and I was kicking myself for missing that opportunity. It was the best show I’d seen for a new artist at that time. The next day I met her manager and they said they were looking for partners and I literally ran back to my room to email my boss her record. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t need a label anymore to get things started, a good label will enhance what you are already doing. By the time Claire was signed, she was already releasing records on a small imprint, touring and doing interviews, and she had a visual presence. These days, a label has the most impact if you’ve already got the wheels in motion before they’ve got involved.
But Grimes did become so much more visible after the label got involved, and I know you were a huge part of it. I remember being so excited when I realized you were working with her, and I discovered that after I saw your hand modeling her vagina rings!
The right team can make a big difference to artists and Grimes has a great one. Claire is very inspiring to work with and I think she brings out the best work in the people around her, she is also extremely multi-talented and all she really needed was facilitation to carry out her ideas, which I hope she would agree we encouraged her to pursue.
Now you have a little power, what would you like to do for women in the industry? What would you like to see as your legacy so far?
I feel really lucky that I met Merrill and Claire. By signing those artists and helping them see out their visions, I feel like I’ve helped in some way. Their music is wonderful, but they’re also feminist icons of our age. They’re both DIY, they call all the shots making their music and present it fearlessly. I feel incredibly proud of their achievements.