Serbia offers a colourful and dynamic music scene. However, women face many obstacles: sexism, prejudices… A number of young women wants to change this.
Serbia offers a very colorful and dynamic music scene with internationally famous festivals, club performances and concerts where musicians of all genres can be heard – from classical and jazz to alternative, local folk and pop music. Due to the long-lasting economic crisis in the country a career in music is still quite uncertain, unstable and unsupported, yet young musicians remain enthusiastic.
Alongside the discussion on the effect of the economic crisis on the Serbian music industry is the lack of female musicians performing in Serbia. There are many girls who attend music schools and later work as teachers, and when it comes to bands of diverse genres and local folk scene, these girls are usually active as singers/backing vocals, and less frequently as instrumentalists. On the other hand, young men more often get into independent musical creation and engage in music production, so they outnumber women in dominantly or all-male bands in festivals, concerts and clubs as instrumentalists and leaders of their own groups.
A research on this subject was conducted in 2013 by Femix, a project created in 2010, which focused on promotion and affirmation of women’s creation in various artistic fields. In a work called “She’s got the groove-and she’s a woman! – Young women on the alternative musical scene in Serbia”, Femix quantified the prevalence of “boy” and “girl” bands in the local scene, examined the reasons why women were less active in music, and gender-conditioned obstacles that women face in their career. The study was performed by analyzing music festival programs and counting the percentage of women performers, the percentage of the works of female artists downloaded from certain sites, and interviewing female musicians who talked about their own experiences. The conclusion was the following: in Serbia there are on average 8 times more male than female names amongst artists who create their own work, whereas this number in Europe is 7 and in the USA 5-6. Percentage-wise, the 5-year average prevalence of women from 2009 to 2013 on musical festivals in Serbia is 11.6%, the percentage in Europe is 12.9% and in the USA 14.3%. In addition, the percentage of works by female musicians downloaded amounts to 10-15% when only considering artists who create their own songs.
Femix had also conducted a research on the sample of 1733 high-school students from Serbia, which showed that young men’s interest to play in bands is twice as high as young women. After interviewing young female musicians it was concluded that the reasons for this disproportion lie in a certain male tradition in pop/rock productions, which, in the lack of female models, discourages girls. The vision of a woman as a primarily decorative element on stage, prejudice about women’s capacity and talent when it comes to ‘hard’ music and underestimating female musicians on a gender basis makes women want to prove themselves a lot more than men in order to be valued in the industry.
However this image is slowly changing as the number of women who perform and claim their space on stage is growing. In order to empower women in music and support their original work, Femix launched a project called “Femikseta” which, since 2010, publishes an annual compilation of songs of female musicians in Serbia at the end of each year. Until 2013 46 names were recorded and published, and young female designers design the cover of the Femixeta CD every year. In 2013 Femix created a campaign called “Add your note”, where female musicians shared their photos on social networks with the slogan “Add your note” in different places, inviting and encouraging other girls to play music. During the summer of 2015 Femix also organized drumming workshops for young girls.
The Femix projects, created in 2010, have three main focus points: Femikseta, the annual compilation of local girl bands, the annual Femix fest, where the bands who recorded for Femikseta are able to perform, and the Femix info site where culture news is published and female artists from various fields – music, film, and literature, are promoted.
Maša Peruničić, assistant coordinator of the Femix projects, describes the organization’s work as part of an “Organization for the promotion of activism”, and one which promotes female artistic creation and gender equality: “Our goal is to support the unknown artists, to get them to the public scene and create a network of young artists who will later cooperate… I am proud to say that since it was created five years ago, Femix organized forty-five events where the works of young female artists were presented – concerts, workshops, poetry evenings, movie nights and so on. The number of female musicians on Femikseta and within the music scene itself is rising every year.”
Femix also started cooperating with similar Swedish initiatives, and one of the important projects was a workshop organized in 2013 for high school students with the title “Gender and media from the point of view of high school students”, focusing on creating gender roles and identity in popular culture and media. At the end of the workshop students made their own pamphlets and analyzed newspaper articles and Maša concluded with satisfaction that “it’s possible to teach young people to apply critical thinking towards the process of creating gender roles through media, so they can one day, while questioning stereotypes contribute to the creation of better cultural scene in our country.”
This past summer Femix also organized drum workshops for little girls in different Serbian cities and towns, with the goal to give young girls a chance to get to know the instrument – the response was overwhelming. As Maša put it, “at first we planned to host ten girls, then the number augmented to twelve, thirteen, and finally we had fifty, sixty applications left. Those girls were invited to attend workshops that were organized from October 22-25, so this project was also a huge success.”
Selena Simić, a young Serbian drummer who is a member of two bands and also cooperates with Femix, describes how the national rock/punk/metal scene has changed over the years:
“I started playing drums when I was fourteen, and now I play in two girl bands – one of them is the alternative punk/rock band Vibrator u rikverc (Vibrator in Reverse), a very active group which was created seven years ago. The other band is Nemesis, which was founded one and a half years ago and plays melodic death metal. As it is for women in alternative music in general, compared to a few years ago, there are definitely more women playing in mixed bands, which is great. However, when it comes to all girl bands, there are only five active bands in Belgrade and places nearby that play rock/punk/metal – the two I am part of are among them.“
Selena explains that three years ago there were twice as many, but that girl bands have a tendency of quickly splitting up: “On one hand, the reason why this happens is that they usually start as cover bands, and if they do not offer some original work the audience gets bored, so they get harshly criticized and hence discouraged. On the other hand, there is quite often a lot of vanity and egocentrism involved, especially because women are in the minority and therefore feel that they need to individually prove themselves and stand out in a sphere that’s mainly masculine and very competitive. This affects the quality of cooperation.“ For that very reason, Selena wants to create a platform for girl bands where they can create music together and claim their own space. Hence she organised the concert “Women play everything“ in May 2015, where five bands performed: Plump (rock), Violent Dolls (grunge), Vibrator u rikverc (punk/rock), Jenner (trash metal) and Nemesis (melodic death metal). As it went very well and was well-covered by the media, she is planning to turn the event in a festival which would promote and affirm girl bands exclusively.
In Selena’s opinion the reason for the lack of women in the music scene is the prejudice that women aren’t as talented as men playing instruments: “A woman who plays drums/bass/the guitar must be better than all men in order to be valued. If she is average, she’s automatically labeled as bad and talentless, whilst men who are equally average are never vilified and mocked. In rock/metal a woman needs some nerve and courage in order to feel good on stage and claim the it for herself, as this same stage is traditionally considered a men’s public space.“
Women face a cruel sabotage from both the audience and their male colleagues. “When I started playing drums, I usually received comments that I’m a tomboy, a lesbian etc. Once a bass player who wanted to insult me said: ‘If she can play the drums, then I can play the violin…today I still play the drums and he works in a post office.“ Men are however still seen as the role model and the example to follow: “When someone wants to compliment me, they usually say that I ‘play like a man’, ‘hit those drums like a man’, and that I ‘don’t have a typically-female body positioning’. They always compare me to a man as an ideal standard.“
Moreover, unlike men, women’s physical appearance is the first thing which is commented upon when they get on stage: “Whether they’re ‘hot’ or not is seen as an important factor in estimating the quality of the music and the band, whilst for men that’s never something that’s relevant.“
Another problem is that club owners often try to con girl bands into renouncing their payment, or try to somehow infringe the agreement – they generally do that to everyone, but girls are a much easier target – which is why Selena prefers a male band manager: “This is a very unfortunate situation, but men are simply taken more seriously, they attain bigger authority and under male protection it is less likely that we might be cheated upon.“
Despite the difficulties, Selena will continue her fight for a more equal access of women to rock/metal music and to traditionally “male“ instruments. This year she also led a drum workshop for 7 to 12-13 year old girls organized by Femix, and was overwhelmed by the reaction: “At the end of the workshop we made a public performance and parents later asked for telephone numbers of drum teachers. I think we have eliminated some prejudices with these young girls before they got the chance to manifest themselves.“ Selena hopes that the girls she met will continue to engage in music and might one day form their own bands: “Until then we will break the barriers for them so they can, when they grow up, take part in a much more pleasant and women-welcoming music scene, compared to how it is now“.