Friendly Society: Saffron Records are creating opportunity in music and technology
This is Friendly Society, an editorial series by Crack Magazine and Patreon. Meeting the independent creators building active relationships with their audience and getting paid for it.
“I find that Bristol has quite a rebellious anti-capitalist system” Laura Lewis-Paul says as we sit in Cafe Kino on Stokes Croft, a non-profit worker’s cooperative that aptly illustrates this point. Lewis-Paul, the founder and creative director of Saffron Records, is talking about how the city has been integral to Saffron’s existence. “It has that scene which feels very supportive of growth” she continues, “I don’t think I would have done it if it wasn’t in Bristol”.
Whilst Saffron’s roots are very much in the city, the music tech initiative has grown to encompass a vital global community since Lewis-Paul started it up in 2015. Currently only “5% of the music tech industry is women. 2.6% of professional producers are women and less than 1% of that are women of colour” Lizzy Ellis, Saffron’s Head of Development explains. “And then that doesn’t even consider non-binary and trans [people], that doesn’t even come into the statistic because it’s so dire already”. Recognising this stark gender imbalance in the music tech sector, Lewis-Paul initially founded Saffron as a record label to meet the needs of women and gender minorities within the industry and work toward advancing intersectional gender equality. “It was really about creating space and giving women the tools and skills to be able to basically build their own music careers”, Lewis-Paul says, “and giving them the tech language which supported that”.
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The label still forms part of their output, featuring releases from the likes of Mercy’s Cartel, HANAH, and Grove, the latter two of whom are also alumni of Saffron’s Artist Development programme. Saffron also offers music production and sound engineering courses, a Mix Nights DJ series, the more recently launched radio production course – in collaboration with Noods Radio – and the subscription-based Saffron Members Club. This summer also saw Saffron start courses in Nottingham and they’ve already “doubled the amount of signups” for their next series of courses, evidencing the clear demand and need for these resources.
At the core of Saffron’s work to redress gender imbalance within the industry is breaking down the many access issues that prevent women and non-binary people from getting into music tech in the first place. Fundamental to Saffron’s ethos is tackling the financial aspect of this. “We could run our courses probably at a break-even if we made it so that everyone had to pay to go on the courses” Ellis says. “But it’s so important that there’s not a financial barrier.” It’s no surprise that recent gender pay stats within the music industry still show significant disparity, with an average gender pay gap of 26.0% and 31.5% at Sony Music and Warner Music respectively, emphasising how vital Saffron’s work is. Within this landscape, there’s also “already such a big financial barrier for people accessing DJ and music production” Lewis-Paul says, “so I think that’s one of the things we really want to be able to support is bursaries on everything that we do”.
Another significant factor is that cis male-dominated spaces still pervade the sector. It’s one thing for music tech companies to be aware of the need for a more intersectional workforce and offer opportunities to women and non-binary people, but it’s another for them to actually create welcoming work environments. “It’s all very well us working with young women, non-binary people and trans folks to get them the skills” Ellis says, “but then once they go into the industry, if the industry is not ready to actually treat people in the correct way then… To send them into something that can be a very toxic environment, that doesn’t enable growth or the ability to thrive. It just means that those feelings of not being listened to are propelled further.”
From the very outset, Saffron understand the importance of visible role models. “I know that, for me, it’s just so important that I’m in the position that I am because then other Black women are able to see me in the music tech space. It’s increasing that 1% hopefully” Lewis-Paul says, referring to the 1% of music tech that women of colour currently occupy. To ensure these changes are happening at a foundational level across the sector, Lewis-Paul is working on setting up a consultancy to work with music tech companies, offering support across their diversity inclusion equality programmes.
©️ Emli Bendixen
Coming from a background in community development, Lewis-Paul’s focus on nurturing the strong, supportive communities has been in place from the start. This support network is integral to Saffron’s ability to keep growing: “It’s a symbiotic support” Lewis-Paul says of Saffron’s fast-growing Patreon community. “Because whilst we’re supporting that community they’re also investing in us and in our growth.” This public support has also established “a more robust model because we don’t have to rely on funding, which can be inconsistent”, she explains. “It gives us more stability which feels really empowering because it’s our community that are saying ‘OK, yeah keep going”.
The Saffron Members Club was created as a way to provide support for this community. A tiered subscription-based resource via Patreon, with an option for allies to pay it forward, the Members Club offers “year-round tools and opportunities for women and non-binary people to connect, learn and grow in music tech”. Before officially launching the Members Club they ran a series of online workshops with producers Emmavie, object blue and Yazzus. The huge success of these workshops, attended by hundreds of people across the world, encouraged them to launch the Members Club and broaden their horizons even further. “It showed that it’s not just the people in Bristol we’re working with” Ellis enthuses. “It was literally people from every continent that were engaging. It was like, wow, this is a really interesting opportunity!”
As part of the Members Club, Saffron teamed up with the British Council to connect with groups in Tunisia and Pakistan. “The British Council already have existing groups that work with women and non-binary [people], not always in production or engineering or tech, with music in general. And what we’ve been able to do is support them by giving them free membership” Lewis-Paul says. “It’s been really good in terms of how we could further develop our membership” she continues. “When we had our chat with the Pakistani members it was just so vibrant and dynamic. And they were just like ‘OK, so we haven’t got this, this and this here. How can you Saffron help us to get our music heard in the UK and worldwide?’”
Looking forward, Saffron are keen to continue growing this global movement. “Because of the work we’re doing throughout the pandemic we’re able to build connections, build understanding of the needs, and then go out to Tunisia, to Pakistan, and then work with them further and support them further” Lewis-Paul says. “I know with Tunisia they actually really wanted to work out a way in which they could run something similar there, so I feel that model could be replicated. So there are very positive directions.”
“It’s global already” Ellis adds, “but I’m excited thinking of the potential for how much more global it can be”.
©️ Emli Bendixen