Saffron Records: Redressing gender disparities in the music tech industry

Courtesy of Saffron Records

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Many industries continue to be dominated by men, and music is no exception.

It’s no secret that men – namely, white, cis and straight – endure as the music industry’s gatekeepers. Each year discussions on festivals are largely focused on the absence of women on line-ups. All-male acts make up 70 percent of major US festival programmes, and if we delve deeper into the tech side of the industry, the disparities are even wider.

A report, entitled Inclusion in the Studio?, found that across 800 popular songs released between 2012 and 2019, 21.7 percent of the artists were women, 12.5 percent were songwriters and only 2.6 percent were producers. If we’re to add in the layer of race, the study reveals that even though artists of colour climbed up the charts, only eight out of 1,093 production credits were ascribed to women of colour.

The stats don’t look good. To address the gender imbalance in the tech side of the music industry, Laura Lewis-Paul founded the record label Saffron in 2015. Designed as an imprint to support women and non-binary people in music, the label has since expanded to become a powerhouse: it encompasses the DJ initiative Mix Nights, the Saffron for Sound music tech courses, the workshops Tech Dissect and a Members Club. Most recently, Saffron launched 7 Days of Sound. From Sherelle to Henrietta Smith-Rolla (aka Afrodeutsche) and Anna Meredith, the programme was packed with a week of workshops and talks from industry experts, aimed towards helping women and non-binary people learn how to navigate the industry, pick up new skills and finesse their practice. It served as a reminder that there is space for women and non-binary people in music, and there’s accessible help for those looking to forge a career in music production, or DJing.

We catch up Laura Lewis-Paul and Saffron’s head of development, Lizzy Ellis, to talk about Saffron’s beginnings, their work on helping people to upskill, and their new 10-month programme Springboard.

Lizzy Ellis © Courtesy of Saffron Records

How did Saffron Records begin?

Saffron was started in 2015 by Laura Lewis-Paul as a record label that specifically supported womxn into the music industry. Our mission gradually changed as we reflected on the question of where the deepest need for change was when looking at the gender imbalance in music. This then stemmed back to the fact that women and gender non-conforming people were so poorly represented in the music tech landscape. The stats for professional music producers are staggeringly low, comprising just five percent women and 2.6 percent Black women. So, in 2016 we began Saffron for Sound (music production and sound engineering) courses and Mix Nights (DJ) courses in Bristol. Laura’s background lies heavily in community engagement and reactive alternative education, so this combination seemed to be the right direction for the company to go in.

How has the culture of this industry led to such great gender disparities?

There are many levels to this and at the deepest, there is the stereotype that women just aren’t interested or ‘any good’ at tech stuff, which is reflected in gender imbalances in other STEM fields. This has led to music tech spaces being overwhelmingly dominated by a male, and often white male, presence, which then causes a multitude of blatant and more subtle access issues for womxn, or anyone that doesn’t ‘fit the mould’.

Firstly, it can be hard for womxn to visualise themselves working in these kinds of areas when there is such a lack of role models for them to see. Then, when womxn do make it into these spaces they often come across toxic environments with cultures of mansplaining, microaggressions and more, and we encounter this on an ongoing basis ourselves too.

Looking at the music industry as a whole, and not just the tech side, it really is an old boys club and it can be incredibly tough for womxn to reach the upper echelons of power and decision making that is needed to break the clique-y cycle of the straight white guy who just promotes other straight white guys.

Courtesy of Saffron Records

How is Saffron combating gender inequality in the industry?

We primarily work directly with women, non-binary and gender non-conforming people who are looking to gain skills in music tech, by providing them with accessible and supportive education and community. This can be through our courses, members club, label and so on. We place a big priority on trying to reach womxn from all places in society and providing accessibility to those who face further barriers to entry and progression, which go beyond their gender. We also work in upskilling existing womxn artists and industry workers to level-up their knowledge in the tech side of things to harness greater confidence and control in their careers.

We feel it is also important to work with organisations and cisgender men in the music tech industry to try and bring about a culture change there, from the inside out. We need to have good role models and advocates across the gender spectrum if we are going to see long-term change.

Saffron began in Bristol. In what ways, if any, has Bristol’s music scene impacted Saffron?

The non-corporate, experimental and independent music scene – and general way of life – that Bristol is renowned for has undoubtedly had an impact on Saffron. The collaborative nature of the industry here has been key in helping us to survive and thrive over the past five and a half years. Established institutions such as Bristol Beacon – formerly known as Colston Hall – and Team Love have been supportive from day one. It’s also been great as a company to ‘grow up’ with open-minded younger organisations such as Noods Radio who also have a very inclusive and ‘can-do’ approach to making opportunities in the industry accessible.

Courtesy of Saffron Records

Could you tell me more about 7 Days of Sound? How did that come about?

In November 2019 we ran an all-day music tech gathering in London called Tech Dissect and we’d hoped to do the same in November 2020, but of course, it wasn’t possible. So, we decided to totally change the setup and come up with something different that would actually serve our community in a different and more beneficial way. 7 Days of Sound was a week-long online event of digital workshops for women and gender non-conforming people to grow their skills in aspects of music production, engineering, scoring, DJing, business, wellbeing and more. January can often be a bleak time of year for people, especially right now with higher unemployment and lack of opportunities in music, so we decided to run it then to give people a positive focus and community to engage with.

By being a fully digital event it allowed us to connect with an audience on a global scale, as well as reaching those that may otherwise have had difficulties travelling to IRL events, such as single parents, people with access issues, people in rural areas, etc. Doing a big event like this also allowed us to showcase some incredible people we’ve wanted to work with for ages, like Henrietta Smith-Rolla and Suzi Analogue!

Courtesy of Saffron Records

You’ve just announced your Springboard project. Could you walk me through what it is?

Springboard is an exciting new project that has been funded by the Youth Music Incubator fund. This 10-month long initiative will allow Saffron to provide seven young women or gender non-conforming people, age 18-25, to receive a grant of £1,000-£3,000 that can be used to fund their very own music-based project. Through the year they will receive a budget to develop their own new or existing creative projects, whilst receiving one-to-one mentoring and support, professional development coaching and access to digital music conferences and events.

Can we know who some of the professionals and mentors are?

Sophia Ahmed is the newest member of the Saffron team and will be Springboard’s project coordinator. Sophia has been working with young people for the last 10 years and has a variety of experience both in youth work and the music industry. Even though Sophia will be carrying out all the support in terms of mentoring and professional development she will be ensuring that all participants retain total ownership over their projects. Therefore participants will have an opportunity to identify other professionals that can provide specific mentorship as well as have access to online workshops hosted by Saffron’s membership programme, business development training days and a small budget to purchase tickets to additional music/training events.

© Rianna Tamara, courtesy of Saffron Records

Where do you see Saffron going in a post-pandemic world?

Bringing back all of our IRL courses, because we really miss running them! We also have a brand new course in radio production which we’re working on with Noods. We’ll be expanding these courses out of Bristol and into London, Leicester and Nottingham too, as soon as restrictions lift. On an international level, we hope to do more partnership work with the British Council, collaborating with other organisations and understanding the needs and successes of womxn in music tech across the world, which will help us all to work towards our common goal.

What more can we do, collectively, to create more balance in music?

If you want to make a change in the short term, think about who you support, uplift and champion in the industry. You have to do the work and the research, but there are ‘other’ people out there. It’s important not to simply try and tick the diversity box and move on though, we need to look at nurturing a deeper and longer-lasting level of change. As an individual or an organisation, think about how we can bring together three key areas: support, education, community. Be prepared to never have it ‘sorted’ and to always be receptive to change. Saffron is also always evolving and we continue to learn and adapt.

Applications for Saffron Springboard are now open.

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