Twenty-six years ago, the music industry was a much different place for women. Female producers, engineers, studio techs, roadies, any kind of role outside of singer or backup dancer was almost unheard of and the barriers to entry were high (and could be very predatory).
Ebonnie Rowe was not having it.
“As somebody who was producing events and being a promoter, everyone kept looking around wondering ‘where’s the guy? Where’s the real person doing this,’” says Rowe, founder, creator and powerhouse behind Honey Jam, a now 26-year-old festival for and about women in music. “If I would go with a male colleague to an industry event, no one was thinking ‘maybe she’s the financial officer’ or ‘maybe she’s an artist manager,’ they thought ‘she just wants to get with the band.’ It was a visceral thing, you can’t mistake it.”
Women weren’t taken seriously. They were overlooked. If they managed to get into the room where they were part of the conversation about the production side of the music industry, there was plenty of “mansplaining of the stuff you studied and are qualified to do,” she says.
While it’s still happening today, Rowe knows things are getting better all around. Women are standing up, perusing their dreams and, when someone treats them badly — trying to trade sex for opportunities or harassing them if they refuse– women are naming names and moving forward.
“Everybody has some kind of obstacle to face,” she says. “Either you want something or you don’t. It’s the difference between ‘wouldn’t it be nice if…’ and the actual desire and passion for something. If you have it, you knock down any barriers and put blinders on and not be too discouraged when you face those types of negative attitudes.That’s how I feel about the women in the non-traditional roles trying to get into the music industry.”
Moving forward together in support and song
Rowe founded Honey Jam in 1995 to celebrate and draw attention to women in music at all levels and in all ways, supporting the incredible talent and helping launch and support the careers of now household names, including Nelly Furtado, recent Juno winner Jully Black, Melanie Fiona, SATE, Melanie Durrant, the legend Michie Mee, LUKALA, Haviah Mighty, Jordan Alexander and so many others. Many of them continue to be involved in Honey Jam, serving as mentors during the annual showcase and workshops or offering their services in other ways as their careers progress.
One of the biggest changes that has helped so many of these women is the ability to do it all themselves — the technology we have on our phones and in our laptops didn’t exist in such an accessible way back in 1995, eliminating a barrier to entry for women.
Now, “You can be your own producer, your own publicist and get yourself out there on all the different platforms,” Rowe says. “There was a big reliance on other people before for everything you wanted to get done and 99% of those people were men. A lot of young artists who were very naïve, there was no Google or internet, so you couldn’t look up these people saying they could make you a star and you’d believe it. They would make you think if you don’t do this thing, you’ll be blacklisted and there’s never going to be any chance for you. There’s always another chance. You never have to compromise yourself, never ever ever.”
Rowe, who last month received a Trailblazer Award from the Canadian Independent Music Association for her support of independent artists and for founding Honey Jam, stresses the importance of women claiming their space and asserting their right to be where they want to be.
“Don’t be afraid,” she says. “There are times I hear about women in boardrooms and there’s the idea of being grateful they let you in. You have to get rid of that idea and know you are qualified. When you see the pictures of CEOs and it’s all one gender and one race and when you get in you think, ‘I better be quiet and not make waves.’ No. Be yourself. Do not erase yourself because of that fear. If speaking out is an issue, speak up and find allies within the organization. You’re not doing yourself any favors and you’re not doing the women who would come up after you any favors by playing small.”
The future is, and will be, female
Given all these advancements, and the power of social media to help boost an artists’ career and lift a producer’s profile, does Rowe see a time in which Honey Jam is no longer needed?
“My hope is for us to not have to exist. That’s the goal,” she says. “That should be the goal of anyone fighting in a space. If you said to me, ‘I’ll give you $10 million for an organization that is fighting for women or, door two, everyone’s on equal footing,’ I’m taking door two! It’s not about me and my profile and my enrichment. If we’re not making progress, some people need to be fired.”
Every achievement and success is a win worth celebrating, she says, and if Honey Jam accomplishes all she created it to do, Rowe says she hopes the organization would transform and “if we were still existing, it’s because we want to and girls just want to have fun, ,not because there are still all these barriers we need to break though. I long for the day when it’s not the first woman this or that.”
Last year, Honey Jam — typically a summer event — was mostly virtual, with Rowe and a handful of artists gathering for the celebration. This year, come hell or high water, Rowe is determined to have as many people together as possible for the August showcase, in the same space, to mark another great year and showcase more up-and-coming musicians.
“The venue we’re using has a broadcast exemption,” she says. “I can’t imagine we won’t be able to do it (in person), it’s just a question of whether we’ll have an audience. By any means necessary — We will move the earth to make this happen. You just don’t want to get in the way,” she laughed.
More information about Rowe and Honey Jam can be found here.