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Sonic aGender tackles the relationship between music and gender

Darebin Music Feast is right around the corner. The 11-day festival is a celebration of community, music and creativity, with 120 events and workshops popping up across the city of Darebin, from Northcote to Reservoir.

However, there’s more to this year’s program than to simply entertain. A focus on gender equality, representation and accessibility in the music industry are underlying themes for the festival, which are particularly prevalent in Sonic aGender; a series of events happening over opening weekend.

“The idea is that it’s an events-based collective, putting on events to explore ideas around gender in music,” says Janelle Johnstone, the woman behind Sonic aGender. “This suite of events that we’re doing for Darrebin Music Feast are kicking off the program, and it really is about setting the tone for what this year is about.”

With a long and varied background in the music industry, Johnstone knows a thing or two about what goes on behind the scenes. The now-curator has an impressive resume, starting off as a musician herself, before working as a venue booker, a producer for Melbourne’s Big Day Out, a radio host at PBS, and eventually moving into community development programs.

“I think I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve gotten some really great opportunities,” she muses. “It’s kind of classic music industry style for someone to just call you up out of the blue and go ‘hey, do you want to book The Punters Club?’ because that’s often how it works. So, I’ve been lucky that I’ve had particular people who have been quite influential for spotting me and opening up doors.”

Entering the world of music, booking and producing in her twenties was an overwhelming experience for Johnstone. She felt like there was a pressure to be tough in such a male dominated scene; advice which was passed onto her by male colleagues and mentors. She says that there came a point where she decided to defy that and challenge the status quo. It’s this experience and knowledge that has propelled her forward and has been the driving force behind Sonic aGender.

“I didn’t want to have to buy into that structure, so that sort of sparked a lot of thinking,” she says. “I guess in many ways that’s what these events are about as well. It’s about thinking a bit differently about ‘ok, let’s not just do a panel, let’s work out how it could be ultimately interactive’ and kind of bring different ideas together that aren’t about that hierarchy of power and stuff.”

Sonic aGender centers around three key events, which Johnstone has tried to make as interesting and different as possible. She’s incorporated a family-friendly day of music, Shake The Tree, a morning of music clip watching for Clip Flicks, and an opening-night discussion.

“The Clip Flicks event which is on the Saturday morning at the Thornbury Picture House, that’s something that I’ve been thinking about for ages,” Johnstone explains. “I’m kind of from the DIY, old school, underground scene when you were only ever fancy when you did a clip, like they were really expensive to do so no one fucking did them, and now it’s stock standard. You produce visual product with audio, and that’s the marketing tool.”

“It was just a way of thinking about all those ideas that are so critical to music making and going ‘well, how can we explore that in a public setting?’ and then came up with the idea of lets sit in a cinema and watch film clips for an hour, and then talk about it,” she says with a laugh.

Of all the events, the opening night discussion is the one that Johnstone seems most passionate about. She’s tailored it to creatives from the punk rock/indie scene, with Darebin local Jen Cloher the keynote speaker, and musicians such as Barb Waters, Alice Skye and Linda Johnston also coming along for the night.

“Linda from The Dacios, she’s been a really long-term friend and who I just reckon is one of the fucking most really interesting and great artists in Melbourne,” says Johnstone admiringly. “In that [last] Little Ugly Girls show, she just did an homage to the fact that she’s in menopause, and I was like ‘when was the last time I was at a punk show and heard someone talking about menopause?’ like, it was really awesome.”

Johnstone is hopeful that the open, round table format will spark some inspiring and eye-opening conversations, some of which women in the industry are already engaging in.

“A lot of these conversations that we’ll be having are actually the sorts of convos we’ve been sitting on bar stools and having at the pub for years. Or, you know, waiting around for a soundcheck, or waiting for an interview at pbs or whatever,” she says.

“We’ve been sort of in creative development with these tables, so most of the groups are getting together and we’re working through some of the issues and kind of getting a shape to how the narrative will roll.”

“Generally the first 20 minutes of everyone getting together was like ‘blah blah blah’ and then so quickly, the convo turned to sound and what’s unique about your particular practice and ‘oh, you’re from Tassie how did that relate?’ and ‘oh, you’re from Traralgon,’ you know, and just this idea of what people are bringing, that’s really cool and different.”
While these talks are for women to voice their experiences as artists in a creative industry, Johnstone hopes that men realise these are conversations they need to be a part of too.

“When you do these kinds of events, this is not the time for men to shut their ears down. This is the time for men to come along and participate,” she says. “I worry sometimes that this then becomes women’s work? ‘Oh, the women are sorting themselves out’, and it’s not about that.”

“This is absolutely about people coming and listening to music experts talking about sound; that’s the bottom line.”

Sonic aGender runs on Friday October 19,  as part of the Darebin Music Feast. Check out the Darebin Music Feast website for tickets and the full program.