Murray McLachlan in conversation with Vick Bain – the creator of The F-List for Music, an advocate and campaigner for equality and diversity in the music industry with over 25 years of experience in the business. Vick has been enrolled into the Music Week Women in Music Awards Roll Of Honour, featured in BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Music Powerlist and raised an important question on BBC World News + BBC One TV: “Why are there no women nominated for best artist in Brit Awards 2023?”
MM: Tell us about your earliest musical experiences and music education. Where did you grow up? Did your love of music manifest itself from childhood?
VB: I grew up in a very working-class household in the NE of England but I was always very aware of music around me; one of my earliest memories is playing in the garden, I was possibly three, and hearing Here Comes The Sun on the radio and just loving it, I have always experienced an intense physical reaction to music. Here Comes The Sun is a song with very childlike qualities so I can see why it so appealed to me but it’s very pertinent right now in the mizzly grey of March, we’re all just waiting for the sun to arrive around the corner. Then not long after that my Nana, who was a widow, re-married a lovely man called Tom, who had served in WW2 but was also very musical and he taught me all of his favourite marching songs and I never stopped singing from there. We moved around the UK a lot and some schools were better at music than others, but I always found the local church to go singing in and through my teenage years also joined local musical theatre companies and formed small singing groups with friends. I was always singing.
MM: I know that parental resistance to your wish for a career in music led to you leaving home in your late teens. Did this resistance deepen your determination and resolve to be involved in music and the arts?
VB: Yes, my Dad in particular was very resistant to my studying anything ‘arty’ and thus I wasn’t allowed to study an instrument formally, which is why I focused on singing. He was an engineer and had grown up in a lot of poverty so he was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to forge a meaningful career in music. He’s absolutely right of course, it’s a very precarious career path which is not easy or welcoming to those from working-class backgrounds but if you have music in your heart you have to follow it, don’t you? Thus, I moved back to the North-East of England (because it was cheap), got a bedsit and became fully financially independent when I was 18, worked for a year then went back to college to study performing arts and music.
MM: Who were the most important musical mentors at different stages in your life and career from childhood onwards? Tell us about what you learnt from each one and how their influence impacted on you!
VB: Hmmm, because my music education was so patchy I wouldn’t say anyone during my school years, but when I got into higher music education, my two singing teachers who took me all the way through my ABRSM grades were wonderful and also my HND course leader Kevin Stephens and my BA course tutor Rose Furlonger. Both of them believed in me, which is sometimes all you need, and I’ve kept in touch with Rose for 33 years now.
During my working career there have been different influences, including my time being a Practice Manager for two inspirational women Katherine Clarke and Liza For, rebellious feminist multi-award winning architects showing me how to be successful as working Mums, again who I am still in touch with. Not so many years after I moved to London, I became a single mother of twins, so I had that as an added obstacle to overcome before I was truly able to get my career going and Katherine and Liza were instrumental in my getting arts management experience. And in music I received real support from songwriting legend Simon Darlow, who was my first Chair at BASCA (now Ivors Academy) demonstrating to me the importance of having good Chair-CEO relationships!
MM: Tell us about your formal musical education after school. How did you cope having not had the opportunities at school that others benefitted from? How long did you take to do your BA? Were you given enough support during your course?
VB: When I auditioned to study a HND (Higher National Diploma) in Classical Music at Newcastle College that is when my lack of formal music education up to that point became really obvious. I was 21, I had just spent two years studying full-time for a BTEC National in Performing Arts, GCSE Music and Grade 5 in singing but others on the same course had been learning instruments since they were toddlers, playing in national youth orchestras and had Grade 8’s in various disciplines. So, I was by far the least qualified, but I must have made a good impression because I was accepted on the condition I get up to Grade 8 in singing and theory within an academic year, which I did. And obviously keep up with the HND work too, which was a joy because I loved it. I then completed a BA at Gateshead College, the first time they had run performing arts subjects as degrees there, pre The Sage, and was also the Student Union President and awarded Student of the Year, so I was pretty swotty, but again I loved it. In the end it took me 6 years to get my degree, it was tough as I had no financial support and my family were non-plussed as to what I was doing, but I was exceptionally determined and that attitude has helped through life.
MM: When did you realise that you had a passion and flair for organizing and leading projects? Did you direct plays, musicals or concerts at school or at university?
VB: That became pretty obvious almost immediately in my studying as somehow, I can’t really remember how now, I ended up directing almost everything I was involved with for 6-years. Occasionally I would demure and let someone else take charge but invariably they were sacked and I was asked back! So I directed and/or stage-managed dozens of theatre and music performances during that period, even while also performing in them, and thought that would be the direction I would go in, the business side. Perhaps because of my Dad’s influence I realised it would be almost impossible to survive solely as a musician, the competition was so intense and I didn’t have the financial resources to help me get going, but I wanted to be involved in the business side somehow, even if I didn’t have a clear picture of what that could look like.
MM: When did you realise that the music industry was far from a level playing field?
VB: As soon as I moved to London, I knew it was going to be a long haul. I moved down from the North East after realising there was little work there and took a chance to know no one in London but I felt that was my calling. I immediately went to the local library and hand-wrote application letters to all the record labels and music companies I could find in the Yellow Pages. I did get a couple of responses, but they were all to make offers for unpaid internships. I was very puzzled because I hadn’t heard of this before, a week’s work-experience when you are studying yes, but months unpaid?! I hadn’t realised this was considered normal to get into the industry! How was I going to pay my (even at that time) extortionate rent? So, I hit against the financial barriers to entry almost immediately. I ended up working in a chain of second-hand record stores that advertised for music loving Oxbridge graduates, obviously I wasn’t Oxbridge but there were lots there who were!
MM: When did you decide to dedicate your life to fighting inequality and campaign for more fairness and opportunities in the arts and music in particular?
VB: My time at BASCA, what was then the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors, was my first experience in a membership organisation that campaigned. I loved working for an organisation that wanted to make the music industry a better place; it matched the values that I had nurtured being involved with the Student Union movement a decade prior.
MM: In the early days of your work in diversity, did you encounter much resistance or were the majority of people and organisations you approached or worked with sympathetic?
VB: It’s always a topic that can hit nerves. When I sent out my first survey for my paper assessing attitudes towards equality and diversity in music, back in 2011, people would occasionally respond, if they responded at all, quite angrily and defensively. And you only have to look at the Twitter
comments below any of the BBC interviews or articles I am involved with to see that for most people the move towards equality is seen as being oppressive. I live in hope that is not the majority view, but it is definitely a vocal view.
MM: There is no question that women composers and performers have far more recognition and opportunities in 2022 than they did ten years ago. Do you feel that there is still a long way to go, or some way to go, before parity and equality of opportunity can be truly said to be in place?
VB: For sure we have made progress. But the research and statistics still show we have a long way to go. That’s not to applaud those publishers that have made a difference to women composers: I need to give a shout out to EVC Music for bucking the trend and actually running a female positive initiative which has been a huge success! When I was at BASCA I analysed the data for all of the winners of Ivor Novello Awards and found only 6% of those awards over a 60-year period had gone to women. But actually since 2010 it had only gone up to 10%. That is what got me interested in the pipeline for these awards, such as the Brits. The nominees and winners can only be chosen out of those musicians who are entered, and for The Ivors it was music publishers submitting works and for the Brits it’s the record labels. Out of that came my desire to understand who was on the rosters of these companies, who were they investing in and supporting professionally?
MM: The 2019 report ‘Counting the music industry’ made a significant impact and was widely read and commented on. Tell us about how you work on projects as ambitious, time-consuming and complex as this? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sheer enormity of projects such as this one?
VB: That was my research into the rosters. For several reasons, not least including my health as I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, I stepped down from my role as CEO of BASCA and found myself with the time to do the research which I had been longing to do for a couple of years. I looked at the publishers first, it took two months of careful analysis of music publishing websites. I then realised I had to look at the ‘other’ side of the industry, the labels and artists, to get a complete picture of what was going on and that took another two months. I ended up analysing well over 300 companies, with tens of thousands of musicians to gender-identify. So yes it was painstaking work but I was extremely determined to complete it because I knew it would give us a view of the industry which we hadn’t thought to look at before. I was inspired by the incredible work of Dr Stacey Smith and her team at Annenberg University where they analyse the musicians involved in over a thousand of the most popular songs in the US every year but no one had thought of looking at the music companies and who they are supporting professionally. And the results of Counting The Music Industry, telling us only 14% of songwriters and composers and 20% of signed artists to labels are women revealed so much about where we actually were in terms of gender equality in 2019. I was definitely removed from some people’s Christmas card lists as a result of publishing that data!
MM: Tell us about f-listmusic.uk and your involvement with it.
VB: The F-List directory came out of that research. A few months after publishing it, in early 2020 we had the same old outrage of male-only headliners being announced for the summer festivals and people would helpfully make recommendations on social media for one or two great female acts they thought should be booked instead. And I thought, I probably have thousands of women in my research data, if I extract it and make it public it might be a useful resource for festival bookers. So I spent another few weeks extracting the details about the female musicians, and put it into a Google Spreadsheet. Then a fantastic BBC music journalist called Mark Savage wrote an article about it on the BBC News website and it all went a bit crazy for a few weeks. Until the pandemic closed everything down! I then decided to transform it into a WordPress website where women could create their own listings and it took off from there and there are nearly 6 thousand entries, just an incredible resource of talent!
MM: What aspects of the music industry still infuriate you today?
VB: I feel there is still a lot of lip-service towards equality. Reading the statements about the reasons behind the extraordinary gender pay-gap reports is a lesson in slick PR compared to actually, you know, promoting women up these organisations so that they close the pay-gaps rather than talk about it.
That there is also little in the way of real financial support for us women in music campaigners says a lot about how the industry really operates. Every fantastic initiative or not-for-profit I know of who has been set up in the past 10-years or so by incredible campaigners, mainly women, doing vital work, is mainly doing it out of love and no money. I have regular talks with other women who are doing this work on shoestring budgets and very, very little funding. There is occasional support for a project here and there from a corporate company, but most don’t give anything. Believe me I have tried and you just get ignored. And there is no national Arts Council funded organisation doing this work either, which is a huge shame for such an unequal profession.
So, if there are any enlightened music companies out there who want to make meaningful change – please let me know!
MM: What can be done further to make industry a fairer, friendlier, and more inclusive place to work in?
VB: Every music company that can, and there are a lot that can, should be working with and supporting gender equality in music initiative. That would go a long way to providing expertise and solutions!
There is also, I feel a lot being hidden behind NDAs, hiding hypocrisy and bad behaviour so we need to do away with those too. Or time limit them. There is actually a lot that can be done legislatively to improve working conditions for people in music, various aspects of the Equality Act 2010 to be strengthened or extended to make it a safer and fairer place.
The ISM has a very distinguished history and reputation though some would say that it has a conservative rather than a radical style of delivery. Do you feel this is unfair?
I think in the past 10 years the ISM has made huge strides in modernising; from changes to governance and board make-up, to more recently a well-needed name change to the Independent Society of Musicians, MUCH more 21st century! And to a beautiful and bold re-brand which better reflects the rapidly expanding (doubling in size) and younger demographic of the now over 11,000 strong membership! And I have to say anyone who has ever met Deborah Annetts, the CEO, knows she is a force to be reckoned with and I certainly wouldn’t describe her as conservative, which is exactly what you need in a CEO of a membership organisation.
MM: Which organisations, movements and groups do you feel are truly making a positive impact and changing the environment for the good in music today?
VB: Obviously I’m very proud of having been the President of the ISM this past year, it’s a fantastic organisation to be involved with, and I feel we make an incredible positive impact to not just our members but the whole sector too, with effective campaigning, advice and support. Obviously I also hope The F-List has made a positive impact in terms of visibility for female and gender expansive musicians too. And then a huge shout out to ALL of the organisations and initiatives who are listed here because they are all making the music industry a better place.
MM: What would you like the ISM to continue doing? What reforms, if any, would you like to bring to the ISM?
VB: Keep doing what it is doing! But obviously you can’t sit on your laurels, no matter how successful you are, you have to constantly reflect and respond. Hopefully the membership will continue to expand and diversify and appeal to musicians from all genres of music, not just classical music, though of course that heritage is incredibly important too. We’re just about to launch a new website so do look out for that, I think that will be another big step forward. And the research around discrimination and harassment is hugely important, it was an honour to help write the Dignity At Work 2 report and that is an issue the ISM has led on for years so it’s important it keeps doing that work too, I’m sure it will.
MM: Given the breathtaking scale of everything you do, how do you manage to keep energised and avoid burn-out and exhaustion? Do you have days off and fitness routines? Does your diet and lifestyle decisions help you to keep going?
VB: Ahh yes well, after having recovered from cancer I have to listen to my body a lot more, I definitely do not have the same energy levels as before and I need a good amount of sleep every night to function. So working from home (mainly) helps a lot with that, relocating to Cornwall means I get lots of good, healthy country walks and I have been a vegetarian / sometimes pescetarian for over 40 years so perhaps that helps too?! But it also means I sometimes don’t manage to do everything as quickly as I’d like (sorry it took so long to get this back to you!).
MM: What are your burning desires, hopes and ambitions for in the long term?
VB: My number one priority right now is to complete my PhD. I started it four years ago and have been doing it part-time all around my consultancy work and my not-for-profit campaigning work so it’s been quite the juggle. I’m hoping to focus on it fully for a year this September and hopefully that will take me if not to the end, quite close to it. You may not be surprised to know it’s exploring women’s careers in music, looking at both the barriers to career progression but also the things that help, that enable, too, so it’s fascinating work!
MM: What work in particular are you most passionate about?
VB: I always say ‘women in music’ is my favourite subject, so I think that is my answer in a nutshell.
MM: What projects and activities in the near future are you particularly excited about and looking forward to?
VB: The ISM Empowered Musician day on the 21st April is an event I am really looking forward to as we still don’t do much in-person and meeting at least 100 members, along with an interview with Debbie Wiseman, is something I am very much looking forward to. Also The F-List Gender in Music Research Hub conference at ICMP (Institute of Contemporary Music Performance) on the 24th May is also going to be another brilliant in-person event I am very much looking forward to.