Women in Music: Scotland’s Shifting Music Scene

The record deal is dead, success is still sexist and downloads don't pay: Sharleen Spiteri, Emma Pollock, Law Holt and Be Charlotte speak with The Skinny about what makes it all worth it

Feature by Katie Hawthorne | 05 May 2017

The Skinny meets Sharleen Spiteri on the morning of Texas' ninth album drop. Over a cuppa outside Facebook’s London headquarters, where the band is scheduled for a live Q&A to discuss Jump on Board later in the day, Spiteri’s a ball of energy. She shows off a temporary foot brace and accompanying footage from an overly competitive bouncy castle race filmed backstage at The One Show, and lets rip a barrage of enthusiastic expletives over a freshly announced Edinburgh gig performing for none other than Barack Obama. We’re here to talk about Texas’ latest album, but ultimately to investigate how record sales, sexism and songwriting have shifted over the thirty years that she’s fronted one of Glasgow’s favourite pop bands.

For the full lowdown on how Scotland’s music scene has warped and shifted in an increasingly digital age, we also catch up with ex-Delgados, prolific solo artist and Chemikal Underground label boss Emma Pollock for an early morning phone call, and track down pop queen, Iklan collaborator and Young Fathers affiliate Law Holt in a pub off Holloway Road. Dundee’s Be Charlotte – aka Charlotte Brimner – contributes thoughts on her career via e-mail. Between the four of them, these musicians have racked up roughly seventy years of collective experience in an industry that has become unrecognisable since Texas released their debut LP Southside in 1989.

It’s no spoiler that times are tough for your favourite musicians. Measly Spotify revenues combine with a devastating drop in physical sales and the relentless drive for social media ‘exposure’. Brutal cuts to arts funding rub against dramatically reduced financial support for higher education, and are undermined further by the prevalence of insecure zero hour contracts and an insufficient minimum wage. A crumbling mainstream press focusses on click-bait headlines, Ed Sheeran can afford to casually buy out TLC to secure the artistic integrity of his insufferable chart toppers, and it no longer makes economic sense for major labels to take a creative risk on an avant garde artist. That’s before we count how many of Glastonbury 2017’s Pyramid Stage headliners are non-white or non-cis-male (psst – it’s zero).  

Some of these issues are gendered. Some, like the sweep of digitisation, are not. And some of these problems are as old as the industry itself. There is a danger of marginalising female voices when we talk of ‘women in music’, and as our four interviewees demonstrate, there are as many different stories to be told as there are musicians determined to keep the industry alive. Still, when it comes down to statistics, it’s irrefutable that female representation in the music industry, as in many creative or professional spheres, is seriously lacking.

As Vulture recently reported, the huge commercial success and A-List status of artists like Adele, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift can trick us into thinking that the music industry is more progressive than it actually is. Kelsey McKinney’s research into the US Billboard Hot 100 chart reveals that women performed just 22.3 percent of last year’s Top 40 hits, had writing credits for 10.8 percent of those hits, and produced less than 5 percent of the year’s biggest songs. For a British equivalent, try Helienne Lindvall’s heart-breaking blog which revealed in 2010 that just under half of the women in the UK’s music industry earn less than £10,000 a year. A Guardian study from January reported that women fill just 30 percent of senior executive roles in music, but hold 60 percent of the internships. We should note, too, that these grim statistics do not account for transgender or non-binary persons.

Spiteri puts down her tea and says, frankly: “Today [sexism] is just better hidden. I’ve said this a million times. Let’s be honest, if I were a male artist, what d’you think I’d be getting? I’d be the fucking dog’s bollocks. I’d be a national treasure. I would probably be on the front cover of every music magazine on the planet. Nine albums, 40 million [records] sold, thirty years in the industry, writing all my own songs? No one writes that story. No one ever talks [about] that story. Everyone always talks [about], ‘Oh, what’s it like to be a woman in the music industry?’ THAT’s what it’s really like. That’s the story.” 

Spiteri, Pollock, Holt and Brimner have experienced thoroughly different paths, from major labels to DIY releases, and navigated the shifting tides of an industry that’s rapidly realising there’s little money left. Of all of our interviewees, Texas’s success story is one of heavyweight labels, tabloids, extensive world tours, high profile collaborations and – most importantly of all – supreme, justified, self-confidence.

For example, Spiteri laughs as she recalls sending a demo of early single Black Eyed Boy to management: “So they say ‘Naaah, ummm, oooh. There’s something missing?’ We said 'OK, yeah, we’ll work on it a bit,' then threw it in a corner for three weeks. Went back and gave them the exact same thing. They say ‘Oh. My. God. It’s a massive hit!’ You’re just like… (She mouths an elaborate ‘fuck off’).”

From Emma Pollock’s perspective, the landscape looks different. Almost immediately after The Delgados formed in 1994, the band started their own record label. Twenty-three years on, Chemikal Underground is one of Scotland’s most beloved and influential institutions, and released albums for seminal Scottish bands like Arab Strap and Mogwai at the start of their careers. “We wanted to be able to take things into our own hands, and have control over it, which was much more fun and satisfying." Pollock explains. "[Otherwise] it felt like handing your music over to people you didn’t know, and you always had to change something, it was always a compromise – or at least it felt this way. But I’m not saying this is right! Plenty of bands have done really well out of that, but it doesn’t suit everybody.”

Perhaps as a consequence, she disagrees (gently) about gendered success and discrimination in music, particularly from within Glasgow’s nurturing scene. “I can only talk about my own experience,” Pollock says. "I probably have worked with more guys as that has been the demographic of the industry, but I’ve never really felt anything other than a very warm and equal environment, because music is a uniting world. Maybe ten years ago, twenty years ago even more so, it would have been assumed that ‘Oh, the bird must be the singer.’ But when you’re in a band you’re presented as a unit, and people just understand what that is.”

The Record Deal is Dead

However, Pollock, Spiteri and Holt are unanimous in their condemnation of the modern, major label record deal, and the financial impact of the digital shift. Holt simply shrugs, laughing: “I don’t know what a record deal is. The record deal’s finished. The record deal’s gone. Did you know [grime artist] Novelist just got dropped from XL [an offshoot of the Beggars Group and home to Adele]? He put out one EP and got dropped – so what chance has anyone else got?”

She tells The Skinny about her day job in a care home, which provides improved financial stability in contrast to years of gigging in cover bands. “I was in a zero hour contract for years trying to make music work – it’s just not viable. It’s hard to put yourself in a marketplace with people who are lucky enough to do it full time. Your health will suffer. How are you going to be as good?”

Holt’s own start came after a fortuitous meeting with Tim London, the producer behind Leith Walk’s Soulpunk Studio and regular collaborator with Young Fathers. She laughs again when we ask if they have any formal agreement, and instead describes their strategy: “If the songs are there, why not put it out? I’m not doing anything else! I’m not on some PR thing. Fuck it; just put it out! I don’t think people put out enough music generally. Or they haven’t got any ideas...”

With Grammy Award-winning Chance the Rapper proving that independence can be viable, Holt tells us: “This is why all the grime artists are doing it on their own now. The industry’s fucked; it’s not caught up quick enough. Everyone’s always known that the music industry’s shitty, but it’s even more ruthless now.”

As manager of the Chem19 studio and an independent label chief determined to keep Chemikal Underground afloat, Pollock states, “I’ve got a detailed understanding of why the impact has been as severe as it’s been; it’s now well over ten years ago that the MP3 started coming through. When we started Chemikal Underground, the industry still had life in it – and you’ll hear me say that a lot.

“So I guess that there isn’t such a thing as development in new artists now, because if there is I don’t know who’s coming up with the money," Pollock continues, matter-of-fact. “That’s really the main question. We’re all struggling, and there are still important labels who are trying to find new artists. But whether they can invest in them and give them the same opportunities as ten years ago? I guess the answer is no. You can only invest when there’s a possibility of return, and these days with record sales ten percent of what they used to be – and I kid you not, it is as bad as that – we’re looking at such a depression in the market. A record that would have sold twenty to twenty-five thousand is now selling two thousand copies. This industry has not just had a bit of a bump; it’s fallen off the edge of a cliff. We’re talking about an industry that no longer exists in a recognisable form.”

Spiteri agrees, and furiously explains her perspective on the mechanisms behind a major’s business strategy. “Nobody knows what the public wants, but there are some people who think they do. A [major] record company’s idea is to say, ‘Right, make me an Ed Sheeran-cross-Adele record.’ And it’s such a shame, because they have these really great young artists and the [major label] says ‘Yeah, wow, that’s fantastic. But we’re gonna get you in with some really good songwriters.’ Why don’t they just boot them in the balls? Why don’t you just fucking cut their genitals off? These young artists are the ones who are going to give us what’s new – because there are no new notes being written, there’s no new melody, there’s no new words being said. It’s got to be a personal thing.

“That’s why young artists look at record labels and say, fuck you. We don’t need you." Spiteri continues. "And it doesn’t cost a lot to make a record anymore – you can make a record in your bedroom. You don’t need to go in the studio to make records the way I did when I started out. You’ve got a computer and you’re ready to go.”

Coming up in Scotland

An example of Spiteri’s faith in young, independently creative artists, Be Charlotte has carved a niche for her soulful, self-produced, innovative pop. Nineteen years old and still in the early stages of her career, Charlotte Brimner has already represented Scotland at major industry festival South by South West – without yet releasing a debut album. After leaving school at 16, she travelled to LA in search of songwriting guidance, and reflects: “that’s when I learned the difference between writing songs for publishing and writing songs for myself to perform.” She’s worked incredibly hard to develop her own digital production skills, and recognises that her writing talent is a separate career path from her band. In telling The Skinny that she hopes to write for other musicians when she’s not touring, she makes no bones about what she expects from the industry. 

“I think a lot of people have this idea of fame and fortune and how that determines success,” she writes. “[But] that has never been why I write music, to be honest. For me, I feel like making music that is true to myself and [music that] says something is more important than anything else.”

Rather than relying on a label to swoop in and take control of her future, Brimner sought financial backing from alternative sources. “I think Creative Scotland is such an amazing organization in that it helps to make things possible for artists from all over Scotland,” she enthuses. “We have been lucky enough to work abroad quite a lot in the past year, in Asia and America and in Europe, and a lot of the people we’ve met along the way do not have access to that sort of support.”

Aside from finding the funds, she recalls struggling “[because] my age was making things tricky, as I couldn’t get in to a lot of venues. [But] I didn’t let that define me, and we found ways around it.”

Thankfully, new initiatives like Girls Rock Glasgow are taking a swing at obstacles preventing young musicians from entering the industry. There’s an all-day fundraiser planned in Glasgow on 10 June to raise money for a confidence-boosting rock’n’roll summer school for girls aged 8-16, and the poster promises: “Learn instruments, make friends, form bands, shout loud. Confidence, creativity and NOISE. No music experience necessary. LGBTQ friendly.”

Wide Days is a Creative Scotland funded music industry convention born from the company Born to Be Wide, which launched in 2004 to offer social events for Scottish musicians. Wide Days has showcased artists like Be Charlotte, as well as Kathryn Joseph, C Duncan, PAWS and Honeyblood, and works hard to offer a platform and support network for emerging artists – and it’s these kind of events that are helping new musicians to find their feet. Combined with the recent success of She is Fierce, a brand new Scottish magazine which broadcasts young, female-identifying voices, and the persistent presence of TYCI – an inspiring collective of creatives who “aim to create a space for women to make art and talk about things that matter,” it feels possible to hope that the industry (in Scotland, at least) could be approaching a pivotal shift.

However, Holt’s career began differently. Born in Leicester, she moved to Edinburgh after university and began gigging in numerous covers bands. She recalls a regular slot at Whistlebinkies: “It was sometimes too rowdy, people shouting ‘Get yer bra off’ or whatever, but you get a pint of Carlsberg at the end. People called me Skunk Anansie every night. You have to do those gigs! And I enjoyed it man, it’s just a chance to sing, and we were actually quite good… We had three or four horns, a drummer, a bass guitar, everything – I was the only singer and I picked all the songs, so we’d do Otis Redding covers, Grace Jones. We didn’t play weddings because we all agreed it wasn’t cool, so we didn’t make any money.”

She was working in the café at Edinburgh University Library when she received a call from producer Tim London: “My buzz went off and, a few years ago when you got a call from a number you didn’t know it was like ‘Ooooh what have I won?’ It wasn’t any of this PPI stuff. So I nipped to the loo, and it’s Tim saying ‘Hi, we’re looking for a singer…’"

Although Holt’s currently spending most of her time in London, she still feels very much adopted by Edinburgh’s musical community. Aside from working on her solo material at Soulpunk, Holt performs as part of the Leith Congregational Choir and as a member of the recently formed dance group Iklan. She tells a story about contributing vocals to Young Fathers’ recent album via her phone from a Wetherspoons, and then reflects, “You know, it says a lot about Scotland that I’m still [talking with] a Scottish magazine, and I’ve been in London this long. I’ve been kind of in between, and I’m back a lot for gigs…. But in London, you just get swallowed up and spat out, whereas Scotland seems to keep you on board a bit longer, it has that loyalty. It’s felt really good to be embraced like that.

“Everything’s harder in London. They want you to play for nothing, or you end up paying to play. That’s what makes it more difficult, and it’s how a lot of support gigs are run. You could find your favourite artist and they’ll agree to let you support them, but it’s like ‘Oh, that’ll be fifty quid.” Well, the train’s more than that. The way they say it is that they’re giving you their culture, their profile and their fans. But it’s like a fucking internship or something, just for one night.”

Studios and the Spotify tidal wave

In her role as label boss and studio manager, Pollock’s seen first-hand the impact of digital music on the industry, and draws a firm correlation between the ‘cost’ of streaming and the lack of money available to pay for support bands or studio time. She describes a self-funded movement that relies on artists making sacrifices to fund their art, much akin to Holt’s internship metaphor, and notes that most of the musicians which step into the Chem19 studio are doing so without external finances of any sort.

“At the end of the day,” she says, “every single industry is very straight-forward. If there’s no money going in at the ground, there’s no money coming out the top to pay for wages, to support the next artist. It has a trickle-down effect. The good news is that a lot of the investment [for the studio] took place when the industry still had life in it, which we’re benefitting from now. But it’s hard because the majority of artists aren’t coming from record companies with budgets – it’s a very different situation. [If we were to start The Delgados today] we wouldn’t have started a record company, we wouldn’t have got a publishing deal, and we’d be lucky to get as far as five albums. Chem19 wouldn’t exist.

“When we started, people were still buying records but there’s always been piracy. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an old record that has a picture of a cassette with a cross through it? Don’t tape! What people used to do is buy vinyl, and you’d have an old hi-fi system with a record player, a radio and a cassette player – so you could record the vinyl and give the cassette to your mate. That was common but it was nowhere near as destructive as where we are now. And it was quite a lot of hassle, so you only did it for the records you thought were worth it.

“So even though piracy has always existed, it was illegal. It wasn’t what it is now. Streaming is what we’re talking about – it’s not piracy, but it may as well be. At the end of the day, it’s just getting music for bugger all, from an artist who’s trying to make a living.

“My argument would be that it doesn’t benefit the consumer as much as we maybe think it does, because how on earth are you supposed to collect anything? I think the real music fan is a bit frustrated by this, because how are you supposed to treat this representation of how you feel about art?

“We’ve been through so many incarnations of how to listen to essentially the same thing – a recording. Imagine trying to explain that to someone twenty years ago? It’s bonkers. 'It’s in the cloud' – what the hell does that mean? Everything’s moving so fast, but I think streaming will be here for a long time because it’s convenient – although it’s still very unsatisfactory. It’s not paying the artist, and that will continue to be in the background – not paying the people who are providing the culture. I just hope there might be a future for physical sales, long term.”

Spiteri shares the same passion for a physical, analogue recording. She glows as she describes how Texas have released Jump on Board on cassette for the first time in a long time: “We’ve always done vinyl for every album, but there was a time that automatically it came with a cassette. As a record buyer, someone that goes to good, independent record stores, I’d seen that cassettes were starting to come back… So I go, ‘Oh my god!' Then when they sent all the samples of colours [for vinyl] I got very excited, and I say ‘I’d like that, and I’d like that… but I’d really like you to do a cassette?’

"Somebody went ‘Ooooh, I don’t know if it’s cost effective’, because there’s always someone going, is it cost-effective? And then someone does their homework, does all the costings, sees if it’s viable, and then suddenly they said, ‘Yes Sharleen, you can have a cassette.' I was holding it in my hand this morning!”

She notes that technology is bringing down costs in certain creative departments, too. “We used to spend a hundred grand on a video, but now we’re looking at ten or fifteen… and that’s an expensive video, nowadays! Basically, we can make them ourselves. Everything’s cheaper, and it’s the exact same thing for records. We’ve got our own studio, so what we’ll do is we’ll record everything on the computer, but run it back on the analogue. So it’s got that tone to it, that sound which sounds like a big bowl of soup.” She laughs. “I don’t know if that’s just me?!”

While it's evident that digital technologies have cheapened the market value of a record, some online platforms are working hard to compensate. Bandcamp, for example, is conscientiously artist-oriented, and offers a welcome alternative to corporate outlets when it comes to buying merch and records. Holt uses the site as one of many means for distributing her music, and the ability to curate her online identity affords a certain level of freedom – even if it doesn’t generate anywhere near the financial return of a golden age record deal.

Still, she’s slightly distrustful, and recently wiped all presence of her earlier recordings. “If I’m at the mercy of the industry, and music is free now, then I’ll decide if [my music] is on the internet or not. That’s the only power I have, and I will use it. And when I get desperate, in my old age?” She cackles. “Then I’ll put it all [on Spotify] and really hope you listen to it – hopefully they’ll save the figures, because I’ll need the numbers back!”

Juggling Journos and Social Media

90 seconds in to our interview with Spiteri, she’s grimacing about rubbish music journalists – hardly the most auspicious of beginnings. Texas are on the first day of a long album promo cycle, and she’s already over it. “It’s like, ‘Well, you make a record then!'” she half-shouts, “If you’d sat down and said, ‘Well, why Texas? Tell me about the new album?’ I’d have said, ‘Well what the fuck do you want me to tell you?’

“When you start out and you’re first coming across journalists, you’re so terrified because they’re writing it and you can’t change it. It’s like stuff on Wikipedia, as well. If one more fucking person tells me I come from Bellshill – I do NOT come from Bellshill! But it’s been written. Someone is convinced that they know better than I do. I am not from fucking Bellshill, holy mother of God.

“’No!’ is the word that comes out of my mouth most of the time. I’m quite gobby. And it’s funny because when you’re young, you think you’re really rebellious [but] in the back of your head there’s a guard you put up and you’re not giving everything, in a way. You watch and you observe but you don’t [always] speak up because you’re thinking, I’m not gonna get involved. [Back] then I still cared about how people viewed me. But now? I don’t give a flying fuck. You don’t like me? Don’t like me. Like me? Great, I mean, it’s nice to be liked but when you get older it doesn’t matter.”

For Spiteri, this don’t-give-a-fuck freedom has resulted in some of her most vulnerable writing to date. We ask about a lyric from Jump on Board, which says: 'Now that I am old / I have a peaceful mind,' and she grins, "That's my favourite line on the whole album. Because when you’re young you don’t show the flaws, and I never thought I would write such… I mean, you’ve got to own up. That makes the story complete, and it’s not complete until you show the weakness. Being able to write from that point of view feels really liberating.”

Texas have handled the most mainstream press attention out of all our interviewees, but Pollock has witnessed a huge change in journalism since her Delgados days. “It was the mid ‘90s and the DIY scene was really huge,” she recalls. “When we went out on tour, most of the interviews were not with ‘proper’ press, they were with fanzines. These were getting posted to people all over the country, and that’s how it worked with spreading new bands – this was the scene. It was very grassroots; people felt empowered, like they could actually do something. And there was enough buoyancy in the industry to actually feel that, if you invested some time and effort and energy in to it, you would be able to make something happen. That was true for all of us: Mogwai, Arab Strap, Bis…”

Pollock’s description of a low-budget, intimate, fan-led movement feels in complete antithesis to the mainstream media’s SEO-driven consumption of culture, and their dogged determination to pay writers in exposure rather than pay checks. ‘Internship’ culture is thriving in online journalism, too. However, it’s also true that social media has placed PR tools back in the hands of the artists – if they want them, that is. Holt explains changing her moniker from an all-caps 'LAW' to appease the Google matrix, and Brimner describes self-promotion via social media platforms as central to the success of new artists in 2017. “I think it would be impossible to be an emerging artist and not use social media in some way,” Brimner writes. “It’s something I have mostly enjoyed, and I put a lot of thought in to what I share on those platforms.”

Given that we meet Texas outside Facebook HQ, preparing for a digitally streamed Q&A, it's clear that no band is exempt from the circus of online engagement – but maybe there's a strangely personal touch to a 'live' interview, or an artist-managed Twitter account that interacts directly with fans. It's a fine line between intimate and intrusive, though, and Holt stands firm: "I won't do social media all day." Still, she laughs as she describes taking fan interaction to a whole different level of snail-mail: "When I was first touring, a guy bought a t-shirt. I'd only sold like three, and I didn't see the order so it was months before he got it. I felt really bad, so I sent him a few Erykah Badu CDs and some sweets... I think it was Maoam? He probably thought, she's fuckin' nuts, this one."

What’s a Record Worth?

So what is a record worth, in 2017? As digital developments simultaneously devalue and democratise the creative process, the answer is becoming increasingly vague. For Brimner, it clearly revolves around personal ambition and a prioritisation of creative achievement over commercial success. Spiteri answers 'What makes it all worth it?' with a combination of business savvy and emotional impact. She describes a chart position as “literally a test of ‘Are you relevant? Are you good at what you do?'," claiming “any musician that tells you it doesn’t matter is talking out their arse. I want to sell as many records as I possibly can.”

She’s become sick of journalists asking her to explain a song’s meaning – not because she doesn’t want to reveal the source of her inspiration, but because she firmly believes that a connection to a song should be deeply felt: “Make it yours. What is it to you? That’s what’s amazing when you play live, and there are thousands of people standing in one space, and they all go 'That's my song!' It would be the most extraordinary thing if you could look at their stories. It makes me quite emotional, in all honesty.”

Pollock remains passionate about an industry – and Glasgow’s scene in particular – that’s kept afloat by self-funded determination. Pragmatically, she recognises that music fans are just as driven by budget and convenience as any other consumer and that there’s no time for rose-tinted Record Store Day romanticism. She explains, sadly but emphatically, that if The Delgados were to start afresh in 2017, they would simply not have the budget to be the same band or make the same records, and that Chemikal Underground and Chem19 would never have existed.

“When I was 24, I had no responsibilities, and I bought a flat because you could. Things were different. It was a perfect time to try something that had a bit of risk about it – but my god, [starting a band] wasn’t as risky as it is now. It felt like a proper choice, like you were still making a real choice that could result in an income.” For Pollock there’s a growing, political importance to preserving independent publishers and creatively independent voices – as she warns, towards the end of our conversation, it’s always the experts and artists who are silenced by funding cuts.

For Holt, it’s all about principles. She tells us that she tried an industry party, just the once. “When Hustle came out, we got pick-up. Got taken for lunch by people in Hawaiian shirts and those fucking glasses! You get taken out by those people and they try and talk you in to things you don’t want to do. They tell you to go to parties and get your arse out. I went, once – I got one free drink and a fucking Red Bull. There was so much posturing and I felt so uncomfortable. I had a Sainsbury’s bag [in my hand] and all. I won’t do it. I won’t do it! There are compromises I’m just not willing to make.” Our chat wraps up with a hug, and Holt attempting to comfort us about such a sad state of affairs – “There is no solution, darling!”

So, if there’s any take away from our scene report, it’s this: Over thirty years, the UK’s music industry has changed dramatically – for better and for worse – and it’s up to musicians, fans and journalists alike to steer the course of the next three decades. Never be fooled in to thinking that your support isn’t needed. Pressure festivals, labels and tastemakers into representing all demographics of music makers. When payday allows it, buy a record or see a show on a Thursday night. Help to keep the lights on in the studios, basements, garages and venues which support the music that you love.