Sarah Chawla is the co-founder of The Wild City, a leading online magazine for electronic music in India. In partnership with the British Council and supporting partners Native Instruments, Ableton, Bira91, Absolut, and Sennheiser, she set out to discover why so few women in India felt empowered to become involved in the music and nightlife industries.
Can you tell us a little about your own background?
I’m originally from the UK but moved to India in 2011 with my partner and we started an events company. Obviously, it was a big step jumping from London to somewhere like Delhi, and we entered the music industry here via our music magazine, thewildcity.com where we showcase alternative music and culture in India. The whole thing has grown organically and we provide various services like a boutique PR agency, and we do all kinds of consultancy with cultural institutes and brands. The events we do vary from small to large scale – the biggest event we do is a three-day festival called Magnetic Fields that is in its seventh year.
So how did you arrive at the idea for the Women In Electronic Music project? What was the driving force behind it?
When you’re working in a niche area of music in a country of a billion-plus people, you constantly look for ways to burst the bubble – to progress. Often you feel like things are stagnating either as a result of external policies, and audiences not growing. One of the things we believe is that to change things there needed to be more opportunities for women in music, and in the nightlife industry in general. We identified this as an obstacle to growth both in cultural and business terms.
What has been the situation as far as women wanting to work in music in India? How difficult is it for them to become involved?
So, this is what I asked. Rather than making a lot of assumptions, I put a survey out on our website which asked women whether they wanted to engage with the music industry and if so, how? Plus, what barriers they had faced. I got about 300 responses in two weeks and I used those to shape the workshops, content and direction that the project has taken. I have constantly gone back since the project started at the end of 2017 and got more feedback to better shape its future direction. And this process of constantly evolving helps it to be more relevant.
Why did you choose to focus on electronic music in particular?
In the first survey I sent out, it turned out that more than 50% of the women who responded wanted to learn to produce music and also to DJ. Our platform also has a focus on electronic music so that’s where the link comes from – and over 40% of our audience is female.
What were the first steps in getting the project off the ground? Where did you look for support?
Using the feedback from that first survey I decided that I wanted to do a one-day production workshop but for that also to serve as a focus group so I could get more information about what the women who attended were interested in learning. Some of the earliest support came from the Australian High Commission who put me in touch with MacQuarie University in Australia. A professor of music there, Julian Knowles, flew over to lead this workshop. The British Council let us use a space of theirs to hold the workshop.
Absolut were really supportive too. I just kind of put it out there and had a lot of chats, and the pilot came together at the end of December 2017. Based on that, the British Council felt it was something that aligned with their aims — they run the Selector Pro (a professional development programme for the music industry) — so we combined the two together, which resulted in four two-day workshops in four cities in india.
After the pilot workshops, we started a conversation with Native Instruments who gave Julian access to a lot of online resources. And Ableton supported us too with some of their resources, so that’s been the story of this whole process – lots of support and help.
Was this the first time a lot of the women had exposure to this kind of technology?
In the pilot workshop most people were at a beginner level. But by the two-day workshops there were some people with less experience, and some with more. Then with the more recent workshops, there were a lot more women with experience who were perhaps already involved in the music industry in some capacity.
How widely available is this kind of music tech gear in India?
It’s available but it’s expensive and if you are just starting out you might initially wait for a while before investing in equipment. Even professional musicians still borrow gear from friends – so it’s great to be able to lend this stuff out.
Can you go into a little more detail about the kinds of skills people are learning on the program?
The two main skills are music production using Ableton and Native gear, and DJ workshops using CDJs. But as much as we focus on technical skills, we also focus on holistic skills. So we address the psychological barriers to success and performance as well. For example one of our workshops looks at deconstructing the club environment, and goes over tech riders from various perspectives. The second half covers setting up CDJs, sound desks and so on. The club environment, especially in India, is not very female-friendly so we try to break down some of the issues surrounding that.
This year we also did a workshop which was a Q&A with a respected lawyer where they got to ask questions about women’s rights in the nightlife environment – for example where the law does and doesn’t support you. And a lot of women see successful female artists and find it hard to identify with them, believing that those women don’t have anxiety or other issues. So it was very useful for them to be able to talk to female tutors about issues like these. Breaking down the barriers to engagement is just as important as learning technical skills. And feeling like you’re surrounded by a group of people who’ve got your back.
How did the women-only environment affect the way people learned?
The tutors found that the women who attended these workshops learned at an accelerated pace and they’re always surprised by how quickly people pick things up. On the last day we have a wrap party where people get to DJ or play a track they have made, for the first time. And that’s not something they’d have thought they would be doing just three days after starting. But 80% of them do.
What’s the end goal of this project?
More than careers and jobs it’s about making every person who leaves the workshop feel confident and entitled to explore music making or pursue music professionally. And to realise how important it is to create your own structures and communities for support. I want people to go away with confidence, and that any fears that were stopping them to have been stripped away.
Long term, I am trialling a virtual mentoring program that will connect tutors and students in the UK and India. And this project isn’t just mine – it’s the British Council’s baby as well, and we are creating strategy around how to evolve it. I want to try to make it as engaging and available as possible for people, and that’s best achieved by having people from the music industry involved. It needs to be about creating opportunities that happen naturally.
Where do you see this project in several years’ time?
You can’t do everything in one go, but the dream is for this to have a student focussed model and a socially inclusive wing. At the moment we are engaging with middle-class women which is good, but I would also like to see it be more socially inclusive.
We are also trying to learn what it is about female-only learning environments that make women feel more comfortable and ideally apply those to mixed gender learning environments at some point.
You can find more information here:
Magnetic Fields festival: http://magneticfields.in
The Wild City: http://www.thewildcity.com