Tech Support: Women's Audio Mission Has Helped Thousands to Pursue Careers in Sound

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Victoria Fajardo/Women’s Audio Mission
Roots Academy middle-schoolers in Women’s Audio Mission’s Girls on the Mic program in Oakland, Calif., in 2018.

As a recording artist, audio engineer, producer and multi-instrumentalist, Terri Winston was signed as a performer by BMG and PolyGram, and toured with acts like the Pixies and The Flaming Lips. But the farther Winston's career took her, the more obvious it became that her field had a major gender problem. "I could count on one hand the women engineers that I knew," she says.

While growing up in Milwaukee, Winston says she had the "luxury" of entering engineering because her father, a mechanical engineer, exposed her to the line of work at an early age. As an adult, she wanted to give women the same chance, and in 2003, founded Women's Audio Mission, a nonprofit based in San Francisco that provides music education and creative technology classes taught by women in those fields, to women of all ages, at little to no cost.

In the 16 years since WAM launched, more than 16,000 women and nonbinary individuals have taken its classes. Of that group, 800 students were placed at such companies as Sony and Dolby Laboratories.

"It has changed things so much that male artists in San Francisco sometimes ask us, 'Is there really a [gender diversity] problem?'" says Winston, who now serves full time as WAM's executive director. Due in a large part to WAM, the majority of Bay Area music venues and recording studios have at least one female engineer. That is a huge accomplishment, given that a February study from the University of Southern California's Annenberg Inclusion Initiative estimated that just 2% of producers and 3% of mixing and mastering engineers in the United States are women.

At a workshop in September, members of Beyoncé's original all-female touring band taught students about sound recording in one of WAM's two entirely female-run recording studios. (In addition to the classes, WAM's studios have produced more than 400 projects by artists including Neko Case, Angélique Kidjo, Tune-Yards and Toro y Moi.)

"When it comes to gear and equipment, it's a really male-dominated space, and it can be difficult to have access and be comfortable," says Divinity Roxx, the bassist from Beyoncé's original band. "To be in a space with all women, using gear to record, would have been invaluable to me."

Just before the Annenberg study brought mainstream attention to gender disparity in the music business, Winston decided it was time to expand WAM. In 2017, she launched a conference series to bring hands-on workshops to cities including Boston, Nashville and New York. Last month, she started an online fundraiser (a "WAMpaign") to raise $25,000 by the end of the year that would allow the organization to accommodate an additional 1,000 students in 2020 (from 2,000 to 3,000 per year). Due to high demand, she has expanded WAM's programming to Oakland and San Jose, Calif., and plans to launch in Los Angeles in the next five years.

"There are really no women driving the media, music and messages that you hear every day," says Winston. "We're not geniuses — we're just taking the time and effort to actually do it."

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 14 issue of Billboard.


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