Garbage bandleader Shirley Manson and CHVRCHES vocalist Lauren Mayberry first met through mutual friends at a pub in Los Angeles two years ago. The two instantly clicked: Both are Scottish singers who were asked to join all-male rock bands, then were quickly thrust into fame as the representative of their respective groups.
But they’ve also shared similar struggles navigating the spotlight in a male-dominated music industry. At a keynote SXSW panel moderated by Pitchfork editor-in-chief Puja Patel (formerly of Spin) on March 14, the two traded stories about their early days in the industry and discussed why it took so long for the #MeToo movement to hit the music sphere.
When she joined band members Iain Cook and Martin Doherty to form CHVRCHES in 2011, Mayberry was initially billed as a backup vocalist. But her vocal talent impressed the others enough that she soon became lead singer. Immediately, Mayberry says, she felt a shift in the way the whole band was perceived.
“We were conscious at the start of the first record that the media was trying to separate me out from it, half because of gender,” said Mayberry, now 31. “And if I do frontperson stuff, people are like, ‘She thinks she’s the center of the band.’ But if a male frontperson did that, nobody would really care.”
Mayberry also remembered being nervous to ask her male band members for an equal cut of profits, despite the fact that she was co-writing every song. Thankfully, the conversation went smoother than she thought. “When I asked if we could write songs equally, and if can I be cut in equally, the guys were like, ‘Absolutely, of course,'” she said. But she’s horrified that it was ever a question. “In my mind, I was like, ‘I’m going to have to grapple for this.'”
As Garbage rose to prominance in the late 1990s, Manson remembered her press officer at the time, Jim Merlis, pulling her aside to offer a warning before one press interview. “He said, you know, nobody’s going to want to speak to you, they’re only going to want to speak to the producer/drummer [Butch Vig],” said Manson, 52. By that time, Vig was known for co-producing Nirvana‘s Nevermind. “The male journalists were literally creaming themselves. I was like, ‘Fuck you, this is my job and I’m going to be good at my job.'”
The music industry has been slow to reckon with the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. But last year brought some of the first signs of change for the music world, including the restructuring of the Recording Academy’s voting membership to include more diversity within its ranks. And in recent months, more women have voiced their stories: last month, several artists, including Phoebe Bridgers and Mandy Moore, accused musician Ryan Adams of sexual misconduct in varying degrees. (Adams has denied the allegations.)
“I was reading [journalist] Laura Snapes‘ article about Ryan Adams, and what she was saying is so much of music is focused around nighttime gig club culture, so it’s easier for people to see it as a gray area because of the nature of the work,” said Mayberry, referencing a recent op-ed in The Guardian. “Even in the tiny microcosm of my music community, there are people I can name — everyone knows XYZ guy is like that, but there’s been no consequences.”
Manson chimed in with a shoutout to #MeToo movement founder Tarana Burke. “I feel very strongly that the #MeToo movement was a moment for so many women who were bursting at the seams to talk about his, and bring this topic into the public consciousness,” she said. “Not one woman I know was shocked — not one.”
Mayberry also spoke about female representation at music festivals, noting that she often feels tokenized when CHVRCHES is placed on a bill. “People use CHVRCHES as an example of, ‘We got one!’” she said to laughter from the crowd. “You don’t get a prize for booking a straight, middle-class white woman. And there’s a gender-shaped cherry on top, that [festivals] can use to cover their own ass.”
As allegations against numerous prolific musicians continue to surface, some have argued that listeners should separate the art from the artist. But both panelists said they see artists and their work as intrisically — and economically — linked.
“At the end of the day, you’re putting your money into that person, and it feels selfish, like my enjoyment of this art is more important [than the victims],” Mayberry said.
Manson was a bit more pointed: “A lot of people just don’t draw that line, and that’s for them to live with,” she explained. “If you don’t care about that sort of thing, you can listen to all the R Kelly you want, and you can have a miserable, shitty life.”
As Mayberry touched on regarding festivals, both women agreed that the gender equity movement forward must be intersectional — that is, recognizant that women of different races, ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds experience oppression in different ways.
“I am beginning to understand, as a white female, I have extraordinary privilege,” said Manson. “What it means to be a black woman, an indigenous woman, a trans woman… I’ve suddenly come to realize, wow, I’ve had a lot of things that I consider obstacles in my career, and now I’m even more aware of how difficult it is for these women.”