Plus-size women make it in the music industry
By Cheryl A. Hoahing
Everyone loves listening to music. No matter which genre is your favorite-from pop to rock to country to classical and everything in between-hearing a favorite song usually stirs up special emotions. Certain songs will make you want to get up and dance and others will make you cry. Remember your prom song? Your wedding song? The first song you heard when your alarm-clock radio went off this morning? Music has a sacred place in the hearts of everyone. But do you know what goes on behind the music?
The music business is a very diverse industry. Great acts just don't appear out of thin air. It takes hundreds of people behind-the-scenes to get your favorite artists on the top of the charts. There are songwriters to help craft that perfect tune. There are producers, engineers, technicians and musicians in the studio to make sure each album has top-notch sound quality. There are managers, agents and lawyers to guide careers. There are publicists, promoters and artist developers to help musicians receive the recognition they deserve. There are distributors and merchandisers to make sure CDs, T-shirts, posters and other goods are accessible to fans. There are DJs and VJs to play the songs on radio, TV and in clubs. There are music journalists to critique albums and write stories about performers' lives. The list of job opportunities in the music business is endless.
The role of women in the music industry hasn't always been so great though. "The music business is notorious for being a male-dominated field," says Don Kimpel in his book Networking in the Music Business. "Historically, in the music business, women were relegated to the world of press and publicity. In recent years, more A&R [Artist and Repertoire] people have been of the feminine gender... However, it's only a matter of time before intellect and resourcefulness win out and more women break this barrier."
Beth Davis, who runs her own multifaceted music business, points out, "For so many years, women in rock 'n' roll were either bookkeepers or groupies. They certainly weren't in any positions of management."
Davis, 41, has been fortunate enough to have always had respectable work within the industry. "Some people will say it's hard to be a woman in this business," she says, "but I don't think so anymore. I think women are really good at this because we could be as mean as we want to be, then turn around and be as sweet as we want to be."
As someone who has worked in the industry her entire life, Davis is certainly qualified to speak on this subject. Her career began after high school when she toured with acts like Aerosmith, AC/DC and Ted Nugent as a merchandiser. "I've just always been in the right place at the right time," Davis says about the luck she's had finding work in the music industry.
After several years on the road, Davis decided that she didn't want to work for anyone else anymore and started her own venture, Beth Davis Entertainment. Davis has the opportunity to do a little bit of everything by owning her own business, which she chooses to operate out of her Long Island, N.Y. home so she can be there for her 9-year-old daughter, Marissa. "First and foremost, I'm very into artist development and breaking new artists-putting them in the right place at the right time," articulates Davis. She also networks musicians and books acts at various venues. "I wear a lot of different hats," she says, "but they all benefactor something. It's primarily to keep original music alive and make sure the people stay patrons to it." Some of the artists Davis has worked with recently include Blue Number Nine, Sal Rumba, Kings In Disguise and Shecky & The Twang Tones, which features her husband, Shecky.
Although Davis will work with talented musicians from any genre, her favorite type of music is Alternative Country. And whom does she turn to when she needs to find an act of this sort for one of her productions? "I've been really lucky because there's another [plus-size woman] who I do a ton of work with," she says enthusiastically. "Her name is Val Denn, and I just give her my wish list of who I want to work with and she delivers them to my doorstep."
Denn, 40, lives and works in Wimberley, Texas, just outside of Austin, which, along with Nashville, are the country music Meccas of the U.S. As owner of The Val Denn Agency, her task is to book some of the top Texas singer-songwriters at venues all over the world. "[Musicians will] put a record out and their record label wants them to tour," she explains. "And my job is to make sure that these musicians get out there and get their music out there. [I] make these tours cohesive so that the artists aren't exhausted and that they go places that the record label needs them to be so they can sell records and grow an audience."
Denn says that her business started falling into place as she began making connections when she and her husband, James, were actively making their own music as The Denns, a duo that recorded three albums. "[Music is] a small business in many ways," says Denn. "You do begin to get to know each other and your reputation grows." She says that being able to "think like a musician" has greatly helped her find the right places to book her artists to make sure that they get the best treatment and big turnouts.
"Once we had our son [Taylor, now 13], I just felt like I didn't want to be out there just constantly touring," she says about her decision to start an agency of her own. "We live on a farm and you can't be away weeks and weeks, constantly off touring and maintain a family life with a farm and with a son who we really wanted to spend time with."
Some of the musicians on Denn's current roster are Jimmy LaFave, Tish Hinojosa, Tom Russell, Butch Hancock, Eliza Gilkyson and Rory Block-one of Denn's favorite artists to work with. "She's from New York and actually was my idol growing up," says Denn. "I'm thrilled to be working with her because it's working with someone who inspired me to play music."
Denn, who attended Boston's Berkley School Of Music as a vocal major, is still working on her own music. She recently released her first solo album, Don't Stop Loving Me. "For my 40th birthday, I kind of went through a phase where I needed to make my solo album-my sensuous, coming of age, feeling good about myself record," says Denn. The disc is a collection of love songs, including jazz standards that Denn admires, and one original tune, "Lighthouse." The disc is available at www.valdenn.com.
Another woman who loves her music industry career is 30-year-old Jamie Roberts, the director of publicity in the New York City offices of Roadrunner Records. Roadrunner is a large international independent music label and home to heavy metal bands like Type O Negative, Slipknot, Coal Chamber, Soulfly and Sepultura. Roberts' role in the company is to oversee her department, which includes two associates and interns, and handle all press for the company.
Unlike Davis and Denn who have continuously been a part of the industry in one form or another for most of their lives, Roberts had to work hard to reach her goal. "I got there in a very roundabout way," she says about her journey into the field. Roberts graduated from the State University of New York at Albany with a double major in Communications and Spanish Literature. "What I needed to do was learn things that were practical and were going to be helpful for what I wanted to do because I always knew I'd get here somehow," reveals Roberts. "I just didn't know how."
After a string of jobs-some within the industry (she worked at another record label, Enclave, as publicity and A&R coordinator) and some not (she worked for Caroline Kennedy's husband Edwin Schlossberg helping put "interactive museum exhibits in public spaces")-she found her ideal position in 1997 at Roadrunner.
Even though some of the artists Roberts represents may not be at the top of her personal hit parade, she says that just contributes to the creativity of her work. "It's a skill," she says. "It's more of a challenge to work something you don't like and it's definitely a challenge to work something that you don't understand. I have a couple of weird records that I really don't get. I have to sit there and listen to it and figure out why somebody would like it and then appeal to people on that level." But, Roberts adds, "I'm a fan of music and musicianship in general."
Davis, Denn and Roberts all thoroughly enjoy working in the music industry and encourage other women to follow their hearts' desire and pursue a career in the industry.
Roberts advises those who would like careers in the industry to be "as real as possible." She goes on to say, "The most important thing in doing what I do is just to be yourself. It really shows and it really makes people like you more."
Denn agrees with Roberts and says that, overall, "You need to have a good rapport with people and be a good communicator." She also thinks that great agents need to be "part mother and part businesswoman," and that musicians need to make sure that they "do it because you love it."
"[The business of music is] a whole different animal from when I began," says Davis. She advises potential industry insiders to go to school and get a degree. "You have to know what you're doing because the money is greater, the risks are greater, the audience is greater," she explains. Davis also suggests being "voyeuristic-listen to every good conversation you can and listen to the bad ones and be able to differentiate between them."
Although it can be hard for women to find positions in the music business, plus-size women don't seem to find it especially difficult working in such an image conscious industry.
"I don't remember my weight ever getting in my way at any level," recalls Davis. "I look in the mirror and see perfect because I don't look from the outside, I look from within. It's never held me back. I host my own stages-I'm the one who gets up in front of a thousand people and I'm the one who introduces the band. I'm the one who begs people to sign up on mailing lists and buy CDs and support live music. So, if my weight was an issue, I don't think I'd get up in front of people talking the way I do. I don't really see it as an issue."
Denn doesn't let her size affect her career, either. "I'm pretty comfortable with where I'm at and who I am," Denn says. "As a musician, I think that it is harder in some ways, but charisma doesn't come in sizes. You can be a size 24, a size 18 or a size six and have charisma." Even though Denn is comfortable in her skin, she does admit that sometimes she likes being able to hide behind her guitar when playing live. "I think there's times I feel a little self-conscious about it," she says. "But as soon as I begin to get into the music, I just don't let myself go there."
Asserting that her success has come from her ability and her personality, Roberts says. "Sure, [your body is] what people see when they look at you. There are a few people in this business that can't get past that and are shallow. I've known people like that, but I've never worked for anyone like that." Indeed, Roberts expresses surprise at the non-biased reception she's received. "I really didn't expect that. I have to be honest with you - I was a real pessimist about that."
Roberts advises that, "In the work world, and [particularly] in this industry, you need to believe that [your success is] based on your ability. I think if you believe it, then other people will believe it." Adds Denn, "It all comes down to, we love the music. That's what drives us-when you go and hear a great show and you get inspired."
Inspiring. That word best describes Davis, Denn and Roberts. These three women prove that, with enough hard work and dedication, you can have your ideal profession. Just let the music be your guide!