Composer Felicity Wilcox is determined to change the narrative of gender discrimination in the music industry forever.
The ARIA nominated pianist and UTS lecturer has a bunch of achievements under her belt, the latest being an album of classical chamber music titled Uncovered Ground.
The album is an outstanding collection of her work and includes the internationally renowned track People of this Place, a piece dedicated to the traditional owners of the land that inspired it – the Eora Nation. But it’s just one of her passions.
Wilcox makes one thing abundantly clear in our interview: becoming a successful woman within the music industry is no easy feat. When you think of iconic film soundtracks, the dramatic and grand melody composed by John Williams for Star Wars, or the upbeat and exciting opening tune from the Pirates of the Caribbean by Hanz Zimmer might come to mind. But how many women could you name that have written film scores?
“It was just ongoing, after three decades in the industry I just got to the point where I had to start speaking out,” Wilcox says. “A lot of my traditional published work is around gender in the music industry and how problematic it is… all the numbers are terrible.”
Wilcox is referring to the proportion of female screen composers in Australia – which is at 11-13 per cent. In art and classical music performance the numbers are even lower, at around 4 per cent. She is about to launch a survey through APRA (Australasian Performing Rights Association), with the help of UTS, to collect gender representation stats across all genres (songwriting, production, art music) to understand the number of female and gender non-conforming composers in the industry.
“There’s not much data about gender non-conforming composers, we don’t have a fix on those numbers yet,” she says. “If we’re going to speak to that community’s specific concerns, we need to understand what those concerns are.”
The discrepancy between genders is even more noticeable when you work in the industry. Wilcox started music composition during the techno, synth centric decade that was the ’80s. While fluro activewear was hitting the streets, Wilcox was working in dark corners of studios, being forced into the shadows by her own peers when it mattered and shown attention when it didn’t.
“I remember I was in a studio working on my soundtrack, I was a 20-something, you know long blonde hair, legs everywhere… there was this guy who was in a band who was recording there too, he looked at me and told me to get him a coffee,” she says. “I was there working on my own soundtrack! And the thing that annoys me now is that I got him the coffee!”
I started in the eighties, right? Sexism was just normal… If you commented on it, it was like ‘come on, have a sense of humour’.
The self-taught musician laughed to herself at the recollection, amused momentarily by her own naivety. This happened after she dropped out of her first degree and was focusing on her composition. Just a few years earlier she had landed her first gig doing the soundtrack for a documentary.
Wilcox had a good amount of jobs under her belt at that point. She was young, hungry to pursue her dream and semi-successful, but it still wasn’t enough to save her from the ongoing sexism, and harassment she continued to face.
I ask her if there are any other stories of inappropriate behaviour she’s encountered in the industry, and it is clear there is something else.
At first, she hesitates, her eyes dancing around the screen I’m interviewing her through. Then, taking a deep breath she details a harrowing story of a 19-year-old girl, alone in another country to learn jazz piano from a well-respected pianist, and how he would pin her down and lie on top of her, trying to kiss her and undress her in every lesson. He was in his 60s.
The situation was so harrowing for Wilcox she refrained from playing the piano for an entire year. That was only the beginning of the young musician’s struggle with harassment in the industry.
“I started in the eighties, right? Sexism was just normal. You walked into a studio and people would go ‘nice legs, nice tits’,” she says.
“If you commented on it, it was like ‘come on, have a sense of humour’… You had to be one of the boys, you had to go along with it and swallow your pride. It’s been really good to watch that changing and to see young women like Taylor Swift coming out and saying that’s not good enough.”
Swift shined a light on the darkness of the music industry, with her song The Man, which details how the media would push a different narrative of Swift’s career if she was a man. She also went through a very public lawsuit where a DJ she had accused of indecently assaulting her tried to sue her for defamation. Swift won the lawsuit with a counter-sue of $1 – deliberately countering the false narrative that young women sue their abusers for money. Although Wilcox and Swift are in two very different ballparks musically, their struggle as women in the industry is a shared experience.
It’s like a need, it’s like breathing. If I don’t do music for any length of time I don’t feel like me.
Both have found getting people to believe discrimination in the workplace still exists isn’t an easy task, with many unconvinced that women are telling the truth, or that discrimination still exists on a wide scale.
“You just have to look at the numbers, if discrimination isn’t a thing why are orchestras in 2021 still playing 96 per cent work by men,” she says. “Four per cent of performed work are by women, zero per cent are by trans and gender non-conforming people, how does that work?
“You might not be able to legally assault me in public, but when that CV comes to the door you might look at it with an unconscious bias – interview men only – that shit happens all the time.”
Despite the uphill battle, for Wilcox, music isn’t a choice, it’s a tethered force she doesn’t quite understand.
“It’s like a need, it’s like breathing,” she says. “If I don’t do music for any length of time I don’t feel like me. It’s always been like that ever since I can remember. It’s part of who I am in the world, I can’t imagine not being able to do it… In fact, the thought of not being able to do it is really scary.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, family or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. Another helpful resource maybe Sexual Assault Counselling Australia: 1800 211 028. In an emergency, call 000.
Main photo of Felicity Wilcox by Nat Cartney/Rolling Media (supplied)