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Brendon Harding talks gender imbalance and how to support women in audio with Katie Tavini

Mastering engineer and PSNEurope columnist Katie Tavini speaks to Red Bull Studios Normal Not Novelty founder Brendon Harding about the impact of the project and diversity in the pro audio industry

One of the definitions of ‘ally’ in the Oxford English dictionary, when used as a noun, is: ‘A person or organisation that cooperates with or helps another in a particular activity.’ Let’s remember that for later on.

Now, every week I get a good amount of emails from women who are interested in audio engineering, mastering and music production. I LOVE IT. I get asked and answer all sorts of questions that (hopefully) help them on their paths to being kick-ass engineers, and that subsequently make me question myself and what I’m doing, which is amazing. I’m very grateful that such fantastic people decide to get in touch. 

However, I am very rarely their first port of call as a source of information. I would estimate that around 80 per cent of the emails I receive start a little something like this: “Hi Katie, I hope you don’t mind me getting in touch, but {x engineer} recommended I ask you these questions about working as an engineer because you’re female too.”

No. This is not how it should go. Don’t use me as a get out card for helping someone out. That’s not how community works. And we are the pro audio community. 

As I said, I am always grateful to be able to have interesting conversations with engineers and producers. However, if someone asks you for help then just either go ahead and help them or say that you don’t have the time, but don’t make this about gender! 

To find out more about how anyone can be a better ally for women and LGBT+ people in the music industry, I spoke to Brendon Harding, founder of Red Bull Studios’ Normal Not Novelty: 

Hey Brendon! Congratulations on making it on She Said So’s Alt Power list for your work with Church Studios on International Woman’s Day and for founding Red Bull’s Normal Not Novelty! What first made you decide that something needed to be done to help change the gender balance in the music industry? 

Firstly, thank you. I was honoured to be recognised by an organisation that’s doing so much good work to help women in the music industry. I had been wanting to encourage young engineers at Red Bull pretty much since I started there in 2010 and trialled, unsuccessfully, various assistant/runner programmes. 

As I looked at my two young daughters around 2015, I had the greatest moment of foresight I’ve ever had – if I wanted them to have a more even chance of getting into the audio industry when they started looking for work, I needed to do something about it now and not in 15 years time. Normal Not Novelty was completely altruistic but also indirectly helping my daughters, should they want to work in music. 

You’ve been in the studio industry almost 15 years now. How is the gender balance different to when you first started? 

I, like many men in studios, saw very few female engineers or assistants as I was starting out, often the only female presence in a studio was the studio manager or the artists themselves. I don’t think many men thought that there was a problem with that until fairly recently and the wider conversations around diversity and inclusion have helped the whole scene take a good look at itself. 

The imbalance is thankfully starting to shift, with recognition coming to the female engineers that have been doing great work for years, like Olga Fitzroy, Mandy Parnell, Catherine Marks in the UK and the likes of Sylvia Massy, Ms. Lago and Dr Susan Rogers internationally. 

There is also now a new wave of great runners, assistants and engineers that all happen to be female, such as Fi Roberts at Strongroom, Chloe Kraemer at The Church Studios and Emma Marks at RAK, so I’m heartened and excited to think of what the industry will look like in the next five years. 

How can men be better allies for women and LGBT+ people in the music industry? 

Firstly you have to want to do it – if you’re only doing it because you think that’s what everyone else is doing, then you’ll probably do it wrong and potentially hurt people in the process.

Be realistic about how you can help. What can you commit to doing on a regular, but not necessarily unrealistically frequent basis? Could you mentor someone? Could you do talks or run workshops? Do you have a specific skill set or niche knowledge that you’d be willing to share with others? 

The most important thing I’ve learnt is to engage with and listen to the people that need help. The easiest and best way to do that is to get involved with existing organisations that are trying to solve the imbalances in the industry. 

I recently compiled a list of over 50 groups that are making changes in a variety of different ways and they are almost always looking for more help and volunteers – both male and female. If you’re confident in your intentions and are open to learning as well as sharing, then you can be an amazing ally.