Sister meets...Megan Graye founder of VOCAL GIRLS
For many of us, finally being able to attend festivals and see live music felt like reaching the light at the end of a very long, very dark tunnel. We've welcomed the return of crowds, big queues, overpriced drinks, living out of tiny tents, and traveling for hours (sometimes days) to see the acts that we love.
However, amongst all of the excitement, how many of us stopped to think about the types of acts that are missing from our favourite stages? Why are they still so male-dominated? And why are there so few LGBTQ+ acts? These are the questions that have been driving Megan Graye, the founder of VOCAL GIRLS, for the last year.
We caught up with Megan to find out; what inspired her to set up VOCAL GIRLS and change the faces on our festival's bills, the challenges she's faced being a changemaker in the industry, and what small changes we can make to shape the future of music.
SM: For those who don’t know, what is VOCAL GIRLS?
Where do I start? VOCAL GIRLS is a music content platform that celebrates emerging artists with a focus on female, non-binary and LGBTQ+ musicans. It’s early days, but we’ve already worked with some amazing people like Arlo Parks and Olivia Dean. We’ve also created two podcast series, run a weekly radio show, release weekly playlists, publish regular features on everything music related and we've just hosted our launch event.
SM: Tell us a bit about you. What did you do before starting VG?
I studied Journalism at Sheffield University and went into my course with dreams of being a music journalist, but the general consensus was there was no work in it.
When I finished Uni, I was put forward for a two month pilot internship at Hearst magazines. I had never intended to move to London—I was going to go traveling—but said to myself “there’s no way I can turn this down” and I moved. Hearst extended my internship for another six months, and then I was offered a role as a Video Editor and Producer at Beano. It was really fun, I learned so much, but it was all content for kids which I never envisioned myself doing. Then, like a lot of people during the last year, I was made redundant.
"those ‘reasons’ were all procrastination disguised as perfectionism; the only person who was getting in my way, was me."
SM: Do you think that experience pushed you into making VG a reality?
Weirdly, I’d decided to go for it about a month before I was made redundant. Being unemployed definitely made me take it more seriously, but I think it had been bubbling away in the background for ages; I’d done lots of gig photography whilst I was at Uni and had a little music show on my local radio when I was in my early teens.
Looking back, I realise that I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I was sixteen and lost my way a bit at Uni. My course was amazing but I was surrounded by all of these people who wanted the same things as me and I found it really intimidating. I didn’t try student radio for example, because I was too scared. I spent years kicking myself for not giving the Music Journalism thing a proper go.
Then I got to this point—I had one of those moments—where I heard myself trying to justify the fact I hadn’t gone for it; “it's too late”, “I should have done it before now”, “I haven't got a chance”, “there's so many people who've gotten into it way before me”. When really, those ‘reasons’ were all procrastination disguised as perfectionism; the only person who was getting in my way, was me. Now I am back where I was at sixteen—on the radio talking about artists that are important to me. I’ve come full circle and it feels good!
SM: What inspired you to start a project aimed at helping female and LGBTQ+ artists in particular?
I’ve always wanted to start a publication that was aimed at female and non-binary music fans because I felt we were being overlooked. I also really wanted to challenge the perceptions of female music fans that I had experienced growing up; this idea that women who say they like music are just groupies or pretending to be real fans to impress.
Then I read an article about the disparity in gender at music festivals. I was so shocked, because—as someone who considers herself as an active feminist and a real music lover—I had never really noticed it before. How had I attended so many gigs and festivals but never noticed the lack of female and LGBTQ+ acts?
"How had I attended so many gigs and festivals but never noticed the lack of female and LGBTQ+ acts?"
I looked at my upcoming festival tickets and the line-ups were made up of about 70% cis male acts. Then, it struck me: I was part of the problem. All of my life, I'd be funding festivals that endorse cis male acts whilst ignoring female and LGBTQ+ musicians. This is a result of so many factors, but a large part is to do with mainstream media pushing in one direction, with the direction being white, straight, cis men. This is why awareness is such an important thing - the majority of people are shocked and unhappy with the stats once their eyes are opened to it. I’d always been passionate about music, but after that realisation I knew what I wanted my project to be about.
SM: Sounds like an eye opening moment, did it change your relationship with music in general?
Definitely. I started thinking back to when I was younger and I used to buy tons of music magazines. Even though those publications never said it outright, they were aimed at a male audience and seemed to only really praise male artists. It was a sad moment, because I was obsessed with music—I would read those magazines cover to cover, sometimes more than once—but I felt they weren’t really speaking to me and there was still this club I couldn't be part of.
That feeling didn’t ease as I got older either, but it was hard to put my finger on exactly where it was coming from. Increasingly, I noticed that straight cis men had this assumed knowledge in ‘serious’ music spaces, whilst anyone who fell outside of that had to spend enormous amounts of time and energy proving themselves.
"Then, it struck me: I was part of the problem. All of my life, I'd be funding festivals that endorse cis male acts whilst ignoring female and LGBTQ+ musicians."
What do you think needs to change in order for those attitudes to shift?
The thing I am most passionate about changing in the music industry are the festival lineups, as I believe these will have a huge snowball effect. Take this year for example: most musicians and creatives have been financially impacted by the pandemic, but with the festival organisers this summer choosing to exclude many female, non-binary and LGBTQ+ acts, their male counterparts can continue to gain exposure, grow and financially recover from the pandemic. This missed opportunity for female, non-binary and LGBTQ+ acts will potentially force them to pursue other avenues and this will have a detrimental impact in terms of representation within the industry.
We run the risk of wiping out a whole generation of female and LGBTQ+ artists by not supporting them right now. The wider knock-on effect of that is; less LGBTQ+ and female fans see themselves represented in the world of music, fewer LGBTQ+ and female children think to pursue a career in music because they feel they don’t belong or, it simply doesn’t occur to them to pick up that instrument and try because, as they say, you can not be what you can not see.
"We run the risk of wiping out a whole generation of female and LGBTQ+ artists by not supporting them right now."
What can the average person do to change the makeup of festival line ups (apart from supporting and spreading the word about VG)?
I think the next step is raising the issue to your favourite acts, especially male ones. Ask them to stand with upcoming female and LGBTQ+ acts in a real way, like pledging not to play at certain festivals until there is an equal gender split in the lineups.
I’m not saying put pressure on small bands trying to break into the mainstream, look to established acts that have influence within the music business or a huge following. If even five big acts per lineup took action then the industry would have to change, festivals like Reading and Leeds would have to change.
Also, on a really basic level, go out of your way to seek out LGBTQ+ and female music. Make a special effort to ensure you're not just being shown one type of music by the algorithm on whatever platform you use. The major players who run festivals should be matching their audience's appetite, so by adjusting what you listen to, you can help decide who’ll make it on to those stages.
What challenges have you come across?
Something I've found very frustrating is that I’ve had to reassure people I don't hate men or want to exclude male musicians. I shouldn't even need to say this, but of course I don't hate them! Throughout my entire life I've been obsessed with bands like the Stone Roses and Foals. I'm an advocate for all artists and I want everyone to work together to address this problem.
It’s the industry as a whole we are trying to change so that we can see all types of people reflected in the world of music, from making sure there are more posters of female musicians in guitar shops to advocating for a queer act to headline Glastonbury.
"Something I've found very frustrating is that I’ve had to reassure people I don't hate men or want to exclude male musicians."
What are your hopes for the future?
On our channels, I'd say about 80% of our followers are women; I was expecting that to happen, as we are talking about women and LGBTQ artists, but I really want that to change. I want there to be loads of men following us too, because I think they’ll be a key part of making a real change and I don't want VG to live in an echo chamber.
For those who have experienced or are experiencing prejudice in the music industry, I want VG to be a support network, giving people of marginalised genders the confidence to feel strong knowing that they have a community behind them. But, I also want VG to break into those spaces where this isn't being talked about. I want to make people realise that the under-representation of female and LGBTQ+ artists is everyone's problem.
You can support and find VOCAL GIRLS’ articles, podcasts, playlists, radio shows and merch here and follow them @vocalgirlsclub on Instagram and Twitter.