When music industry veteran Laura B. Whitmore founded the Women’s International Music Network and its accompanying She Rocks Awards, she did so with a specific goal: to create an online community to unite women in all facets of the music and audio industries. Easier said than done, it would seem, but six years later, the WiMN is thriving and growing.
A graduate of Hofstra University, with degrees in marketing and music merchandising, Whitmore’s career began at CBS Records. She spent 20 years at Korg USA before launching her own company, Mad Sun Marketing, in 2008. There, she provides public relations, artist relations, marketing, event production, and much more for music and audio companies. She is also a singer, songwriter, and guitarist.
Over the course of many years in the music business, Whitmore has seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. She knows all too well the challenges that women face in a longstanding male-dominated field, and what it’s like to repeatedly hit one’s head on a hard, thick, often impenetrable glass ceiling. That is why she started the WiMN. The organization has grown into a news center, database, and outreach system, offering information, opportunities, contacts, workshops, and of course the annual awards ceremony that takes place every year during the winter NAMM show.
Laura Whitmore spoke with Guitar Girl Magazine about the WiMN’s beginning, its milestones, her hopes and plans for the coming years, and why the organization is important to her, both professionally and personally.
“Our idea for the Network was to bring women in the industry together, and have the awards as a focal point for the conversation about women in music and audio.”
You founded the Women’s International Music Network in 2012. How have you grown both the network and the She Rocks Awards?
When we came into existence in 2012, it was right before we launched the first She Rocks Awards. Our idea for the Network was to bring women in the industry together, and have the awards as a focal point for the conversation about women in music and audio.
Since then, we’ve done a few things to grow the organization and the people that we reach. Number one is we’ve interviewed a woman in the industry every week for the last five years. We have almost 300 interviews on our website, and that’s been a great way to share stories, bring people to the site, and let them know what we’re doing. We’re super-active on all the social media sites. We have people that handle that for us and share articles, things that women in other organizations are doing, and tips. We also have a lot of other events. None are as big as the She Rocks Awards, but we host panels, we do workshops, we host showcasing events where female artists can perform at bigger events. We have an advisory board that is a team of incredible women and men who have put their brains together to help us reach even further and do even more. That’s been fantastic. That was just put together [in 2017]. We re-launched our website so we can share more news and events and things that are happening for women in music. It’s more of a news site now.
Regarding the She Rocks Awards, the first one was in January 2013. It was a breakfast at the Marriott Hotel and had about 200 people attend. Since then, we’ve moved it to an evening event, and it’s got about a thousand people that come. It’s a multi-media extravaganza. That whole thing has really blossomed. The industry support for it has been fantastic and needed, and people want to be involved.
This year we are moving it to the new House of Blues Anaheim. It’s very close to the Convention Center and hotels. We’re bringing our silent auction back live. Last year we did it online. This year we’re doing a hybrid of online and in person. We’re going to have fantastic awards, more performances, an amazing house band, and all that stuff we do to make everyone walk away feeling inspired.
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When did you notice that the event was growing, and what do you think contributed to that growth?
There’s actually a very significant event that happened. The first two years we did were breakfasts. After the second year, as we started to plan for the third awards, NAMM came to us and said, “We love what you’re doing. Would you like to use our ballroom on Friday evening?” With that invitation came a significant cost increase in producing the event — five times as much as we had been paying — but the room was amazing, and it was already outfitted with the stage and lighting, so I took a leap of faith that year and said, “If I don’t take advantage of this opportunity, that’s a mistake. It may never come again.”
I always feel like you don’t know what you’re capable of until you’re challenged, and that year was, “I don’t know if I can get enough support to pay for this, but let’s try.” Obviously we were successful, and I think that’s when the industry’s eyes opened to the event and the awareness level shot up. We had almost 800 people come that year, and we saw a significant increase in production level and participation. I think that was the year Colbie Caillat was there, and we got some great names to participate, so it was definitely the right move.
“As women in business, and in a creative field, we get bombarded with a lot of negativity.”
You mentioned that there are 300 interviews on your website. Is there a common thread in the stories some of the women are sharing?
I wouldn’t say that all of them have similarities, but a lot of people talk about how they had to take a leap of faith in their careers. They had to put away the naysayers and not let them control their paths and their thoughts about themselves. As women in business, and in a creative field, we get bombarded with a lot of negativity. I do see a lot of these women saying that in order to be successful they had to push through that negativity and say, “If you don’t like it, that’s OK, but I’m going to do this thing that I feel is me and is the right thing.” Whether they’re business people, musicians, engineers, or whatever, a lot of them had to go through those challenges.
A lot of women that are successful in our society are more aggressive personalities because you have to put up with a lot as a woman. For better or worse, you can’t be a shy violet. It doesn’t work. You can’t be afraid to put yourself out there and say, “This is what I need,” or “This is what I want,” or “I’m doing this and I think it’s good.” I’ve been in the music business my whole career, and there are a lot of things I had to deal with working with men and even with other women, just thinking, This is a little bit terrifying, but I’m going to do it anyway because it feels like the right thing to do. A lot of women we speak to have gone through that.
The advisory board is made up of women and men. Why was it important to bring men into the Network?
I don’t want to do the opposite and exclude men from the conversation. If there are men who want to contribute who have power and influence and can help us reach our goals, why not include them? There are three men on our board, and they’ve all been super-helpful in locating resources for us and presenting ideas. I don’t want to exclude them. I think some of the things they have to share and can do to help us are important. But the majority of people on the board are women. We take advice, and if we want to do it, we do it, and if we don’t, we don’t.
What is your vision for the Network and Awards in the coming year?
We have a few initiatives that we worked through that we are developing for the organization as a whole. One of them is the idea of creating a database, and creating video, audio, and information that shares women and their careers in the industry, so that when young women are trying to figure out, “What do I want to do with my life,” there’s a resource for them to see all these women working in the music industry, their backgrounds, and what they do.
Another thing that has come up as we talk to people is, “I didn’t know anybody that was a woman that had my career.” So we’ve talked a lot about how do we reach young women as they make career choices, encourage them to participate in the music industry, and give them some tools to be successful in that path. That’s one thing we’re working toward.
We are getting involved in some newer and bigger events. We’ve typically done things like showcasing at the ASCAP Expo, both NAMM shows, and Digital Hollywood. We’re talking about doing a significant event at South By Southwest, and some other partnerships we have. For example, one of our board members is head of artist relations for MAC Cosmetics, and she’s brought us into a bunch of other events that MAC is participating in. Our main focus is to create awareness of the inequities in the industry, provide opportunities for women in music and audio, and to foster this conversation, so we’re always looking for new opportunities to do that. And also to help expose what other women’s organizations in the industry are doing, so we feel like we’re a hub for information and events that other organizations are putting out.
As far as the She Rocks Awards, we continually try to bring something fresh to the event. We continue to try to grow the event and bring in other, larger entities to help spread the messaging that we’re pushing out regarding the event: “Look at all these inspiring women. They are role models for other women in the industry.” So we’ve been partnering with bigger brands, for example, this year we have Monster Energy, we are working with Parade magazine, we have MAC Cosmetics, and Paul Mitchell that we’re going to be doing a project with, so it gears up the opportunities to raise that platform to a new level where we can have a bigger voice for women in the music industry. That’s something we’re continuing to work on, with that event as the focal point to bring that messaging to more and more people.
What the event is going to look like years from now, I don’t know. I’m imagining it’s going to be fabulous! To me, it doesn’t need to be bigger. I just want it to reach more people, so I’m focusing on ways to do that, whether it’s through a livestream or other interactions that we can do.
The list of nominees and honorees is always diverse. How are they chosen?
It’s a challenge. We are very aware of keeping that diversity, and part of our mission with the event is to honor women from all walks of the industry. We invite people to nominate women, and that is important in helping us identify potential nominees. This year we got more nominations than ever before, which is great.
My staff and I, which is four or five people, go through all the nominations, and all the people that our board members bring up, or people we know, and we think about, We want somebody who’s running a nonprofit, somebody who works in the record industry, somebody who is in audio. We think about all the different categories.
As far as the musical elements, Fanny are trailblazers. Their names have come up multiple years. This year, three members have a new group called Fanny Walk The Earth, and they’re coming out with their first album in decades, so this is the perfect year to honor Fanny because we can bring them out, Fanny Walk The Earth is going to perform, and it will be a special moment for them, I think.
So there’s no scientific process to it. It takes a lot of thought, and sometimes we have to reach out to a lot of people because people are busy, but we are thoughtful about how we select the honorees list.
“…it’s fantastic to see companies bringing in more female sales people, more female demonstrators, more female product developers. I still think there’s a long way to go, but I do feel that there’s a shift in being more open to having a female perspective in those areas, and I’m happy to see it.”
You have been attending NAMM shows for decades, and I’m sure you remember them being 99 percent male for most of that time. Suddenly a shift took place and there were women in attendance and within some of the companies. When did you first notice that change?
It’s funny, because I’ve been in this business for over 30 years, so my first NAMM show was a really long time ago. I think I was a little bit oblivious to it in the younger years of my career. I just went, and did my job, and it didn’t occur to me that there should be more women here. I was just doing what I loved to do, and what I wanted to do. I was working for Korg USA at the time, in the marketing department. I did notice it a lot when I went to AES. It was even more male-focused, and I felt really out of place when I was at a show like that.
I guess I focused a lot on women in the industry starting in about 2010. That’s when my awareness level shot up about, Look, there’s a female demonstrator. That’s unusual, that’s very cool, we need more of those. I do see companies making an effort to bring more women in that are doing more than marketing. I’m not pooh-poohing marketing, because that’s my area, and I think there are a lot of great women and men who are working in marketing in our industry. But when you go outside of that, it’s fantastic to see companies bringing in more female sales people, more female demonstrators, more female product developers. I still think there’s a long way to go, but I do feel that there’s a shift in being more open to having a female perspective in those areas, and I’m happy to see it.
Sometimes we hear complaints about events and publications with “she” or “women” or “girls” in their titles. What is your response to that?
This is my philosophy on the whole thing. In a perfect world, men and women and anybody of any gender or whatever walk of life would be treated equally and acknowledged equally for their skill and creativity and whatever it is they do in an amazing way. But the world is not perfect, and until that time, the only way for women to have a voice and create awareness is for us to do things that focus on our group. We’re not the only group on the planet that does that. It’s an effective tool to bring people together and create a bigger voice. That’s why I think it’s important to do that.
Do you take issue with companies hiring “booth babes”?
Yes. I went to a trade show in a different industry, a computer tradeshow or something, they had booth babes, and I thought, Really? They still have those? I think it’s a cheap shot. If the product doesn’t stand on its own two feet, do you really need to have a sexy woman there to draw people into it? Your marketing people aren’t finding the right way to attract.
You have worked in marketing, writing, editing, public relations, artist relations, at a record label, and as a musician. What was the market like when you began your career? What are the changes you’ve seen, both good and bad?
When I entered the industry, my first job was at CBS Records, and the thing I noticed is people had a ton of money for marketing. We would do amazing campaigns. When I was at Korg, we had big parties, we had fantastic photo shoots and campaigns, and the marketing budget was very healthy. Now I feel it’s so guerilla. You are pinching every penny, and every time you do a campaign you have to reinvent it into something else. It’s very fatiguing. I feel like it fosters a different creativity. Marketing budgets have been decimated, and that makes things difficult.
There’s obviously a lot of new technology that wasn’t around when I started my career. We didn’t even have desktop computers at school. I used a typewriter. Then you got DOS and a PC and a laptop, and you’re expected to work 24 hours a day. Running my own business, I am pretty much on call all the time. I do let myself take a vacation occasionally, and I have a great staff that backs me up, but when I was on my own, it was hard, because I had no breaks. But that has affected a lot of things: the way people make music, what they buy, how they pay.
I was very fortunate because my first job in the musical instruments industry was at Korg USA, and I ended up being at that company for 20 years. I felt like I was part of a fantastic team of people that respected each other. We had the opportunity to be really creative and do things that I thought were great and innovative, so I never felt that I experienced a lot of the discrimination as a woman. Were there occasional things that happened that were very disappointing? Yeah. I have a #MeToo on my Facebook somewhere. But for the most part I enjoyed working with all the people in my career, including all the men, and I am glad that women feel more empowered, and have more voice, and continue to grow. I love being a part of that conversation, so I’m going to keep going.
You mentioned #MeToo. The music industry hasn’t come out much about this, and in fact has often enabled, encouraged, and applauded bad behavior. Musicians were often held up as heroes, as cool, when they told “road stories.”
The stories from the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s weren’t a secret. I don’t think all of a sudden we’re going to find out about a rock star. I was watching a Rolling Stone documentary, and they were putting plaster molds on rock stars’ penises. [Note: the Plaster Casters.] That was stuff people did back then, and it was part of the culture, you’re right. There have been some things in recent years, like Kesha, but that’s different because that’s abuse.
I think women were accepting of that rock star culture back then. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, I’m not making a value judgment, but I think going forward that kind of behavior is not going to be acceptable, and it could definitely hurt people’s careers if some of that stuff came out.
My son is 17 and he listens to a lot of hip-hop. Those lyrics are so horrible and misogynistic! How is it OK that that stuff is on the radio? I don’t understand why there is that whole genre of such blatant sexism out there. It blows my mind. I’m hoping that something comes up about that so that it can be talked about more.
You launched a network and awards for women, and your son listens to misogynistic lyrics.
I know! I yelled at him before: “How can you listen to that? Don’t you know what I do every day?” He says, “Mom, it’s just music!” “No, it’s not just music!” But I know a lot of those songs, and some of them are good. They’re not all like that.
“Music is a really intimate piece of you when you make music, and to have a safe place for people to create and share is important.”
I just interviewed Tish Ciravolo, and among the many things she discussed was that she wants Daisy Rock to provide a safe haven for women in the music industry, but at the same time what it says about our industry that women still need a safe haven. Why do so many women still feel out of place?
I even still feel out of place in a music store! Maybe it’s because of my past. I went to college on Long Island, and I would go to a certain chain and they were the worst. They were so dismissive, and it was such an uncomfortable scenario. There are still music stores that are dismissive or disrespectful.
I think when anybody walks into a music store, they expect you to know a lot. In other stores, an example I’ve used is buying my son’s skis. I didn’t know anything about skis, but I didn’t feel uncomfortable when I walked into the ski shop. The guy was educating me, he was asking the right questions, I felt respected. You don’t see that happen, or you didn’t, in a music store.
I think it is getting better. I go to music stores and play guitars, and I haven’t had a bad experience in a long time, but occasionally I will go into a shop and think, I’m not a good enough player to pick up that guitar. Maybe it’s that way for guys too. You feel like you’re being judged on your skill. So it might be a general thing.
I feel like the retailers in our industry have a much better awareness of this issue. I have had a lot of conversations with Guitar Center about it, and I know they’re working on it. I know it’s a big issue for them that they want to solve. I’m glad that this conversation is happening, and happening more frequently, and that the awareness that this is not OK is building. That’s how we grow stronger together.
So if there’s a place where any woman can feel like she’s understood and respected, and it gives us a platform to grow that conversation, I think that’s how we create change together. Is it ideal? No. Like I said before, in a perfect world we would all be together and feel respected, and everybody would be kind, but there is so much negativity in the world that I think it’s a great thing that women and girls have the opportunity to connect now more than ever.
When I first started the Network, before I formed the WiMN, I did this event I called the Women’s Music Summit. I brought together women who were artists, musicians, performers, and I had name musicians come in. Meshell Ndegeocello and Malina Moye were there, and other people. We had workshops, panels, performances, it was a three-day event in upstate New York. Afterward, the women were like, “This changed my life. To be in a situation where I was able to learn and perform and communicate with just women was such a relief.” It was so lovely and nurturing, and it blew my mind. It was what springboarded me to do even more in this avenue, because I was surprised. I didn’t realize how life-changing it would be for some people, and it illustrated to me how you can create a safe space for nurturing art. Music is a really intimate piece of you when you make music, and to have a safe place for people to create and share is important.
What are your words of wisdom, encouragement, and caution for women who want to work in the music industry?
One of the things I realized in my career after I left Korg was that I was in a place where I let other people define me, and what they thought I was capable of, and what they thought was successful. I would caution people about letting other people define their success. Once I got out of that was when I came into my own. So I would say don’t be afraid to explore. And not being so rigid in your definition of what your personal success is — that is important. As you said, I have done a lot of things, I continue to do a lot of things, and I enjoy the things I do every day. Part of that is because I let go of the idea that I need to do “this” or I’m not successful. So there’s that side of things.
I do feel that there are more resources than ever to be able to take the reins of your own career, so I would also say empower yourself to learn and understand, and don’t expect somebody else to say, “Here’s your path.” You have to figure it out for yourself. Sometimes that’s scary, but it leads to the most fulfillment. There are a lot of people out there who are willing to give you advice, myself included, so examine those things and have conversations with other people in the industry. There are a lot of people who are willing to give their time, if you are thoughtful about how you communicate with them.