Women in Production
These Producers Are Transforming a Field Once Dominated by Men
IN JUNE 2020, ELISA PANGSAENG WAS FIRED FROM
HER TEACHING POSITION at Vancouver’s Nimbus School of Recording & Media. In an Instagram post a few months later, she pointed out that many of those fired were women, people of colour and members of the LGBTQIA2S+ community. And while she didn’t accuse Nimbus of overt discrimination, she argued that the move reinforced the status quo in an industry long dominated by white men.
“They saw and chose to represent what most people see when they think audio engineer, music producer, mixer, mastering engineer, hitmaker. Old white dudes,” she wrote at the time. “And that is where the misogyny and racism hide in our industry. That is what holds up glass ceilings and keeps doors shut.”
Pangsaeng began her journey as a producer and audio engineer almost straight out of high school, when she worked as a runner for local studios Hipposonic and Van Howes in the mid-’00s, getting coffee and doing dishes so she could sit in on sessions and pick the brains behind the console. She juggled that and a restaurant job for about a year and a half before deciding to attend the now-defunct Pacific Audio Visual Institute. She took an administration role while completing her degree in 2009, which evolved into a position as an educator. Speaking with Exclaim!, she recalls, “At the time, there were no other women there except the receptionist.”
Pangsaeng has since found her footing as a producer and engineer, accumulating a plethora of technical credits for the likes of Lights, Said the Whale, Hey Ocean! and Yukon Blonde. She joined Nimbus as an instructor in 2015, but as her career has progressed, the scene around her struggled to evolve at the same pace.
More than a decade since Pangsaeng got her start, the field of audio production remains dominated by men. In a USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study published this year, researchers surveyed the Billboard Hot 100 Chart from 2012 to 2020 to find that women produced less than three percent of the 900-song sample. There are mainstream mavericks, of course, like Taylor Swift collaborator Laura Sisk or Weezer producer Suzy Shinn, but they remain the exception rather than the rule.
Pangsaeng says that she was lucky to break into music production “as a recording engineer, versus an artist trying to cross over.” She says, “Nobody questions when a man produces their own album, or is involved in the production of their own album. A woman who is doing the same or more gets second-guessed.”
Louise Burns knows this struggle first-hand. As a teenager, she played bass in the early-‘00s band Lillix before going solo and releasing a string of albums under her own name in the past decade. More recently, she’s ventured into music production, logging credits with up-and-coming artists like Fionn, Molly Annelle and Michaela Slinger. Her 2019 release Portraits was the first time she took a producer credit on one of her solo albums.
“A phenomenon that I hope other women haven’t experienced, but I’m sure have, is a refusal to acknowledge you as a producer — like it’s some sort of special status,” Burns says. “There’s a preciousness to calling yourself a producer.”
Burns was given the early opportunity to work with legendary producer Linda Perry, who was pretty much the only visible woman in production at the time. “Since then, there’s the social movement in general of how women are perceived and spoken about in the media — partially triggered by the #MeToo movement — and it’s all changed quite a bit from when I first started,” she tells Exclaim! “I could count the amount of women producers and engineers I worked with back in the day but now I know so many.”
Pangsaeng agrees: “If I were to go off the numbers, that’s a dramatic difference from ten, 15 years ago.”
Now, Burns’ own 25 years as a recording artist make her uniquely equipped for mentoring up-and-coming artists and producing their records. “I feel quite fortunate — and almost like an imposter syndrome — about working sometimes, because I haven’t had the formal training. But a lot of people haven’t, and it’s okay to teach yourself,” she says.
With the mainstream rise of bedroom pop and pandemic-necessitated DIY recording — and highly-experienced, tenacious and passionate women like Pangsaeng and Burns working to empower the next generation and build supportive communities in audio — we can expect that tiny percentage of women at the console to start multiplying like stacked tracks.