Published on The Deli Philadelphia – Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2010
by Annamarya Scaccia
Shuffle through the pages of any mainstream music magazine and there’s one thing you can be certain of: the number of features on men in rock ‘n’ roll far outweigh those of their female counterparts. It’s a glaring, male-dominated gender gap – one that, while not as apparent in underground scenes and alternative media, keeps lady rockers in the shadows. It’s also part of the reason why 40-year-old music journalist/musician Sara Sherr started Sugar Town, a monthly showcase for women in rock ‘n’ roll.
Inspired by the Riot Grrl movement, the upsurge of “Ladyfests”, and Fur Salon, a mid-90s queer-punk party, Sherr started Sugar Town a decade ago as a way to spotlight the many women musicians and DJs rockin’ out locally and nationally. Named after a Nancy Sinatra tune – and a play on “Sugar and spice and everything nice” – it’s first show was held on January 11, 2001 in The Balcony at the Trocadero with Sarah Dougher,Cynthia G. Mason and Kara Lafty (ex-The Jane Anchor) and has been a dedicated supporter of the female music community ever since, despite a few needed hiatuses along the way. Sugar Town has two upcoming shows at its homestead Tritone: The Halloween Show on October 30 withThe Midnight Beat, Workhorse III, The Tulanes, Death Rattle (featuring members of Fluid’s monthly queer-punk night Finger Banger) and DJ Nattie Ice and November 6 with Amy Klein (of Titus Andronicus, Solanin, and Hilli), Sara Marcus, Bells Bells Bells, and Attia Taylor. Recently, The Deli had a chance to chat with Sherr about Sugar Town’s inner workings, the state of woman in music, and how her event is helping close the musical gender gap.
The Deli: How did you start Sugar Town?
Sara Sherr: I threw a birthday party in December 2000. Lisa Cohen (who is now in Workhorse III, back then it was Lisa Christ Superstar) booked the bar (and the Trocadero) at the time. We both liked the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll showcase for women. Also, there weren’t many rock DJ nights with women at the time. I asked a few of my friends to join as DJs: Maura Johnston, who started Idolator, City Paper contributor M.J. Fine, and last but not least, Maria Sciarrino, a WPRB DJ who designed the fliers. We went on to start Plain Parade together to book all the awesome bands with no ladies in them.
TD: What made you want to start Sugar Town?
SS: When I first started writing about rock music, I was inspired by the Riot Grrrl movement and all the great women making music at that time like Liz Phair, PJ Harvey, The Breeders, the list goes on and on. So I always enjoyed championing talented women in my work. Sugar Town was an extension of that. I was also inspired by a mid-90s queer-punk party called Fur Salon, where DJ Lucky 7 would spin everything from Nina Simone to Bikini Kill. And also, all the Ladyfests that were springing up across the country in the late ‘90s/’00s.
TD: Do you think women are underrepresented in the Philly music community and beyond?
SS: At the time that I started it, the ratio of male to female in rock bands was pretty wide in Philadelphia. That gap has narrowed over the years. Traditionally, the rock bands that would get most of the attention in and outside of Philadelphia were male. The internet has changed all of that because it is easier for everyone to be heard, and obviously, that could be said about music in general. The upside in Philadelphia is that we’ve always had a lot of women working behind the scenes as promoters and bookers and in the press as writers and editors. For the new generation, there is Girls Rock Philly, a rock camp for girls ages 9-17 that grows more successful each year.
As far as outside of Philadelphia, women have always been an integral part of punk and indie scenes, and this is reflected in blogs, alt-weeklies, and magazines that cover that. However, if you are talking about the mainstream media, you still hardly ever see a woman holding an instrument. Pick up Rolling Stone and you can count the number of women in its pages with one hand, and that’s including the masthead. It’s really easy to discount those kinds of places, but this still reflects mainstream culture at large. If you look at Billboard charts, women dominate other genres of music like pop, R&B or country, but when it comes to mainstream rock, it’s still very male-dominated.
And then in the bigger picture, does rock matter to younger kids anymore? You look at someone like MIA for example, who took the music world by storm completely outside of the rock realm. The old music business way of doing things is dying, so it makes it harder for everyone in one way, but in another way, it levels the playing field for everyone.
TD: It seems women have to work harder to be taken more seriously in music. Why do you think that is? And how can we change that?
SS: I think women have to work harder in any traditionally male-dominated field. When I started out as a writer, I did have a lot of men who helped me out along the way, but I was always conscious of being able to stand on my own two feet and show that I had credibility, that I wasn’t just a token young female writer. It is important to never be complacent. Check out thistumbler post that Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus wrote about women and rock and the media. She is still having the same worries that previous generations did.
On the other hand, there are a lot of young women today that believe that all the old feminist battles are won and that gender doesn’t matter anymore (inside and outside of the music world). And in the bigger picture, there’s the rise of very extreme conservative politics in the Tea Party movement that threaten many of these gains and the big figures right now are all women. It’s still important to create safe, fun spaces everywhere that celebrate women, whether it’s music or anything else.
TD: Other than spotlighting lady rockers via Sugar Town nights, how else are you involved in bridging the gender gap in the music community?
SS: I teach a History of Women in Music class at Girls Rock Philly. Also, like any other business, mentoring is so important, and I didn’t have a lot of female mentors when I started out. So I try to help out other women when I can, within reason, even if it’s just answering a simple question about booking a show.
TD: How has Sugar Town evolved since its first inception?
SS: It’s changed venues. It moved to Doc Watson’s (when Maria Sciarrino and I did Plain Parade) and it is currently at Tritone. It’s always veered between a DJ and a band night. I used to pack the bills with way too much of both so that the DJs didn’t have time to spin as much. Now I keep it to one DJ and save a special night just for just DJs. I’ve also had readings and drag performances (drag kings and drag queens). Around 2007 and 2008, I was co-promoting with a queer lady dance party called Fuse, and it was nice to reach out to that audience, because there is definitely an audience looking to watch queer artists on stage. I wish I could find more queer women in bands in Philadelphia to play. The crowd is so enthusiastic and supportive.
TD: How do you choose who performs at one of the nights?
SS: First of all for a band to qualify, they should have at least one female member. The more, the better. I pick bands based on what I like: punk, indie, garage, etc. Then I have to see who is going to bring a crowd of some sort. I try to pick bands that go together musically. Being eclectic can work to a point, and then it gets ridiculous. You don’t want to put the metal band with the indie pop band. So it’s a mix of business and pleasure, but mostly pleasure. Since the cost of doing shows at Tritone is very reasonable, I can take a lot of risks, but I don’t want to waste people’s time.
TD: Is it hard to maintain Sugar Town? Have you run into problems keeping it going?
SS: Sugar Town has taken a couple of hiatuses in its existence. One was during the height of Plain Parade because we were so busy with bookings, it was difficult to schedule them in. And then when Plain Parade ended, I took a break from booking altogether. Since I’m a one-woman DIY operation, I don’t have the money to go after the bigger acts that I love that would go to R5 or Johnny Brenda’s. There is also more competition with other small promoters to get acts, so that is tricky. With the advent of blogs, bands blow up very quickly and become high-ticket items for an independent promoter. For example, I booked the second (or maybe third) Yeah Yeah Yeah’s show in Philadelphia in 2002 for next to nothing, and that would never happen today.
Also, locally, there is a smaller pool of bands to work with, so if any of them break up, that can be a setback, especially if they were a high-drawing band that I could put in different kinds of bills. The birth of children affects female musicians more than the men. Once the women in bands have children, they are out of circulation or very difficult to book.
And then there is keeping my crowds in general. Sugar Town has always had a lot of respect, but never really huge crowds. It’s one of those things that’s never really had the “cool factor”, and I’m okay with that. I don’t need to be cool, but when there’s a lot of nightlife options, Sugar Town just doesn’t scream “party” to some people. On the flipside, the people who agree with the politics of Sugar Town don’t think it’s political enough and don’t support it because it’s in a bar and it’s not all ages, etc. There are some bands who simply won’t play Sugar Town because of the lack of cool factor, I can’t get them on a bill with a big-name act, or they don’t want to put themselves in a pink ghetto of sorts, or in the big picture, they don’t really need Sugar Town to succeed. I am okay with that but it’s just a challenge for me to work harder and look under the radar some more.
TD: How did people respond to it at first?
SS: The press has always been kind to Sugar Town, and the crowds have always been supportive. I think in the beginning, we might have had more men in the audience.
TD: Is Sugar Town helping shed a light on the gender inequality of music, even in our backyard?
SS: Sugar Town is providing a fun, supportive, intimate environment for a band to develop their music and grow their fanbase, which is what anyone needs. It’s given a lot of exposure to bands on their little journey, and the first stop is just as important as their destination. I am really proud when I see anyone that played Sugar Town go onto bigger and better things.
TD: What’s your most memorable Sugar Town show?
SS: There are so many. It’s so hard to list just one. The Yeah Yeah Yeah’s, as I mentioned earlier. It’s exciting to book a band right before they blow up. You could tell there was something special about them. And they were nice people, which I didn’t expect at all.
TD: What got you into music?
SS: My father played in bands for years so there was always music around the house. I used to follow my Dad into record stores from the time I could walk and was in clubs at a very young age. I tried my hand at music but writing sort of stuck (and later promoting). So I guess dealing with bands is in my blood.
TD: What advice do you have for women who want to get into music, be it on stage or behind the scenes?
SS: Be organized and be 10 steps ahead of everyone else. Be prepared for any crisis. Anything can happen. Be kind to those who do you favors. Don’t shit talk anyone. Listen to other bands and ask a lot questions – especially to people with experience in your chosen field. Never play the victim (even if you really are). Look at every experience as an opportunity to learn and grow. Keep your head up and have a sense of humor at all times.
TD: Who’s your favorite local lady rocker(s) in PHL as of now?
TD: What’s your favorite thing to get at the deli?
SS: A tuna melt. If it’s Wawa, then a grilled chicken shortie. I’m really more of a diner than a deli person. It’s a thin line, really.