On an average workday, Karrie Keyes makes sure that Eddie Vedder can hear himself over the roar of the arena. Nina Flowers might wind up at a sold-out D’Angelo concert after she finalizes an opera premiere at the Apollo Theater. Traci Thomas confirms Jason Isbell’s next album release before dashing off to the venue to see him perform. Abbey Simmons knows how many records Sleater-Kinney sold at their gigs from New York to Los Angeles — and Megan Jasper could tell you how many records Sleater-Kinney has sold, period, as they’re signed to her label.
Tomorrow always brings new sounds and fresh challenges, and these women — whom some of your favorite artists likely rely on to play crucial roles across the music industry — know that this is the only constant. Keyes, Flowers, Thomas, Simmons, and Jasper may not be in the spotlight, but they’re the ones behind it.
For A Day Without a Woman, we asked these industry players about how they make it easier for you to see, hear, and discover the music you love. (Their answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.) Whether they’re driving the band to the venue or making sure their music gets heard outside its walls, it wouldn’t be possible for musicians to do their jobs if these women didn’t show up for theirs. If they were to strike today, the silence would be deafening.
Introductions! What do you do for a living?
Karrie Keyes (monitor engineer for Pearl Jam and Eddie Vedder; executive director of SoundGirls.org): I started working in live sound 30 years ago, and with Pearl Jam in 1992. I work as part of the band’s crew — a 40-plus-person team — to make sure the shows are the best they possibly can be. I started SoundGirls.org four years ago. I oversee the day-to-day operations and work toward giving women and girls the tools they need to be successful working in professional audio.
Abbey Simmons (freelance tour and merchandise manager): I’ve been working as a touring-crew person for the last five years, ranging from DIY musicians to large-scale touring bands like Sleater-Kinney. Even though we live and work together in close quarters, I spend much of my day working solo and separate from the rest of the band and crew. I love being part of a team, and touring offers that experience in a way I never found in the corporate or nonprofit world.
Nina Flowers (director of communications and public relations, Apollo Theater): The Apollo is a legendary place known for launching the careers of countless icons, including Ella Fitzgerald, Michael Jackson, James Brown, and D'Angelo. Whether it’s announcing a new show, building strategy for an upcoming season, or touting a new initiative, my job entails ensuring that the brand stays top-of-mind in the media.
Traci Thomas (artist manager, Thirty Tigers): I work for myself under the umbrella of Thirty Tigers, a marketing, distribution, management, and publishing company. Two of my artists [Jason Isbell, and Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer] have their own record labels, and I run those. We utilize the team at Thirty Tigers to help coordinate those releases.
Megan Jasper (CEO, Sub Pop Records): I began in 1989 as an intern, and was hired shortly after as the label’s receptionist. Apparently, I was really good at mailing out Cat Butt promos to college radio stations! As a receptionist here, I was at the heart of everything: Email didn’t exist and everyone was reliant upon the phone, so I always knew who needed what, and I had a good sense of urgent matters that needed to be handled immediately. Oddly enough, it feels exactly the same in my current role.
What is a common misconception about what you do?
Flowers: Sometimes I’ll tell my family that I’m on my way to do press interviews, and tell them to watch a program because I worked on the segment. Every time, someone will say, "I looked for you on TV and didn’t see you, just the Apollo." My grandmother was famous for that. It never fails. I'm like, “That is not how this works. That is not how any of this works!”
Simmons: It’s often assumed that I’m married to or fucking someone in the band. The idea of the ’70s/’80s arena-tour “roadie” permeates our culture still, so many assume tour is some sort of extended vacation — a glamorous, 24/7 party. I once had a woman say to me at the merch table that it “must be nice to have a job with no responsibility.” And, look: I have a rad job I love. But while I’m not a brain surgeon, I have other people’s lives and livelihoods in my hands every single day.
How would you describe your work/life balance?
Flowers: My job demands that I be social, so I have many close friends who I met through work. That also means that I am always working, between the regular workday, shows, and networking, which is a big piece of what I do. People always say, “Well, your job seems fun.” It is, but it never stops. I make concerted efforts to recharge or to step back if I feel overwhelmed or a little run-down. This is very important in this industry, because it can consume you.
Simmons: Of the five years that I’ve been touring, I’ve been away from home, my husband, and my family for four-and-a-quarter of those. I’ve been on the road when a parent fell seriously ill, and suddenly the miles feel like light-years. I’ve missed countless birthdays and family celebrations. My husband and I have put off starting a family so I can pursue my career, and when or if we decide to have children, I will have to stop touring. Basically, if there’s a way to have a work/life balance doing what I do, I haven’t discovered it.
Thomas: It's always a work in progress. I taught a course in artist management, promotion, and publicity at the University of Georgia. My worst review said that all I talked about was my personal life. I think the student thought me discussing my clients was me talking about my personal life … The lines do tend to get blurred. I think it’s important for everyone to have that balance. We need to take time for ourselves if we’re going to be effective in our work.
Do you face different expectations at work that are informed by your gender?
Keyes: We have many women on our crew, and this has not been an issue with this organization. But many women have a harder time getting their foot in the door — and some people still, in 2017, state that women can’t pull their weight, or that they want to hire women but can’t find any. Those are both false [assumptions]. Women can pull their weight, as crew people come in all shapes and sizes. No one expects the men on the crew to just lift things by themselves.
Simmons: I’ve worked with men who’ve resented me being on the road because they feel they have to censor themselves or their behavior. These guys are certain that the reason they are not living their ’80s arena-rock roadie dreams is because I’m there — not because they don’t work for Van Halen. I have plenty of venue employees who are surprised that the band’s [tour manager] is a lady, that I can haul gear and boxes alongside the boys. These men would rather call me “sweetie” than my name, and want to hug at the end of the night rather than shake hands. One of my pet peeves is the diminutive for female merchandise managers — “merch girl.” No one calls the front-of-house engineer a “sound boy.”
Jasper: At Sub Pop, I rarely think about the fact that I’m female. Our male/female ratio is about 50/50, and we have a progressive group of people who work in our offices and artists who work with the label. Every once in a while something might be said that makes me aware of my gender, but it’s usually never in a negative or offensive way. I’m not saying that I haven’t experienced sexist bullshit, though — I have. It’s just never usually in this office.
How has your own work experience shaped your broader understanding of the music industry?
Keyes: It is a small industry, in general. Many crew people spend their entire careers working together with different acts. You never know who will be your next employer, so it’s best to always put your best foot forward. We are a service industry. We should never forget that. Egos do not have a place [here].
Flowers: One of the constants is that you are always learning, because things are always changing. Music, in general, should be about innovation. In this industry, you cannot be complacent. You have to stay ahead of the curve.
Thomas: I continue to learn every day. You’ve got to keep yourself educated so you can make the right decisions on behalf of your artists. [You have to] stand up for what you believe in. Too many folks are scared to speak the truth, much less tell their artist the truth.
Simmons: I’ve learned lots about the music industry — what fucking hard work it is to make music and to tour, how many people it takes to get a band onstage every night, that even successful artists struggle to make it work. But the most important lessons my work has taught me [are] about myself. I suffered from extreme self-doubt/impostor syndrome before I started this career. Touring has proved nearly every nasty thing I believed about myself was a lie. I’m stronger than I’d ever imagined.
Jasper: If anybody told me 30 years ago that I would spend the majority of my adult life working at one company, I wouldn’t have believed it. I feel a very deep commitment to all of the individuals who keep this place going. My relationship with Sub Pop has gone through so many different phases, and I’ve learned that I can endure anything that comes my way. It has also taught me that the rewards for not giving up are truly profound.
Is the industry inclusive of women and non-binary/gender-nonconforming people?
Keyes: This industry is the same as many that are male-dominated. When it is being run by males, it is only one half of the story. I believe that they do not think about women or nonconforming people for the most part. That needs to change. Women are no longer waiting for it to change, and have instead created their own spaces. There are many women-led organizations — She Shreds, Women’s International Music Network, Camp Reel Stories, and SoundGirls.org, to name a few — that make sure women and nonconforming people are heard.
Thomas: I think so, or I wouldn’t have made it this far.
Jasper: Some pockets of this industry are inspiringly progressive, but this is also a male-dominated industry, and there are challenges within it that are unique to women and non-binary/gender-nonconforming people. I’ve never seen a man give up his career in music because he started a family, but I have seen women lose their careers because of it. I have a really hard time reconciling that, and I don’t think that it’s just a “music industry thing.” And don’t get me started on women aging in this industry. It is extra fucked-up for female artists.
What would happen to your workplace if you and the women you work with didn't show up for a day?
Keyes: If the women on the Pearl Jam crew decided to strike — which I don’t think we would, since the show must go on, rain or shine — the band would be missing their monitor engineer. My tech would probably take over, but he would miss the cues I have. Our lighting designer would not be there, and the light show would probably be generic. We would be down another member on the lighting crew. Our production manager and assistant would not be running the ship. Fan-club ticketing would go to hell, and p.r. and band issues would not be addressed in a timely manner.
Flowers: If I had to use a song to answer this question, it would be Beyoncé's "Run The World (Girls)." A lot of decisions couldn't be made. From our president & CEO, Jonelle Procope, to our executive producer, Kamilah Forbes, to the heads of many of our departments, women play an integral role in the preservation and advancement of the Apollo.
Jasper: It would shut down the company. We have so many women who work here, and many of them are in leadership positions.
Thomas: We surround ourselves with capable people. One day, they would survive. Long-term would be a whole other story.