Successful live sound engineer Paula Nahlén, has worked with some of the country’s top rock bands. But in her early days she faced considerable discrimination when trying to work in a male dominated profession. Here she describes the prejudice she encountered and what women may still need to do if they are to be successful on the technical side of the industry.
“Perhaps unusually, I’d wanted to work as a sound engineer since I was about fifteen. So, I studied music production at a college in Sweden for three years between the ages of 15-18 and then did a degree in London. I’d sung in a band before so I tried to gain experience by working for free at local venues that I had previously played at.
“I remember when I started out, I met a lot of really cool females. Band members, managers, sound engineers etc. However, I can’t say many of them were too nice. It felt like they were implying they were so much better than me and it would be a waste of time us even trying to have a conversation. But it taught me that I never ever wanted to treat anyone in the way they treated me.
"I’ve had in-house engineers walk out of the venue because I was a girl doing the sound, I’ve had my mixes sabotaged. I’ve been laughed at by bands and staff when I said I was going to be the sound engineer."
“To do well I had to believe in myself. There were of course times when I failed and got something wrong, But I always had to believe I could do it.
“As I got more work, I began to face discrimination. I had in-house engineers walk out of the venue because I was a girl doing the sound, I had my mixes sabotaged. I’ve been laughed at by bands and staff when I said I was going to be the sound engineer for a band I was touring with or a venue I was working at. There was one time when I was recommended to tour with a band and the tour manager blocked it. He said he didn’t want a woman on the night liner because he was worried I would sleep with a band member and create an awkward situation.”
Even when more established Paula still found there were times when she had to explain herself, for example when working on a major gig at Wembley stadium.
“I was trying to get up on stage to do the line-check and the crew wouldn’t let me get past them. I said, ‘Sorry can you let me up on the stage please?’ They let me pass but I heard one of them say as I was walking away ‘didn’t know they allowed girlfriends up on stage’.
"I went up to the drummer and next to him was a crew member patching in my channel list. He asked the drummer where the sound guy was and the drummer pointed to me saying, ‘right here’. The crew member laughed and said, ‘No really, where is he?’ I reached my hand out and introduced myself. He shook his head but laughed again. Eventually I managed to talk to them, people relaxed and it was a really great gig.” So why do it?
"It's hard, working unsociable hours. You miss events like weddings, birthdays and even funerals because of being on tour. Despite all that, and there were many times when I wanted to call it quits, when you do something cool and well the reward feels very worth it.
“All I can really say is that it’s about working really hard, making connections wherever you can; networking is very important. Be prepared to intern or work for free for a while to learn the ropes but it doesn’t take long before it turns into real work.”
So what are the lessons women might learn from your experience?
“Work really hard, no matter what you do within the industry. It isn't like having a normal office job. It becomes your entire life and you gotta be up for it.
“If someone judges your capabilities because of your gender, it says more about them than it does about you as a woman. Don’t let their insecurities get to you. Just do a killer job, leave them speechless and move on with your career.
“Seek out female role models and as you progress be prepared to help other women. There are plenty of job roles and there’s room for everyone that wants to be there and works hard.
“If you want to have children and do this you have to be able to have a supportive family / partner as working evenings and being away makes it incredible difficult.
“Don’t take any ‘shit’ as a woman. If someone is proper out of order when you’re trying to do your job, speak up. You’ll be surprised how many men and females around you will also have your back against someone that’s being rude.”
Today Paula is the head of sound at a venue in Camden and works regularly on tours and with bands. She always tries to help anyone wanting to learn the ropes, “just like many people who helped me to get where I am today”.
Why women get the blues
As another report on discrimination in the music industry comes out, we look at how discrimination might be lessened for women in non-performing roles.