Where are all the women in Winnipeg's music scene?

When musician Kelly Campbell moved to Winnipeg from Halifax four years ago, her first thought was ‘where are all the women?’

New showcase hopes to be small bridge gender gap on and off Winnipeg's stages

This Cootie Club's first showcase had music and panel discussions. Friday night, they'll host their third instalment with no discussion — just music and poetry. (Tiff Bartell courtesy of the Cootie Club)

When musician Kelly Campbell moved to Winnipeg from Halifax four years ago, her first thought was, "Where are all the women?"

"The music scene here was a lot more — there were way more men. It's mostly men," she said. "It was really strange to me, how dudely it was, because I was used to a place where it wasn't really like that. It was more, sort of equal."

After joining a few bands, Campbell wanted to make a change. She rounded up a few friends and launched the Cootie Club — a bi-monthly showcase that puts women front and centre.

"It's basically just a showcase of bands that feature women and non-binary musicians," she said.

"It's not really about having something that's entirely women — it's more just about having something that's like, 'Let's actively think about this.'"

There have only been two events so far, but their next showcase is Friday night at the Purple Room with a line-up that includes jazz, blues, a poet and locals ATLAAS and The Psychics.

It's not just women on stage, and men are more than welcome to attend.

For Campbell, it's just a small step towards acknowledging a long-standing gap and trying to get people thinking about how to change it.

"If you don't see yourself represented, then you don't tend to think of yourself as someone who can do the thing you want to do," said Campbell, who fronts the local pop-punk outfit Mulligrub. "It's important to be able to see yourself in that role and see representations."

'Not necessarily a Winnipeg thing'

In Winnipeg, and many other Canadian cities, that problem extends beyond the stage.

"We would always like to see more women both on stage and behind the scenes. I think our industry across North America is like that, it's not necessarily a Winnipeg thing," said Manitoba Music executive director Sean McMannis. "Because we're a smaller scene here in Winnipeg, it might seem even more extreme sometimes."

Sarah Michaelson AKA Mama Cutsworth is the city's best known female DJ and has spent the last 10 years working in almost every venue in the city.

"There's sort of the musicians and then there's gatekeepers in the music industry – these are the people who have a lot of control over what audiences hear," said Michaelson.

In Winnipeg, Michaelson said, owners of venues, talent buyers, artistic directors and sound techs are overwhelmingly men.

"The majority of people who are booking shows are males," she said. "It's kind of like politics – you have to get elected to get in there. It's tricky."

When she first started out as a DJ she was virtually alone.

There weren't a lot of women doing what she was doing, and she was dealing with everything from sexual harassment at gigs to men who didn't think she knew how to plug in her own equipment.

"I complained for a long time about feeling super isolated as a female DJ," she said. "My partner just said, 'You should probably stop complaining, and you should do something about it.'"

So she started a DJ class for women in 2012.

After three years, it's finally bearing fruit, with some of her students booking their own gigs and getting their own equipment.

"We can't just have men programming things. We need women doing that too, and of course trans folks," said Michaelson. "There's a lot of really wonderful, conscientious males who are very aware of that privilege, and they strive for equality in a lot of ways. It's harder for them, though, because it's something they have to consciously do."

And both McManus and Campbell were quick to heap praise on the men working in the industry now.

"I think that a booker's job, a buyer's job, a promoter's job is to book a diverse group of artists and to think about who their audiences are certainly there are women in their audiences," said McManus, who added there are great women booking for festivals like Break Out West or Big Fun.

'Strong women working in the scene'

But, he acknowledged young women here sometimes need to look beyond the province's borders for female role models.
Mama Cutsworth (left) celebrates with one of her DJ students Meghan Menzies during a "DJ recital" last year. (CBC)

McManus pointed to a new summer fest heading into the city this summer.

The female-run Six Shooter Records is bringing in the Interstellar Rodeo – a mid-size music festival that started out in Edmonton.

Manitoba Music also brings in as many women as possible for panels and workshops for young and aspiring artists – and there are definitely already women here who are work paving the way for the next generation of artists.

"Mama Cutsworth is such a great role model and example. I have a three and a half-year-old daughter, and she teaches her DJ lessons," said McManus. "My advice … is to find role models because I think it is valuable to have both female and male role models. There's strong women working in the scene, for sure."

The Cootie Club's next showcase starts Friday night at 8 p.m. at The Purple Room. All are welcome.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?