Women on the Alternative Power 100 List: Ruth Timmermans

Ruth Timmermans © Sara Anke Morris

Ruth Timmermans © Sara Anke Morris

Last week, our global colleagues at shesaid.so launched the annual Alternative Power 100, a diverse alternative to the Billboard Power 100 list, which doesn’t seem to get any more inclusive over the years.

Last year’s list, which you can find here, made mention of Ruth Timmermans, managing director at music magazine Gonzo (circus). The magazine focuses on niche genres, visual art and any other stories worth telling. The magazine celebrates their 150th edition this year, so we sat down with Ruth about her nomination, her ideas on diversity and what she plans for Gonzo (circus)’s future.

You’ve been with Gonzo (circus) for 19 years, and managing director for the past 9 years. How have you seen the magazine change?

Gonzo (circus) has been around for 28 years and has grown from a fanzine to a professional magazine. That means a professional organization and the need for a framework for our writers. That might be the biggest change to our organisational structure.

In terms of content, we’ve always wanted to write about more than music and art. We strive to tell stories in their societal context. Because of rapid technological innovations and turbulent political times, we’ve started to pay attention to mechanisms that result in friction and tension in the music industry. Like Marc Fisher’s essay we published in 2012, about the precariat that artists find themselves in. Seven years old and still relevant as ever. One of our writers, Marc Schuilenburg, who just released the controversial book Hysterie, published a series of articles on privacy ten years ago! And writer Dimitri Vossen pinpoints new technological advances within the industry, long before the mainstream picks them up. We wrote about mp3s, bandcamp and blockchain when no one else did. That’s rare for a former punk fanzine.

Diversity has been a hot topic in more recent years. I’ve been doing a lot of research for our 150th edition, and it’s interesting to see the changes in artists we’ve been writing about. Just when it seems like we were highlighting too many white guitar-playing artists, we reinvented ourselves, in the mid-noughties. We had to. Since 2006 we’ve been publishing annual reports, required by the Flemish government, about our topics, our employees, and the diversity within our organisation.

The most important thing is to stay aware of how and why we make certain choices, for example who we put on the cover, the artists we select for our Mind The Gap CD, the specials we publish. It’s crucial for an organisation like ours to follow developments in today’s society.

Which gender-based challenges have you seen over the decades?

When I was researcher at the University of Leuven, gender was a big part of my field of research. But during that decade, I was too involved with gender to actually see the challenges. Only when I experienced harassment myself, and heard other women’s stories about it, I felt the necessity to start looking into it.

The biggest issue is that there’s no feeling of urgency. Even after the #metoo movement, we still don’t have enough public stories about what’s going wrong on one hand, and success stories about female artists on the other hand. The survey that’s been done in our industry in Flanders is proof of this, yet again.

That being said, I’ve managed to list a few of the biggest challenges we’re still facing as women in music and media, in my opinion.

Women in music are confronted with toxic work environments, and the pressure to comply with unnatural standards; I still feel like I have to be one of the boys to be taken seriously, which often means being rough in interactions, using crude language, drinking beer at the bar after a concert. I notice it at almost every festival I go to. This isn’t a healthy way to develop yourself professionally and safeguard your authenticity simultaneously.

Complaints about this toxic work environment and harassment aren’t taken seriously because of the lack of diversity within organizations. The need for counselors or mediators isn’t validated and when people in high positions are the subject of these complaints, they are often protected by excuses of being ‘invaluable’.

Male heteronormativity is narrowing our view on the audience and the world. We still assume that the white male is the standard. Just recently, a male volunteer called music written by a female artist “women’s pop”. When I asked if there was “men’s pop”, I got no response. I think that speaks volumes.

Female artists are faced with double standards and gender stereotypes. The bar is set so much higher for women. Also, when women are being interviewed, more often than not, they’re being asked about their appearance, their collaborations and other ‘soft’ subjects, instead of the technical aspects of their work. And then there’s the mother of all questions: “How do you combine your work with children and family?” Male professionals in the industry don’t often encounter that question.

Women are dealing with belittling and the disbelief that women can be leaders in their industry. A few weeks ago, someone asked me if he could talk to the manager! Our contributions aren’t being seen as much, let alone being valued. What’s worse is that women internalize these external assumptions and believe they’d be better fit in a PR or communication position, instead of manager or CEO. We need to be mindful of that as well.

It’s 2019 and we still haven’t realized how important this fight towards gender equality and inclusivity really is. At least I’m happy to report that Gonzo (circus) has welcomed a lot more tolerance and diversity, and we’ve had an increased number of female writers in our magazine. It seems trivial, but yes, women can write about music. And you better be sure they’ll be claiming their voice.

Being nominated for the Alternative Power 100 List implies that you serve as an example or mentor to others. Do you have mentors of your own?

I’ve never had a real mentor in the music industry. They were rare, and more specifically, they were barely visible. But I owe a lot to my grandmother. She taught me how to keep track of things and anticipate different situations, all with a bit of sarcastic humor - essential when you’re running a large family and farm.

Within my own generation, I look up to Annette Wolfsberger (Re-Imagine Europe). She’s a creative jack-of-all-trades, who’s impacting policies with her expertise, doesn’t take no for an answer and always keeps her head above water. Leen Laconte is another example. She’s been director of Overleg Kunstorganisaties and De Brakke Grond, and has taken crucial steps in innovating and professionalizing both organisations.

Who are you nominating for the Alternative Power 100 List this year?

I think the name ‘Power 100’ might be a little misleading. It’s not about who makes the most money or has the widest network. In my opinion ‘power’ should be about relevant work, personality and commitment to a community. I could’ve given you an endless list of powerful women, but after a lot of thought managed to come up with this shortlist.

Aurélie Lierman is active as a composer, sound artist and performer all over the world. She’s received the CTM Radio Lab Award in january and was invited as part of the line-up at Gaudeamus in Utrecht last year. She often collaborates with other inspiring women like Isabelle Vigier at record label Unsounds, and she’s an incredibly warm person.

Julia Eckhardt is the driving force behind Q-02, the art atelier for experimental music and sound art in Brussels. The publications and programming at Q-02 have contributed to my personal development and realizations that things need to be different in our industry. Every conversation with Julia makes me think.

Gilke Vanuytsel is the music programmer at Beursschouwburg. She has single-handedly diversified club life in Brussels by focusing on younger, LGBTQ+ and underground scenes which aren’t visible in mainstream media.

Mariëtte Groot is the founder of Underbelly, a pop-up store for books and DVDs on experimental art and music. She also conceptualized New Emergences, a platform for gender equality and inclusivity in electronic music and sound art.

Anne Laberge is an American composer and performer who’s been living in Amsterdam for years. She tirelessly works for gender equality in contemporary music, makes amazing pieces based on game technology, is co-founder of Splendor and co-curator at the influential Kraakgeluiden. I often think back on her work ‘Utter’ that I saw at Heroines of Sound Festival in 2015.

Nominations for the Alternative Power 100 List are open until March 8th. Don’t forget to nominate your icons - we welcome all genders, but are looking specifically to leaders focused on strengthening the communities around them. Send us your picks through this link.

Gonzo (circus) is organizing a network event for Flemish and Dutch music professionals on the 15th of March in Eindhoven. You can find more information here.