Women who shaped electronic music

Women who shaped electronic music DJ

Throughout history, women have repeatedly shown that they are power machines, capable of anything and everything. Yet, despite their significant influence in any area, their representation has been repeatedly compromised making some of us believe that their role has, in fact, not been that important.

In this article we’re looking at the field of electronic music and the women that have helped shape it. To raise awareness is to talk about it. So, let’s dive into it right away!

Women in music

According to recent statistics, it’s clear that the music industry keeps facing the same issue that most other industries are. That is female underrepresentation and inequality. That’s nothing new under the sun, you may think as the music industry has traditionally always been male-dominated. The numbers however show that not only the problem prevails but not much progress has been made.

Every year Annenberg Inclusion Initiative releases a report on the inclusion in the recording studio. Sponsored by Spotify, the study examines the gender of artists, songwriters and producers across all 1,100 songs included on Billboard’s Hot 100 year-end charts spanning from 2012 to 2022. According to that, in 2022, women made up only 30% of the 160 artists on the Billboard chart while men represented 69.4% of the rest (less than 1% was represented by artists who identified as non-binary).

The numbers are even more alarming when it comes to songwriting and, particularly, producing. In terms of songwriters, 14% of credits goes to women. In terms of production, a mere 3,4% of producers (50 in number) were females across all songs included on the chart. Out of the 50 female producers, only 13 (26%) were women of color.

One may say that the study is not particularly representative of women in the music industry as it examines mainstream, popular music songs coming from signed artists that are considered ‘commercially successful’ by the general public. If, however, even in the branch of the most popular and successful musicians, female artists are vastly underrepresented, what happens behind the doors of other genres and industry sectors?

Female artists in electronic music

In fact, in electronic music per se, the representation of women is even more distressing. In 2019, it was estimated that less than 10% of DJs and only 5% of recognized electronic music producers were women.

In the 2020’s editions of the DJMag Top 100 DJs list, only 14 of the 100 were females and in the magazine’s Top 150 Cubs, the annual representation of female DJs is approximately 6%. Moreover, in 2022, women and non-binary made up only 28% of artists on electronic festival lineups. At large festivals, the percentage was even lower – 15%.

The important question is: why are women so underrepresented in the electronic music industry?

It’s important to note that electronic music does not lack talented female artists. It just lacks the people, men to be more precise, to acknowledge their existence. The music media that is majorly centered around men on the electronic music scene doesn’t help either.

Whether it’s the magazines such as Rolling Stones, Billboard, The New York Times or music streaming platforms and their playlists, like Spotify or Deezer, there is no doubt that worldwide media keeps on failing to sufficiently represent and feature women in their stories. Not to mention that the ones that get featured are, even today, commonly portrayed in a sexual manner with the media paying more attention to their physical appearance and dating life than their craft.

Then, there is also the significant level of disrespect and discrimination that women have to face (namely, for the supposedly ‘bad taste’ in music or lack of ability to deal with technology) and the low salaries they earn in comparison to their male counterparts.

All these factors not only make it difficult for female artists that have already found their place in electronic music but seem to discourage those that have not yet from even trying. One should say that discouraging a talented woman from pursuing her dream career is not only despicable but also particularly loss-inducing for, in our case, the whole electronic music industry. That is especially when considering the powerful impact female artists have had on the development of the genre.

11 most influential female artists in electronic music

To take our stand on trying to empower current and future female electronic music artists, we’re having a look at some of the most influential women of the genre, considering their impact and contribution to the industry’s development.

We are well aware that there are many other prominent female artists that we don’t get to mention in the article. Therefore, don’t hesitate to raise the topic in our iMusician Community Forum and share with us which female electronic musicians you consider as highly influential.

1. Johanna Magdalena Beyer

Born in Leipzig, Germany, in 1888, Johanna Magdalena Beyer was a music composer and pianist that spent most of her professional life in the US. During her lifetime, she was widely recognized for her pianism and musicianship though largely ignored as a composer. It was actually decades after her passing that Beyer became notorious for her composing skills and her contributions, among other things, to electronic music.

In 1938, she composed Music of the Spheres, which is the first known score written entirely for electronic instruments by a female composer. Also her other compositions have been eventually recognised as influential, particularly her repertoire for percussion and its influence on the development of new music.

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2. Delia Derbyshire

Following in the footsteps of Beyer was Delia Derbyshire, an English musician and composer for electronic music. She became known in the 1960s for her work with the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. This was one of the sound effects units for the BBC, responsible for creating sound effects and incidental music for radio and, later, television.

Her most notable work was her 1963 electronic realization of the score written by Australian composer Ron Grainer for the Doctor Who series theme. Because of her work and talent, this was one of the first themes for television to be both created and produced with electronics only.

The original arrangement created by Derbyshire remained the series’s official theme throughout its first 17 series, from 1963 till 1980. Afterwards, the theme was reworked. Surprisingly enough, it was not until Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary in 2013, that she was firstly credited on-screen as the co-composer of the theme. Unfortunately, she didn’t live to see that happening as she passed away in 2001.

Besides Doctor Who, she composed music for other BBC programmes, including Blue Veils and Golden Sands for the docu series The World About Us, or the Delian Mode. For her work, she has been credited as a role model in British electronic music, having influenced musicians such as The Chemical Brothers, Aphex Twin or Orbital.

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3. Wendy Carlos

American composer Wendy Carlos is a pioneer for numerous reasons. Having studied with other electronic music pioneers, namely Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, Carlo released her debut album, Switched on Bach, in 1968. The album consisted of pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach performed entirely on a Moog modular synthesizer, the first ever commercial synthesizer.

To the surprise of many, the release became a great commercial and critical success upon its release. What’s more, in 1970, the album won 3 Grammys.Switched on Bach was the first work of art for which Carlos has been considered as an influential composer, mostly for her focus on a synthesizer as a genuine music instrument. The release is also often considered as the first electronic-only commercial success in history.

In the 1970s, Carlos was invited to compose soundtracks for several movies, further promoting synthesizers as instruments and making synths generally popular. This way she has become known for composing the film scores for movies like Clockwork Orange, Marooned, Tron or The Shining.

Besides playing an important role in music, she has also been praised for raising public awareness of transgender issues. Throughout her career Carlos revealed that although being born as a man, she has been living as a woman, having also undergone gender reconstruction surgery.

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4. Laurie Anderson

An avant-garde composer, musician and film director, Laurie Anderson came to prominence in 1981 with ‘O Superman’, a song accompanied by synthesizers, off-tempo vocal loops, and a sample of birdsong. Even before, however, she would perform widely in public, focusing mostly on the elements of language, visuals and technology.

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Throughout her career she’s established a reputation as an innovator and electronic music pioneer, namely for her innovation of musical instruments she’s used in her recordings. Already in 1977, she developed a tape-bow violin that has a magnetic tape head in the bridge and, instead of horsehair, uses recorded magnetic tape on the bow.

In the 1990s, she joined the Interval Research Corporation, a laboratory and technology incubator, to work on another instrument. As a result, they developed an instrument named ‘talking stick’, a 1.8m long MIDI controller that can access and also replicate sounds.

Laurie Anderson-the tape bow violin

Laurie Anderson and her tape-bow violin

5. Pauline Oliveros

Born in Houston, Texas, Pauline Oliveros was a composer and accordion player, considered one of the key early figures in the development of electronic and post-was experimental music.

In the 1960s, she became a founding member and the first director of San Francisco Tape Music Center, a non-profit organization that was developed and managed by a number of local composers focusing their work around tape recorders. The Tape Music Center happened to become a relevant resource of electronic music on the U.S. West Coast as it was also used as an electronic music studio and live performance venue.

Oliveros was also a pioneer of new musical theories, deep listening and sonic awareness. Deep listening explores the voluntary, selective nature of listening and aims to inspire artists to practice the art and respond to environmental conditions in solo and ensemble situations. Sonic awareness, on the other hand, is described as the ability to consciously focus attention on environmental and musical sounds.

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6. Suzanne Ciani

The American composer and sound designer, Suzanne Ciani, has been, without a doubt, a key figure in electronic music of the last few decades. Throughout her studies, she met a professor and a pioneer, Don Buchla, who invented an analog modular synthesizer, the Buchla (then competitor of the Moog synthesizer). The instrument has later become central to her production and performance, too.

In 1978, she founded Ciani/Musica. Inc., a company to use her creativity and produce themes and signature tones for advertisements. This way she produced advertisement jingles for companies such as Coca Cola, Merrill Lynch, AT&T and General Electric. One of her most recognized works has undoubtedly been the sound of a Coca Cola bottle being opened and then poured into a glass.

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She was able to demonstrate her sounds on TV, making an appearance on The David Letterman Show. In 1982, she took her electronic music dominated by the use of Buchla to stage for the first time in 15 years. Until today, she has, so far, released 16 solo albums and has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best New Age Album five times.

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7. Björk

The Iceland-born Björk could be described as a musical chameleon experimenting with numerous genres throughout her career, from art pop, through avant-garde and experimental, to electronic music (while, originally coming to prominence as a lead singer of alternative rock band, the Sugarcubes).

Already her first album, named Debut (1993), drew from a variety of genres, namely electronic pop, house music, jazz and trip hop. Not only that the album received a worldwide critical acclaim, but also achieved great commercial success. While her second album, Post (1995), continued the style developed on Debut, the third album, Homogenic (1997), combined electronic beats with string instruments. In total, she has, so far, released 10 music albums with the last one Fossora (2022) diving more into avant-garde and techno.

It is believed that both the quality and commercial success of her releases have introduced a lot of people into the world of electronic music.

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8. Miss Kittin

Miss Kittin is a French producer from Grenoble born under the name of Caroline Hervé. Active since 1994, Kittin is considered as one of the greatest female DJs, known particularly for the art of blending various genres, including techno, electroclash, synthpop or hip hop.

Her debut album, Or, was released in 2001 in collaboration with the Golden Boy followed by another album, named First Album, released together with a French producer The Hacker the same year. Despite not charting, the First Album has sold over 50,000 copies worldwide and has been critically acclaimed by several relevant international music magazines.

Namely the songs ‘1982’ and ‘Frank Sinatra’ helped her classify as an international DJ.

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9. Nina Kraviz

Nina Kraviz is one of the current most successful female DJs and electronic music producers. Born in Siberia, she relocated to Moscow to study dentistry and gained her residency there, too.

After shuffling between numerous jobs, such as hosting a radio show or holding a club residency on Friday nights, she was accepted into Red Bull Music Academy in Seattle in 2005. Although she couldn’t join that year because of visa issues, she joined the academy the following year in Melbourne, Canada.

By 2008, she was a regular at the Propaganda Club in Moscow. Within just a few years, she has become an international electronic music star as well as an acclaimed female DJ. In 2014, she founded her own record label named Trip Recordings.

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10. Ellen Allien

The last mentioned on our list is Ellen Allien, a German music producer and electronic musician known for blending IDM and techno music. Furthermore, her music is particularly dance-floor oriented and shows distinct experimental elements and sounds.

Allien has been active since 1992 releasing her first album, Stadtkin, dedicated to the city of Berlin in 2001. She has also cited the culture of now-reunified Berlin as the most considerable inspiration in her music.

Today, still, her career remains active making it more than 30 years in the industry – not many artists, both males and females, have managed to have such a long, fruitful and consistent career, namely in electronic music. In 1999, she founded a techno record label called BPitch Control. The label has kicked off the careers of multiple artists like the German duo Modeselektor, electronic music producer Paul Kalkbrenner or electronic musician Apparat.

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We took the time to compile this list to show what a significant role female artists have played, and are still playing today, in the development of the electronic music genre. Still, the list and the article itself are way too short to present the true impact that these and many other female artists have had on the electronic music industry.

If you’re more interested in what it’s been like for women in the electronic music industry, we recommend watching the remarkable movie Sisters with Transistors. The movie tells the story of female pioneers in electronic music, many of whom we are also mentioning in this piece.

For those that want to learn more about electronic music as a whole, check out our guides about the history of electronic music and the electronic music festivals, or the article about what EDM is.