Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local women artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2017. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
The world of professional audio has long been a boys' club. A study done in 2000 found that just 5 percent of working audio engineers were women, and some engineers say that percentage has decreased since then. But Kelley Coyne of Women’s Audio Mission (WAM) is doing her part to shatter the soundproof glass ceiling.
As WAM’s program coordinator, Coyne runs a variety of classes and camps demonstrating the ins and outs of studio and live sound production, inspiring her middle- and high-school–aged students to pick up microphones and lay down their own tracks -- for music, podcasts and more.
Don't be mistaken, that old idiom “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” does not apply to Coyne. Her music career started at the illustrious 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., and she's piloted mixing consoles at local studio Tiny Telephone and local clubs like the Rickshaw Stop. Her journey into the studio world is just as inspiring as her tales of teenagers discovering their love for sound. Hearing her tell her story makes me glad someone so genuinely enthusiastic about recording gets to share that enthusiasm with today’s youth.
How did you get started working in audio production and teaching it?
I got into audio in a roundabout way. I grew up in upstate New York and all throughout school, music was my passion. But I was a lot better in technical fields like science and math. Somewhere in there I worked at a music venue and really got interested in live sound.
So when I came out to the Bay Area for a teaching job at an after-school program, I decided to go back to school for sound. I went to get my certificate at SF State -- they have an extended learning program. Just a few months in, I landed internships at WAM, the Rickshaw Stop and Tiny Telephone.
The cool thing about WAM was that I had teaching experience, so I got hired just a few months in, and that was five years ago.
The recording world is so male-dominated, have you ever run into external sexism?
Where do I begin? Just kidding. [Laughs] I should preface this that I’ve had so many great male mentors, so it’s not everyone.
In live sound, I’ve definitely been mistaken as the intern a lot. I had a moment where I met this engineer that I really look up to. I was so excited to meet him, and then he said, “You got to teach women to take a pat on the butt every once in awhile if they want to be in the studio.” It was really disheartening.
Other than that, I go to this conference with WAM every year called AES (Audio Engineering Society) and we set up a booth. I’ve been going for five years and since I first started going, I’ve seen this huge shift.
During the first two years, I would hear, “I don’t get it. Women would be in the industry if they wanted to be.” So it was a lot of me saying, “It’s a lot more complicated than that.” A lot of women don’t know this is a possible job. Then they go to audio school and they’re by themselves so they drop out.
But at the same time, we get a lot of younger men who are super stoked that we are there and they pass on our information to women in their programs. So it gets better every year, honestly.
What kind of demographic are you reaching through Women's Audio Mission?
Most classes are sixth to eighth grade, and we have a few high school classes as well. We train more than 1,200 women and girls a year. That number is going to drastically change soon because we just signed a lease in Oakland and we’re going to reach 10 or more schools that we couldn’t take on before because we didn’t have the capacity.
I just can’t believe I get to do it for a job. It’s really fun.
How do you get students interested in the studio experience?
We have the advantage of music. Music is the carrot, and then they see that they can control this huge mixer and do what they want with the music. They totally get where the power in production is and then they jump on it.
I think our main goal is to demystify this technology, so even if they don’t become a sound engineer, they might see someone coding and be like, “Oh, I’ve coded a drum machine before. I can do computer science!” They become more open to other technologies as well.
A lot of students in the Girls At The Mic program tell me that they didn’t know they could work with technology because they’re just not around it. We get to go around to these schools and by the end of the semester they become total badasses.
What are the challenges of teaching such young students in a studio?
Some of the challenges I’ve run into… there’s plenty. But I’ve become less structured in my classes. My first year of teaching was in a school and the whole thing with after-school programming is that I can be more lenient. If they’re more into podcasting, I can focus on that. I used to be more strict -- “We’re on a strict schedule!” Now I try to be more aware of what they’re interested in. I also used to do a lot more Powerpoints and, oh my God, I don’t do that any more. I’ve found more hands-on ways to introduce lessons. But it’s been a lot of learning as I go.
What does your ideal future look like for women artists in the Bay Area?
I think there's a lot of external pressure for women to act, feel, and do certain things, so my hope is for every woman to take that weird and awesome journey to find their authentic selves, or who they really are under all that noise. I also think amazing strength and magic comes from women working together and supporting each other, so I hope that continues to grow and flourish in the Bay Area.
Learn more about Coyne's work at kelleycoyne.com.