Women start music-activism project, endure blowback from “salty” males

The reaction to Half-Stack Sessions offers further proof that Half-Stack Sessions is needed. 

Illustration by Claire Warhus

Illustration by Claire Warhus

The past few weeks were an exciting period for Madison’s Half-Stack Sessions project. Four musicians founded the group earlier this year with the goal of making Madison’s music community more inclusive for women, non-binary people, and LGBTQ people, and this past Saturday the group held its first public event, hosting bands and a fashion show at the Wil-Mar Neighborhood Center. The event succeeded in drawing a crowd and raising money for Domestic Abuse Intervention Services. Journalists at Isthmus and Tone Madison previewed the show with profiles of Half-Stack’s founders. Frank Productions announced that one of those founders, Maggie Denman, would be heading up local bookings for the High Noon Saloon, which Frank recently acquired. And perhaps most importantly, Half-Stack has attracted the involvement of dozens of Madisonians through its Facebook group and its mostly private-ish series of events.

But when it comes to combating sexism in the music world or anywhere else, frustrations always sprout anew. In Facebook threads and on the local music grapevine, Half-Stack organizers and participants have fielded a fair amount of defensive and condescending commentary from men who don’t seem to get what the organization is about or the social context in which it operates.

When one musician, Alejandra Perez of Miyha (which played Saturday’s show and includes Denman on bass), posted the aforementioned Isthmus story on her personal Facebook page, a thread broke out in which male commenters asked whether a women-focused group wasn’t “sexist” or divisive, or helpfully pointed out that women they know don’t feel excluded by men in the music scene. (Full disclosure: Perez is playing a set at a show Tone Madison is hosting later this week.) One sticking point seemed to be that most of Half-Stack’s events are limited to women and non-binary folks, in an effort to create a supportive atmosphere and focus on the issues that impact these groups specifically. If only men had some place to go where they were the dominant group, you know? Like roughly everywhere.

“I can tell you I’ve never witnessed the kind of male-dominance or exclusion of women that this article talks about,” one male commenter said. The conversation also called into question how active or experienced Perez and some of the other musicians involved in Half-Stack are — which is pretty absurd given how busy these musicians have been in playing gigs, recording, and organizing shows around town. From editing a local events calendar from week to week, I can confidently say that they’re pretty much constantly on the radar. The comments about Half-Stack being exclusionary also contradict things that organizers have said publicly about how they want the project to play out in the context of the larger music community. For instance, here’s what co-founder Tessa Echeverria told Tone Madison’s Emili Earhart in a recent story: “We don’t want to remove ourselves and start our own scene. We want to work with the scenes we are already involved with to push forward. So it has to be an open dialogue within the whole community.”

The Facebook threads are the most visible part, but these are hardly the only grumblings circulating about Half-Stack, says co-founder Claire Nelson-Lifson, who also plays in bands including Proud Parents and runs the Rare Plant tape label.

“I feel like that conversation was a really good representation of how a lot of men feel about Half-Stack, most of whom are actually my friends so they don’t say any of these things directly to my face, but Madison is small and the scene is even smaller so word travels fast,” Nelson-Lifson says.

After Saturday’s show, Nelson-Lifson also posted on Facebook about both the event’s success and a sense of disappointment in those who didn’t come out or support it. Pointing out that female musicians in Madison are very supportive of their male counterparts, Nelson-Lifson wrote that that support often goes unreciprocated. Nelson-Lifson and Perez also gave male musicians (including their bandmates in Proud Parents and Miyha, respectively) credit for supporting Half-Stack’s mission, but called out the underlying attitudes that remain entrenched in the music community.

“Why does a group of underrepresented people having the desire to have a space for themselves offend you so much?” Nelson-Lifson wrote in the Facebook post.

I asked Nelson-Lifson whether the blowback is surprising. “We did expect a little, but didn’t expect to see it coming from people so involved in the scene, especially something so innocent as a space for non-males to gather and empower each other,” Nelson-Lifson said. “I think the people that are still salty don’t understand that you can empower yourself and others without knocking others down.”

The central irony here is that men would be so quick to feel left out by a project that addresses the exclusion and undermining of women. If you’ve ever had a real conversation with a female musician, you probably are aware of how the music world amplifies everyday sexism. “It comes not only in work emails where people call me Mr. Perez or call me Alejandro or refuse to attempt to spell my name on coffee cups, and now it comes in men asking me how long I’ve been playing guitar, or commenting on how I look at shows, or limiting my efforts to be a better guitarist and songwriter by making snide remarks,” Perez says.

Nelson-Lifson says Half-Stack is planning another public event for June 22. In the meantime, let’s all try not to drown in male tears.