Shalini Randall, an Electronic Dance Music DJ, talks about the challenges of being a female in this field.
Inside Shalini Randall’s Butcher’s Hill row home, a symphony of mews, barks and chirps compose the soundtrack of daily life. But when the electronic dance music disc jockey begins to spin, the animal chorus falls mostly silent, as if entranced by a higher power.
Randall, 30, has spent much of the last decade perfecting her sound. In her bedroom, a space decorated with vibrant tapestries, loud prints and a birdcage outfitted with its own hanging miniature disco ball, she moves to the beat of the synthetic drum, mouthing the words and bopping her head as the tracks flowing out of her sound system segue into an endless, pulsating continuum.
Electronic dance music, otherwise known as EDM, serves as an umbrella term for several genres including house, techno, trance, dancehall and dubstep. Popularized by names such as Daft Punk, Skrillex and Calvin Harris, the genre has sourced more mainstream listeners over the last decade, thanks in part to the rebranding efforts of the U.S. music industry and the broad commercial appeal of festivals and raves.
In cities like Baltimore, the EDM and club scenes have enticed abundant, high-energy crowds. This year’s Preakness InfieldFest at Pimlico Race Course drew thousands, featuring the likes of Diplo, Kygo and Frank Walker, all whose music falls under the EDM umbrella. On Aug. 10 and 11, thousands are expected to return to Pimlico Race Course for the annual Moonrise Festival, which includes performances by big EDM names like Tiesto, Excision and Alan Walker.
But most major festivals held in Baltimore or elsewhere in the U.S. feature few women in the lineup, and when they do, they rarely headline.
For local DJs like Randall, who have dedicated their adult lives to honing their craft, surviving in the region’s small, male-dominated industry requires grit, sacrifice and, above all, passion. And although many say they have experienced outright instances of sexism and prejudice both backstage and during live performances, the thrill of the scene and the hope of creating a more accessible and tolerant industry for the next generation of EDM artists drives them to keep spinning.
‘It was a man’s culture’
Randall went to her first rave in 2008 as a college student at UMBC. A few years later, she saw a DJ named Kristen Wilson, also known as “Madam Bliss,” and remembers wanting to trade places.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is a space for us. This is something I’m allowed to do as a woman,’” she said. “It sounds stupid, because I can do anything I want to do, right? For me it was literally not having exposure and just seeing someone else doing it.”
Like other college students, Randall escaped from the pressures of the mundane at night, and quickly took to the community of rave-goers who welcomed her as one of their own. Those around her preached themes of “PLUR,” an acronym for peace, love, unity and respect, and made her feel safe.
Before long, she moved home with her parents and found a day job fixing audio equipment so she could save enough money to buy her own.
As she taught herself the ins and outs of mixing, she listened to other prominent DJs for inspiration, like Afrojack, Tiesto and Steve Aoki. She went to more shows, met new contacts, shook many hands. Before long, she dubbed herself “Confetti The First,” which hearkens to the side of her personality that loves a good party.
Today, Randall’s schedule revolves around her music. One week in July, she played six shows, including one at Big Dub Festival in Artemas, Pa., and another at Factory 17 in Baltimore, working shifts at ProTech in Silver Spring in between. On days off, she catches up on sleep or rehearses for the next gig.
Baltimore’s DJs compete for stage time at the area’s top venues, a relatively small and fluid list that includes Baltimore Soundstage, Rams Head Live! and the 8x10. Fan favorites like Paradox have closed over the years, causing stage access to become even more limited.
Randall said while females do land some of the more coveted bookings in and around town, men make up more of the talent and generally have more power in influencing a show’s lineup. As a result, she said it is more difficult for female creators to enter.
“We’re competing in a space where we’re not necessarily as accepted as the guys,” she said, adding that while many men she meets become allies, others go out of their way to make their rivals feel small. “You see guys who are threatened by female DJs, who say things, like, ‘Well, she only got there because of sexual favors,’ or ‘She only got there because she’s cute.’”
Male dominance in EDM dates back to the early emergence of the music in the 1980s, which took off in Europe as a modern extension of disco and Jamaican dub. In the U.S., it initially achieved less mainstream appeal.
Robert Fink, chair of the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music’s Minor in the Music Industry, said in the earliest EDM spaces, Chicago among them, many of the top artists did not fit the “bro DJ” stereotype that many associate with today’s dance music.
“A lot of the big DJs were gay men, and some of the most famous were gay men of color,” he said. By the late ’80s and early 1990s, he said, straight, white men began to saturate the market.
Women, meanwhile, found other avenues into the culture, he said, some even as producers.
“At club or an event, there will be a woman dealing with the organization, while the person performing is the man,” Fink said of that era. This continued through the late 1990s, at which point, "it became this blokey, aggressively hetero, macho scene,” he said.
Rebekah Farrugia, an associate professor with a specialization in media studies at Oakland University, said the rise of major festivals and other outdoor shows helped lift EDM out of its criminalized, underground warehouse reputation of the ’90s that many associated with drug use. Through the mid-2000s, she said, the scene declined further due to popular radio’s aversion of it.
"In Europe at that time, electronic music was everywhere, but here, no one wanted to take a chance with anything,” she said.
Fink said the industry peaked in the U.S. seven or eight years ago, as a new generation of fans embraced the fast-paced, synthetic beats featured prominently in other genres, like pop and hip hop. Soon, DJs morphed from relatively nameless players into major stars, winning lucrative record deals and scoring top performance opportunities at shows like Coachella, the annual music and arts festival held in California.
Few women rank among these highly-commercialized artists. And as has been the case with other genres, Fink said, it could take time before they land the best-paying gigs and record label deals in what has long proved an exclusive and tightly-controlled male space.
‘You have to be tough’
Katherine Dudinsky’s journey to the stage included stints as a go-go dancer. Not her forte, she said, but it allowed her to get close enough to the DJ booth so that she could watch and take notes.
The 26-year-old DJ from Baltimore found EDM in high school, using the community that came with it to escape the bullying she endured from her peers. She too found serenity in the “PLUR” mentality and found a community of friends and mentors.
“It draws in people of all kinds, shapes and forms,” Dudinksky, who goes by “Nvrsoft,” which stands for “never soft,” said. “At raves, people were nice to me, they educated me about being a young adult, they gave me a lot of guidance at a pivotal time in my life.”
She picked up DJ’ing at 16, and a decade later, she feels like she’s a step closer to the success she’s always craved as an artist. The British label AudioPorn Records released her EP in March, and later this month, she will conclude an international tour that includes stops in Italy, Spain, Portugal, England and Holland. She became the first U.S. female drum-and-bass artist to play at Fabric, a well-known club in England.
But it hasn’t been easy.
During one performance, Dudinsky said two male peers “who don’t deserve to be named” hurled insults at her for an hour, urging her to quit. She said she has not only received unequal pay for equal work but also been denied payment altogether.
Kathryn Staley, 22, who goes by “ReEduk8” (pronounced “reeducate”) on stage, said she’s battled with feelings of insecurity at times over the relationship between marketability and appearance.
“When you’re looking for people to look up to and you don’t really see yourself in them, it’s really discouraging,” the Baltimore-born and bred DJ said. “Most of the time, your only merit in a promoter’s opinion is your image. It’s become a cash cow, so it’s not about talent so much as a marketable product.”
But Nvrsoft and ReEduk8 don’t like to speak too much about the more unflattering aspects of their industry, nor do they allow it to stop them from doing what they love. Dudinsky said the obstacles she’s faced have even prepared her to endure the harsher realities of the business — the countless rejections, the long days, the constant hustle for work and promotion.
“It’s been a beautiful ride, honestly, even with the struggles,” she said. “Without all of that, I would never have been able to get through the public life that I have now, because you have to be tough and you have to be strong.”
As she navigated the rough waters as an up-and-coming DJ, Dudinsky recognized a need for collective guidance. She knew several other female DJs — she thought, why not form an alliance?
Last December, she created a private Facebook group where female, queer and non-binary DJs and their supporters can share horror stories, offer production tips, ask questions and conduct internal research. Some members of the more than 330-person group use the space to compliment others on their musical feats and accomplishments. Others share news links, memes and cautionary tales.
Staley said she finds comfort in the numbers.
“Statistically, it’s against us," she said. “In the group, we all kind of band together and are a solid foundation — we deal with a lot of misogyny and a lot of unfair treatment.”
Farrugia said female DJs have long resorted to forming collectives as a means of survival in the business. Before Facebook, she said, they formed email Listservs and mailing lists, oftentimes arranging in-person meet ups and social events.
She also said female DJs in places like Berlin often receive government-funded grants to help level the playing field between men and women. But in countries like the U.S., with less federal funding contributed toward the arts, she said women might be worse off.
Randall, for one, knows what she’s up against. But with her sights set on a list of local venues and events where she’d like to see her name in the lineup and dreams of an international tour, she knows she’s come too far to get caught up in the noise of it all.
On a Saturday night in July, during a performance at Otakon — the annual anime and Asian pop culture convention — at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., Randall moved and grooved to a setlist that had the crowd bouncing on their feet from start to finish. At one point, Otakon attendee Laura Biehl, from Pittsburgh, looked up at the stage and realized that the source of it all was a woman, with long, dark hair, glasses and black gloves that exposed her fingers. It gave her pause.