Sunflower Thieves: Networking, Thick Skin, and Female Role Models

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

"Women I Trust" Episode 1

The first episode of my new series about women in the music industry was with Leeds’ own legendary sisterhood duo Sunflower Thieves, who make dreamy, personal folk-pop. Perhaps serendipitously (to facilitate a writeup!) the livestream failed to save in a technical error. The chats were simply too good to go without a reference point; so using my memory and preparatory notes, I present the writeup of our first episode where we talk about friendship, networking, being in a gender minority, and female role models in music. All quotations are paraphrased.

The music industry can be a lonely place for anybody; there's competition, uncertainty, and shifting goalposts. If you make up one of the 21.7% of female artists, or the 2.1% of female producers (Forbes 2019) it has the potential to be truly alienating. Fortunately, Amy Illingworth and Lily Sturt-Bolshaw have had the alliance of their friendship from the get-go. Sunflower Thieves produce and record their own work, tour together, and make up a co-writing team that works with other artists. Friends for 16 years, who grew up together and studied music at the same university (LCOM) they’ve avoided some of the pitfalls of other creative partnerships - betrayals, misunderstandings that leave things in tatters - because they came into making music together with the friendship first, instead of second, to music. As they progress further into unknown territories, this friendship offers some protection against the challenges of 'making it' in the music industry, especially as young women. Working to produce and record their songs from a home studio setup, their closeness reverberates in their work; latest single Hide and Seek a testimony to the effectiveness of their intimate creative relationship. Aching for the safety of childhood, their voices fit hand in glove to weave us into their story.

As an independent artist in the music world it can be a minefield to know where to put your energy business-wise. This is something Sunflower Thieves have a real knack for, their three singles amassing Spotify streams above 67k and finding placements on Spotify Official playlists and with other influential tastemakers too. Amy and Lily were generous with their advice in this area, and their verdict was that so much in this industry, as an independent artist especially, comes down to networking. When I asked them their top tips for making an impact as an independent artist these were the points they stressed:

  • Be thick skinned: the further you delve into the industry as an independent artist the more rejection you are going to experience. Amy recalls that when they started, they were sharing music solely with people they knew cared about it. Sending music to taste-makers, blogs, and playlists is sending your music to people who don’t know you or necessarily care about you, so you can be met with either resounding silence or feedback that is more harsh than you’re used to. Don’t let this put you off, it's down to personal taste. The people receiving your emails are individuals with individual tastes, if they don’t like it it’s not a reflection on how objectively good your song is. They used indie taste-maker Alex Rainbird as an example - Amy said they submitted all three of their singles for consideration on his popular playlists. He, "didn’t like the first one, loved the second, and didn’t like the third one." He said, "it just wasn’t his thing." That second song ended up on a bunch of Alex Rainbird playlists. Keep submitting those songs!

  • Make them care about you: if you’re sending music to strangers, make them care! They hear new music all day every day, give them a reason to give you a shot. Amy’s top tip for this is do your research. If you show you care about them they’re more likely to care about you enough to at least listen to the track you’ve sent. She says she finds Twitter a great platform to do some digging on playlist curators - "often times they are also musicians and have their own musical projects. If you can say something like ‘hey, I love your new song such and such’ to open the email and break the ice, or even do a bit of that on socials then you’re doing something most people submitting aren’t, and that can set you apart." It’s also just courteous, and it's things like that that can set you up to potentially foster more long lasting relationships and build your circle.

Many of the opportunities that they’ve had personally as well as in Sunflower Thieves have come as a result of really effective networking, Amy points out. Their latest single Hide and Seek got national radio play on Radio X, which Amy attributes in part to some smart networking on their end, and Amy’s job with Sofar Leeds happened similarly. Importantly, they have the goods to back it up: great songs speak for themselves once you have the right people listening to them.

"I have to work harder to be taken seriously [as a sound engineer] than my male counterparts" - Lily

I first met Lily not as a performer in Sunflower Thieves, but as a Front of House sound engineer at a venue in Leeds. She was my first female sound engineer, and when I showed up to play that show I was memorably gobsmacked! I feel like a bad feminist for saying that, but it’s true. And given Lily’s reaction when I told her on the show, it's something she’s more than used to by now. Lily was one of the only women in her Music Production undergraduate degree, and says she and Amy have never had a front of house sound engineer who is a woman, on all the tours they’ve had. In a role dominated by older men, she says she has to try harder than most to be taken seriously, to prove that she knows enough to fill that role. This too, requires a thick skin. They both recalled one show in particular as Sunflower Thieves, where their sound tech explained to them how to plug a guitar into a DI box. They asked me if I could imagine that instruction being given to a male guitarist? They are constantly battling against outdated expectations (that as a woman you’re not going to know anything technical, for example) and Amy pointed out that Lily has gotten into the habit of asking pointed questions and requests to do with their sound at ST shows, quietly challenging that expectation.

"Sofar Leeds is one of the the only Sofar outfits to have put on majority mixed line-ups for their shows in the past year" - Amy

After performing at a Sofar Sounds show as ST, Amy asked the team how she could get involved and ended up running the Sofar Leeds socials and booking artists. She noted that the large majority of applicants to play Sofar are men, and at Sofar Leeds there is a conscious effort made to include female artists in as many lineups as possible. I noted that there are also fewer women doing music admin roles like hers, and mostly when I’m dealing with booking agents and promoters they are men. When I asked her why she thought there were fewer women across the board in music, she said she believes it comes down to something I would call ‘invisible barriers’: "you just don’t see as many women doing the things that men are doing, like sound engineering or booking etc. We only had one female tutor on our LCOM course, and all the women on the course asked her for advice and wanted her validation." She added that she sees this as the importance behind initiatives like this Livestream Series (Women I Trust) and similar set ups that showcase women doing things at different stages in their careers and areas in the industry: to show younger women and other women that we can and are doing these things. It’s a positive feedback loop; the more women we see doing these things as young girls, the more likely we are to see women growing up to go into this industry.

This resonated with my own experience of my mentor figures all being men and went some way to answering my question about whether they had any industry role models they knew personally who are women. Lily noted that before lockdown she met up with a woman sound engineer who was older and more experienced than her, and the only woman she knew in that position. She said there was camaraderie in it, but the biggest piece of advice she had to her as a fellow female sound tech was, "it doesn’t get any easier!" Perhaps nurturing a community of empowered young women in the industry can be the spoonful of sugar?

We could have talked about this forever and ever, however the episode did have to draw to an end. As this happened, I thought out loud about the large majority of my friends in music being men, simply because there are more men in music than women. I said that I wondered what I was missing out on creatively and personally in not having more female music friends. To which they responded, "you can be our friend!" A perfect ending to a great conversation. The secret is out, I'm only doing this to make more friends...

Here's to all the women breaking barriers!

You can hear the next installations of Women I Trust every Sunday at 7pm on Instagram @elanorrosalind .

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