Erin Barra – nicknamed "Mamma Barra" by her many clients and students due to her nurturing, hands-on approach – is a woman of many hats. She is the founder of Beats By Girlz, an organization dedicated to educating and empowering young women in music technology. She is an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music, a board member of Women In Music, and a private instructor whose curriculums are available online for free at Coursera and ROLI. She is also an accomplished recording artist, songwriter, and producer with five independent albums and 20 years of experience in the music industry under her belt.
You're not only a producer, songwriter, tech specialist, and educator, you're also a musician!
Yeah, I would use that word. Yes.
And would you say that audio has always felt like a calling?
No. I mean, in retrospect it makes a lot of sense, but I never really thought I would get into tech at all. My father's an audiophile. We always had a listening room, and he was a pro audio dealer. He put together systems, home automation, and listening rooms for wealthy people. I was constantly surrounded by audio culture.
Pro sound wasn't a foreign concept to you growing up?
No, not at all. I mean, my dad would buy me an RCA tape player with two speakers, and we'd wire it up together for fun. But it never occurred to me that I'd do that for a living. The entire time before I got into music tech I was always on the reproduction side, never on the production side. I was always a listener, as opposed to an engaged participant in the process. In terms of a career, I always thought it was going to be on the content creation side, either as a writer or composer. I had gotten a songwriting and piano performance degree from Berklee, and I had aspirations to be a singer-songwriter; which is a role I played for many, many years. I was unhappy with not being in control of what was happening, and feeling frustrated that I wasn't really able to dictate my sound. After I graduated, I decided to figure it out.
I totally get it. You were ready to be the mistress of your own destiny!
Yeah. It was a money thing too. I've always been a person that, once I figured out what I wanted to accomplish – whether it was make a record or see an idea to fruition – once I have identified what it is that I need to do, nothing will deter me. For me it was a point at which I realized that I needed to get closer to my goal. Obviously the solution was that I need to be the one behind the computer. It wasn't even an arduous or long process. I was so focused, and I had an actual task that I was trying to accomplish. It was so different than classroom learning, in that I experienced it in a really tactile way that has served me well.
Most of the women I come across in production start on the other side of the glass creating music, and have aspirations in that vein. They tend to move into production or audio from there. Would you say that was your case as well?
Pretty much, yeah. But I mean, this is usually true of anybody in the music industry. You enter with one goal, and then you land so far away from that goal! [laughs] Even if you wanted to be in management or film scoring, it never happens the way you imagine it. The pathway of people going from content creators on the compositional side to more on the production side – I think that's probably a reoccurring theme amongst people – it's a gender-agnostic concept. But, you're correct that there're not a lot of women who consciously choose these specific career paths. I mean, there are so many reasons why. My postulation on it is that it's the same three things: Lack of mentorship, culture in the classroom, and the evolution of our culture in general – how we perceive women in specific roles. I don't think I have anything brand new to say about that. I feel like it's something important and that something needs to be done about it. And I think that's where I have more interesting things to say, as opposed to rehashing why it is the way it is.
I like that you're going beyond the "why" and you're focused on the, "Well, what can we do about it?" That really is the next and most important step. I think we're doing that right now, which I think is extremely gratifying.
It's happening so much more. I literally am contacted three to four times a month by some big time organization – whether it's Spotify or the Recording Academy – that's trying to get their gender parity ducks in a row. In some ways it's fantastic, and I'm excited that this is a topic that everybody wants to talk about, but with that comes a lot of opportunities for us to undermine ourselves, or not band together and amplify each other. It's a pivotal moment for us. I really want to make sure that we do this properly.
That's an excellent point, because it really is about community and progress. It gets hard to know which efforts are genuine.
Yeah, I definitely feel that way. I think it's up to these people who have the resources and funding to speak the loudest, to do their due diligence, and make sure that they're reaching out the community of people who have been doing this the longest and know how to talk about these issues. People who know what the problems are and have ideas for solutions, rather than doing some, "Oh, we have an equity crisis so we're gonna do some marketing around this," but not actually engage the people who are on the front lines. We have to centralize our efforts, and it can't be centered around trends, brands, and marketing. There are plenty of organizations doing the work: we [Beats By Girlz] work with young women in composition and production, and Girls Rock Camp [Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, Tape Op #77] is a huge music organization with chapters everywhere. Terri [Winston, #78] from Women's Audio Mission is focused on studio engineering, and Karrie [Keyes] from SoundGirls.org works in live sound.
But there's also still a sense of gatekeeping and competition; even in our community, where it feels like there's only so much space available for women.
Yeah. It's difficult. I think any underrepresented group feels this way – it's not just women – that there's a smaller slice of the pie that we're all competing for. But that's highly self-destructive.
What was your impetus for starting Beats By Girlz?
Well, I was at the tail end of my career as an artist, and I'd already been doing a lot of freelancing. In retrospect, I would call it teaching, but really it was more like producing other people's live shows. I was a pretty straight ahead singer-songwriter, in terms of the genre. Maybe some slight electronic leanings, but not really in any definitive sense. I started working for other singer-songwriters and other artists who wanted to replicate my stage setup at the time. I had this very intricate live rig; I was playing a lot of keyboards and doing a lot of singing. Then I started working for Ableton; I was getting a lot of traction working on this other side of the industry, helping people do what I'd already been doing. It was the reality that people were starting to view me more via the lens of technology. For me, it was really seeing my social media posts. People would go bananas over me talking about how I was doing something. Or responding to pictures of my gear. But then I would put up a post of my new song or something, and nobody would engage with it!
Ugh. Ain't that the brutal truth!
I think this is the truth for a lot of artists. It's like their brand is more of a touch point than the music. Getting people to listen to music is difficult! One day I was like, "All right, if this is how the world views me, and this is the sign that I'm getting, then I'm going to step into this role and actively decide to do this." Through that I started talking about where I could have the most impact. How did I see that coming to fruition, and how could I engage people I was already connected with in order to make it happen? I was releasing a record, and with it I chose to raise money to start Beats By Girlz. Through that process, I was eventually picked up by a really large non-profit and they incubated the program right away. I didn't even finish the fundraising before we were overly-funded! It was totally crazy. It was so much reaction right away. It really all came out of listening to the community and to the truth, as opposed to my version of reality. [laughs] It was powerful. Meanwhile, it was personally difficult to make the transition; to mentally let go of an identity that I had created for myself and worked so hard for. There were a couple of really tumultuous years where I was confused about what I wanted, or who I was, or where my power was. But now, since I've kind of "given it up" and started doing things in service of other people, I'm so much more powerful and I'm so much happier. I really feel like I'm making a huge impact on a lot of people, and it's way better than the dream that I had. It's the dream I never knew I had.
It's funny what ends up being successful, isn't it? It's like when we were talking about careers earlier.
Yeah! It totally is. Every five or six years I try to redefine what success is for me. When I created Beats By Girlz that was a really pivotal moment where I changed that definition and widened it. My perception of success wasn't narrow anymore; it was wide open. Everything good happened after that moment. Having gotten to where I am now, I've started to redefine what those parameters are, and one of them is being wholly satisfied with where I am. Because that's when you actually feel successful. I want to feel it. I think that's hard for women in particular.
What is Beats By Girlz up to at the moment?
As an organization, this year we're really focused on helping regional groups of women who want to start their own chapters. It's really not for the faint of heart. There are a lot of obstacles that come with it – finding space, identifying potential funders and partners, getting access to technology, establishing teacher training skills and resources so they can accomplish the tasks, and finding other regional women who are interested and want to help. It's a lot. We're releasing new curriculum to all of our chapters, and we're taking a bunch of our teachers to Moog for training for synthesis teaching. We're also really focused on partnerships that are going to bring value to our chapters. We've partnered with iZotope [Tape Op #82] and we're doing a lot with their software in the classrooms – some amazing, machine-learning AI [artificial intelligence] that makes making music super fun – and it's totally aligned with working with K-12 students. So right now we're growing, and a lot of our effort is managing that growth because it's happening so fast.
You're an Associate Professor at Berklee College of Music. How has being affiliated with Berklee helped you to further your work to benefit women in the music making community?
Berklee is a powerful home base for me. I feel like I'm making a really big impact. It's not that much different than when I was teaching middle school girls, it's just a different level of understanding and learning. But it's about being able to be a role model for these young women. I'm housed inside of the songwriting department at Berklee – the composition department – where 60% of our majors are female, and they're mostly vocalists. In addition to audio, there's this dearth of women instrumentalists. A lot of them feel disenfranchised because they don't have the chops to do a lush accompaniment to their songwriting, or they can't play the guitar, or whatever. Through technology, they find empowerment – especially through a program like [Ableton] Live, or an instrument like Push, where they can instantly access these tools. It's like, "Oh, you can really do this. This is so exciting! Here's Push; here's how you play it!" They love it, and I love being able to be a role model for them. I've been at Berklee for five years now, and those have been huge years of growth for me and for the community at large. The "cred" helps; it definitely doesn't hurt what I'm trying to do.
You're also on the board of Women In Music?
Yes, I am! The organization is growing rapidly. They're doing a ton of chapter expansion, talking about how to create content for people all over – not just in these key industry cities – so I'm hopeful for what they're going to be able to accomplish. My personal role is on a lot of special projects. This year I've been the primary investigator on new piece of gender research that we partnered on with Berklee. We did a survey of women in the American music industry and got a lot of responses about it. We have some really interesting data about their careers and their lives. Hard data about how they feel about their careers. The paper debuted at this year's South by Southwest. I think it's going to be really instrumental in the future. As a person who writes about gender issues in the music industry, there's very little research. When the USC Annenberg [School for Communication and Journalism] Inclusion Initiative launched [with the paper "Inclusion in the Recording Studio?"], everybody now had these tools to say, "Less than two percent of producers are women" or, "This many women have been involved in this task that surrounded studio work." And that never really existed before. So when people start talking about these issues, they're gonna come across this study and they're going to have tools and numbers to back it up. It's not just this anecdotal observation, or a cultural thing that you have to assume is true. This is the real deal. I think this will be the main, outward-facing thing that WIM does this year.
That's great. Having accessible data is so important, because it's very easy to downplay the disparity of women versus men in audio. But you can't argue with the numbers. You're not going to show it to someone and have them be like, "Women should step up and try harder!"
Exactly. [laughs]What our study found, in terms of the research, is not what you'd expect. I think when people think about a qualitative and a quantitative survey of women, they're going to get some document that says, "We've all been sexually harassed, we're not getting paid enough." Some dismal illusion of the way that things are. But really, the overall response is that women who are working in the American industry are actually satisfied with their jobs. They love being in the music industry! They're not this miserable, sad group of people. We're happy, we're thriving. I mean, yes; there are issues. But we love our work. It's not all negative.
The culture has definitely been changing. This generation of women who are going into audio today aren't going into the industry thinking that they can't do it because they're women.
Right. But I think that's true for men, too. This is not an industry anyone goes into thinking it's going to be easy.
You have to really want to do this.
I was comparing and contrasting a lot of the data that we have on our alumni in general – and Berklee is not the place you go if you want to make a million dollars. A few of our alumni are wealthy and doing well, but the vast majority of people who get music degrees are not in it to make big bucks. The general income is somewhere between $30,000 to $40,000 a year for a person working in the music industry. But they're happy to do it. Women and men.