Among the documentaries premiering at this year’s TriBeCa Film Festival is Stacey Lee’s debut feature-length project, “Underplayed,” about the gender inequality in electronic music. No stranger to the festival, Lee’s documentary short, “Live Fast, Draw Yung,” about a seven-year-old rap portrait artist and his relationship with his father, premiered at TriBeCa in 2015.
“Underplayed” was initiated by Bud Light Canada and presented to Toronto native and music video veteran Director X, who put Lee’s name forward. Shot over a period of six months, Lee brings viewers into the professional and personal worlds of established superstars like TOKiMONSTA and Alison Wonderland, newcomers like Sherelle and hardworking underground artists like Tygapaw. Beautifully shot and creatively edited, “Underplayed” was made with an all-female crew.
“I’m a female filmmaker in an industry that is also underrepresented,” says Lee. “My own trajectory to being taken seriously was long and hard.”
While still finishing the final cut of the film, the New Zealand-born, Los Angeles-based Lee talked to Variety about how “Underplayed” came to be.
What was your intention with the film?
I wanted to put guardrails on the film in order to accurately pinpoint and categorize the issues, and measure whether they had changed. Most importantly, I wanted to tell a personal story through these women’s experiences. It was essential to see them as characters, not just as some person on stage, but the human behind all that. Whether you like electronic music or not, you can relate to the humanity of the characters and the stories of their struggles.
What are the issues you found?
One is, if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. You need a figure in front of you. If you look back to the very early days of electronic music, the pioneers: Suzanne Ciani, Delia Derbyshire, Daphne Oram, Wendy Carlos — they’ve been there tinkering away in this almost scientific laboratory realm. As things have gotten more commercial, it’s become harder for a woman to be taken seriously. It’s a natural presumption that they didn’t get to where they are by their talent. There is this underlying double standard where people who do the exact same thing don’t get the same level of acceptance.
There is a cross-section of electronic music styles represented in the film, at the same time there are only a select few speaking on the topic. How did you strike that balance?
One factor was logistics. We had a very limited time window for shooting people and their schedules were crazy. We had to be in one place with one artist to really get to know them to get a decent enough story. Who gave us access, who wanted to talk, who opened up on camera, hugely influenced us. Another factor was the importance of each artist representing a different facet of the industry. The other factor was trying to represent all of the layers. The underground scene is very different from the mainstream and they don’t want to be in the other’s world. We were able to tap into the nuances of discrimination and how the same aspects of gatekeeping at the mainstream trickle into the underground. Before we started shooting, I spent three months on the phone with different talent just talking. Listening and hearing what everyone had to say, I was able to structure a production approach from that and I started to weave the story together then.
Male voices are heard in the film, although few.
The male perspective is very important. Women can’t solve this issue on their own. It’s like yelling into an echo chamber. No one wants to watch a 90-minute film of women complaining. That was the last thing I wanted. Tone was everything. I was very sensitive to that within the film as well as making sure the film had male voices to elevate it.
Pay parity isn’t discussed explicitly in the film. Was there a reason for that?
It wasn’t something that was intentionally not put into the film. It’s a subject people aren’t comfortable talking about. We found a number of statistics we inserted into the film that talked about the pay parity issues. It’s definitely an important and really complicated. Although I can’t speak with authority on it, DJ rates are really high, especially at top billing. There’s so much money there, there isn’t enough left to support the growing artist to bring them through the festival circuit. It’s a systemic issue with women not being taken seriously, or seen as a financial risk so they shouldn’t be paid as much. I was hearing more about the effect of the pay rather than the pay itself.
Getting not just to the main stage, but a good timeslot on that stage is difficult to achieve for any artist. How does advancement in the electronic music world for women compare with the corporate side of entertainment?
It’s really hard for a woman to break through from that mid-layer up to the next level to whatever it is that makes them a headliner. This has a lot to do with festival bookings and the challenges with festival statistics. You’ve got to build an audience, but you need the opportunity on the main stage or with better billing in order to build the audience. In order to get billing, you need to sell more tickets. It’s an endless cycle.
What is creating the cycle?
All the things that make up the way the industry is structured. Festival bookers and promoters look at Top 100 lists and numbers and previous billings for sure things. If women aren’t rising up through those means, their access to career growth is going to be so much harder. I heard a lot of frustration from women, including from TOKiMONSTA who does get top billing, but many times she’s the only woman on the lineup. It’s like a diversity quota: “I’ve got that one woman. I’ve ticked that box. My job is done.” Giving one woman the opportunity over and over again doesn’t necessarily open up the playing field for all the other women out there.
Was there a conclusion you drew from making the film?
The artists who have made it hold the power. They can use their position to do what Hollywood did in the film industry with inclusion riders. To tell festivals: “I’m not going to play your festival if you don’t have more than two women on your lineup.” There is a lot of power in that. There is also power in the festivals themselves. Research shows, diversity is profitable. By having a more diverse lineup, you’re opening the stages to much wider audiences. And of course, you’re paving the way for the future where young women, people of color, LGBT community can look up on stage and see someone like themselves and know that it’s possible. It’s a long-term play with something at every facet — whether it’s booking, promotions, talent. Everybody is responsible for ensuring the future of the electronic music industry is going to be sustainable, is going to reflect the world around us and that it is inviting everybody in—because a dance floor with just white men is never going to be an inspiring place.