The Confidence Gap

What's stopping women from writing about music?

It was only last month – one year into my role as music editor at the Telegraph – that I realised I could count the number of music pitches I’d received from women on two hands. Every day, my inbox would fill up – but all the writers would be male. What does it say about the industry that it took me this long to notice?

That’s why today I’m launching PassTheAux: a newsletter to inspire and advise women in music journalism. From how to find your first internship and bag that first freelance commission, to surviving the soul-destroying process of the Big First Edit and the various minefields of celebrity interviewing, I hope this newsletter will help debunk a profession that can be as infuriating as it is opaque.

In many of the emails I received following my Twitter call out for more women music journalists, a recurring theme was self-doubt. “I’m not sure if I have the musical expertise,” many of you told me anxiously, despite owning bylines across everything from politics to film. “I just haven’t yet plucked up the confidence...”

Why is music journalism so daunting?

Partly, engaging with music has always been daunting. When I was fourteen, our iPods were not for personal use but a matter of public interest; our nightly Limewire hauls scrutinised by the girls who wore black T-Shirts with the Rolling Stones logo, poised to publicly shame you at the slightest sight of pop.

After scurrying home to man the decks between Bebo and MSN, I’d spend hours meticulously turning my username into song lyrics to bait the boys that I liked. My first boyfriend told me he’d only fancy girls who listened to You Me At Six - I had a gig ticket within days. 

At university, your playlist was high stakes drama, and the Aux was a frightening, mystical thing. Whoever had the Aux had the party in the palm of their hand: who would dare tonight? The boys, of course. Excruciating Aux battles would take place, with the cable ripped from one iPhone to the next every thirty seconds, genres gnashing like teeth as Bob Dylan followed David Guetta, while the girls tried to find a Slutdrop that would work for both. 

You see, music, like the clothes you wear, is, and has always been, a barometer for social kudos – there are trends to follow and clans to join. It’s strange, really, how performative our appreciation of music is, considering how personal the interest. Has anyone ever made their favourite Spotify playlist public? Isn’t the only time you’ve turned on Spotify’s ‘Playing Now’ feature is when you want to peacock a little?

The thing is, us women aren’t very good at peacocking – a term originally used to describe the male mating process. We prefer to nibble at ourselves instead; self-deprecating until we shrink appropriately. We suffer from what the media likes to refer to as The Confidence Gap, or even, Imposter Syndrome. “There are still days I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am,” Sheryl Sandberg told Forbes in 2012 about working at the majority male Facebook offices. 

My Confidence Gap widened after university. Writing album and gig reviews for GQ, I noticed how some male readers would email me, not to say that they disagreed with a review I’d written, but that it was simply wrong. I even had a journalist Tweet me to say that I’d copied their work – that he had my opinion first.

And I lost count of the number of times I sat at home in tears, unable to stop scrolling through the vile and misogynistic comments I received under video interviews with male musicians, wondering why no one was listening to the questions I’d spent so many hours writing instead of passing judgement on my body. 

It wasn’t just the men, either. Some female fans, so unnerved to see another woman control a space in which lived their favourite male musician, reacted territorially. But I can understand it: the issue of territory has always seemed to me the root cause of female divide. We’re so worried that there is only room for one of us, because until recently there often wasn’t room for any of us. 

But this sentiment is changing as opportunities grow. On my Twitter thread, I was blown away by the number of women who tagged the writers they admired and messaged me to recommend a friend. I have already commissioned a handful of brilliant new women writers as a result. Over the past few years, too, the guidance and mentorship I have received from other women has been hugely inspiring. Far from guarding their spot, they have shared it with me.

And so here is PassTheAux: a way for me to share a little, too. While the industry still has far to go – among other things, it is 94 per cent white and enormously elitist – the more we share with each other, the closer we get to pulling that Confidence Gap shut.

Let me know what you thought of my very first PassTheAux post – sending any suggestions or questions for next time – by dropping me a line at eleanorahalls@gmail.com

I also have a brand new episode of my music podcast STRAIGHT UP, which I host with my fabulous friend Kathleen Johnston from GQ. This month it’s with the founder of GRM Daily: Posty. Have a listen here.

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This week in links

I’ve been reading: Suzanne Moore’s mic drop. The veteran writer left the Guardian last week after a turbulent year at the paper, and has written a no-holds-barred account of why she left for Unherd. Read it here.

I’ve been writing: about the former One Direction star Louis Tomlinson, who I interviewed on Monday. One of the trickiest things I find about interviewing is pulling through a person’s character and warmth when you’ve only been given half an hour on the phone – not even Zoom. Pre-lockdown, I would always insist on an hour face-to-face, at a location that means something to them.

After much tossing and turning the introduction around, I felt Louis’ easy-going nonchalance was best captured by a quote I had first thought was too boring to use in the piece at all. Tip: always transcribe everything, and leave nothing off the table! Read the piece here.

I’ve been commissioning: the brilliant Eve Barlow, who reviewed Miley Cyrus’s album Plastic Hearts today. I loved the serious and thorough way she weighs up each song and intention. Read her review here.

I’ve been listening to: Juice Menace, an 18-year-old rap star from Cardiff. I heard this song, Sundown, the other day and was hooked from the first listen. Got itchy Friday feet? Put this banger on.