WATGB: In Conversation with the Minerva Festival and Playtime

To coincide with their new monthly residency on the MDR airwaves, Where Are The Girl Bands? offer us a monthly glimpse into what they’ve been up to and what’s caught their attention over the past 30 days…

This month, myself and Ella – the two halves of Where are the Girlbands? – had our very first event outside of Liverpool, in my university town, Cambridge. In my four years here, my experience as a student on the music scene has been an interesting one. As a city inundated with organ recitals, choral evensongs and chamber orchestras, it can sometimes be tricky to get a feel for any sort of grassroots music going on, something I was desperate for a taste of upon my arrival here, but never really felt satisfied with. The ‘town and gown’ divide definitely exacerbates this; students and locals don’t tend to mix, and most musical happenings take place behind the closed doors of porters’ lodges.

In my second year, I got curious and decided to run a few gigs mainly to get a feel for the scene and to get students and locals mingling and jamming together at the end of each event. The student body is certainly a mix of different players of different backgrounds, abilities and styles, and it’s always a treat to see them come together. The stage was, unsurprisingly, dominated by men; despite my hyper-consciousness of that fact, men are simply just more confident in promoting themselves to get to play a set, or putting themselves forward to jam. If there’s one thing that I’d put down the birth of Girlbands to, its being made to feel inadequate, patronised or unwelcome in those environments, and sometimes it’s not down to malicious behaviour but just the total lack of any other women in the room. In a completely different setting pertinent to my musical life at Cambridge, singing evensong after evensong with services composed by the same men gives that same feeling. Though I’d love the presence of women in music spaces to be normalised, sometimes giving them a platform is necessary. Ella and I had the pleasure to be on a panel with representatives from The Minerva Festival and Playtime, two student societies at Cambridge that promote women in music in different ways.

The Minerva Festival is an ongoing project with events taking place each International Women’s Month. The festival celebrates the music of women and non-binary people and runs talks, competitions, workshops and concerts with music composed by women, as well as encouraging college choirs to perform evensong with the selected order of service entirely by women.

Playtime are a DJ collective led by women and non-binary people, with weekly mixes, regular club nights and workshops.

Here is an interview with these two collectives, discussing the work they do, marginalised genders in music and the Cambridge music scene.

Q: First and foremost, the two societies represent very different genres but share an aim. It’s very apparent that women in all genres of music face the same issues. Why do you think it’s important to create spaces exclusively for people of marginalised genders?

MINERVA: Spaces in music are so dominated by (cis, white, upper-class) men, and marginalised gender people, in our committee members’ experiences, can feel ignored and perceived as lesser. By creating spaces that are exclusively for people of marginalised genders, we’ve found that, because we have quite a lot of shared experiences, we have really been able to foster a community that is really supportive of one another, with no competition or feelings of inferiority that can exist when being a marginalised gender person in music.

PLAYTIMESince its conception in 2018, Playtime has grown to host regular events at clubs in Cambridge, creating an environment where female and non-binary people can enjoy a safe, hassle-free party. There are systemic problems with gender in music, but also a big discrepancy in the self-confidence of artists from marginalised genders, especially in DJing. Having control of the AUX or being a DJ is very much about projecting your own voice, and having confidence in your selection is quite intimidating. But actually, as soon as you start, you realise that everyone loving every track isn’t the point. 


Q: I know students often rotate and neither of you are the founders of your respective societies, but do you know how they both came to be; what was the original purpose?

MINERVA: The Minerva Festival was set up in the 2018/19 academic year to combat the fact that the Music Tripos at Cambridge, and the music scene in Cambridge more generally, was overwhelmingly dominated by works by cis white men. Our aims are to promote works by both living and dead marginalised gender composers, ensuring that they are studied and performed far more often than they currently are, not just during the months of the Festival, but all of the time.

PLAYTIMEHattie Hammans, founder of Playtime Collective says ‘I was interested in how we could make club spaces political,’ they explain. ‘I did a lot of music when I was growing up, and I would visibly notice myself not being included in conversations. I would say something, and people would just carry on. I think it is that deep – this idea of men understanding and having complete dominance over what is considered cool and what is knowledgeable. They’d meet up and make tracks for SoundCloud in their rooms – no girls were ever invited to that… I was inspired by Siren, which is another collective in London, and their DJ workshops’. 


Q: What kind of people have you met at your respective events and what kind of a difference would you say you’re making to student life and the music scene?

MINERVA: We meet a lot of people who don’t feel like they have a place in the Cambridge music scene, or aren’t getting composition commissions from other Cambridge music institutions. We try to offer a space where hopefully as many people as possible can feel welcome and valued within the music scene, no matter what genre of music they make. We want to use our influence to ensure that other marginalised people can have their voices heard and platformed in a space that isn’t working against them.


Q: How do your respective societies take into account intersectional groups? E.g. how are race, class, ability etc addressed

MINERVA: We’re really aware that the Festival in previous years has still promoted the music of white cis women the most. This is something we’ve been trying to tackle: this year, we’ve been doing a daily #minervarecommends series on our Twitter, where we’ve been posting a different composer or musician recommendation that aren’t the cis white women who are usually platformed, like Fanny Mendelssohn or Clara Schumann, and we’re reflecting that in our concert programming for the year. We’re running lots more workshops next year that are aimed at people with all levels of experience, and for music of different genres, and are really focusing on promoting student works rather than just works by more established composers. We also have an anonymous form on our website for feedback, which we always welcome because we’re aware that we definitely don’t do enough.

PLAYTIMEThrough Playtime, we aim to promote the most intersectional politics of equality possible, so the anti-racist fight must be at the heart of our project. For our DJ collective especially, we realise how so much of the music we play out and dance to comes from Black American communities who are not adequately credited, nor the exclusive financial beneficiaries for their trail-blazing creative work. It is a racial privilege which allows us to enjoy the music without sharing their struggle. The spaces of joy we have aimed to create in Cambridge over the last two years happen to benefit from historic, crucial decolonising and feminist work. Our focus is to facilitate the opportunity for people to firstly, get involved in dj-ing without any limitations + enjoy our club nights in a safe way, through prioritising mutual care, solidarity and joy. 


Q: There is a noticeable dominance of men in sound engineering and technical roles and indeed DJs. Do you come across patronising attitudes very much and how do you overcome them?

PLAYTIME: Definitely. Primarily, Playtime is about encouraging young women and non-binary people to DJ. ‘When I arrived, there were so many good female/non-binary DJs in Cambridge who didn’t seem to have the opportunity to play by themselves – they were booked for all the big nights but they were playing back to back and weren’t getting the chance to play individually…’ says Hattie. ‘Guys having controllers is treated as something so casual, whereas if a female/non-binary person gets one it seems more pressurised’, adds Maria. ‘I think Playtime as a collective is always there for people to voice any concerns if they’ve experienced any discomfort, or are looking for support and self-confidence. Playtime’s existence defo serves as an uplifting space for people to share knowledge, tips on dealing with gender inequality in the dj scene + just generally being a go-to for facilitating new opportunities’, says Talulah, one of Playtime’s newest members.


Q: In terms of the actual music curriculum here at the university, I believe there was, at one point, a module in Women in Music. Do you think this would contribute to positive change, or perhaps view it as tokenistic?

MINERVA: It definitely wasn’t a wholly perfect course: the very name of the course doesn’t take into account other marginalised genders, and, it being only one module out of six taken in a year, there’s no way you could cover everything. Also, by having a course that’s separate from the rest of the curriculum – and an optional module no less – it’s effectively decentring these studies from being as important as the other, incredibly cis male-heavy modules. However, it is also a way of ensuring that people are granted the chance to actually study the works of marginalised gender artists, which isn’t really on offer within other modules, barring the inclusion of a few works. Essentially it did help to make these studies a part of the Tripos, but, without actually integrating them into the compulsory courses from day one, there’s never going to be any real sense that this is a topic that is taken seriously.


Q: What are your hopes for the future of your respective societies?

MINERVA: We’re no longer desperately trying to be recognised by institutions as a worthy cause, because the odds are that major institutions (and the Cambridge Music Tripos) won’t recognise the output of marginalised gender composers as much as their cis white male counterparts for a long time. We’re instead prioritising offering a space in which people can come into contact with these works and marginalised gender artists more generally. It’s also really important to be a space where people who have no experience with music can try it out; we’re doing a lot more workshops this year so people can engage with different kinds of composition and sound-making, with no experience necessary. In the future, I’d really like to ensure that Minerva is accessible to anyone who is interested in music-making in a space which is community-driven.

PLAYTIME: The collective has worked with several charities, hosting Period Parties with the Free Periods campaign. They also donated the proceeds of one event to LGSM (Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants). “My inclination after that was to use Playtime to support really small, grass roots organisations and charity work’, says Hattie. “Any profits that don’t go towards charity will go towards DJ workshops. It’s not cheap to rent out CDJs or invite professional DJs to come and talk, but it’s actually invaluable on the scene’. The group plan on buying some controllers in the coming term, for women and non-binary people to use for free. They have already hosted several free DJ workshops from professionals, such as Peach and In Flames.  


Q: What events do you have coming up, if any? (Particularly anything that can be accessed online like the Playtime mixes or something virtual)

MINERVA: Our Festival is running from January to March, and we’ll be releasing our termcard very soon! You can expect to find regular evensong series, chamber music recitals, orchestral concerts, jazz gigs, electronic music, and plenty of workshops to take part in. We’re hoping to stream all of our concerts online on our YouTube channel, and you can find us on all social media platforms.

PLAYTIMEThe collective embrace a huge variety of music at their events, and have started a radio show – Playtime FM – which airs on Cam.FM every Sunday evening. We are also going to be running some more low-key, intimate events next Lent term in order to get a new crowd of Playtime-goers in + to give our newest members the opportunity to practice their sets in a relaxed and non-intimidating space. “My message to Playtime DJs is that they can play whatever they want – you play your dream set’, says Hattie Hammans (founder of Playtime). ‘It’s a bit messy, chaotic and DIY. Interestingly, people tend to bring quite heavy music. I love to see a woman or non-binary person just playing the heaviest shit in Mash at 3AM, when everyone’s really going for it’. 


Where Are The Girlbands? November show is up now on the MDR website – you can listen back HERE.