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During her introduction to Ronnie Spector’s emotional keynote address, ROCKRGRL Music Conference 2000 organizer Carla DeSantis provided a simple credo for this festival. "We all have the power to make the world less cynical, less jaded," she stated before a capacity crowd of primarily women.
"Together we rock."
A few weeks after the conclusion of RMC 2000, DeSantis is proud but still exhausted. The ambitious conference, put together by a core staff of three (including South By Southwest founder Louis Jay Meyers), was 14 months in the making and resulted in 2500 participants gathering in Seattle during a drizzly November weekend for panels, live music showcases (at 20 venues) and a trade show, all geared to female musicians.
"The decision to do this was based on utopian ideas versus realistic financial ones," says DeSantis, "and in every way it really did surpass what I thought I could do, especially the first year."
RMC 2000 grew out of the same ideals which prompted Carla DeSantis to found a magazine (www.rockrgrl.com), whose motto is "No beauty tips or guilt trips."
As a musician herself, DeSantis often encountered skepticism from men who’d ask, as she arrived at a gig toting her bass guitar, if she was a band member’s girlfriend. What was worse was the feeling of isolation, of opportunities either missed or not exploited because she lacked crucial information.
Sharing experiences became key to the conference. In her address, Indigo Girl Amy Ray (founder of indie label Daemon Records) encouraged musicians to swap touring information and take advantage of non-mainstream media such as low-power FM radio stations. At the songwriting panel featuring Ann Wilson, Jill Sobule and Eliza Gilkyson, audience members offered their own techniques for overcoming writer’s block. Live shows often ended with a spirited exchange of CDs between performers.
DeSantis, who considers herself an activist with a "vested interest in seeing future generations of women and girls be taken seriously as musicians and songwriters," believes that the key to the success of RMC 2000 was the decision to be inclusive.
"It’s really important for people to put any kind of differences they have aside," she explains, "because one of the reasons women don’t have power is that we allow ourselves to be divided and conquered among lines that are kind of ridiculous. I didn’t want to see that happen at the conference, which is why it was important to me to include so many different types of music."
Former Detroiter Missy Gibson, whose Los Angeles-based band Breech (www.breech.net) performed at RMC 2000, says "the nicest thing about it was that sense of community, that sense of sharing with other women. I like that vibe. That was the most refreshing thing about it to me, never having been to an exclusively female conference before."
But Gibson also expressed some of the qualms felt by musicians who are less than anxious to be categorized by gender.
"I understand the importance of having a conference for women musicians," she explains, "but at the same time, I think we segregate ourselves even more by making ourselves women rockers instead of just artists. I’ve always been torn by that."
DeSantis is very conscious of the mixed feelings involved, and structured the conference panels to be diverse (a highlight was "The Secret Life of Groupies," featuring Pamela DesBarres and Pennie Lane).
"There was an effort to be respectful of other people’s opinions," she explains. "It’s not up to me to be the judge. It’s up to me to create the forum for the discussion of these things."
"I tried to make things fifty/fifty," she explains, "so that 50% was practical information about the music industry, which applied to (everyone) – how to tour, do you need a manager, and so forth. The other half was very women-specific. There was an effort to not further ghettoize women, but to have discussions about what it is like to be a female in the industry. Another thing that was as important to me was the trade show room for new instruments where you could try out equipment."
The Daisy Rock guitar line for girls was debuted at RMC 2000. Although these instruments, designed by Tish Ciravolo and made by high-end manufacturer Schecter Guitars, are colorful and whimsical (some are daisy-shaped), they are not toys. Available via mail order (www.daisyrock.com), these are well-made and beautiful starter guitars for girls which Ciravolo made with her two young daughters in mind. There's even a model just for music-conscious toddlers -- the Junior Miss acoustic.
"I wanted to make sure that they grew up in a society where picking up the guitar is normal for a young girl," she explains, adding that hopefully, "when parents are buying their daughters gifts, (it'll be) as normal a thing to buy them an electric guitar as an Easy Bake Oven or a Barbie."
What makes them girl-specific, explains Ciravolo, who plays bass in the band Stungun, "is the slim profile. The neck is very thin, easier to hold, and feels very natural. That was my whole dynamic when I was putting it together, I want to make sure that any little girl can pick this up, play it and say, ‘Hey, this is an easy thing for me to try to do.’ You have to obviously learn the instrument, but I wanted it to be fun."
The idea that "women need to be empowered at the root, when they’re still girls," is what prompted Carla DeSantis to choose the name ROCKRGRL. She hopes the conference will help dispel the idea that "women in rock" is merely a flavor of the month.
"Like everything else, things are viewed as a trend," she explains, "which is a dangerous precedent to set. Fashions are trends, but people and ethnicity's cannot be trends. Women are part of every sector of the music industry, and when the media treats women like they’re a trend, it’s ridiculous and insulting."
As for the music conference, DeSantis isn’t sure when – or even if – they’ll be another one. It will only happen if she can duplicate the quality of the first. After attending numerous performances, Missy Gibson concurred with her band mates that "overall, the ratio of really good talent was much higher than the average conference."
"Nearly every band I saw," she says, "had something I liked about them. They were interesting or did things a little different. I felt like the bands had to work that much harder. Maybe it's because we are women and that we have to be a little bit better – we have to try a little bit harder. Maybe that’s the point."
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.