In the early 20th century, recording engineers all wore lab coats. And while they no longer don the white garb, the uniformity remains.
When the 2022 Juno Award nominations were announced last week, it was Charlotte Cardin, Justin Bieber and the Weeknd, with their multiple nominations, who attracted attention. But further down the press release was a bit of history in the making: Hill Kourkoutis, in the running for engineer of the year. Kourkoutis, based in Barrie, Ont., is the first female to ever make the short list for the award.
Over the past several years, progress has been made in the male-dominated music industry toward a better gender balance. It was a significant development this week, for example, when the annual Boots and Hearts country jamboree in Ontario’s cottage country announced its first-ever all-female main stage for this summer, led by headliner Shania Twain
“For as long as I’ve made music the festival space has been monopolized by white male acts, which didn’t necessarily represent what was most popular in music,” Twain said in a statement.
Less strides have been made behind the scenes, however, where women have long been underrepresented and underrecognized as producers and engineers. In a 2021 study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, it was revealed that of 900 popular songs, the ratio of male to female producers was 38 to one.
Doug McClement has taught at Toronto’s Harris Institute for three decades. While he’s seen an increase in women entering technical programs at the audio and music industry school, he says female enrollment has stalled at about 10 per cent in the past two years.
“I was was amazed and somewhat saddened when I found out Hill was the first woman to be nominated for engineer award in Juno history,” says McClement, head of the producing/engineering program. “For an arts-related field, that’s an embarrassment. It’s been a boys’ club for far too long.”
Which is why Kourkoutis’s Juno engineering nomination this year – and the Juno Award in the producer category last year by Ebony Naomi Oshunrinde (known professionally known as WondaGurl) – is so important.
“The visible representation in the engineering and production world is integral to the shift in gender equality,” says the 34-year-old Kourkoutis, who is also a producer, musician and songwriter. “To see one represented inspires hope and shows that something isn’t impossible.”
Early on, Kourkoutis’s soundboard heroines were Sylvia Massy (known for her work with Tool, System of a Down, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers) and Trina Shoemaker, the first woman to win a engineering Grammy (in 1998 for Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions).
Today, Kourkoutis serves as a mentor to young producers and engineers. “I wouldn’t be where I am without mentorships, and I believe in paying things forward,” she says.
Kourkoutis’s production credits include production for Leela Gilday, Digging Roots, Royal Wood, Martha and the Muffins and Amanda Rheaume. She has done remixes for July Talk, Adam Cohen and the Good Lovelies. As a musician, she’s played with Serena Ryder and the Weeknd. Her engineering Juno nomination is for the songs The Drought, by Ontario singer-songwriter Tania Joy, and Howler, by Toronto singer-songwriter SATE.
Asked about the gender imbalance in the music industry, SATE, the daughter of the late, great Salome Bey, says it is a societal condition. “We’re conditioned to think certain jobs are men’s jobs, and that, as a woman, I don’t belong there. For the power dynamic to shift, dudes have to step back and take their egos out of it. It’s about doing the best job.”
SATE herself is up for a Juno in the alternative album category for The Fool, which she co-produced with Kourkoutis. When picking a producer, she wants to work in an environment where she feels heard and supported, and where the energy is right. “That’s what a producer does, manage the energy and manage the energy of the song,” she says.
Adds singer-songwriter Rheaume, “Hill’s strength is letting people find their way through the song before making a suggestion. She flows through the process and doesn’t try to control things until we would land on something, and she would have a killer idea.”
One of reasons young producers and audio engineers have more opportunity in the field today is technology. Albums (such as those made by pop star Billie Eilish and her producer-brother Finneas O’Connell) can be made in bedrooms on a laptop computer. No longer does a budding producer-engineer (female or male) have to serve internships in major studios or go to school to learn the trade.
“Technology is definitely a catalyst,” Kourkoutis says. “I came from a do-it-yourself-background.”
Kourkoutis began by producing her own work: As is the case with many young artists, she couldn’t afford to pay someone.
She has her own studio now, called the Lair. “It’s very much a laboratory,” she says. “My sister used to joke that I looked like a mad scientist.”
If the lab coat fits.