Where are the Women in Trance?
Where are the Women in Trance?August 10, 2022
When thinking about club culture, you might envision an image of diversity and inclusion – a place where people from all walks of life come together to celebrate and forget their daily worries. And although this image might still be valid for many clubs across the globe, the opposite is often true for those who run the show. For example, most corporate music platforms are led by (white) men. In addition, a majority of mainstage artists are still predominantly male.
Matters are now slowly shifting across the electronic music spectrum. Within the techno sphere, stages across the globe feature the likes of Amelie Lens, Charlotte de Witte and Nina Kraviz. Within the domain of house, artists such as Honey Dijon, Peggy Gou and Virginia made waves for many years. The trance scene, however, is a different story altogether.
Before turning into a full-blown style, trance music happened to be more of a volatile poetic element, finding its way across a wealth of genres. The genre came alive in cities like Berlin, Frankfurt and London during the early nineties, at a time of new-born opportunities, excitement and freedom. Its early intentions were part of an ongoing search to reach higher states of consciousness, and early trance music made wise use of melody, harmony and repetition to create such otherworldly, sense-awakening experiences.
‘’Within these early scenes, you would find way more DJs than producers. Think people like Carl Cox and Paul Oakenfold in the UK, and Paul van Dyk and Sven Väth in Germany,’’ says Arny Bink, who co-founded Black Hole Recordings together with Tijs Verwest — better known as Tiësto — in 1997. ‘’It was only through artists such as Armin van Buuren, Ferry Corsten and Tiësto that producing the actual music itself became a vital part of the job of DJs. As far as I can remember, there weren’t really any female trance artists out there.’’
Greenlandic-born artist Najaaraq Vestbirk, better known as Courtesy, believes that technological boundaries played a role in keeping women away from producing electronic music: ‘’Trance came up when sampling and computer production were on the rise. Few women joined in, because computers were exclusively marketed to men during the eighties. So you needed to own a computer and know a bit of programming to make music.’’
From the late nineties onwards, however, women had a significant voice in trance music’s rise — literally. Bink elaborates: “When the sound of trance became more mainstream around the turn of the millennium, the addition of vocals allowed for potential airplay on radio and television, which was unique for electronic music at that time. So more and more tracks started to incorporate vocals, mainly because of its commercial appeal.’’
Jan Johnston, who is widely considered the ‘first lady of trance’ due to her long-term commitment to the scene, believes female vocals meant a lot more for trance: “I believe women are generally more emotionally involved compared to men. They are better able to naturally enhance emotion into a track. It meant that vocals were often used as the foundation for entire productions, thereby literally setting the tone of the chord structure.’’
Some of the most notable examples include ‘’Clear Blue Water’’ by OceanLab & Justine Suissa, “Silence’’ by Delerium & Sarah McLachlan, and “Skydive’’ by Freefall & Jan Johnston. Yet, for every track in which vocalists were publicly credited, there were many more tracks with anonymous vocal parts added to it. Johnston sighs: “Many of us didn’t get the credits we deserved. And in many cases, we didn’t get paid for our efforts either.”
Photo: Jan Johnston
Because the trance formula was relatively easy to replicate, the number of trance records soared after the turn of the millennium. The market was quickly and heavily saturated with average, uncreative songs, lacking in technological depth, enthusiasm and musical savoir-faire. As a consequence, references to the roots and aspirations of early trance were hard to find.
Though trance music departed the electronic music scene’s centre stage, the genre never completely vanished. Despite falling somewhat out of favour in the early ‘00s, the genre maintained a fiercely loyal fanbase, and its low-key status resulted in the flourishing of many smaller but dedicated scenes worldwide.
This so-called ‘Trance Family’ still strongly purvey the original sound of trance that came to the fore during the nineties and zeroes. Having their roots in different parts of the world, female artists such as Miss Monique, Nifra and Rinaly are today actively involved in pushing the boundaries of this classic trance sound.
Meanwhile, the distinctive tonal and melodic tropes of trance have found a stronger foothold in techno and experimental music scenes than purists would ever dare to admit.
Contemporary scenes in cosmopolitan cities such as Berlin, London and Paris happily embraced the trance sound in more recent years, in which elements of trance go hand in hand with a wider palette of electronic music.
Courtesy is one of these acts that currently explores trance in a more contemporary context. She sees a more positive development currently taking place within her scene. ‘’The underground scene in which I operate is more queer and open, regardless of one’s background, sexual orientation, or looks. In that vein, I see many more women or fem people on the dance floor these days. I feel a general love for the energy and emotion that trance conveys — especially compared to the more aggressive vibe of techno. And their presence makes everyone else soften up.’’
Even the biggest techno DJs on earth, like Amelie Lens, Charlotte de Witte and Nina Kraviz, incorporate plenty of trance in their DJ sets — with the latter being famed for her support of classics from the Bonzai record label, which was a staple imprint for many trance and techno DJs in the ‘90s. Featuring the iconic bonsai tree logo on its records, the Bonzai pushed a range of talented Belgian artists into the spotlight — including Airwave, CJ Bolland, Jones & Stephenson, M.I.K.E. and Yves Deruyter.
Although diversity in trance is still relatively limited, there are ways to get more marginalised communities involved, like education and representation.
Nikoleta Frajkorova, better known as Nifra, is a Slovakian artist closely associated with Markus Schulz’ Coldharbour Recordings imprint as early as 2008. She found her passion for trance music after seeing women on stage in her teens. “It was an assurance to know that if you work hard enough, women can also get the opportunity to perform. The fact that there were few women involved in the scene never discouraged me. If you are so obsessed with music, there is no other way.’’
Jan Johnston believes that getting women involved in all levels and sectors of the entire industry is vital in making the scene more inclusive. ‘’A strong voice would be a huge help. But the music industry is such a tough world — you need to have the kind of personality to make it on the business side of things.’’ For instance, a prolific label run by women would make a big difference. “If it existed, I would take my tracks to a female-run label first if it had ever been available. There would be more empathy, which is worthwhile for someone like me. The time would actually be right for that now.’’
Courtesy sees education as the main path forward. ‘’Mentorship programs work really well,” she explains. “There are various organisations out there where young female or fem artists can connect to more experienced artists. I believe that’s the best and most effective way. Some notable examples are workshops offered by Refuge Worldwide, as well as Women’s Audio Mission by Ableton.’’
The domain of electronic music is considered a global, inclusive phenomenon these days. Yet, female involvement within the realms of trance isn’t a cut case — especially on the industry side of things. The scene may also learn a thing or two from developments in other electronic music genres, such as house and techno — in which platforms such as female:pressure and shesaid.so have a stronger voice. It creates a healthier and more balanced trance community, both behind the scenes and on dance floors worldwide.
Check out Beatport’s ‘Definitive History of Trance’ here.
Dutch writer Arjan Rietveld is the author behind the book ‘Hypnotised: A Journey Through Trance Music (1990-2005)’. Pick up a copy of the book here.