We Play Too: How Tom Tom and She Shreds magazines are changing music for the better

In giving voice to women drummers and guitarists, US magazines Tom Tom and She Shreds are radically reshaping the music industry on more inclusive lines. Here the founders discuss the importance of role models, taking on sexism and rewriting music history, and how establishing themselves in print is just one aspect of a much wider movement

Bleached photographed for She Shreds by Lauren Baker

One of the clichés that gets thrown at contemporary music every now and then is the idea that there are no rebels any more. These days musicians are apolitical, the theory goes, uninterested or unwilling to question the status quo, while the wider industry does little to encourage or establish new voices who don’t fit tried and tested models.

There is, of course, still plenty to kick against, but perhaps doing more to change the current perception of the modern musician than any singer or band are two US magazines publishing out of New York and Portland. Their difference lies in the fact that they both focus exclusively on female artists: Tom Tom catering for drummers and percussionists and She Shreds for guitarists and bassists. In 2015, this shouldn’t feel like a radical approach, but it is. And what both are doing has already started to move way beyond the printed page.

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Covers of issue 9 and 10 of Tom Tom magazine. Top of post: Bleached photographed for She Shreds by Lauren Baker

To see why these two magazines represent such a breath of fresh air, it’s worth looking at the context in which they operate. Magazines for people who make music occupy a unique place in print media, featuring interviews on playing and sound styles and articles on rigs, set-ups and specialist equipment. While they might cover your favourite band or interview a musician you like, it’s unlikely that you’d pick up a copy of Drum! or Rhythm magazine unless you were a drummer yourself. But within what, from the outside, might appear to cater for a broad community of creative artists, there’s a problem: the majority of guitar or drumming magazines simply don’t feature female musicians.

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Covers of issue 6 (with previous design) and 9, the current edition

While some titles are product-heavy, like Guitarist magazine, fetishising the instrument and its related equipment, others are more virtuoso-centric, such as Guitar World or Guitar Aficionado, and feature interviews with – largely male – guitar players. Visit the Guitar World website and there’s Steve Vai, Eric Clapton, Hendrix and Keef but download its 2016 Buyer’s Guide and its ignorance of female musicianship turns into objectification of women in general. Amid the product shots of the latest builds from Fender, Ernie Ball and Gretsch are ten pages of semi-naked models posing with (not playing) guitars. Why is the world’s “highest circulation music-making magazine” still using images of women in this way?

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Guitar World’s Buyer’s Guides, 2014-16

More than simply redressing this landscape, Tom Tom and She Shreds offer a complete alternative. They feature women who play drums and guitar, reflecting the vibrancy and inclusivity of the current music scene, while managing to address significant moments in its history. Recent issues of She Shreds have featured an article on the first women to play mariachi, for example, and a story on Gibson’s fleet of 200-plus female guitar makers employed during the Second World War and who were responsible for creating the celebrated Banner acoustic model; a history that went largely untold until the 2000s.

The magazine also spotlights important role models, too, from Viv Albertine and Kim Gordon to newer artists like Bleached, Warpaint and Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster. Tom Tom also features a wide variety of players from beyond the rock canon such as Venzella Joy who drums for Beyoncé, Hannah Ford of Prince’s backing band 3rdeyegirl, Kiran Gandhi (MIA) and marimbist Pei-Ching Wu of the Ju Percussion Group.

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Spread from issue 22 of Tom Tom

“I read no drum magazines as a young drummer; I vividly remember dismissing them,” says Mindy Abovitz, founder and publisher of Tom Tom, which is based in a huge rehearsal space in Bushwick, Brooklyn. “Both aesthetically and editorially they never spoke to me. Later, I remember feeling actively excluded from them. I knew great female drummers but they were never featured in those magazines.”

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Front and back cover of issue 20 of Tom Tom, the fifth anniversary edition

Rather than rail against the prevailing traditions of print, launching her own magazine in 2009 was more a reaction to what Abovitz found online. “I wanted people all over the world to search for the words ‘girl drummer’ or ‘female drummer’ and have the search return non-offensive and accurate articles and images pertaining to girl drummers. It was later – after I started the Tom Tom blog – that the apparent need for a print magazine for female drummers arose.”

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Spread from issue 6 of She Shreds

She Shreds has a similar attitude and in fact owes much to what Abovitz was attempting to do for drummers. Based in Portland’s Union Station, the magazine was started by Fabi Reyna, who moved to the city in 2010, and was made possible through money raised at the inaugural She Shreds festival she put together a year later. According to Reyna, the local music scene has been vital to the success of the magazine; its first two years depended upon people writing, taking photos and volunteering at shows.

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Spread from issue 8 of She Shreds

“I’d never been immersed in such a supportive and inspiring music scene that was so nurturing to girls and women who just wanted to be musicians,” Reyna explains. “Of course, the Riot Grrrl movement partially originated in Olympia – just an hour and a half away – so I think the Pacific Northwest is just used to women being outspoken badasses and game changers.” The first issue of She Shreds had a cover feature on Sleater Kinney’s frontwoman with a cover line that suggested this was a magazine with a different attitude – ‘Corin Tucker: on touring, motherhood, and her new sound’.

In an interview on the Reverb guitar gear site in November, Reyna outlined her own experience with buying music magazines as a girl and the struggle to find “role models of substance” ie women that were “not overly sexualised”. Worse still, she said, was not being able to choose the way she wanted to learn to play and being made to feel she wasn’t welcome.

“I didn’t think much about it but once I began attending the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp For Girls in Portland around 2005, I remember having this moment of ‘I’m pretty sure I didn’t even know women played guitar until now’,” she says. “Afterwards, I’d still pick up these mainstream magazines – because there wasn’t really anywhere else to go – but I’d look at them in a more resentful way, feeling like I knew this wasn’t for me. When I found out about Tom Tom, it felt like a breath of fresh air because it was like the ‘fuck you’ that’s been needing to happen in the music industry.”

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Spread from issue 5 of She Shreds

While sexism can be blatant, as in GW’s Buyer’s Guide, it’s also prevalent in the lack of features on talented women guitarists and bassists, she adds. “This all feeds into the way we’re treated – often not like musicians. This extremity has really been in our favour as we work to incorporate more women in conversations with folks who make the calls in the guitar industry. People are ready for progress, which to me means working towards inclusion.”

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Spread from issue 7 of She Shreds

These aims are mirrored in the magazine’s aesthetic which rejects the regular approach of the traditional guitar magazine. “Each issue is kind of an experiment,” says creative director, Lauren Baker, who joined She Shreds in 2013. Baker says she finds more in common with art and fashion titles like The Gentlewoman and Harvard Design, even internet art, than music publications.

“I’m a huge fan of white space, weird text and large, stunning images,” she says. “I try and create a functional piece of eye-candy that I would want to snatch off the shelf and devour, while maintaining a mainstream appeal to people that aren’t necessarily interested in that. The content is intentionally genre-ignorant and pushes boundaries, which is simultaneously reflected in the design.”

At Tom Tom, Abovitz says that the magazine’s design – by Marisa Kurk – aims to show the featured musicians in their own environment and on their own terms. There is, she says, “close to zero re-touching and virtually no hair and makeup styling. The subjects of our magazine wear their own clothes and appear in the magazine based on their musical merit and their life stories. This aesthetic – not dissimilar from the WSJ – was birthed to show powerful, confident people in control of their own lives, who are passionate about music and music making.”

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Spread from issue 20 of Tom Tom

More generally, Abovitz sees this approach as a reaction to the wider media aimed at women. “It is more ‘mirror media’ and less ‘smoke media’,” she adds. Kurk also says Tom Tom’s look has more in common with art magazines than instrument titles and the rich creative scene in New York – plus its connections with LA, Miami, Berlin, London and Santiago – is reflected within its pages.

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Thelma & The Sleaze photographed for She Shreds by Lauren Baker

Inclusivity is key to both magazines and each is effectively the centre of a music community, complete with a live presence. “We definitely have maintained a DIY sort of attitude, which allows us to stay close to our roots,” says Baker. “The community aspect is very important – we have a niche crowd, but they are extremely passionate. Die-hard fan bases keep communication and outreach going.”

For Abovitz, drumming showcases, talks, meet-ups and even museum takeovers have played a vital role in the magazine’s mission and the way it comes to life – “we are essentially about making music, being radical, being vocal, being seen and being real,” she says. “You can do a lot with media and then if you have the real life interactions to back it, you are a full circle idea/movement. One major part of Tom Tom is to create what we call ‘good media’. Good media simply means media that is ethically and morally sound and is reflective of real, average people. Women and girls are in dire need of this type of media. Tom Tom has, at times, been considered to be a ‘women’s interest’ magazine. Under that pretense, we are attempting to present and represent what we feel are real people.”

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Kim Gordon photographed for She Shreds by Lauren Baker

She Shreds is also going some way to redress the history of women guitarists and the unsung role they have played in the development of the artform. Reyna recalls discovering Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie and the Riot Grrrl movement at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp she attended – all role models that “you really have to dig for if you’re living in mainstream culture. Since the inception of rock ‘n’ roll, men have been writing the history book, deciding who to portray as the creators, role models and heroes. So I thought, if these women have existed since the early 1900s there has to be more. If I can find one woman, then I can find hundreds. Sure enough, the more I dug the more women I found that had stories varying from ‘performed with Dick Dale’ to ‘the first professional Wahine Hawaiian steel guitarist in the ‘20s’.”

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Faith Benson, 14, a 2015 Hit Like a Girl finalist

Tom Tom is also behind an initiative that links back to Abovitz’s concerns about how young female drummers are portrayed online. Hit Like a Girl is a collaborative company she launched with Phil Hood at Drum! magazine and Dave Levine of TRX Cymbals. It’s essentially a drumming competition where participants can upload footage of their playing to YouTube, which is then voted on.

“Music is a language in and of itself – so these girls and women have created an instant community and provide role models for new drummers everywhere,” she explains. “It has been a great tool in engaging the drum industry as well – [they] can fixate on who is the best and the contest enables them to meet the newest, undiscovered talent from all over the globe.”

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Linnea Lamon at The Oral History of Female Drummers event at MoMA’s PS1, New York, 2013. Photograph by Brad Heck

In its collaborative approach, Hit Like a Girl reflects something of a changing attitude among music brands to finally attempt to engage with women musicians. While the tired attitudes of many music-making magazines are symptomatic of wider societal issues which have for decades made female players – drummers especially – feel like they don’t belong, it’s also the attitudes of the wider industry, from venues to guitar and drum shops, that need to evolve.

In the US, music shops have faced criticism online for the way staff deal with female customers and some are responding to that by attempting to change the customer experience and aiming to hire more female staff. Signature models of guitars have also been developed for female artists, often in collaboration with the musician themselves. This immediate connection with a recognised guitarist – such as St Vincent whose edition for Ernie Ball MusicMan came out this year, or Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak who regularly plays a Charger model Reverend – provides an aspirational tag for young players.

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St Vincent’s Ernie Ball MusicMan edition. Courtesy: Ernie Ball

“I wanted to design a tool that would be ergonomic, lightweight, and sleek. There is room for a breast,” St Vincent’s Annie Clark wrote on Instagram at the launch of her MusicMan signature design, which comes in black or a custom-mixed ‘Vincent blue’. For Reyna, this changing landscape is encouraging: “Even three years ago when I was going to the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM), where every instrument manufacturing company and magazine meets under one roof, I was still seeing half-naked girls on ads and acting as eye candy holding products as men walked by. It was gross. This last year I went and I hardly saw any of that. A lot of brands have been coming to us because they see the value in targeting women and girls. That’s a 100% completely new thing. For a 40+ year-old company to come to a three-year-old magazine and say ‘we believe women are musicians and consumers but we don’t know how to engage with them,’ is a big deal. And it’s happening.”

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Facebook post by She Shreds, July 2015

Both the state of things and the way they are changing were summed up recently in a single photograph uploaded to Instagram by She Shreds reader Kaiju Niku. It showed issue 8 on a newsagent’s shelf next to a copy of the Guitar World Buyer’s Guide. “It really foreshadowed the future of the guitar industry, putting old-fashioned views next to contemporary ones and I think the huge reaction really spoke to the hunger for change,” says Reyna, who later responded to the comments on the photograph in a blog post, here.

“More than anything I was excited about the options that juxtaposition created. It felt like, ‘Cool, we don’t have to be tied down to this one way of thinking, of learning, of identifying’. That photo alone really took people from knowing that this culture was inundated with sexist views and narrow-minded education, to knowing that and actually wanting to create a conversation that pushed the industry out of its stagnant state and into one that includes variation and multiplicity.” Baker says readers simply want to see something they can identify with. “It’s something even my parents can point at and recognise,” she adds. “For me, that image directly makes that shift in mentality apparent; it can’t be ignored anymore.”

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One of 19 drummers at Tom Tom’s Rotohotel event at The Ace Hotel in New York, 2014. Photograph by Seze Devres

While the culture has shifted, Abovitz believes there is still a lot of work to do – and her magazine is in it for the long haul. “This battle for girls and women to be allowed to play music like the guys is, in my opinion, going to take many years and serious commitment from myself and other laser-focused badasses who are making waves for women and girls. I’ve seen small efforts in the time I’ve been around. It will take 20 more years to know if they become policies, ideologies and then later part of our collective unconscious and general fabric.”

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Poster for SXSW gig illustrated by Harrison Freeman; Poster for #9 launch party designed by Bijan Berahimi

But with two magazines at the helm, not to mention the legion of talent within their pages for young and experienced players to look up to, a more inclusive future is shaping up. “The emails we get from dads, grandmas, teenagers, men and women thanking us for existing and creating conversations that might not otherwise be coming up really drives me,” says Reyna. “Sometimes I feel like maybe revolutionising this industry is way beyond our limits, but then we just say ‘fuck it, what’s the worst that can happen?’ and our readers are always there to back us up. It’s meant a lot because it feels like we have an army now. With that I feel like the sky’s the limit.”

Issue 23 of Tom Tom – the ‘time’ issue – and issue 9 of She Shreds are available now via tomtommag.com and sheshredsmag.com, respectively. The magazines are also on Twitter at @TomTommag and @SheShredsmag

Lauren Baker (left) and Fabi Reyna of She Shreds
Lauren Baker (left) and Fabi Reyna of She Shreds
Mindy Abovitz of Tom Tom, photographed by Gesi Schilling
Mindy Abovitz of Tom Tom, photographed by Gesi Schilling