A female-run music recording studio is coming to Des Moines

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The Grammy Awards established the “Producer of the Year” award in 1975 – an opportunity to recognize the brightest minds behind the most prolific songs of the year.

Every year since then, The Recording Academy, the band behind music’s biggest night, presents a gold-plated gramophone trophy to the backstage production leader of the year.

In those 43 years, how many women have won? Zero.

Opening a recording studio in Des Moines wants to help change that.

Rock girls! Des Moines, the local branch of an international non-profit organization that empowers young women through songwriting and music education, plans to open a women-run educational recording center in 2019, the second of its kind in the country.

The Des Moines studio plans to offer middle and high school girls the opportunity to learn the science behind record production, DJing, sound design and podcasting, organizers said, tackling the imbalance between genders in audio engineering and exposing young adults to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

In its sixth year, Girls Rock! Des Moines offers two annual local summer camps that teach girls ages 10-16 how to write, rehearse and perform original music. Each camp ends with a showcase at a local music club.

It’s a groundbreaking time for women in music, said Sara Routh, Girls Rock program director, and the opening of an educational studio gives the next generation early exposure to industry technology.

“It all comes down to even knowing that it’s available,” Routh said. “That’s a possibility, isn’t it?” … Something else to do, other than school. (That) you can spend time in the studio, making music.

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“Breaking down barriers to access”

The project ventures into an industry facing a strong gender imbalance. A 2016 Audio Engineering Society survey, reported by the Atlantic, showed that 7% of members of major professional associations identify as women. The company launched a diversity committee in 2017 to encourage broader membership.

And the Women’s Audio Mission says that number could be lower, at around 5%. San Francisco-based nonprofit and first female-run recording studio trains around 1,500 women each year in audio science, with graduates landing positions at companies including Google, Pixar and NPR .

The Mission has created a network of female engineers who help aspiring professionals secure internships and entry-level jobs, said Angelo Duncan, development and communications associate at the Women’s Audio Mission.

“A lot of people get stuck on the question, ‘Why is there this imbalance?’ We’re just trying to lower the barriers to access,” Duncan said. “When I was young, I didn’t know many of these careers. … (It’s) even presenting them as possible career options and showing where the industry is going.

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Part of the imbalance stems from a “good old boys club” mentality, said Karrie Keyes, longtime returning engineer for Pearl Jam. For example, live sound employers might have an unconscious bias about the idea that women can’t carry heavy equipment, Keyes said.

Keyes founded SoundGirls.org in 2013, an organization that provides resources and networking for women in professional audio.

A Girls Rock studio could be a space for women to create art without facing workplace harassment, she said.

“These spaces and businesses allow women to be in charge and write their own rules and it adds diversity to a profession that is sorely lacking in diversity,” Keyes said via email.

Similar to the women’s audio mission, Girls Rock! Des Moines plans to offer year-round audio classes: Recording 101, Beat Making, and Experimenting with Sound, for starters.

Studio classes introduce STEM opportunities outside of the classroom, said Jen Carruthers, vice president of Girls Rock! Des Moines Board of Directors.

According to a 2017 study, in Iowa, 43% of high school senior women meet college readiness test standards in math and science, compared to 53% of senior men. Eight percent of female high school graduates interested in STEM said they were more interested in technology and engineering, compared to 38 percent of males by this criterion.

“In a field where it’s male dominated, if you don’t involve young women, we’re going to continue to see that happen,” Carruthers said.

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Seed fund

Girls Rock! Des Moines raised $20,000 – $10,000 from a Variety children’s charity grant and $10,000 from local entrepreneur Jeff Young – to begin building the studio in the old Franklin Junior High School building.

Young owns the building, which he plans to turn into a boutique hotel and entertainment space. A local music fan who hopes to one day host Girls Rock performances in the building, Young has offered to donate studio space and cover renovation costs, letting Girls Rock purchase software and hardware from registration.

Routh and Carruthers know that $20,000 won’t fund everything; the group plans to continue fundraising through next year. Long-term goals include hiring an in-house engineer and offering revenue-based recording sessions, inviting all members of the community to use the space.

And, with plans to open in 2019, this could be the start of a studio that will one day cultivate an award-winning producer.

“(A studio) is the next step for us,” Routh said. “We don’t want (the girls) to have those magical two weeks of camp, have a showcase, produce a record and never see each other again.”

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