Features | Interviews

Mindy Abovitz of Tom Tom Magazine

By Lindsay Zoladz | 16 September 2010

Mindy Abovitz runs Tom Tom Magazine, which, to her knowledge and mine, is the only print magazine about female drummers. If you are in any way wondering why such a magazine should exist, let me tell you that in the “female drummers” Google search I just conducted to corroborate the aforementioned fact, the search entry just above Tom Tom‘s web site was a WikiAnswers page that responded to the query “Are there really professional female drummers?” (“Yes, there are,” this page assures, in case you’re wondering. I should point out, Virginia, that there is also a Santa Claus.) A further scroll down the page and a few brave expeditions into the vowel-y wilderness of the footer’s “Gooooooogle” provided me with more distressing findings and the conviction that Mindy Abovitz is doing a really, really important thing.

I called Mindy up to have a conversation about the magazine, the unfortunate conditions that necessitated its creation, and the reasons why women’s ongoing struggle for equality in the music industry still so often goes unspoken. We talked about some of our favorite female drummers and bemoaned the limited, male-centric imagery (scraggly goatees, quasi-industrial typeface, etc.) that tends to pervade drumming magazines. Ultimately, we came to the conclusion that the problems faced by women in music will only get worse and more insidious if nobody talks about them. So, without further ado or supremely disillusioning Google searches: let’s talk about them.

Cokemachineglow’s Lindsay Zoladz (CMG): In the letters to the editor section of Issue #3, you responded to a letter which essentially said there’s no need for your magazine—that there’s no need to create this separate, gendered space in which you have to identify “female drummers” apart from just “drummers.” And I loved your response: “Tom Tom’s goal is not to model a typical drummer magazine which is geared towards men. It’s to find another space that’s initially gendered female, and then eventually non-gendered with a focus on drumming.”

That struck me as one of the smartest things I’ve read about women in music recently. No one seems to want to admit that there’s a difference between the “eventually” stage and what’s still happening right now. Which sort of blows my mind—that nobody talks about how we’re still in this moment, both in music and beyond, in which sexism is a daily reality. So that’s what really spoke to me about what you guys are doing.

Mindy Abovitz (MA): Tom Tom’s goal is multifaceted: it’s to be a female drummer magazine but also to be non-gendered in the future; it’s to be a smart music magazine and to cater to interests that are still directly related to music, but aren’t just music—like art and music, philosophy and music, etc.; and also it’s to not only promote celebrity models, the people we traditionally put in magazines, but also the people that are just starting, the people that have been playing for 20 years and don’t have any celebrity status at all, just doing it because they love it.

I think that female drummers often end up in the category of “uncelebrated” for a number of reasons, all having pretty much to do with sexism. Like, starting later on in life, because you’re not given the opportunity that a guy is. You’re not given a drum kit at 15. So, all of those things sort of fall into place to create the circumstances that female drummers end up going through.

CMG: Let’s back up a little bit. How did Tom Tom begin?

MA: It started pretty much in December 2008/January 2009, and it started as a blog, because a magazine like that didn’t exist. I thought if it didn’t exist, it needed to. Being a drummer myself and knowing what it’s like to not want to read any drum magazine that’s out there—also, wanting to really celebrate female drummers in a way that hadn’t been done yet—that was another major catalyst for starting the magazine. I know so many and none of us get credit. For whatever reason, the media doesn’t really want to promote female drummers.

The point of having this magazine is wanting to celebrate the drummer like she’s the singer—the one people will pay attention to. And I also thought that if you shine the light on the female drummer, you’re by default shining the light on the female bass player, keyboard player, violin player, viola, cello—just go to the back of the band, and put the light on her, and you’re going to see the rest of the band too.

CMG: Something that frustrates me—and again, I think Tom Tom addresses this—is how some people seem to think that subcultures are inherently these realms where, because they’re apart from the mainstream, sexism can’t possibly exist. I think that’s how a lot of music scenes get away with being, when you really get down to it, less progressive than they appear.

MA: I feel like sexism is overt in every genre of music, and I don’t necessarily differentiate indie rock from hip-hop and country and techno—it’s all sort of the same thing for me. And that includes women beatmakers. They’re hard to come by. If you ask someone to name five female beatmakers, that’s hard. They probably wouldn’t be able to answer you!

Sexism is just a global disease. We’re not in any sort of post-feminist place right now at all. We’ve won some certain rights—that’s a big process. But to say that we’re done? That’s a far cry.

CMG: Yes, exactly. And what I find is so difficult in talking about sexism in music scenes is that as soon as you bring that word into the equation, people get so defensive and think, “Oh, you’re calling me sexist. You’re saying that something I specifically said or did was sexist.” No! I feel like most of the time the hardest part is getting over that accusatory kneejerk.

MA: Absolutely. It’s actually a really positive thing to state that something could need action. That’s all it means. It doesn’t mean “Hey, you fucked up.” It means “We’re all in this fucked up place. What can we do from here?” And everybody can play a role in changing something.

CMG: That’s a good way of looking at it.

MA: It’s like how we started this conversation, where people don’t want to talk about it anymore, or say there’s nothing to talk about—that’s not true. You don’t want to bore people by repeating yourself, but you also don’t want to let something go when it’s not done.

CMG: And that actually brings me to an issue that’s been bugging me a lot. I recently wrote a review of the new Grass Widow record, and as I was writing, I was grappling with the question that I’m always grappling with when I write about “female bands”: What is the best way to write about women in music right now?

I think some people believe that it would be to write the review and make no mention at all of the fact that they’re an all-female band. And there are times when I think that too. But then I think about everything we’ve just talked about: how no one wants to admit that gender still plays a huge role in how people make and listen to music; that we’re not yet at a point where we can escape it. And then I feel like I have to somehow address that in my writing, because it would just feel disingenuous to ignore it. So, ultimately, in the Grass Widow review, I did address it. But I was overwhelmed by that internal conflict. Do you ever feel that way too?

MA: I’m lucky in that way, because I don’t have to talk about gender in the magazine, it’s just implied by the nature of the project. So I’m really lucky that I don’t have to make that call on a daily basis. That being said, I’m friends with Grass Widow, and another band who has had that same issue and is vocal about it, Explode Into Colors—

CMG: I actually wrote about them recently, too.

MA: Did you talk specifically about gender when you wrote about them?

CMG: Well, no. And, of course I found plenty of great things to say about them that had nothing to do with gender. But still, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. It’s going to nag at you either way. And I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to approach it. I don’t think there’s an easy answer that works every single time.

MA: Yeah. And I think your question is really just a snapshot of what’s happening right now. The ultimate answer is another question, “What are we supposed to do? How do we deal with it?” And I think your real answer is “Well, sometimes I do mention it and sometimes I don’t, and I feel dirty either way.” There really isn’t any answer right now, and it’s going to be uncomfortable for a while longer.

CMG: Totally. Whew. My closing question now seems so large and yet so feeble: What do you think is the solution to all of this?

MA: I think it might be like working on getting these female gendered spaces to get more credibility. That would be ideal. But there is an in-between space. And it doesn’t necessarily exist yet. It needs to be written. I don’t know that either space is going to make sense on its own.

But I just want to emphasize that the more we talk about it, the better off we are. The dialogue is really important, and one of the main points of the magazine is to keep that dialogue going.