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Women in Music: An interview with lighting designer Valeria Silva

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** The National Student's 'Women in Music' content series makes space for the incredible, important women that work behind the scenes in some of the toughest and most rewarding roles in the industry. To celebrate International Women's Day, we're hearing their stories. **

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One of my housemates opened up a conversation over breakfast about DJ Annie Mac’s Equalising Music campaign with Smirnoff about the “embarrassingly lopsided” gender gap in music.

He thought it was perhaps controversial to suggest that we should make a conscious effort to listen to more music produced by females just because they’re females – he argues that, for example, headline spots at festivals should be allocated by merit, not just because the act represents a minority group in the industry.

Interested by this, I watched the video myself and was admittedly shocked at the findings – even though female singers such as Ariana Grande make up the pool of the biggest artists right now, only 2% of the chart hits in 2018 were produced by females.

The picture is so much bigger than festival lineups, though: inequality plagues the music industry in its entirety. Behind the female singers in the spotlight are the unrepresented women of the music industry – the PRs, the producers, the lighting directors, the record label owners. The campaign has revealed that, currently, 17% of registered PRs are women, 15% of record labels are owned by women, and the current gender gap in the industry is 30%.

We speak to Valeria Silva who, as a female Lighting Director in Mexico, knows the importance of representation all too well.

Image courtesy of Valeria

Valeria first got into Lighting Design through her “social service at a local TV Channel (11 TV)”, after an initial interest in audio. There, she met a lighting designer who taught her the basics of TV lighting design who strengthened the photography skills that she had learnt at school to a professional level. Stage design, including theatre, was a big part of her university experience, furthering her passions and confirming that it was what she wanted to do.

Despite her evident aptitude for the industry, Valeria knew that, as a female in a male-dominated field, the odds were against her from the get-go: “Many people said it was going be hard for me as a girl. But I was still sure that I wanted to do it”. Valeria’s determination and optimistic belief in the good of people fuelled her perseverance in the industry. She emphasised that “there’s always someone willing to help”, saying that she found some “nice men” who shared their expertise with her.

As one of the “very few women doing lighting, specifically in Mexico”, Valeria found her inspiration in women from America and Canada. She tells us: “Firstly, I have to mention Susan Rose, who is the Lighting Director for Ringo Starr”, whilst also praising Alba Valles Novella, who toured with Metallica in 2012, and Vickie Claiborne, Lighting Designer for PRG US in Las Vegas, who is the author of Media Servers for Lighting Programmers: A Comprehensive Guide to Working with Digital Lighting.

One of the main barriers that held Valeria back from being hired was that many companies simply did not want to hire a woman. Despite her education, technical knowledge and ability to speak five languages (including Spanish, English and French) she was told that she wasn't suitable because she “can’t lift like a guy”. Valeria was made to feel a hassle for companies who “did not want to pay for an extra room” to avoid her having to stay overnight with men. 

Valeria also became accustomed to sexism in the workplace, so much so that she tells us she experiences it a shocking “80% of the time”. Unbelievably, someone even told her that she should be “cooking at home and taking care of the kids because this industry is not for women”. She also tells us that because of “machism”, (masculine pride), she has had to deal with “very rude guys insulting her”. Instead of rising to it, however, she kept her head down, focused and worked her way to the top.

Now deservedly reaping the success of her work ethic, Valeria is not only defying male expectations of her; she is using her experience to pioneer change and empower other girls in Mexico. This initially began as small conferences in local schools – she believes that Lighting Design is often overlooked by its on-stage component: sound. She says: “Everybody talks about sound – there are more sound courses, but very few about Lighting Design. My goal was to create curiosity about lighting.”

Image courtesy of Valeria

In detail, such courses in music schools teach “the basics” – how to direct technicians at the venue in terms of the lighting arrangements (in case there is no Lighting Designer at the venue), and the basic electrical knowledge to “protect the instruments and themselves”. Valeria has also given conferences at Universities to Architects, teaching them about lighting protocols, programming LED fixtures and Ethernet technology.

The Mexican Lighting Designer now joins Vickie Cliaborne at LDI, a global Lighting Design Conference led by professionals in the industry which sees thousands attend, both in Mexico City and Las Vegas. She was invited to be a panellist at one of LDI’s first ever Spanish Sessions, and spoke about the history of concert-lighting in 2016 as part of EDI’s ‘Sound: Check Xpo Trade Show’. Here, she tells us about how she collaborated with “Edward Herbert, aka ‘Chipmonck’”, who was “one of the pioneers of the concert-lighting industry”, having worked for The Rolling Stones during their tours in the 1970s.

Valeria is changing the path that was set in front of her as a young female in the industry: “I believe in sharing my knowledge as it was hard for me to learn when I started”. Outside of her work with LDI, Valeria is bringing change for women on an individual level, too. Inspiringly, she set up the first lighting training sessions for girls in Mexico, SoundGirls.org, teaching them countless technical lighting skills.

Valeria is actively encouraging girls to “follow their dreams, work hard and learn as much as possible”. Despite the “machism”, she tells us that she has met some “lovely men, who truly believe in, support and value women’s work and are willing to help”. She glowingly tells us that she now has the satisfaction of showing the guys that doubted her that she was more than capable through her hard work. In fact, this is the best part of being a female in the industry for Valeria, showing that “we can also do it!”  

Representation, in all areas of the music industry, is of the utmost importance to Valeria – she believes that “we are all capable, we just need to develop the skills”. Valeria’s success-story is one of defiance; sheer perseverance, a clear goal and hard work has propelled her far above sexist remarks and those who once deemed her to be incapable. She beams: “Yes! I feel proud: it hasn’t been easy, but I have done it. All I can say is: All is possible, dreams do come true, just focus and work hard”.




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