Nova Scotia Trailblazers Break the Mold of Music Production


If less than two percent of Canada’s music producers identify as women, then Reeny Smith, Erin Costelo, Breagh Isabel and Zamani are the who’s who of Nova Scotia’s music industry.

The four producers are gathered at the Carleton Music Bar and Grill in Halifax, and as they sit in a circle on blue velvet chairs under ambient lighting, you can feel the camaraderie between them.

Building on each other is part of how they plan to change the landscape of the traditionally male-dominated field of music production.

“When I was younger and didn’t see a lot of women doing it, I didn’t even think I thought it was a possibility,” said Costelo, who became the first woman to win the Music Nova Scotia Producer Award. year in 2017.

She is also the only woman nominated for Producer of the Year at this year’s Music Nova Scotia Awards, the winners of which will be announced on November 7.

“The more women there are visible, the more women you will have on the ground,” she says.

From left to right: Reeny Smith, Zamani, Erin Costelo and Breagh Isabel. The 4 women are all artists and music producers. (Robert Short / CBC)

A study released in March by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in the United States showed that women occupied just 2% of all production positions in songs on the 2020 Billboard Hot 100.

He revealed that the male-to-female ratio in production was 180 to 1, and that women had earned just 33 production credits in six years, of which only nine went to women of color.

All of the nominees for the 2021 East Coast Music Award Producer of the Year were men.

But in an industry that has been slow to achieve gender equality, Smith, Costelo, Isabel and Zamani are breaking the mold.

Isabel says that historically, non-male producers have not had any role models to follow, but that is slowly changing.

“It’s so hard to imagine yourself doing something if you don’t see yourself and your experiences don’t come back to you,” Isabel says as the other three women nod.

Breagh Isabel produces in her home studio in Halifax. Isabel says she often collaborates with artists from a distance, an effect of the pandemic which she believes will continue into the future. (Aly Thomson / CBC)

Isabel, 30, is a producer and artist who recently released a coming-of-age single titled Girlfriends, which exposes the painful side of young queer love.

She says a lack of representation in music studios – including people from diverse communities and members of the LGBTQ community – means audiences are missing out on different perspectives.

“While some voices have historically been left out of the conversation, it really narrows the scope of the experiences you hear about in songs on the radio or in songs on someone’s record,” Isabel says, her wispy blonde hair brushing against. its vintage -look brown blazer.

“I think that only serves to widen the conversation into the spectrum of what is possible musically if there are more diverse people involved.”

Reeny Smith, 26, who grew up in the predominantly black community of North Preston, says she had to overcome her own mental barriers when she started producing music.

“We have these assumptions based on past history and sometimes it can follow you into the current era of today – you don’t consider something as an option because you don’t see people like you do.” says Smith, whose accolades include the East Coast Music Award for R & B / Soul Recording of the Year for his album Third World War: Strength. Courage. Love.

“Sometimes you just have to kick in the door, but that’s easier said than done.”

Reeny Smith has this tip for anyone looking to get into music production: give it a try. (Robert Short / CBC)

She is proud to serve as a mentor to the younger generation.

“It’s about believing what you can be, and most of the time you have to see it first,” says Smith, adding that those looking to enter the industry should just start and have no fear. reach out to others in the field to ask questions.

“It just gives us the opportunity to present different possibilities to people.”

Zamani, 20, grew up playing with buttons in her father’s recording studio next to their garage in Halifax, where today several guitars can be seen leaning against an exposed brick wall near a keyboard, computer and mixer.

Zamani is a singer, songwriter and producer and is also in the process of completing a college degree. (Aly Thomson / CBC)

She says her mother, a former vocal director and producer of an a cappella group, also served as a role model.

“Seeing that growing up has totally shaped my mindset about being self-sufficient,” says Zamani, who produces all of her own music and recently produced a piece for the Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo.

“Being a producer and a male dominated industry is so important because it allows me to lead and be self-sufficient.”

Margaret McGuffin, CEO of Music Publishers Canada, says while there is no data available on inclusion in Canadian studios, her feeling is that the situation here could be even worse than the study’s findings. Anneberg.

“When we look at our studios in Canada, we see a lack of representation of women and non-binary producers as well as a lack of a diverse roster of producers. We see it firsthand when we take our songwriters to the studios, ”says McGuffin, speaking from Toronto.

Her organization launched a program to help attract more women into music production and audio engineering.

Erin Costelo is shown producing Cameron Nickerson at Fang Studios in Dartmouth. (Submitted by Sarah Jamer)

The National Women in the Studio Accelerator is now in its third year and seeks to help launch the careers of women, fluid, non-binary and gender-non-compliant participants through workshops, sessions and, most importantly, d ” a support and mentoring network.

“We started this program because we felt there were so many songwriters who really couldn’t find their true voice when they went into the studio,” says McGuffin.

“They felt like they couldn’t express themselves when they were in the studio, that their ideas were rejected and that they weren’t comfortable talking about their projects and therefore it limited their ability to move forward, whether on the engineering side or the creative side. “

The 4 producers hope their stories will inspire more women, people from diverse communities and people from the LGBTQ community to enter the industry. (Robert Short / CBC)

Back in her tiny home studio with a pink door, Costelo is tucked away in a comfortable ergonomic chair, polishing an upcoming piece by artist Don Brownrigg.

She is optimistic about the future of the music industry.

“Part of what I hope is that no matter if any women like what I do, they will see me do it and be inspired to do it too,” says Costelo, some hand-painted portraits of her pets resting on a nearby piano.

“I think the more women we see, the more women there will be who will be inspired to practice the profession.”

For more stories about the experiences of black Canadians – from anti-black racism to success stories within the black community – check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


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