PrimalScream Music | Nicole Dionne in Shoot
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Nicole Dionne in Shoot

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A Look At Women In Production: Numbers, Personal Observations, Reflections

This is the first of a three-part series exploring the state of gender and race in commercial and entertainment production. In this initial installment, we focus on women–or the lack thereof–in the business, with some industry research on women in production and feedback from female entrepreneurs, executives and directors.


On December 12, GSD&M in Austin, Texas, will host its third annual Small/Diverse Vendor Business Summit in which women- and ethnic minority-owned companies come to the agency to meet with senior management and key decision-makers.
“In the advertising industry, relationships are key as far as selecting vendors,” said Max Rutherford, vendor/partner diversity director and small business liaison officer at GSD&M. “It’s crucial to have face time, to go beyond clicking on links and swapping e-mails. You need to have an in-person dialogue so that decision-makers here have some sort of communication, a touchpoint with these vendors so they’re no longer strangers to us.”



Typically GSD&M sends out some 300 invites to female and minority vendors, with 60 to 70 turning out for the Summit. Rutherford researches and sifts through prospective vendors, including those that are certified and vetted by nonprofit organizations as being female or minority-owned, the latter certification coming from the National Minority Supplier Development Council (NMSDC) while female ownership is confirmed by the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC).
However, if GSD&M finds a worthwhile company that hasn’t received certification, the ad agency will still include that shop in its Summit.


“We’re out to find vendors to do business with. But if they don’t fit with our clients’ needs, we mentor them, give them some advice, tell them what they need to do in order to compete for our business,” said Rutherford. In the same mentoring vein, Rutherford noted that GSD&M will help and inform deserving companies as to how to gain the proper WBENC and/or NMSDC certification so that they are more firmly in the running for business at GSD&M and throughout the marketplace.


As for why seeking out these vendors is so important, Rutherford explained it’s simply “good business and the right thing to do.” Expounding upon the “good business” assessment, he said, “Based on economic value, women make over 80 percent of purchasing decisions in the household. Minorities have increased purchasing power. We need to reach out to them. And part of that reaching out is showing our dedication to doing business with minority and women-owned companies that are qualified. This isn’t philanthropy. It’s just good business.”
For this initial installment of our three-part series on women and ethnic minority representation in the industry, SHOOT canvassed an industry cross-section of females who are either owners or in positions of influence at their respective companies. One respondent, Lauren Schwartz, cited the Small Business Summit. “GSD&M is an agency on the forefront,” she observed. “I went to a diversity day at the agency where they welcomed women/minority-owned companies to meet the decision-makers. Like this experience, we need people to put their money where their mouth is and support giving women-owned companies a shot.”


Numbers    However, a Directors Guild of America (DGA) report released last month found that women seemingly aren’t getting that shot when it comes to directorial gigs in series television. The report analyzed the ethnicity and gender of directors hired to direct primetime episodic television across broadcast, basic cable and premium cable. On the gender side of the findings, the DGA study found that females directed 15 percent of the 3,100 episodes produced in the 2011-’12 network TV season and the 2011 cable TV season from more than 190 scripted television series. The prior year’s revised DGA study found females directing 14 percent of episodes. That 14 percent consisted of 11 percent Caucasian females and three percent minority females. The rise to 15 percent for the most recent study year broke down to 11 percent Caucasian females and four percent minority females.



The Emmy Awards also offer little solace. For example, this year Lena Dunham for HBO’s Girls was the lone female directing nominee in all categories, including drama, comedy, miniseries and variety programs. Since 1959, when directing awards for comedies and dramas were established, three women have won Emmys: Betty Thomas in 1993 for Dream On; Karen Arthur in ’85 for Cagney and Lacey, and Mimi Leder in ’95 for ER.
As for feature films, just 3.6 percent of all directors on the 100 top grossing films of 2009 and 13.5 percent of writer were women, according to a 2011 study by the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. The Oscars started in 1929 but it wasn’t until 2010 that a woman finally won the Best Director honor, when Kathryn Bigelow earned that distinction for The Hurt Locker.


    As for that aforementioned SHOOT survey, a series of questions were posed to women who have established themselves in different sectors of our industry. The feedback comes from strong voices articulating thoughts on the state of women in business today as well as personal reflections and observations.


Here is the full list of questions posed:

Nicole Dionne, executive music producer/owner, PrimalScream Music

Primary Business: Original music for all media

1. Do you own the company? If so, what year did you launch it?
    Yes. April 1995


2. If your business model has changed over time, please briefly tell us about it.
    During the first few years of PrimalScream’s existence, I had hired “commercial” music composers and “commercial” sound designers.  Once I was awarded the BMW Films campaign, where BMW and the agency wanted to work with and hired film directors to shoot the commercials, it became interesting to me to match that concept as well as so interesting and exciting to work with bands, singers, musicians, composers who were not specifically commercial composers, but who were creating music already that people wanted to listen to either in buying their music on iTunes, CDs, going to see the bands live, etc.  So it was a wonderful expansion and allows me and our PrimalTeam to continue working with our same clients yet keep it fresh, interesting and advancing musically each time.  My clients are thus able to have the confidence in our production level from past experience, and at the same time venture out into different genres of music for their brand and picture.  As well, our original model started out in Los Angeles and now as artists have expanded their producing skills and studios and moved to different parts of the country, we have expanded to Austin, TX as well.  After a decade of working out of Austin and working with Austin artists and musicians in the past, it is now official that PrimalScream is in both cities, which is super exciting.


3. How did you get your start in the business?
    I worked for a director at RSA for a while and became acquainted and intrigued with the creativity and innovation with commercials and the advertising industry.  Subsequently, I was hired at Machine Head to work with Stephen Dewey, a very dear and talented friend, on music and sound design for commercials, and then started PrimalScream.


4. What was the biggest challenge or obstacle you faced as you made your ascent in the industry?
    The greatest successes in my life have been things where if I had ever known in advance how hard they would have been to do, I don’t know that I would have had the courage to do them.  Starting PrimalScream was one of those.  It was so challenging, yet it ended up being such a great gift in every way imaginable; professionally and creatively.  Although there have been many challenges, one of the hardest was believing in myself as an artist.  This lesson came out of the worst obstacle I had been faced with, so even though I had a huge obstacle, that challenge made me step up to the plate and believe in myself rather than only backing others’ talents.  I believe without a doubt that a large part of that confidence building was in part because I was a woman, and there was a difference in expectations from a woman in producing music.  As much as I can say that I tried to stay naive to the belief that a woman really couldn’t produce music, situations would arise where I was not able to ignore it.  For example, I took it for granted that of course I could produce percussion as I have been doing it forever and work with drummers and percussionists on tracks every day.  The percussive element in music is such a driving and intense force, and can be so powerful with a visual in a hundred ways. Because I had been doing it for so long and never had any issues come up with the artists whom I was working with, I was very naive as to what others might expect or not expect from a woman.  One time I had a male client in the studio with me while working with a drummer from a rock band, and he turned and said to me “I didn’t know a woman could produce rock percussion.”  My challenge was to stay focused on my talents and working on them rather than to worry about what people thought or didn’t think I was able to do.  And that has been very important to me.


5. What do you think would be the biggest challenge or obstacle if you were just starting out today? Would it be easier or more difficult (and why?) to establish yourself professionally and to attain your current role as an executive or leading creative or artist?
    I think that the biggest challenge if I were just starting out today in producing original music for advertising and all media, would be to make an impact as great as PrimalScream is able to make at this time.  Being trusted by people who bring me into projects is something that I take very seriously and that as well takes time to build.  To really make an impact takes being given trust; such as the responsibility to musically brand 6 channels for Starz, to produce music with incredible up-and-coming bands with the trust of my clients for Fruit of the Looms 30 million dollar rebrand during the Olympics not only for :30 spots but full-length songs as well, and to produce the score and license all of the music for an entire film is a gift of trust from my clients.  It is something I most cherish and look to give back with the gift of great music; yet it takes many years of building trust to be able to do that.


6. Is there a shortage of women in the advertising and entertainment production community? If so, do you perceive this as a problem and why?
    Advertising agencies and the entertainment production community all benefit from hiring the best people for the jobs, thus opening our minds to the talents of women is very beneficial for everyone.  I don’t know that I am in a position to have an opinion about whether or not there is a shortage of women in the advertising and entertainment world because I am not really hiring for those jobs.  For myself, I love hiring women, and have many women who work in the production end of my business.  But if you ask me how many musicians and band members, music composers, engineers and producers I work with, I would have to say those fields are male dominant.  The important element is that I am truly as eager and as open as can be about working with women in those male dominated fields whom are as talented as the men.  And I realize that just because there are fewer women in those fields, that it does not mean that a woman is not able nor less able to be incredible doing that work.


7. And if so, how can the industry improve the situation? What steps can be taken to rectify such a shortage?
    I was invited to attend GSD&M’s Diversity Event last year that their head diversity coordinator, Max Rutherford, organized.  At that meeting, I learned that their CFO was very intent on paying it forward and opening up production and creative opportunity for women in business. I learned that there are both small and very large corporations who have found that bringing in diversity vendors is important to their success, and this was a really appreciated idea for me.  These corporations strive to give equal opportunity to Women owned businesses.  PrimalScream thus became WBENC Diversity Certified, which gives us the opportunity to EARN business.  I would never want someone to work with me because I am a woman, just in the same way that I wouldn’t want someone to not want to work with me because I was a woman.  I  just really appreciated the opportunity to have the exposure to earn business by doing incredible work for our clients, and feel that this is an incredible way for the industry to really advance its exposure to production capabilities and talent.


8. Are you married?


9. Do you have kids – how many, how old?
    I have a 3-year old son, Roklan


10. Can you share a poignant or funny “being a woman in a man’s world” story with us.
    I was working on a very large and prominent car campaign with incredible footage, where each sound was quite important in terms of the music enhancing the spot and movement, emotion and optimism of the campaign and car launch.  I had created in my head “the” sound I wanted for the campaign, and worked with artists on actually recording and mixing that sound in order to bring the music to my clients for the campaign.  When our clients heard the tracks for the first time, one guy gave a standing ovation, the other said that he had never heard tracks that were so perfect before, that didn’t need any changes, and the third looked at me and said, “Wow, Nicole, I thought we just hired you because you were cute.  I didn’t know you actually knew how to produce music.”  He went on to say that I was the best music producer he had ever worked with, which was a huge compliment, yet truly at the same time it was a real eye-opener.  I realized then how many things were affected by my being a woman, and how naive I was as to the challenges that others saw in my being a woman, that I actually didn’t see in myself.   I wasn’t sure how I could ever show enough people what I could do with creating music, when I might have started out with such low expectations because I was a woman.  I have always been thankful to that man for his compliments, yes, but also in opening my mind to how others might expect from a female in my field.  I was completely naive before that people might not have high expectations from a music producer who was a woman.


11. What’s the biggest challenge in balancing your professional and personal life?
    Up until becoming a mother, I never really had any challenge with balancing professional and personal lives.  Before becoming a mother, my professional life really added so much to my personal life.  They were fairly intertwined!  Because I have always loved what I do and have truly chosen it as my passion and business, the things I tend to do around my career are really fun for me and thus those around me; being in the studio, talking with clients about what they want to do for their campaigns, working with them, obsessing about new music, seeing bands, etc.   After I had my child a few years ago, I felt like I needed to discover “we”, because I was no longer a “me”, and that was a new experience.  At first I thought it would be complicated to mix the two, but after the first campaign and then film, I realized that having a child actually motivated me so much!  I bring my son to music festivals, he is in the studio with me and he is on the road with me when I work and travel with bands, yet the difference is that there is more time where I just work or just be a mother to him.  There are sections of my life that are just one or the other more so delineated than before I was a mother.


12. If you could have a do-over, what career would you pick for yourself?
    I love my chosen career of producing music to picture so much, that if I had to do it all over again, I would still be a music producer and create music with artists for picture.  Yet if I was able to have multiple lives and fulfill another career dream, I would love to be a reporter.  I really enjoy meeting different types of people and learning about different circumstances as to what motivates everyone, and I would love to bring that to the surface and fulfill my own curiosities.  I am curious in nature about people and our world and how things work, that it is so fascinating to me to learn about… and thus would engage me continually like producing music does now.


13. We all hope to retire some day. What do you want to do in retirement/where would you live?
    I have this image/fantasy of having a recording studio on a ranch with horses, attracting new and interesting talent to the studio to record and produce, as well as my son and his friends using it as a hands on tool to bring the kids all over to our house!  One of my idols, Roy Thomas Baker, and his wife have something kinda like this now in the Mojave Desert, and I just think that it is so cool.  The bands go there, live for a while and record.  I think that is why I have PrimalScream’s studios located in famous recording studios, because it is really wonderful to have that “space” to really play and record, to take us to another place creatively… and how cool if we could take off on “Poncho” and ride into the sunset between tracking and recording!



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