Lizzy Ellis & Billie Croucher on Saffron Music's ethos of uplift and representation

After announcing their funding was being threatened, Saffron Music's Development Lead and acting CEO and Community Manager joined us for a chat.

For nearly 8 years Saffron has been providing courses for those interested in music production, DJing, sound engineering and beyond at an affordable cost, with a particular focus on elevating the experience and opportunities of women, marginalised, and gender nonconforming within their respective fields. Earlier this year we were delighted to announce our collaboration with Saffron, a label, music educational platform and community, with a series of online workshops hosted by members of the fabric team.

We first reached out to Saffron in February, with the aim of working together; shortly after on International Women's Day, Saffron released a press release announcing their funding was being threatened. We knew why Saffron caught our eye in the first place, and why their work was important, and wanted to share that with our own community - whether you already know about Saffron or not. With that in mind, we caught up with Lizzy, acting CEO and Development Lead, and Billie, Online Community Manager, to highlight Saffron's important work and funding challenges. They share insights into Saffron's initiatives to empower individuals in the music industry.

Who started Saffron, and what was the motivation to start the project?

Lizzy: Saffron was started in 2015 by Laura Lewis-Paul, who while working as youth worker during a visit to some music studios, she noticed the dominance of white males in those spaces. She felt compelled to do something about it! That's how Saffron was formed. 

With a grant from the Prince's Trust, she launched the initiative. Initially, it started as a record label but quickly pivoted to focus on music tech, upskilling, and training for artists in the areas of production. Around the same time, Mix Nights was formed in collaboration with Daisy [Moon] and Danielle, who were also working in music. Mix Nights eventually became officially part of Saffron, and the organisation continued to grow from there.

Who is Saffron targeted at? And who do you think is underrepresented in the industry?

Billie: We take an intersectional approach and aim to create spaces specifically for women, trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming individuals. We also consider how other identities intersect with gender, so many of our programs and bursary opportunities are to provide access to Black and mixed Black artists. A significant part of our work focuses on providing opportunities in music tech for those who face financial barriers - this includes offering free memberships and course placements when we have the funding. Our goal is to promote diversity in the industry, not just through a gender lens but in a broader sense.

Our goal is to promote diversity in the industry, not just through a gender lens but in a broader sense...

Lizzy: The industry statistics show that only around 5% of the music tech industry consists of women, trans, and non-binary individuals, and less than 2% are from non-white backgrounds. This underrepresentation can be attributed to various factors, including deep-rooted societal gender roles. We were discussing earlier how toys for kids still reinforce gender stereotypes, which can influence the career paths people choose as they grow up. Lack of role models, financial barriers, and a male-dominated learning environment can also deter individuals from pursuing careers in the music tech industry...

In a press release you released earlier this year, you mentioned the issue of male headliners at festivals. How important is representation?

Billie: Representation is crucial not only in performance areas but also behind the scenes. While the lack of gender diversity in headliners receives significant attention, it's equally important to have diverse representation in production roles. For artists, collaborations with producers, recording engineers, and mixing engineers are essential for realising their creative visions. By equipping more women and gender-nonconforming individuals with music tech skills, we aim to ensure that artists can work comfortably with collaborators and avoid feeling alienated in those spaces. It's a cycle where diverse representation contributes to a more inclusive and thriving music industry as a whole.

Lizzy Ellis

Like you said, BTS representation is also vital! What aspects of the industry do you cover?

Billie: Yeah, we have a few different strands at Saffron. First, we offer courses in music production, sound engineering (both studio and live), radio broadcasting, and DJing. Our mix nights course focuses on DJing. In addition to that, we have an artists and label strand, which includes our own record label and an annual artist development program managed by Lizzy and Hari.

We also have an online aspect that I oversee. It was launched during COVID to continue people's learning and community when we couldn't be together physically. However, we decided to continue it even after the pandemic because it allowed us to reach people beyond our core music hub cities of London, Nottingham, Bristol, and Birmingham. 

We've even partnered with organisations like the British Council to connect with individuals in countries such as Pakistan, Tunisia, and Turkey. We also host a flagship event called "7 Days of Sound," a week-long series of online workshops taught by artists and industry professionals from around the world, along with mentoring opportunities.

“Only around 5% of the music tech industry consists of women, trans, and non-binary individuals, and less than 2% are from non-white backgrounds…”

Lizzy: Additionally, we have special projects and pilot schemes to test new ideas within our community. For example, we recently launched a one-to-one mentoring service to provide personalised guidance to our course participants who need more individualised support. We've also focused on initiatives for our Black creator community, such as music tech kits distributed to 40 emerging Black artists in the UK and a zine profiling Black audio professionals that was distributed to schools and colleges.

Billie: We've also partnered with RA, Doors Open, and Sound Services to expand our offerings. One example is our work placement scheme, which evolved from our sound engineering course. Participants not only learn the course material but also engage in paid work placements with partner brands and other industry connections.

How long is the typical contact time with students/participants from the start to the end? And how far do you support them in their initial stages?

Lizzy: Our in-person courses usually last six to eight weeks, with one evening session per week. However, we strive to provide more support beyond the few hours of contact time each week. We help participants build their networks by setting up course-specific WhatsApp groups where they can continue to connect and share opportunities. 

We take the time to get to know the individuals and identify those who are interested in progressing further. Based on available resources, we assist them in various ways, such as providing performance or production opportunities, shadowing experiences, and mentoring. Our aim is to support their growth and aspirations.

Billie: The level of support depends on the person. We always encourage involvement in the members' club and offer ongoing support and development. Many of us have longstanding relationships with Saffron. For example, I took the DJ course back in 2016, not expecting a music-related career, but it ended up shaping my path, and now I'm back here!

There are also instances of members like Izzy McPhee, who took our sound engineering course, participated in our youth talent development program, and now runs her own mixing and mastering business – she often masters our releases and even worked on the release of a fellow Saffron course participant. We aim to encourage collaboration and skill-sharing within the community - like a horizontal network of support and creativity!

“Diverse representation contributes to a more inclusive and thriving music industry as a whole…”

What is the range of roles that people who have gone through your programs have pursued? 

Lizzy:  A few examples come to mind! Vanessa Maria, who completed our DJ course about four years ago, is now flourishing as a DJ and a mental health and music advocate, as well as an advocate for Black Minds Matter. I've stayed in close contact with her and assisted her in the early stages of applying for music-related jobs. She now works as a freelance consultant and DJ based in London.

Another example is Sarahsson, an incredible artist who participated in one of our programs a couple of years ago. They are currently on their first European tour and have composed and performed music for a fashion runway show. Izzy, who Billy mentioned earlier, started as a mastering engineer with us and has since become a professional in the field.

Billie: There's also Ellie, who completed our Mix Nights course. She is not only a highly successful DJ but also a booking manager for one of the prominent clubs in Bristol. She actively works to ensure that graduates and Saffron alumni get booked at the club. So it's a self-sustaining system!

Billie Croucher

Are certain aspects of the electronic music industry are less accessible to women or marginalised individuals? 

Lizzy: There has been significant progress in terms of diversity, both in terms of gender and overall representation. However, there are areas like studio and live sound engineering and music production that remain predominantly male-dominated, particularly white males.

Billie: Traditionally, women have often been seen in visible roles in the music industry, such as singers and performers. However, they have been less represented in the creative and production side of music-making. Additionally, within the industry itself and large organisations, there is often gender imbalance at the top positions, which is a common issue in many industries.

Lizzy: Also, I've been contemplating the representation within music tech companies… Who creates the software and hardware, such as synthesisers? To my knowledge, there are no music tech equipment companies owned by women or non-binary individuals! I would love to see a future where music creation and music tech development involve a wider range of people. It's exciting to imagine the possibilities and how things might differ if that were the case.

“I would love to see a future where music creation and music tech development involve a wider range of people. It's exciting to imagine the possibilities and how things might differ if that were the case…”

Do you incorporate that kind of industry education in your courses?

Billie: Industry education is definitely an aspect of our members' clubs. We offer workshops like "Tech Dissect" focused on music production, "Mix Nights" focused on DJing, and "Industry Insights" which cover various aspects of the music business and industry. These workshops cover topics ranging from self-promotion and marketing to music copyright, sampling, and well-being. So, we do have broader conversations about the industry within our programs.

Lizzy: It's not explicitly included in our syllabus, but it naturally becomes part of the discussion. Most of our course instructors, as Billie mentioned earlier, are individuals who have completed the course themselves a few years ago. It's nice to have tutors who are relatable and not worn down by decades in the industry.

"But we've really relied on donations and grants to run in the past to allow us to do what we do in a way that is not putting a finance barrier between us and our audience."

How do you stay up to date with the latest trends and developments in electronic music and technology, and how do you pass that knowledge along?

Lizzy: We all came into this as passionate music enthusiasts from different angles, which is great! We don't all come from the same background, such as house music, but our love for music and creativity remains at the core of what we do!

As for staying current with trends, I believe it happens organically through our programming and guest workshops. Every month, we have three different guest hosts who are doing interesting and exciting work in the field. Those conversations naturally arise from our sessions, and we don't have specific measures in place to stay on top of things. It's a general emotion, and our collaborations and partnerships with various individuals keep us informed.

Earlier this year, on International Women's Day, you released a press release regarding the threat to your funding. What’s the latest?

Lizzy: I could talk about funding forever! Since launching our funding campaign, I've learned a great deal. We found ourselves in this situation due to several reasons. Firstly, we experienced a streak of bad luck with many of the grants we applied for not being awarded to us, despite our previous success. It seems we may not fit the funding criteria as well as before.

Additionally, some corporate donors from the music industry who had previously supported us withdrew their funding around the same time for unrelated reasons. It has become increasingly challenging to secure corporate sponsorships, possibly due to the rising cost of living and organisations tightening their budgets. Social responsibility programs are often the first to be cut when cost-saving measures are implemented.

"I think doing this public kind of asking for support from our audience, properly, for the first time, has revealed quite a lot about who is willing to support and how and what we really need to do."

In the past, we heavily relied on donations and grants to sustain our operations and ensure that our audience wasn't hindered by financial barriers. Unfortunately, for the upcoming term of courses, we had to significantly increase the prices because we lacked funding for this period. It's disappointing, as it goes against our intention to keep the prices accessible. This experience of publicly asking for support from our audience for the first time has been enlightening…. It has revealed who is willing to support us, how they can support, and the necessary steps we need to take.


Explore and find out more about Saffron Membership here.

Words & Interview: Izzy Trott

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