The Dean of Women Drummers
Photo: Gesi Schilling
“What I’ve done with the magazine — through social media, through web and through print — is hype us to an extreme, to make up for lost time.”
That’s Mindy Abovitz in a mini-documentary on “The Oral History of Female Drummers,” a 2013 performance at MoMA PS1, in Queens, during which seven female drummers, including Abovitz, wailed away on drum kits stationed throughout the museum.
The magazine she’s referring to is Tom Tom, the self-described “only magazine in the world dedicated to female drummers,” which she founded and edits. The “us” are women like longtime Lenny Kravitz drummer Cindy Blackman, Berklee-trained percussionist Christina Bouza, Hole/Mötley Crüe alum Samantha Maloney, and hundreds of others featured over the course of 20 issues. The “lost time”? Well, that’s basically the entire history of media and music prior to Tom Tom’s November 2009 debut issue.
At lot has happened since then. Circulation has leapt from around 5,000 to 60,000 copies of the current fifth anniversary issue, which you’ll find on shelves at Guitar Center and Barnes & Noble. Tom Tom has launched a mini-drum school, Tom Tom Academy; held a 19-drummer jam session in the lobby of Manhattan’s Ace Hotel; and established an online shop which Abovitz says will ultimately be filled with “instruments you can’t find anywhere else, all made by people who believe in female drummers.” And, perhaps most significantly, people have stopped asking Abovitz a question that dogged her during the magazine’s early days: “Will you ever run out of content?” (For the record the answer was, and remains, a firm, “No.”)
The Forward recently caught up with Abovitz, via Skype, in England, where she was working to expand the magazine’s circulation and lay groundwork for a University of Cambridge symposium about gender and drums.
Philip Eil: In 2009, everyone was talking about the death of print. Why did you say, “I’m going to start a magazine?”
Mindy Abovitz: In 2009, I was only interested in changing Google search results. I wasn’t interested in starting a magazine. The Internet representation of female drummers back then was poor, at best. You would pull back results like, “Can women really play the drums?” “Are girls allowed to play drums?” “Does anyone know of a female drummer?” And then lots of sexy photos of women near drums.
So it wasn’t like I set out to make a profitable print magazine when print was dying. I was out to do something else, which was put women drummers in print for the first time.
You’re not a fan of the word “niche,” as in, “niche publication.” Why does that word bother you?
The word bothers me because my ultimate goal is that our segment of the market is not looked at as a “niche”… that we become an equal market to the guy drummers. And focusing on the fact that it’s a niche, particularly [for] somebody who is just seeing it for the first time, I don’t want them to get comfortable with that idea. And also in saying that it’s a niche, we’re assuming that there are few of us, and I’m sort of validating that for a new audience member. And I want them to acknowledge that there are many of us.
Why are drums thought to be a male instrument?
I could answer that in a lot of different ways, but I’ll say it simplistically in that I think they are marketed to men and boys.
You can delve a little deeper and say that they’re thought to be an aggressive instrument. They’re thought to be an instrument where you sweat. These are things that are not traditionally female or feminine. You need to be extremely confident, physically strong. Your legs are spread open when you’re playing. [Drums] are heavy. So these are all ideas, notions of masculinity, but they’re also the way a drum kit was designed and [is] now marketed. [But] all of these things I think can be easily manipulated and re-framed.
What do you want people to take away from Tom Tom?
What I want them to take away from it has actually very little to do with the topic of the magazine. Much like if someone was to come to my house I would feed them a really healthy meal, I want them to read the magazine and take away what good media could look like — media that represents real people; people of diverse backgrounds, a multitude of ages, different body sizes; people who love what they do and translate that in a way that’s relatable. We make this magazine [and] it’s about female drummers. But it’s really just ideally an example of what kind of media I would like to see more often.
Is there an intersection between Judaism and Tom Tom magazine?
Outside of the fact that I’m a big Jew, I’m gonna say, “No.”
But of course there’s that disclaimer [of] Issue 20 — there’s a feature that’s called “Snapshots from Tel Aviv.” And I speak Hebrew, so it’s very easy for me to access Israelis and so there’s going to be a leaning towards that. But I have done my utmost to shed any biases that I came to the table with when I started the magazine. And so, in answering that question, I would hope that someone else could answer it for me and say that there isn’t a crossover there.
It might be worth mentioning that there was a day like two and a half years ago in where I realized I was Jewish media maker woman who lived in New York, which is such a stereotype. And I didn’t want to be a magazine maker; that was never my intention. I’ve been a drummer, a musician, a feminist. But then there was this day when I was like, “Oh my…”
And it’s funny, because being a female drummer, you are an anomaly. But being a Jewish media maker in New York? I’m not an anomaly.