The idea was simple: To help support the unveiling of their new line of T-shirts at Betty’s Divine, local music promoters Josh Vanek and Niki Payton decided the event needed a musical punch.
“We didn’t want this just to be about our shirts and buying shit,” Vanek says.
They specifically put a call out to young female musicians under the age of 20, offering some primetime First Friday exposure, $100 in cash, plus $100 in Betty’s Divine store credit. They put up fliers at local businesses and talked with Flagship coordinators at local schools.
“The Missoula talent pool is really awesome, but it’s mostly guys—with some good exceptions, of course,” says Vanek. “We thought this would be a way to draw attention to young girls doing music, a little incentive to have people check out something new.”
But the result, so far, has been a perfect illustration of the problem: the sound of crickets. Only two acts have signed up and one of them—“Shawn & Nina”—hasn’t returned calls to Vanek and Payton, or to the Indy, making it unclear if they’ll show.
That leaves 16-year-old Lela Bayless. In a town—and, perhaps, a time—when it’s still somewhat rare to see girls on stage rocking out on instruments, Bayless stands out. She’s already been in at least as many bands—four—as most 30-something musicians, male or female.
In sixth grade she played drums in a garage band called Clearest Distortion. “We played three Sum 41 songs and a Green Day song,” she laughs. “We were pretty proud. It was kind of loud and kind of bad.”
In eighth grade she started the Happy Unit Gang (HUG), which was “discovered” when Cindy Laundrie-Marshall, local guitarist for the band Vera, called Vanek and told him to go see Bayless’ band at Washington Middle School’s talent show. Vanek was floored.
“She’s a natural,” he says.
Vanek gave HUG some exposure, setting them up with opening slots at all-ages rock venues. Since then, Bayless has played in The Basic Practicalities and her current band, Sun Tide. But because she plays with boys, Bayless will take the stage for the girl band contest with a guitar, alone.
Laundrie-Marshall says it’s not that there aren’t girls out there who want to play, it’s that they often don’t have the confidence or early encouragement to pick up an instrument and learn to write songs.
“I know a million girls just from working at Washington Middle School that want to be in bands,” says Laundrie-Marshall, who used to run the school’s Flagship program. “I just don’t think they know how and where to start. I don’t think parents are encouraging girls to play—especially rock music.”
Laundrie-Marshall has her own experiences with some of the barriers girls face in the rock world. More than 10 years ago she fronted a band called Spanker that played the now defunct Jay’s Upstairs. During those years she got the sense people only saw her as a girl trying to be in a band.
“I know that for me to be in bands it was definitely hard,” she says. “I didn’t see any other girls around playing at first and it was really intimidating to break into that scene.”
Bayless, on the other hand, doesn’t appear to have the confidence issues that other girls feel in the rock scene. She’s aware of the lack of other female performers, though she can’t put her finger on why.
“I have no idea really,” she says. “When I’m looking for people I want to play music with it’s kind of a confidence thing. I mean, in general, it’s basically gender equal, but as far as people who I’ve met who are really comfortable playing on stage, usually it’s guys.” She adds: “But, I’m pretty certain that there are plenty of women out there who like to play music, too.”
Meanwhile, Vanek and Payton say they’ve extended the application deadline to Thursday, April 2, at midnight, and they are currently talking with potential contestants who they know are working on music projects, trying to get them to sign up.
Laundrie-Marshall says that anything that gives girls an opportunity will help. She currently takes her young daughters to Tangled Tones, a music studio open for all ages to learn to play harmonica and guitar. Although she says a showcase for girl bands is a great idea, she’s hesitant to say that a contest is the way to go.
“I think making it a contest is maybe not a formula for girls at this time,” she says. “Especially since it’s a confidence thing, why a lot of women aren’t playing.”
Vanek says he hopes girls won’t be intimidated by the contest aspect of the event, that they’ll see it as more of a chance to have fun and let loose.
“We don’t want it to be hyper competitive but it doesn’t hurt, I don’t think, to encourage people to stick their necks out a little bit,” he says. “I think punk needs to be more about personal expression. And I like seeing people learning as they play and sort of bashing it out, which is harder and harder to find. My hope was that we could have gotten some of that. And that still is my hope.”
The Girl Group Contest kicks off at Betty’s Divine Friday, April 3, at 7 PM. Free.