How Erin Barra's Beats By Girlz is changing the music industry: "I learned the hardest way possible"

When Gwen Stefani dropped the F-bomb on stage, a young Erin Barra knew that she wanted to work in music. Fast forward to today, and she’s the director of popular music at Arizona State University, executive director of Beats By Girlz, course developer for Berklee Online and former associate professor at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. The self confessed “weird band kid” reflects on her journey through the music industry and explains what led her to start Beats By Girlz.

You've achieved so much in your career in music and audio so far; did you have a strong interest in music from childhood, or did this develop later in life?

In high school I was a classically trained pianist, and I don't know how my parents had the foresight to do this, but I was even in a music preschool. So I just kept at it – it was something that I was good at. 

By the time I was about 14, I knew I was at least going to go to a music school. I didn't know what would happen after that, or have any particular target or career in mind, but I knew it was going to be music. I was that weird band kid who was in the jazz band and orchestra!

Who did you look up to in the music industry when you were growing up?

I had my Stevie Wonder phase, my Michael Jackson phase and my Bob Marley phase. It dovetailed from there, but the whole foundation of it is ‘60s and ‘70s songwriters. I remember buying two CDs in the ‘90s: Ace of Base and No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom album. 

No Doubt was the first concert I ever went to as well, and was one of the moments that I knew that I wanted to make contemporary music and that I was not interested in a classical application of the tools. I grew up in Salt Lake City, and my parents are not Mormon, but I grew up in a Mormon community. 

I went to see No Doubt with two of my Mormon friends, and it was the first concert that I had been allowed to go to without my parents. We were rocking out and Gwen Stefani said “fuck”, and that was the first time I'd ever heard somebody say it out loud! 

It was in the context of female empowerment, and I remember my friends being so shocked by this, and my reaction was like, ‘I want to do that’!”

It became very clear to me that the people behind the computers were the ones that were powerful and making money

When did you start to take the idea of pursuing a career in music more seriously?

I started writing songs in high school and I did an internship at an opera company out here. I've always been into musical theatre – my generation was The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid, so it seemed it was always supposed to be songwriting for me.

I was offered a full ride to go to Oberlin college and decided instead that I wanted to make pop songs. So then I went to Berklee, where I had no scholarship whatsoever, and I thought, ‘Maybe I'll do this musical theatre opera thing’, but I realised that that was not what I wanted. 

So I studied songwriting and piano performance and was exposed to a whole other way of thinking about how music plays a role in your life. When I was there, I had some pretty profound experiences. One of which was that I wrote a song that ended up being recorded by this very famous country artist named Kathy Mattea, which was produced by George Massenburg and engineered by Elliot Scheiner. 

I was able to work with some industry legends in that period of time. I also met John Oates from Hall and Oates, and he wanted to write music with me, so I flew out to Aspen and John and I wrote for a while. John was very supportive of me as an artist, which wasn’t an idea I had even toyed with, but I thought that it’s within the realms of possibility. Ultimately, to be an artist was my initial goal.

You’ve written and produced numerous records and have worked with Grammy-winning artists, engineers and producers. When did your interest in production begin and how did you learn your craft?

After Berklee in 2006, I moved to New York City, and this was right around the time when home studios were becoming a thing that many people had. It wasn't extremely common like it is today where everybody's making music in their bedrooms. 

So there wasn't a tonne of access to technology. While I was at Berklee, nobody had bothered to teach me any technology that was useful or applicable to what I was doing, and the industry was changing. This was when Napster was a thing and personal computing devices were becoming accessible. I was so broke that I couldn't afford to pay somebody else to make my music for me. 

I was writing and I had ideas that I wanted to articulate in my mind and in my ears, but I was unable to do that because I didn't know how to press record. So I decided that I was going to figure it out. It became very clear to me that the people behind the computers were the ones that were powerful and making money, period. 

I Googled and YouTubed my way out of it, which when you say something like that now you're like, ‘Okay, that's not that big of a deal’, but in 2006, there was not the same amount of tutorial content on the internet. And it definitely was not quality – education was not online at that time. 

So I was learning by watching weird videos of weird men in their basements, recording video tutorials of information that wasn't even necessarily correct. I didn't even know the words to Google! 

It was very difficult and I learned it the absolute hardest way possible, which I think actually served me really well in the long run, and is why I feel I bring a different perspective when it comes to education.

I have had to work very, very hard to be respected in my field

You’ve been candid about being a female producer who is also a mother of young children, and that prior to becoming a parent you thought it would not be possible to do both. How has the experience been for you, and what advice would you give to other women working in music and audio who might share the same fears?

There's been a number of changes that have happened in my life where I've questioned the future of my career. The music industry is not the easiest place to exist. It's highly competitive, and it's very fast moving. 

I have had to work very, very hard to be respected in my field, and more often than not, I've had to know more and do more just to get to where I've got to. It takes a really long time to shake the thought that you're standing on something that might collapse at any moment. 

You're sort of led to believe through years of working in the industry to not get your hopes up, so you build up an exterior – because it’s protective.

The first time I really questioned my career was when I moved to Boston to work at Berklee, because I had been in New York City for roughly a decade. I really felt like if I wasn't around, that my career would then disappear, because who's gonna know where I am? Who's gonna find me in Boston? 

And that was obviously not the case – in fact, it was the complete opposite. Things continually got better and now I can see that it really had nothing to do with where I was, it had everything to do with who I was, and that no matter where I am, I'm creating value and bringing value to the people that I work with and the communities that I'm a part of.

When it came time to have a baby, it happened again. I thought, ‘I'm not gonna be able to travel because I am going to be somebody's mum now’, and those identities were at odds with each other. But that wasn't true either. I have a very supportive partner who is there for me and wants to see me succeed. My husband is my biggest fan, so between the two of us, we were able to make it work. 

Now, I have two children, and everything's still fine! My career trajectory has not faltered, it's a continual upward climb. Your value doesn't change because you move or because you have a child or because something happens in your life. You're still you and you are still valuable.

You’re the executive director of Beats By Girlz, which encourages traditionally marginalised gender identities to realise their full potential in the music production industry. Tell us about it…

Beats By Girlz is a nonprofit organisation in the United States, and our mission is to empower the next generation of women and gender minorities through music and technology. Of course, we want more women to be in the music industry and in tech fields, or whatever capacity they want.

But more broadly, we understand that jobs of the future require people who can be creative and technical, and we want women and other marginalised genders to be a part of that, which historically they have not been. We've been around since 2013 and we have over 40 chapters worldwide. This year we'll be on six continents, which is all of them except Antarctica!

Your value doesn't change because you move or because you have a child

What made you start this initiative?

I was really unhappy being an artist at that point. I was seven years into my artist career and was feeling like it wasn't serving me or giving me the happiness that I had anticipated. It was quite obvious to me that people were more interested in knowing about how I was making music as opposed to listening to my music. 

I would put a post on the internet about all my gear and I would get such a reaction to that type of content, and then I would drop an album and people wouldn't care as much. That was a very hard pill for me to swallow at first, but then I decided that if I want to be successful in this world, I have to treat myself like a business, and the business is clearly pointing me in this direction. 

This is what people want for me. So I stopped performing live (as an artist that's trying to achieve that career – I still perform all the time) but I completely shifted my direction and started working behind the scenes for other artists and started Beats By Girlz. I'm visible because I'm a woman in this field, and I feel like that should change and that there should be other people who look like me.

You’ve been using Focusrite equipment for 15 years, and the company sponsors Beats By Girlz. By supporting the organisation, how are they helping to change the industry to encourage representation?

Focusrite and the extended group of companies that Focusrite are a part of have been such a meaningful partner for us for years now. It's the little red box that makes everything possible – it's so ubiquitous now. 

We have interfaces in almost every single one of our classrooms. Access to technology is one of the first barriers that everybody has to hurdle when they want to do this community work. 

Focusrite has been extremely generous and forthcoming with those resources and helping our different communities all over the world have what they need in order to do the work that they do. 

We're profoundly grateful for that. It’s also meaningful to have a company like Focusrite or Novation stand together – it sends a signal to the rest of the world and has been instrumental in getting the word out about what we're doing. 

It goes beyond just technology. It's about showing up together.

We want more women to be in the music industry and in tech fields

How long have you been using Focusrite kit, and how does it help your teaching at Arizona State University, Beats By Girlz and Berklee Online?

I've used the Focusrite tech for a very long time. It started with my live rig. I had an 18i20 in 2006, and this was how I was running my live shows – I did a lot of routings from what was happening inside of my computer out to different sources, so I would have my bass synth running into the Focusrite and then would route that out to a bass amp. 

Everything was running through Ableton, and it was the same thing with my keyboards. The 18i20 was the brains of my live show, and now I have the most updated version that I still use for my live shows. I've always used Focusrite live on stage.

When I'm teaching production or live performance with electronics, I always suggest the Focusrite 2i4 or 6i6 interfaces. I'm working with them in the classroom all the time. 

There's two main reasons why I choose that for my students: partly it’s price. These are pieces of technology that are within the realms of possibility for students to purchase. 

The other is the class-compliant qualities of the technology – none of it is proprietary, which makes it play nicely with all other pieces of technology, which I think is really important. I'm very keenly aware of the fact that Focusrite just works with everything.

You’re very involved with recording services provider The Record Co, which is dedicated to offering an affordable music workspace to music makers. The new 12,500-square-foot studio complex is home to Focusrite’s Red 16Line audio interface, ISA 428 MkII and ISA 828 MkII devices, a RedNet A16R 16-channel analogue I/O interface and a number of interfaces from the Scarlett Range, which are deployed in some of the 15 rehearsal studios in the facility. How does it allow musicians to flexibly record their sessions at the new studio complex in Boston's Newmarket Industrial District?

I've been doing a lot of consultations for studios about deciding what pieces of technology should go in there. In the studio scene, people are really rethinking how they are creating spaces where people feel welcome. That's everything from the vibe, to the IO, believe it or not. 

There's been two studios that I've consulted on recently where Dante has become a part of the conversation about us needing to be able to access the network. And then the next question is, ‘How are we doing that?’ 

So much technology is very Pro Tools, HD-focused with the Dante network, but I don't believe that that's going to be true forever, so we have opted to go for the RedNet technology in a lot of studios because of the Thunderbolt connectivity that's not married to a Pro Tools, HD rig. 

Again, it's that non class-compliant quality that’s so important – I know that the technology is going to interface with a wide variety of users so that they can live within whatever their tech ecosystem is. 

I really appreciate that, so we've been exploring and working with RedNet in everything from pro level studios down to somebody just getting started learning how to produce music in their dorm rooms.

I'm very keenly aware of the fact that Focusrite just works with everything