Kansas City has room for more than one female singer or artist, said Leah Watts.
Focused on collaboration rather than competition, Women on the Rise aims the spotlight at an erroneous industry assumption shared by too many music executives, audiences and even musicians, she said, explaining the need for the non-profit she co-founded to empower, educate and support female musicians across all aspects of the music industry.
“There’s this image or idea that … ‘I can’t support another woman because then I won’t get my chance,’” Watts said. “There’s definitely room for all of us! It’s just about creating that space.”
Radio programming directors are among those who’ve long reinforced the notion of scarcity by limiting access to on-air playlists, she said, noting a rule against playing two songs in a row that featured women as the lead.
“They said they just couldn’t do it… and I asked ‘Why?’ and they never really answered that,” Watts added. “It’s a lot of those little things where you could play an hour of male music and then maybe you throw one female song in there. I just want to be completely honest and try to change that conversation. We just want to allow for more opportunities for female musicians to get their music out there.”
Click here to learn more about Women on the Rise and get updates on their resources.
Watts, a country-fueled singer and songwriter, started the nonprofit in 2019 with fellow performers Barb Wilmoth, Kathy Forste, Lynne Grimes, and Jillian Riscoe following many nights when the group gathered after gigs, each questioning what resources were available to help them grow as artists and businesswomen, she said.
“It very naturally came together which was really cool, and I think it made us realize even more that this is something that we’re supposed to do,” Watts said.
“The five women on our board are all in different aspects of industry, though we are all performers in some way, which I think is great because it allows us to touch all corners of the community,” she added. “We definitely are not connected to all [performers in Kansas City] by any means, so one of our goals is just to connect more with the community and hear from them about how we can help support.”
None of the team had experience in starting non-profits and all were busy with full-time careers, so “there was a big learning curve,” she said.
“Up to this point, we were doing educational events — we did one on branding and representing yourself as a business when you’re a musician. You need to have certain visuals on your website and a Facebook page kind of thing,” she added. “But now we’re considering the current state of the world and we’re really in a time of reevaluation, and trying to determine now what is the best way.”
During previous in-person events, the group worked to create a space for musicians to try different tactics and fail among friends, if failing — though the non-profit is working now to establish an online presence to continue to provide support, even if remotely, because of COVID-19 concerns, Watts said.
“There are lots of different things that are in conversation right now about more online ways we can provide support to artists in these tough times. Coronavirus is definitely hitting the art community hard with not being able to perform live at venues, so we’re in kind of a transitional period for sure,” she said.
“We’re excited to continue exploring that and seeing how we can help the community,” she added.
Now three years into her own musical career, Watts is expected to release her debut album by the end of 2020 if all goes to plan, she said, noting the experience has been simultaneously terrifying and exciting.
“I wrote the whole album, and it’s about my personal journey over the last few years, so there’s a sense that it tells a story from beginning to end,” Watts said. “I’m just really excited to share it with the world.”
The experience has added fuel to her mentoring sessions in Women on the Rise, she added, noting the personal music journey and the non-profit are in similar stages.
“I hope we can help young musicians who are wondering how to release an album and we can kind of mentor them through that to help them achieve their goals,” Watts said. “The two are big loves of mine and just all something that I’m really excited to continue exploring and seeing where it all goes. [The nonprofit and album] are both such babies right now and I’m loving seeing how they will grow over the next few years.”
Click here to see more from Leah Watts.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.