While many musicians and artists look to media coverage as an opportunity to reach new listeners, for those who work outside of the mainstream, that kind of visibility can be rare. It’s not that there’s a lack of worthwhile discussion to be had; it’s that most music journalism is built around more commercial sounds and focused on wide audiences. In many cases, that means experimental and improvisational artists — who aim to push creative boundaries farther by nature — face bigger obstacles to connect with new audiences. Even when those opportunities do arise, they’ve historically gone to men — burying a range of more diverse perspectives in the process.
Improvisational guitarist and recent New England Conservatory graduate Magdalena Abrego, 25, saw this problem firsthand. Growing up, she’d noticed the way guitar magazines mostly featured and catered to men. Later, she saw better representation of female and non-binary artists in magazines like She Shreds and Tom Tom Magazine, but still noticed a lack of coverage around improvisational, experimental, and avant-garde music, sometimes collectively described as “creative music.”
“A lot of the musicians that I listened to weren’t actually showing up in any of these publications, and the history of jazz and experimental music is a history that’s riddled with erasure. Some people just don’t make it into the history books. A lot of it comes down to race, a lot of it comes down to gender and other characteristics that people can be discriminated against based on,” says Abrego.
Last winter, while taking a grant-writing course through NEC’s Entrepreneurial Musicianship department, she found an opportunity to address that absence. The class focused on filling out a sample grant application for an entrepreneurial venture, so Abrego developed the concept for a new magazine called Input/Output, which would focus on female and non-binary artists in improvisational, experimental, and avant-garde music.
After the course ended, she formally applied to the conservatory for a real grant, gave a presentation to a panel of judges, and further proved the idea’s potential: NEC awarded her a $1,500 grant to get Input/Output off the ground.
Working with a busy schedule and small staff of collaborators, Abrego decided to frame the project with a local focus to keep it manageable. “I needed a beta version of Input/Output, and so the parameter that I felt would be both doable and meaningful was to keep it regional,” she says. “I also feel like there’s so much going on in Massachusetts that doesn’t always enter the national conversation, and when it does, we’re talking about Boston and Cambridge and kind of forget about these other areas where there’s a lot of incredible art happening.”
Last month, Input/Output officially launched, complete with both a print edition and digital content. NEC’s initial funding helped her get the project off the ground, but Abrego also uses a Patreon subscription model to make it sustainable. As promised, the magazine takes a broad view on creative music across Massachusetts: the print edition features interviews with both established and up-and-coming musicians, a guide to touring through Western Mass., recommended listening and reading, and a sheet music-style transcription of a jazz guitar solo. The musical range is also vast, covering everything from Melissa Weikert’s recomposure of the Beach Boys’ classic “Pet Sounds” for a 17-member, all-female ensemble to Andrea Pensado’s experimental electronic work.
Abrego explains that she decides who to feature based on artists’ work and perspective, and that the magazine aims to focus on music and process, not identity.
“I find it problematic to include someone on a bill or in a magazine solely based on their identity. I just think that you need to watch out with issues of tokenizing, and also issues of representation in general … Sometimes we identify as XYZ, but we don’t necessarily want to be the representatives of XYZ. That’s something I’m trying to address by making sure I have artists who occupy a range of identities, and also occupy various relationships to their identities,” says Abrego.
Most of the features either take an interview format or are first-person pieces written by the artists themselves, giving the magazine the overall effect of feeling more like a direct conversation. Gender only surfaces when artists bring it up themselves. Abrego notes that downplaying identity’s role was a conscious decision, with respect to artists’ privacy.
Abrego also made an effort to incorporate artists from all across Massachusetts, in various age brackets and career stages. Since Input/Output’s areas of focus stem from niche communities, Abrego took care to select artists that didn’t all have the same fanbase, so the project could spark conversations and potentially build ties between scenes built around different sounds and locations.
That representation and visibility makes a big difference to musicians like Andrea Pensado, a Salem-based experimental electronic artist. She mentions that since experimental music rarely reaches a mainstream audience and is almost never covered by the most visible music outlets, focused publications like Input/Output help lift up more than just the artists they feature.
“The big thing is, because of the social conditioning of the media, as women or non-males, we do not see ourselves so much as creative beings, because we’re supposed to take care of others,” says Pensado. “And traditionally, not just in music, men were allowed by the social contract to be creative. So, what we do is a product of the conditioning we grow up with. I think that the biggest challenge is to see oneself, if one is not male, as somebody creative, who can really dedicate their life not to raise a family, but to make music.”
While Abrego’s project stemmed from issues of representation, overall, she’s optimistic about the direction that creative music is headed in, and about Input/Output’s place in that trajectory. She plans to continue publishing the magazine itself on an annual basis, but already has plans to add another dimension to the platform with a podcast series that will launch this fall and feature artists from across the United States. As the magazine’s following grows, she hopes to eventually expand its written coverage nationwide as well.
“I think that this is actually a really amazing time to be making music, and I think that I know a lot of incredible women and non-binary artists who are doing it. I just wanted to give them the space to talk about it.”