“Today we celebrate International Women’s Day 2017.
To my mother and aunty who fled civil war to come to Australia. They have a lived experience of hardship and racism that I never had to endure.
To my paternal great grandmother who was the first university educated woman from her island of Samos and held the most powerful position of Maritime Customs Officer.
To my family that fought against fascism and injustice.
To my Aboriginal sisters that welcome me to their land yet still suffer through colonization.
To my sisters and confidants who hold me, push me, console me.
Thank you, I celebrate you.”
Helen Marcou posted this on her Facebook page, on Wednesday, as a heartfelt tribute to the women who inspired her. On that day, there were countless other such posts, mentioning her own name as a source of inspiration. For Helen Marcou is one of the most beloved and respected members of Melbourne’s arts and culture community, a matron saint of artists and musicians and a champion for women in the music industry. Her Women’s day post came little after her own induction to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, alongside 24 other brave, active, groundbreaking, inspiring women whose work and presence makes a difference to the community.
“This is an incredible honour for me”, she says. “It’s recognition for a lot of voluntary work that I have been doing for close to a decade now, which has never really been about awards but public recognition makes me feel valued. For activists like myself, this is important, because we usually see the impact of our work in changes to regulatory framework, so this gives me a lot of encouragement. If you look at the list of 600 women in Victoria who have been honoured so far, it’s a hefty list of incredible contributors to the State, to the country and internationally. Although the work I do is really cantered around music, arts, culture and community, this makes me feel connected to something broader, that I’m not out on a satellite of my own”.
That’s, of course, what music does, as an element that brings people together in a community, strengthening the social fabric.
“Absolutely”, she agrees. “And that’s why I was drawn to music in the first place”. For the most part, Helen has been active in the industry as the co-owner and manager (along with her partner, Quincy McLean) of the acclaimed ‘Bakehouse Studios’, one of the main hubs for musicians to master their craft.
Her transformation from studio manager to activist is well documented; she was the driving force behind the Save Live Australian Music campaign which saw more than 20,000 people (artists, music professionals, fans and punters) marching to express their opposition to a Liquor Licencing law that had marked small music venues as “high risk”, linking them with violence.
“Quincy and I had our music studios, we were working over many years and we got to know our community really well”, she remembers.
“So when our community and our live music culture was at threat, we decided, as independent people to take action and start a movement. At the time we were really naive, we thought we do the rally and go home, that the policy makers would make policy and we could get on with our lives,” she laughs talking about her “quick learning curve” as an activist.
“I realised that when you find a problem and you present it to the government, you also have to present the solution; and that’s when we engaged with experts within our community to write the policy and present new ways of doing things – it was an education for me”.
Fast forward seven years down the track and Helen Marcou is sitting on a number of committees and advisory panels, offering consultation. What’s more important, she’s been using her position of privilege, as an established woman in the music industry who has the ear of the government as well as the respect of her peers to raise awareness for incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault in licenced venues. “I felt morally obliged to do so”, she says.
“When I see a problem, my inclination is to make change, rather than wait for someone else to step in and fix it, because generally, they won’t”.
So, she stepped in and in 2015, she was instrumental in the formation of the Victorian Government’s ‘Sexual Assault and Harassment of Women in Licensed Venues Taskforce’. “We’re about to roll out a program to train venues and security staff and also launch an awareness campaign”, she says.
“For me, sexual harassment has been the biggest issue in our industry for a long time and it still is. There are a lot of performers, particularly women and LGBTQI people who go out in their workplace and suffer harassment, which is dissuading for them”.
Ultimately, the task force actions “would result in more participation of women in the culture”, both as performers and audience ensuring them “a dignified night out” in safer and more inclusive spaces.
“That’s how I see my role, in making sure that threats to music are eradicated and that we can enjoy our culture without regulation that gets in the way or any other barriers”, she says, describing how her Greek background affected her conduct as an activist. Greeks tell it like it is”, she laughs.
“There are no formalities, no holding back. That has given me a lot of bravado and put me into situations where a lot of people would fear to tread for fear of offending people or stepping on toes. Although I’m respectful of people’s feelings, when it comes to activism or a fight with government I have no fear”.
Overall, her experience has been a journey of self-discovery. “I learned that I had capabilities I never could imagine”, she says.
“I didn’t go to university, I only finished year 12 and yet, years later I’ve been immersed in regulatory policy and all sorts of discussion around the arts sector, at top level,” she says.
“In a few weeks I’ll be in Toronto, where I’m invited as a keynote speaker in their Music Week. So what I’ve learned is that with encouragement I can achieve so much. I owe a lot of it to my partner, Quincy, who supported me, and to my parents who are also like that. They always told me I can do anything. That’s why it’s important to surround yourself with people who enable you for positive change, rather than think you can’t do things”.
This is why establishing role models is important.
“Part of the reason I offer my voice and step up is because I was encouraged by other women who told that if I didn’t do it, other women wouldn’t have role models, there won’t be anyone there for them”, she says.
“We have to keep paving the way”.