IT WAS already one of the most important days of the young musician's life, finally arriving after months, if not years, of preparation.

Alice Johnson was preparing to lead her band on stage for the very first time – the night that Swim School would be unveiled to the world. History in the making.

However, what should have been an evening to treasure will be forever remembered for all the wrong reasons. Sexism had, of course, reared his ugly head before, but to be confronted with an instance so brazen and overt was still a shock to the system.

No sooner had the gifted guitarist and singer taken to the stage to tune her guitar that the evening turned from a happy nervousness to sheer dread.

"Make sure your G-string is tight enough for me..."

The comment lingered on the cool theatre air for a moment as Johnson looked up to address the predictably smug source. A 40-something stranger had taken it upon himself to direct crude remarks to a shy and nervous young woman, half his age, as she was gearing up to perform.

A simple comment from a mind no more complicated, it may have been something that could have been shrugged off. But it didn't stop there. He would come back with further jibes during the set and in between songs.

"Is that all you can play?!"

Johnson's inaugural performance and she sustained the opening blow of what would become an ongoing battle against sexism in the music industry.

"Honestly, I'm scared for anyone who would try something like that with me now – because I've just had enough of it."

To her credit, she finished the set and it became the first of many for Swim School – one of the fast-emerging pop-rock bands in Scotland.

"It's always a guitarist," she tells The Weekender. "It'll be some guy who plays a little but can't seem to accept the fact a woman is up there doing what he wishes he could do.

"When I was on that stage that night, without any real experience performing in a band, I was probably the most nervous and most insecure I had ever been. I had never sung in front of anyone before.

"And just to add to my nerves and the pressure, there was this incredibly sexist guy right at the front saying these horrible, horrible things and shouting throughout.

"I was young; I had no idea how to deal with it. I didn't know what to do – do I kick him out or what? In the end I just stayed quiet."

Johnson continues: "I played the whole set but at some points I was holding back the tears. I was proud of myself for that. I really don't know how I managed not to cry, because I am a very emotional person – I'll cry at anything; I'll cry at adverts.

"I didn't want to let myself down and the boys down. But I just got through it. I wasn't going to let him ruin that night, sitting there embarrassing himself, and he will certainly not ruin my career of doing something I've always wanted to do. That's what got me through.

"Afterwards, I got off stage and I just completely broke down."

Alloa and Hillfoots Advertiser: DETERMINED: Alice Johnson, singer and guitarist for Swim School, insists she will not be beaten by sexism in the music industry, Picture by Craig Shewry ( Alice Johnson, singer and guitarist for Swim School, insists she will not be beaten by sexism in the music industry, Picture by Craig Shewry (

It may well have been her first major encounter with sexism while performing, but not the last. Johnson has observed other female acts being subjected to similar taunting and sexual comments thrown at them from men in the audience.

And, like others, she has been taken aback by the sheer scale of revelations regarding abuse in the industry with more and more women coming forward to share their stories.

But the singer remains resolute. Much like her response that night in Galashiels, this will not derail her ambitions.

She says: "It's awful that we have to go through all that, but the more it happens the tougher you become. I didn't know how to react to something like that at the time, but trust me if that happened now, he would be out of there.

"Honestly, I'm scared for anyone who would try something like that with me now – because I've just had enough of it. Next time, I'll be dragging him up on stage and he can say it again into the microphone in front of all those people."

Johnson adds: "There have been times, especially when I was just starting out, where I wasn't sure whether I would be able to stand this throughout my career.

"I hate to think how many girls have had to deal with horrific verbal or even physical abuse while playing a gig and have just decided to stop and never perform again. It's scary to think of but that's why it needs to be talked about more.

"The guys – these 'lads' who think it's cool to shout horrible things out like that – they need to be outed. Bring them up on stage, make the say again for the whole audience to hear and properly humiliate them and make them feel what they have made us feel."

One key part of the incident is that the man who targeted Johnson was not there at the gig on his own. He was with friends, who did not intervene.

Complicity is a huge factor in the proliferation of sexist and abusive attitudes. While it may be a minority of men who make lewd comments, the majority of men do nothing about it.

Johnson reflects: "It's so scary how many stories that have come out in the industry recently; all these guys in bands and artists and even photographers are being outed as abusers.

"Some of the things I have read are just really disgusting and you have just wonder how they have been able to get away with that for so long. We need more men to speak up. If your friend is being inappropriate to a girl, then they really should be saying something to them because they will listen to you.

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"Going back to that first gig, where that guy was being horrible. Surely his friends should've stepped in and told him not to say things like that. I can't believe his pals were not embarrassed; surely, they must have known what was right.

"I know it's not everyone – it's not every guy. I've even had some experiences where girls have been a bit sexist towards me, or they have treated the boys better than they have treated me."

What has been crucial for Johnson is making sure she has the right kinds of people in her life and on her team.

"The boys in the band are so supportive. If they were misogynistic pigs then I would not be friends with them, never mind be in a band with them. But the fact is they are the nicest guys and we're a bit of a family. I'm the little sister but also the mum. I look after them and they look after me.

"After that first gig, where that guy was saying those things to me, the boys were there for me. And that's what you need sometimes. I'm not saying all women need protection, but you'll never know what these people are like – they could be really violent – so it can be quite a scary thing.

"Being on stage is such a vulnerable thing. I absolutely love performing, but it can be scary when things like that happen. As soon as we came off, the boys were absolutely raging – they went and chucked him out.

"So, really, it's about surrounding yourself with people that will support you and people who understand that things are going to be a lot harder for you because you are a woman."

"Women are just not getting that chance to play the smaller stages – never mind the big stages. We don't get the same promotion as guys do."

The way women are treated within the music industry has been a contentious topic for a few years now. Fervent debates over the gender split at festivals will erupt every year as the summer line-ups are announced.

The cycle repeats in the sense that women do not enjoy the same opportunity as men when it comes to proving themselves on stage. They then do not receive the same exposure and promotion. Labels are then less likely to express an interest, fewer radio stations play their songs and when it comes to the summer, festival bookers go with the bands that were exposed, promoted, picked up by labels and played across the radio.

Johnson adds: "The Reading and Leeds was one of those things – they added three new headliners and not one of them is a woman. It's just so annoying. Last year a lot of festivals were criticised for a lack of female acts and you'd think they would learn from it.

"Women don't get the chance to play smaller stages and work their way up; women don't get that chance to show the bookers how good they are. Catfish and the Bottlemen, for example, will be headlining festivals all over the UK, but they started off on the small stages and over the years were able to gain that traction and show promoters that they are a good festival band. They worked their way up.

"Women are just not getting that chance to play the smaller stages – never mind the big stages. We don't get the same promotion as guys do."

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The underlying condition is that women are not encouraged to enter the music industry as men are. In some cases it is subtle; in others there are barriers.

"There is not equal representation in the industry," Johnson says. "I remember, a few years ago, I would go to gigs and the headliner and support acts – everyone would be male. It wasn't something I had really clocked until I went to a show in Edinburgh one night and saw a female bassist on stage and thought: 'That's new'.

"When I started studying music, I was the only female guitarist on the course. It can be hard to think of yourself as getting up there when every stage you see, every gig I see promoted and every ad on Instagram is for male bands. I would hardly ever see females in bands.

"So that night in Edinburgh was huge. Not only was that girl on stage playing, she was so cool. I really had hardly seen women on stage before."

Being a female artist is about playing your tunes, but you are also going up there and representing women in the music."

That sight was to be hugely influential for Johnson. From there, she started to seek out more female musicians and eventually stumbled onto Wolf Alice and fell in love with their act. She was blown away by the energy and uncompromising stage presence of frontwoman Ellie Rowsell and endeavoured to pick up the mantle.

"I just love to see someone beating down that stereotypical image of women on stage. The moment I saw Ellie on stage, I thought: 'I want to do that; if she can do it then I can do it'. And that's really what made me believe I could be the singer of this band – I do owe a lot to her.

"And, now, I love seeing girls at our gigs. I'm not saying that I'm some kind of massive influence, but I hope that they might see that I can do it and think that they can do it as well.

"On tour, when things are really tiring and you are maybe struggling to get ready for a show, the one thought that got me through that was the feeling that there might be a girl in the audience who might want to be in a band but might not feel confident enough because she hasn't seen enough females in the industry.

"I kept thinking that if she's in there and I don't go and play this show then she's not going to be encouraged or inspired to do it herself. Being a female artist is about playing your tunes, but you are also going up there and representing women in the music.

"That might be something that discourages some girls but I just want to say to them: 'Do not let it put you off because you could be someone's influence'."

“Women can’t play Stratocasters” – a short story

By Alice Johnson

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We were at college and doing a bake sale for Macmillan Cancer Support. There we were, sitting there innocently together and selling some cupcakes. I had my Stratocaster and I was just mucking about on it when it was quiet.

This guy then comes over and asks: ‘Is this yours?’ and motions to the guitar. I said yes and he asked: ‘Yeah, but do you actually play it?’ and he even had the audacity to ask how much it was. He asked to see it and I handed it over and he said: ‘Oh, it’s Mexican’.

He just kept asking if I actually play it and if I play it live before he turned to me and said that women shouldn’t play Stratocasters. I asked why that is and he says: ‘Well, where does it say it was built for a woman?’

I was really young at the time. I had no idea what I was supposed to say. He then tells me: ‘It’s not built for women; you probably shouldn’t play it’. I couldn’t believe him. He stands there for a bit and then says my cupcakes are dry and I just thought: ‘Mate, you are asking for a punch in the face, if I’m being honest’.

After that, he starts talking to the other guitarist I was with and starts talking with him and bigging him up. He was just so rude and I was so angry.

He then left and then one of the guys left I was sitting with said: ‘don’t take it personally’. That’s easy for him to say – he doesn’t have to deal with sexism. How else am I supposed to take it? This guy’s just said I shouldn’t play a Stratocaster because I am a bloody woman.

But then I went on to do a three-week UK tour, so I clearly can play, mate. If I ever get an NME award or anything, I’ll get up there say: ‘This is for the guy who told me I can’t play a Stratocaster’.

Or, better yet, if we ever headline the Barrowlands and I’ll be sure to mention him when I’m on stage. ‘Look at me now, bitch’…I can’t wait for that.