When the D.J. duo Nervo, the Australian twins Olivia and Miriam Nervo, first began spinning three years ago, they used to shock people just by showing up.
“We would arrive at the airport, and someone would pick us up, and they would be like, ‘You’re Nervo?’ “ said Olivia, who goes by Liv.
The promoters couldn’t believe that the D.J.’s weren’t men but young, attractive women.
Nervo now perform regularly at major festivals and clubs, but the sisters are still the rare female breakout in electronic dance music. In a new reader-generated poll in DJ Magazine of the top 100 D.J.’s, Nervo is No. 16, one of only three female-led acts on the list. Last year, it was the only one.
About five years after the latest wave of electronic dance music, or E.D.M., became big business in the United States, and 26 years after Anita Sarko was called “the Queen of the Discotheque Deejays“ by The New York Times, the D.J. booth is still very much a male realm. Male headliners dominate superclubs like Hakkasan in Las Vegas and Pacha in New York. Only a handful of women appear at megafestivals like New York’s recent Electric Zoo, which has booked about a dozen acts with women over its five-year history. There has yet to be a woman on Forbes magazine’s list of the highest-paid D.J.’s. “Commercial E.D.M. is overwhelmingly bro-dominated,” said the longtime dance music journalist and D.J. Philip Sherburne.
Cassy Britton, better known as Cassy, a D.J. and producer from Vienna who played Oct. 26 at the Brooklyn club Output as part of her quarterly residency there, called the scene “a boy’s club, in a sense.”
“No woman is in that top level,” she said. “So, there is not one woman that makes a lot of money in D.J.-ing. Not one.”
The male and female D.J.’s, promoters and label executives interviewed cited a number of possible reasons for why there are no female Tiestos, including an industry predominantly run by men, a lack of female role models and mentors of either gender, and a grueling lifestyle that is disruptive to having a family. And, many said, even though readily available software has made making music easier to learn, women still aren’t as prone to knob twiddling as their male counterparts.
But in spite of the odds, the Nervo sisters and Ms. Britton are enjoying a rising profile, along with female D.J.’s like the London techno artist Nicole Moudaber, the British dark-house purveyor Maya Jane Coles, the German techno jock Tini and the Russian techno D.J. Nina Kraviz.
In August, Ms. Britton, 39, put out a mix CD for a long-running series from Fabric, the respected London club. She is only the fourth woman with a Fabric mix, out of 72 editions in all. She studied classical guitar for seven years, has been spinning and producing since the late 1990s, and like top male D.J.’s, writes and produces her own records, sometimes collaborating with prominent techno artists like Steve Bug, the duo Swayzak and Ricardo Villalobos. Electric Indigo, another female D.J., was her mentor, even as Ms. Britton said she herself faced resistance from male peers.
“Most of the boys I was hanging out with, they were just getting stoned and being experts in all labels and releases, and they weren’t really putting themselves out there,” she said. “I was putting myself out there. I think that’s what they hated — that I would get somewhere and they would know so much more about everything.”
She moved to Berlin in 2003 and became a resident at the Panorama Bar inside Berghain, the famed Berlin club. Her sound, a gritty, funk-infused hybrid of deep house and techno, plays well in big clubs as well as in more intimate venues. Ms. Britton is also currently a resident at Rex Club in Paris, and Trouw in Amsterdam, and has been playing at Fabric since 2005.
“She is an exceptional D.J., not just an exceptional ‘female D.J.,’ ” Leo Belchetz, the label manager at Fabric Records, wrote in an email. “We have actually been trying to get Cassy onto the series for a couple of years. But each time there has been something that has got in the way — either an alternative release commitment or she was moving home. (She is infamously nomadic!)”
Ms. Britton plays three or four gigs in different cities, sometimes in different countries, every week; in the weeks leading up to her October Output date, she was scheduled to spin in Paris, Boston, Munich and Amsterdam. This summer, she couldn’t answer a basic query: Where is home?
“Very good question,” she said by phone from a hotel room in Florence, Italy. “I don’t live anywhere anymore.”
“This job is an extremely bizarre job,” she added. “I was married, I got a divorce, and I’m sure it all has to do with my job.”
In dance music, taking a break longer than a few months can stall a career, as subgenres fall out of favor in an instant. The veteran trance and progressive house D.J. Sandra Collins, 43, who took time off to have a child five years ago, said that when she returned to spinning, she found the landscape of dance music had shifted. “They want confetti house,” Ms. Collins said of the poppy, crescendo-filled hits that dominate mainstream dance floors. “And I can’t, I will never be able to do that.”
On the commercial dance music circuit, Nervo is infiltrating the all-male lineups. “They are in the Top 20 list of D.J.’s being booked,” said Paul Oakenfold, 50, the influential D.J. and producer, who has been a supporter of Nervo’s career, taking the pair on tour with him in 2010. There are more female D.J.’s entering the field now compared with the ’90s, he said, “but look at it this way: You’ve got to be really, really good now, it’s so competitive.”
The Nervo sisters had been professional songwriters for nearly a decade, helping to pen hits for the Pussycat Dolls and Kesha. They co-wrote “When Love Takes Over,” the Grammy-winning hit for David Guetta, featuring Kelly Rowland, before stepping in front of the decks.
“We were working with more and more electronic artists, and had some success, and that really gave us the confidence to step out and be artists ourselves,” said Liv Nervo, who gave her age as 29. Nervo’s poppy single “Hold On” hit No. 1 on the Billboard dance/club play chart in June.
Mr. Oakenfold said: “You’ve got to be really playing the music that’s in vogue, especially because the kids just want the commercial music, and there ain’t a lot of women who are doing that.”
It doesn’t hurt that the photogenic sisters also have a modeling background and are sponsored by Cover Girl. On the E.D.M. circuit, which has become increasingly image-based, seemingly full of square-jawed men from Sweden, the Nervo sisters are well poised to be stars.
Still, Liv Nervo said they didn’t want to overemphasize their image. “We make sure we’re not too scantily dressed,” she said. “We do make sure that we don’t tart it up too much.”
Playing up sex appeal can be risky for a female D.J. Nina Kraviz, a Russian-born, Berlin-based D.J., found herself embroiled in controversy earlier this year when she gave part of a video interview for Resident Advisor, the techno website, while taking a bubble bath. She was accused by techno fans of exploiting her looks to gain attention. (She was ranked No. 47 on Resident Advisor’s 2012 top 100 D.J. list.) “It was a person in the bubbles, come on, come on,” said Ms. Kraviz, who was a dentist in Russia before becoming a D.J. “I was thinking that it was so hilarious. And I just did it just for fun, honestly. I was just being myself in the bath, so that it would be more real.”
Like Nervo, Ms. Moudaber, the Nigerian-born D.J., who gave her age as 36, got a boost from an influential male star. She promoted parties in Beirut before moving to London and becoming a D.J. and producer. Then the longtime techno artist Carl Cox listed Ms. Moudaber as the most underrated D.J. of 2009, telling DJ Magazine: “I’ve been following her career for the last three years. She’s amazing.”
Ms. Moudaber said, “Since that moment my whole career opened, basically.”
She is prolific, releasing singles on Intec, Mr. Cox’s label, as well as her own techno label, Mood. This year she also put out her first full-length album, “Believe” (Drumcode). “To be honest, it’s all down to the women,” Ms. Moudaber said. “If you want to do it, you do it. Nobody’s forcing them not to do it. That’s how I see it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a boy. It’s just a case of wanting to do something.”
Still, Ms. Moudaber said that girls could be more strongly encouraged to embrace technology. “I’d like to see more girls being conditioned from their early youth by their parents and stop putting dolls in their hands. If they want to play with machines, let them play with the machines, because I never played with a doll.”
Shawn Schwartz, the owner of the Brooklyn record store Halcyon, said he started a night showcasing female talent there in 2010 but had to stop when, he said, the store ran out of new women to book. “I don’t see that there’s any kind of institutional blockade from the industry side,” he said. “If you are booking D.J.’s, it’s not like there are equal numbers of men and women available, and just the guys get booked.”
It’s a vicious cycle: In Las Vegas, where a top D.J. can earn a million dollars per night for the club, it’s a risk to book an untested D.J., female or not. And though the major clubs are packed with women, and many dance hits have female vocals, women are often sexualized by the industry; in Las Vegas, topless pool parties abound.
But a female D.J. can provide an “aha” moment. “I’m seeing a lot of girls on my floor,” Ms. Moudaber said. “They come probably because they can identify with me. Whereas in the past, maybe, they never used to bother to go to a techno night.”
Unlike in other male-dominated fields like science or technology, there aren’t many institutions that train female D.J.’s.
Dubspot, an electronic music production and D.J. school in New York, hosts a bimonthly program, Inspiring Women in Music Technology. “Things are definitely on the upswing, and I am seeing more females enrolled than when I first started,” said Kelly Webb, the director of student affairs, who came to the school six years ago. Still, she said, only 10 percent of the school’s 250 D.J. students are women.
While Ms. Britton, Ms. Moudaber and Nervo are making inroads, they aren’t yet on the professional level of megastars like Skrillex. “I find it fairly surprising it hasn’t happened already,” said Ryan Keeling, the editor of Resident Advisor, of the lack of female star D.J.’s. “I feel like the way that things are going, it just is a matter of time.”