Celebrating Women in the Music Products Industry
March is Women’s History Month, and to celebrate the many women who have contributed to a more musical world, Playback is featuring stories from female luminaries who have shattered glass ceilings and served as pioneering agents.
While the stories of adversity, triumph, and inspiration are likely endless, below is just a small sampling from the NAMM Oral History program of women who have instituted change and serve as timeless role models for the next generation of women in our industry.
Rebecca Apodaca – President, A & D Music
Apodaca became interested in music as a child (especially the electric bass) and was lucky enough to have role models like her father, Doc Kauffman (Leo Fender’s partner), and Bernardo Rico (BC Rich founder) teach her the art of guitar repair. Coming of age replacing guitar strings and adjusting necks provided the foundation for Apodaca to earn certifications and degrees in music, musical instrument repair, and musical instrument appraisal. Apodaca became the first person, let alone woman, certified as an “Accredited Senior Appraiser – Musical Instruments” by the American Society of Appraisers in 2011. Offering insight and inspiration for others, Apodaca shared her knowledge by writing several columns for Music & Sound Retailer magazine and went on to appraise guitars played by members of Black Sabbath and Rage Against the Machine, as well as a piano owned by composer Irving Berlin. Apodaca also worked as an expert witness and IRS qualified appraiser for tax donations of musical instruments.
Jane Smisor Bastien – Method Book Author and Teacher
Bastien co-wrote the best-selling method-book, Bastien Piano Methods, that quickly became a timeless staple for millions of students and teachers worldwide. The series has been translated to more than 16 languages since its initial publication and was inspired by the “Multi-Key” pedagogical approach pioneered by Robert Pace. Bastien utilized this approach, coupled with ideas from her years of teaching, to form the “Gradual Multi-Key Approach.” Evolving the design and writing through several generations of methodology gave birth to Bastien Piano Basics, the world’s first-ever four-colored piano method, which has remained a best-seller since its 1985 release.
Wanda Jackson – Musician, Guitarist, Vocalist
The “Queen of Rockabilly” has been entertaining global audiences for over 50 years, beginning her career as a teenage country singer with her radio show in Oklahoma City, OK. It was there that Jackson was discovered by the legendary Hank Thompson, who secured Jackson’s recording contract with Decca Records. Jackson was encouraged by Elvis Presley to broaden her singing style, and the two formed a life-long friendship. Jackson is widely accepted as the first true female rock and roll singer and wrote many of her own songs. Jackson is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, has been named one of “The Greatest 40 Women of Country Music,” and a pair of GRAMMY nominations for Best Country & Western Vocal Performance (1964) and Best Country Vocal Performance, Female (1970). Until she announced her retirement in 2019, Jackson remained busy writing and recording.
Kay Koster – Founder, Koster Guitar Center
Koster is believed to be one of the first women to open a retail location primarily focused on the sale and service of guitars. The Koster Guitar Center opened in 1940 in Rockford, IL, was also one of the first dealers in the state to offer the Fender line, and Koster, herself, became an expert on the art of electric guitar and amp repair. The foundation for her pioneering retail location laid in her respected career as a guitarist, first in big bands and later in rock and roll.
Pauline Oliveros – Composer and Musician
Oliveros was at the forefront of composing music utilizing electronic instruments such as the Moog and Buchla synthesizers. Furthering the art, Oliveros designed the Expanded Instrument System, an electronic signal processing unit. She was also a founding member of the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the 1960s and later served as its director. Oliveros also taught music at Mills College, University of California San Diego, Oberlin Conservatory of Music, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and authored numerous notable works and books that shaped the field.
Patrice Rushen – Musician, Songwriter, and Music Advocate
Rushen got her start as an accomplished recording jazz pianist that quickly expanded into the genres of pop and R&B, as well as composing and arranging for the television and film industries. Rushen became the first female musical director for the GRAMMYs®, Emmy® Awards, and NAACP Image Awards. Rushen has penned numerous compositions that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic and has served as an ambassador for artistry in education at the Berklee College of Music and as the chair of popular music at the USC Thornton School of Music.
Rose Shure – CEO, Shure Company
Shure took ownership of the Shure Company following the death of her husband, Sidney N. Shure, in 1995. It was her great understanding of products and office policies that enabled her not only to continue at the pace set forth by her late husband but also to expand and develop the company into a new era of technology. While under her direction, Shure expanded its product line to include wireless systems and personal monitors, an essential staple in the modern music industry.
Robin Walenta – President and CEO, West Music Company
Walenta attended the University of Northern Iowa and Middle Tennessee State University before she joined West Music in 1982. By 2007, Walenta had been named president and CEO of the company. Walenta has served on the Executive Committee of NAMM, as a board member for the National Association of School Music Dealers (NASMD), treasurer for the Iowa Alliance of Art Education, and is a member of the SupportMusic Coalition, the Retail Print Music Dealers Association (RPMDA), and the Alliance of Independent Music Merchants (AIMM). Walenta also was the first elected female chair of NAMM’s Executive Committee, serving her term from 2017-2019 (Editor’s Note: Violet G. Webber stepped into the primary leadership role at NAMM from 1942 to 1944 as NAMM’s Executive Secretary after the death of William Mennie.)
Kitty Wells – Musician, Vocalist, and Endorsee
Known as the “First Lady of Country Music,” Wells pioneered a distinctly unique style while recording a string of hit records starting in the 1940s and continuing until the mid-1960s. Her hit, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” debuted in 1952 and broke barriers by making her the first female country singer to top U.S. country charts. Wells also was the first solo female artist to hit number one on the charts, the first female country artist to sell one million records, the first woman to headline a major tour, and was the first woman to headline a syndicated television variety show. Wells was also one of the first female country performers to endorse an instrument, a Martin Guitar, which later recognized the achievement with the release of a signature model in the 1990s.
Laura Whitmore – Founder, The Women’s International Music Network
Whitmore earned a Bachelor of Science in Music Merchandising and an MBA in Marketing at Hofstra University. Once in the workforce, Whitmore rose through the ranks at CBS Records and Korg, holding positions like marketing assistant, marketing manager, and artist relations for Korg, Marshall, and Vox. To continue to push her professional career, Whitmore found Mad Sun Marketing and the Women’s International Music Network (WiMN), which is responsible for the She Rocks Awards that take place each year at The NAMM Show. The She Rocks Awards recognize “trailblazing women from all areas of the industry – from educators to label execs, manufacturers, non-profits, media, performers, engineers, and more.” Familiar past honorees include iconic names such as Jennifer Batten, Sheila E., Lita Ford, Orianthi, and Suzi Quatro. For more information about WiMN and the She Rocks Awards, visit https://www.thewimn.com/.
Abigail Ybarra – Pickup Winder, Fender Musical Instrument Corp.
Ybarra began her tenure at the Fender factory shortly after the release of the Stratocaster in 1956. Serving as a pickup winder for the company for over 50 years, Ybarra shelved her tools for the last time to retire in May of 2013. Pickups wound by Ybarra are still highly sought-after, and her legacy left a lasting impression on Fender. Mike Eldred, marketing director of Fender’s Custom Shop, said, “Abby is one of the many individuals, like George Fullerton, Freddie Tavares, and Forrest White, who have set our course as a company and leader in our industry.”
More stories from the industry’s inspirational women can be found at https://www.namm.org/category/term/women-music-industry. If you are inspired by some of the women featured in the article, please visit www.nammfoundation.org/donate to make a tax-deductible donation to charities such as the Bernice Ash Memorial Fund, the Liz Reisman Fund for School Music Education, and the Smart Women in Music (SWIM) Fund to continue to foster the next generation of leadership in the music products industry.