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Are Women Getting Equal Rights in the Music Industry?

The music industry is often thought of as an old boy’s club. While there have been women making music for years, it is rare for them to come as far as men or to be as well respected as men.

Over time, equal rights have done a lot to make for equality in various professions, and that includes the music industry. But according to the latest studies, there is still a lack. Read on to find out about the breakthroughs women have made and the barriers they are still facing.

Inclusion in the Recording Studio

The University of Southern California Annenburg Inclusion Initiative has conducted a now annual study called, “Inclusion in the Recording Studio”. It reviews the Hot 100 Year End Billboard charts and 2020 Grammy nominations to see how women fared as far as equality in the music industry.

The latest results came out in 2020 and were based on the 2019-2020 year. Here are some key takeaways.

  • There is one woman music producer for every 47 male producers
  • Women make up only 1/3 of Juno nominees (Juno is a Canadian music award)
  • Billboard’s Country Airplay chart had no women in its top 20 for the first time since its launch
  • Women represent less than one third of all music performers and 12.5 percent of songwriters across 500 songs
  • Women account for 2.6% of music producers across 800 songs

While numbers were low, there were some improvements from the previous year. Here are some to take note of:

  • Women artists featured across 800 songs increased after a two-year low jumping to 22.5%, a marked increase from 2018’s 17.1%. However, it is still below 2016’s high of 28.1%.
  • The ratio of men to women producers is 37 to 1, a jump from 2018’s 47 to 1 ratio.
  • Women showed a bigger Grammy presence accounting for 20.5% of nominees in 2020, an eight year high. Women were most likely to be nominated for best new artist or song of the year.

There are efforts being made to draw more focus on women in the music industry. For example, In March 2018, two years after the first USC Annenburg study which took place the year after Lorde was the only woman nominated for record or album of the year, the Recording Industry established the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion.

Then Grammy President Neil Portnow also came forward to say that women need to “step up” to fix the #GrammySoMale Trend. The Grammy’s also released a report in December 2019 with 18 recommendations as to how to make the organization more inclusive.

Although efforts for inclusiveness seem to be gaining traction, problems still exist. For example, Deborah Dugan, Former Grammy CEO claimed she was ousted from the Grammy organization after reporting sexual harassment, pay disparities and other issues in the Grammy nomination process.

Do Women Need to Step Up?

Neil Portnow’s quote is interesting. Do women need to step up? Could it be that the reason women are not being accounted for in music is because there is just not as much of an interest among the fairer sex?

There could be something to this.

According to an article by Naomi Larsson published in The Guardian, many women are reluctant to join the industry because they are not encouraged to do so as a child. As opposed to boys, girls are rarely asked if they want to play an instrument or join a band.

As they grow older, they may be further discouraged from musical pursuits due to an intimidating music store experience. Girls that browse music stores are often asked if they are shopping for a boyfriend.

Imagine how that may translate if girls come in to buy their first guitar or amp. If they have little knowledge of the equipment, they may feel as if they would be laughed out of the store.

Those that feel that way may consider paying a visit to Fanny’s House of Music. The shop is female owned by Pamela Coe and Leigh Maples who met studying music as the only two women bass players in their class. They aim to provide an inclusive in-store buying experience for both men and women.

The idea of men being more likely musicians as opposed to women dates back to the era of classical music. Back then, women could be seen as being proficient in music, meaning it was okay for them to take on an instrument as a hobby, but men were considered to be experts, capable of launching music as a career.

Of course, there are many women who have forged ahead to launch successful music careers, but even here, they face discrimination which can be disheartening. For example, musician Emmy Lee Ross, also known as Emmy the Great, worked with a manager who told her he wouldn’t be sending her music out to promote her. He would be sending out only her photos.

U.K performer Shay D. reinforces this sentiment saying that she is commonly seen as a novelty act. She is often asked to play by promoters who say they, “Need some female energy,” which immediately let’s her know she is being perceived differently as compared to male performers.”

As a personal aside, I have been in the music industry since the early 90’s. I remember when I was living and performing in New York, there was a club called The Continental Divide (later just the Continental) that launched an all-girl music night (inappropriately) called PMS which, according to the club owners, stood for Punk Music Sundays.

Not only was the idea incredibly sexist, but once girl bands agreed to play PMS nights, which were unfortunately, wildly successful, it became difficult for them to get booked on coveted Saturday nights.

There was a lot of outrage in the community and PMS nights did not last for long.

Does Gender Dictate Instrument and Genre?

It is also interesting that gender comes into play in the instruments people gravitate to and the genre of music they play.

Lindsay Bennet Crowe of the Graduate School of the University of Florida conducted a study titled “Relationships Between Gender and Musical Instrument Selection in Middle School Band Students.” She noted that female students were more likely to gravitate towards feminine instruments like the violin, flute, oboe, harp, clarinet, bassoon and kettledrum. The males were more likely to pick up the tuba, trumpet or drum.

Studies revealed that the instruments the children chose were based on their size and the sound they made. Females favored instruments that were lighter in weight and ‘pretty sounding’ while the males went for heavy, bulky, noisy instruments.

Females were especially reluctant to play the drums, an instrument that is loud and requires violent movement to play.

Her study also looked at younger children. She found that the older the children were, the more likely they were to base their decision on what instrument to play on what they felt was ‘gender appropriate’.

One could take this a step further and determine why it is more acceptable to see women in certain genres of music. For example, women are often featured in orchestras playing classical music.

It is rarer to see women in pop unless they are singing.

Women are even less likely to play punk or heavy metal music. This would require them to sing aggressively and/or play a masculine instrument such as a guitar or drum.

There is no reason why women should be limited when it comes to playing certain instruments or genres of music based on their gender, but the fact that they are more aware of gender coming into play in their decisions as they get older is likely due to stereotypes that have been seemingly set in stone.

As they grow older, they become aware of these stereotypes and are less likely to take steps forward to ‘break the mold’.

Efforts Made to Encourage Women in the Music Industry

Getting women to become more active in the music industry has been an uphill battle, but there are many organizations getting behind the cause.

Most notable may be Women in Music, a nonprofit with a mission to advance awareness of equality and diversity in the music industry through education support and empowerment. They host seminars, workshops, panels, showcases and youth initiatives to support their cause. They have thousands of volunteers working all over the world.

PRS has also been active in raising awareness. They launched Women Make Music in 2011 encouraging female musicians to come forward for music related grants. They were inspired to start the group after finding that just 16% of their grant applications were coming from women.

PRS’s Foundation and Festival Republic is also behind ReBalance, a U.K based program that provides studio time to female bands and promotes female producers and engineers.

Dice, a gigs listing app, is responsible for establishing Girls Music Day in 2016.

Here are some other organizations that support women in music:

She is the Music: This independent global network aims to increase the number of women working in the music industry including musicians, songwriters, producers, engineers and more.

Key Change: Key Change is a movement with a mission of breaking down barriers and fighting for inclusivity of gender minorities in music.

Women in the Mix: Women in the Mix was launched in 2019. It asks that at least two women are considered in the selection process every time an engineer or producer is hired. It also requests that working producers take gender diversity into account when selecting people to mentor.

Gender Amplified: This organization aims to celebrate women in music production by raising their visibility and creating a network to help them get work. 

Women Who Made Breakthroughs in the Music Industry

Despite stereotypes and barriers, there have been several women who have broken boundaries in the music industry. Here are a few to pay homage to.

Ella Fitzgerald: Ella Fitzgerald was known as the “First Lady of Song” and she certainly earned her moniker. She won 13 Grammys, recorded over 200 albums and fought relentlessly against the discrimination of black women during the Jim Crow era.

Billie Holiday: Billie Holiday was one of the first black women to sing with an all-white backing band. Her song “Strange Fruit” was an anti-lynching poem written by Abel Meeropol set to music. It eventually earned recognition from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Joan Baez: Joan Baez was one of the few female musicians to perform at Woodstock. She is known for being a champion for civil rights and humanitarian causes.

Tina Turner: Tina Turner was the first black artist to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. She left an abusive husband to pursue her musical career and eventually earned her title as the Queen of Rock.

Janis Joplin: Janis Joplin only lived to the age of 27 but she certainly made her mark on the world of music showing she could keep up with any man during her time here. She was often referred to as the Queen of Rock n’ Roll.

Patti Smith: Patti Smith was known for having a strong activist voice and a punk rock edge. Her debut album “Horses” made her a New York City legend.

Joan Jett: Joan Jett is a true veteran of the rock n’ roll scene. Starting out at just 15 years old in her band The Runaways, she went on to make a name for herself as a singer and guitar player who could ‘out rock’ any man.

Dolly Parton: Though primarily a country star, there are few genres and musicians who haven’t been touched by Dolly Parton’s wit. She has had the most hits on the Billboard Hot Country Chart as compared to any other artist and she can always be counted on for words of empowerment. She is also one of the first women to build a music empire as evidenced by the Dollywood Theme Park.

Michele Anthony: Michele Anthony was one of the first leading female executives to call the Grammy’s “out of touch”. She criticized the Recording Academy’s executives for a lack of transparency and inclusiveness and wrote a letter calling for new leadership. She is currently the executive vice president of the Universal Music Group.

Bjork: Bjork stands out for her unique sense of style that resonates professionally and personally. She is among the first to bring experimental music into the mainstream. She also won a Cannes best actress award for her appearance in the film, “Dancing in the Dark”.

Sophia Chang: Sophia Chang’s years in the music industry have solidified her reputation as ‘baddest bitch in the room”. She is known for managing members of the Wu Tang Clan and for being outspoken when it comes to diversity and inclusivity.

Cardi B.: Cardi B has been controversial throughout her career and her release of WAP has definitely gotten her some attention. While not everyone approves, it can be argued that the song makes a huge statement for women’s rights.

Fiona Apple: Fiona Apple has made a name for herself as risk taker. She came on the scene in the 1990’s as an anti-popstar with a bold anti-materialism statement. She cited Maya Angelou as an inspiration during a speech at the MTV movie awards. She has kept true to her values and does not rely on big budget music videos to reach her fans. She recently became sober and credits the #MeToo movement for inspiration.

What Can We Do to Foster Gender Equality for Female Musicians?

Women have come a long way in the music industry, but they still have a long way to go. The question now is, what can we do to foster equality for female musicians? Here are some ideas.

Push For Quotas: Pushing for quotas may seem like an unusual practice in the music industry, but it might just work. Let’s say that, like so many other industries, quotas were created to ensure just as many female musicians received airplay as men and just as many ‘girl bands’ were booked on festivals as male acts. Could it work?

Support Organizations That Promote Diversity in Music: Earlier in the article, we listed several organizations that support women in the music industry. Help them reach their goals by donating funds and volunteering if possible.

Work it on a Personal Level: Raise awareness on the issues of inequality in music by reminding people what women want from record labels, radio stations, management companies, awards programs and music venues to anyone who needs to hear it.

There is no saying what the future may bring as far as getting more women to be active in the music industry. The lack of female performers, engineers, producers and songwriters is ingrained through stereotypes. As a result, some are reluctant to step forward while others don’t feel the motivation to do so.

There is no saying what will develop in the future, but it is hopeful that more women will be ‘stepping it up’ so we can see a lot more female faces on stage and in the studio.

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