It’s no secret that women are massively underrepresented in the music industry. In comparison to their male counterparts, women only make up a small fraction of most festival bills, receive far less airtime on radio stations, and are routinely under-celebrated at awards shows. Our decision to devote Roots N Blues Festival’s entire 2021 lineup to women was a reaction to the stark gender imbalance that has plagued the industry since its conception. And we are not the only ones working to tackle it. In 2020, CMT launched it’s Equal Play initiative, which promised to split airtime evenly between male and female artists. At the most recent Grammys, the winners of all four major award categories were or featured at least one female artist. Things seem to be getting better, however, when it comes to equal gender representation, the lack of women working on the business side of the music industry remains a pressing but often overlooked issue. USC Annenburg’s Inclusion Initiative has spent years collecting data around the popular music industry and the people who run it, and the findings published in two recent studies paint a picture of an industry whose external strides towards gender equality do not accurately reflect the staggering gender inequalities that still run rampant behind the scenes.
In 2019, the Inclusion Initiative published the findings of a study that analyzed 700 popular songs released from 2012-2018. Of the analyzed songs, only 21.7% of them were by females or female-fronted groups. This number is disappointing, but what’s worse is that only 12.3% of the 700 songs were written by women and an abysmal 2.1% were produced by women. According to these findings, despite recent pushes for increased female representation on stages, radios, and televisions, genuine progress is happening slowly – if at all – and men are still calling the vast majority of creative shots. Giving female musicians more opportunities to be heard has little value if they are barred from speaking with their own voices. True inclusion means making room for women to tell their personal stories and participate in sonic production—a key part of the musical storytelling process.
The study asked 75 female songwriters and producers to discuss the barriers they faced during their efforts to make it into the studio. 43% said they felt their skills were discounted due to their gender, 39% said they had been stereotyped and sexualized, and 40% experienced difficulty navigating an industry built for men. Once they finally did make it into the studio, 39% felt objectified, 25% claimed they were the only woman on their team, and 28% said their ideas were dismissed.
Women’s limited participation on the creative side of music is only a fraction of the problem of women’s underrepresentation behind the scenes. In June of this year, the Inclusion Initiative published another study which, in the researchers’ words, sought “to map the diversity of the U.S. music business across different positions of power.” The study analyzed the rank and titles of 4,060 executives across 119 companies in the music space. Wanting to look at the big picture, they focused on six key categories of the industry: music groups, labels/label groups, publishing, radio, streaming, and live music and concert promotion.
One of the biggest takeaways from the study is, put plainly, that men are still in charge. “We were first interested in the inclusion profile of music executives with the highest clout,” the Inclusion Initiative said. “For many companies, that is the CEO, Chairman, or President of the entire organization; for other companies, it will be the senior most music executive (i.e., VP at Amazon Music) at the organization.” Of these high-ranking positions, across 70 major and independent music companies, only 13.9% were held by women. While the underrepresentation of people of color in the music industry deserves its own article, it is worth noting that of this handful of top-ranking women, only two were women of color. When including data from the subsidiaries of the 70 music companies mentioned above, the number of women executives dropped to an average of 12.8% across the six categories examined. Streaming (7%), live music (6.7%), and music groups (0%) saw especially low figures.
The significance of these numbers is perhaps best explained by the few women who actually fill these roles. REVOLT spoke to fifteen female music industry executives about the lack of gender equality across the industry, as well as their thoughts on how to improve it. “Emphasizing and fighting for gender equality has to start at the top,” said Amaiya Davis, an executive at Republic Records. “While there are a handful of amazing women who have broken the glass ceiling, the reality is that we need more. Now is the time to call for action. Yes, when it comes to hiring, but also advocating for representation at all levels. This can be done by actively putting women in the room with the right people, listening to and implementing their ideas, working to treat women as their equal in every instance, and most importantly, ensuring equal pay and titles to their male counterparts.”
Gabrielle Peluso, Co-President of Asylum Records, echoed the idea of the positive trickle-down effect that will come from putting women in positions of power: “As more women take on leadership roles in the music industry, I think that you will see a shift in gender equality happen naturally.”
Empowerment, a theme that came up, in one way or another, in all fifteen women’s sentiments, seems to be regarded as the key to unlocking an equal future. “As women, we need to uplift each other and understand that women empowerment is not a PR buzzword, but something that needs to be actively practiced,” said Onyi Kokelu, an A&R executive at CMG Records.
Of course, in order for powerful women to aid in the career progression of other women in the industry, women must first be hired into those top-rung, decision-making positions. While up-and-coming women in the industry can’t control who major labels hire, they can use their expertise to think of and implement out-of-the-box solutions.
Sammye Scott, Director of A&R at Atlantic Records, said, “Women in our industry must begin nurturing young women through mentoring programs to help them understand the industry and the preparation needed: Its history, its culture; it’s reality — the opportunities, as well as the challenges. Who better to lead them than the trailblazing women already breaking those glass ceilings in this industry?”
Phoebe Bridgers perfectly exemplifies Scott’s comment. While buzzed about since her debut in 2017, the release of her sophomore album, Punisher, in 2020 propelled Bridgers from an indie-rock cult hero to a mainstream household name. Recognizing her influence in the industry, she founded Saddest Factory Records, an independent label that seeks to amplify the voices of new musicians she believes in.
Young, bisexual, and female, Bridgers is a far cry from the middle-aged men that run the vast majority of major and independent labels, and it is exactly the fresh perspective she—along with the ever-diversifying wave of new independent record label heads—can provide that makes what she’s doing so important. Claud, one of Saddest Factory Records’ early signees, is a non-binary, LGBTQ+ individual who creates bedroom-pop style music that features themes unique to their experiences. Not only does Claud now have a larger platform on which to share their artistic talents, but they can also serve as an example to fellow non-binary creatives to pursue their own projects.
“At RCA,” said Marguerite Jones, Manager of A&R at RCA Records, “empowering strong women has collectively made us more diverse. It’s more than just having a woman in the meeting; women are running the meetings. We are curating the room.” Diversity and inclusivity create positive domino effects. When one woman gains belief in herself, she inspires other women to do the same—and we have the data to prove it. And the greater the number of empowered women, the greater the range of diverse cultural, racial, and sexual perspectives that will be represented.
As Ashely Calhoun, Head of Creative at Pulse Music Group said to REVOLT, “No one knows what women want to listen to more than other women.” Women’s authentic stories are valuable. People want to hear them. And where there is demand, supply shall soon follow. Supporting individuals and organizations that empower women in the music industry from the stages to the boardrooms is imperative, as it will aid in the exponential forward march towards an equal future.