While the success of superstars such as Beyonce and Taylor Swift can make it seem as though the music industry is ahead of the game when it comes to gender equality, the reality is quite different. Even a cursory glance at the statistics reveals there is quite a bit of progress which still needs to be made when it comes to women in the music business.
Gender inequality is a big issue in the music industry. At first glance, it may not seem so. Names like Aretha Franklin, Taylor Swift, and Beyonce have become synonymous with success. Billboard’s profile of the fifty most successful women in music impresses. Jody Gerson, soon to be first in command at Universal Music Publishing Group, was a former co-president and head of the West Coast office at Sony/ATV. Julie Greenwald is chairman and C.O.O. at Atlantic Records. Michele Anthony is executive vice president at Universal Music Group. Many more make the industry proud.
Women are also becoming organized. Women in Music (WIM), an interest group, wish to “advance the awareness, equality, diversity, heritage, opportunities, and cultural aspects of women in the musical arts through education, support, empowerment, and recognition.”1 Its President, Neeta Ragoowansi, runs a music law office and heads the organisation alongside vice-president Jennifer Newman Sharpe, another prominent lawyer. Some of their past events include a Pro-Bono Legal Clinic at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and meet-ups hosted at the B.M.I. offices in New York City. WIM takes an active role in cultivating the next generation of female leaders. For Julie Greenwald, at Atlantic, this means mentoring one-on-one in company time: “it is important to [me] that they understand how hard it is to juggle it all.”2
Yet all is not well. In the U.K, for example, facts speak for themselves. Women working in the business are more inclined to have a superior qualification as compared to their male colleagues but nearly 50% of them earn less than £10,000 ($15,000).3 Moreover, even though there are more women in the population than men in working age, 61% of music professionals in the U.K. are male. In sectors such as promotion, management and live music, that number rises to 70%.4 Except for the salaries, the United States is unlikely to be that different.
The uneven distribution of the genders is partly to blame on long work hours that force women to make a choice between work and family life. Nowhere is this more evident, it seems than in the field of music production and engineering. In Nashville, Tennessee, fewer than 5% of all professional producers and engineers are women5 and, overall, only six females have ever been nominated for best producer at the Brits and Grammys combined; none have won the prize.6
Entrenched attitudes don’t help. Lari White, co-producer of Toby Keith’s White Trash With Money, bore witness to this fact when she completed her own R&B album, Green Eyed Soul. It was her first completely solo production, and she was involved in everything, from choosing songs to hiring players and overseeing all recording sessions. She and her husband, Chuck Cannon, also a songwriter and musician, brought the album to a very successful producer friend, not to pitch or promote it, but just to let him hear. The producer then turned to Lari’s husband and said, ‘Yeah, man, that sounds great!’” White says there is not much to do but laugh off such an instance, because it was not intentional.7
A man dismissing a woman as not being equal is indeed common in the business. And it often goes well beyond that. Inappropriate behaviour in corporate settings abound. A recent story, reported by Jessica Hopper, Pitchfork Magazine’s Senior Editor, is telling. She asked the following over Twitter: “Gals/Other marginalized folks: what was your first brush with the idea that you didn’t count’?”8 The responses that followed ranged from cases of male peers simply being dismissive towards their female co-workers, to examples of outright sexual abuse and harassment in the workplace. A woman even said that a famous producer/DJ grabbed her private parts during a meeting but her label asked her “to shut up”.9
It is difficult to imagine this happening as easily in another industry. Added is the fact that, often, the private lives of many men in the business are far from exemplary.
Chris Brown has been afforded pardon after pardon despite serious physical assault charges on his then girlfriend, singer Rihanna. The recent lawsuit that Kesha has filed against Dr. Luke is special. Kesha alleges that Dr. Luke raped and abused her but also accuses Sony of knowingly concealing his actions. If true, the industry should examine how far it can it go tapering over the allegedly egregious behaviour of its cash cows. The same applies to Dr. Dre’s recent biopic of the famous rap collective, N.W.A., released by the Aftermath-Interscope label of the Universal Music Group. There is no allusion to Dr. Dre’s earlier violence towards his girlfriends (and the female cast of the film consists largely of groupies and dancers).
Women could be excused for saying that money matters more than they do. And this statement ignores a culture within the industry that perpetuates misogyny. In Dr. Dre’s case it goes back to more than a decade ago. And it is not just the record label that is condoning a wrong. The technology sector, especially Apple Music where Dr. Dre holds sway, is equally to blame. Ultimately, both the record labels and Apple would say that it is the consumers that abet these stars by buying their music. This would be disingenuous, for their role in the marketplace is pivotal too.
Change in this regard has come outside of the United States. The activist group GetUp, for example, endorsed the banning of Chris Brown from performing in Australia this September, a message that is unequivocal in its condemnation of domestic violence, especially because the instance of violence took place six years ago.10 In order to perform shows that have already been scheduled, Brown will now be forced to appeal to the Commonwealth government.
Meanwhile, there is much work to be done in the U.S. in order to bring a better gender balance to the workplace. Some issues transcend the music business. Failure by Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act does not help, and legislators should redouble efforts to get the bill approved.11 Other considerations are easier to implement and more germane to the music industry: to get the RIAA or the Recording Academy to promote the recognition of women’s work in recordings by asking members to make sure that credit is given where credit is due.
Overall, it is the behaviour of individuals that will change things for the better and any initiative or interest group that can get this across, such as the Women in Music organization, deserves the support of the entire music community. Men could learn by listening to women’s concerns, as women do with men. This seems obvious, but it is often forgotten.