Any Way You Look At It, Music Is Still A Depressing Boys Club

Photo: Jeff Kravitz/AMA2017/FilmMagic.

We heard all year long that 2017 broke records for representation of women on the charts, in a bad way. Reports from Billboard followed the "drought" of women atop their Hot 100 chart. We went 12 weeks without a woman at number one, the longest the chart had seen since 1972, and it was only broken by Rihanna's feature on DJ Khalid's "Wild Thoughts," which is not actually even a solo female song, in June. The so-called woman drought didn't really break until Taylor Swift and Cardi B began their battle for Hot 100 dominance in September.

A new report from Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, called “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?," shows that drought wasn't an anomaly. It is indicative of how women are underrepresented in music.

The study, which looked at the 600 songs on Billboard's year-end Hot 100 chart between 2012 and 2017, contains some harrowing numbers starting with this statistic: women were attached to only 22.4% of those 600 songs. Put another way: if you put all 600 songs in a playlist, you would have a list of the most popular songs over the last six years, and you'll hear a woman on less than 1 out of every 4 songs as it plays.

Here's another startling finding: the most prolific nine male songwriters in that time wrote nearly one-fifth of the songs on the charts. Go back to your 600-song playlist and hit play, and 1 in 5 will have been written by one of the same nine men. While it may feel like you hear Sia's name bandied about as a songwriter people want to work with all the time, the reality is she only has eight songs on this list of 600. That is less than half the number of songs her male counterpart in popularity, Savan Kotecha, has, without also being an artist or having even remotely the same public profile. The study's findings: men are given more opportunities in songwriting and production than women.

The disparity translates into awards as well. The study analyzed Grammy nominees from 2013 to 2018 and found that only 9.3% were female, with zero women earning Producer of the Year, Non Classical nods in this period. The most inclusive of the top four Grammy categories was Best New Artist, where 36.4% of the nominees have been female. Ironically, this award is commonly referred to as cursed — a career-killer that can relegate you to one-hit-wonder status, or worse.

Ask any woman in the music industry and she will tell you that she has had many experiences where she was the only woman in the room. Based on the numbers in this study, if you ask a woman who is an artist, songwriter, or producer, you are likely to hear that nearly all of her experiences are as the only woman in the recording studio. Among those same 600 songs, only 12.3% had a female songwriter attached. Across a list of 300 songs from the same Billboard chart for 2012, 2016, and 2017, the study found the ratio of male to female producers to be 49 to 1. That is a mere 2%.

The producer (or executive producer) usually have songwriting teams and audio engineering crews with whom they regularly work. The producer's input influences not only how an album or song by an artist will sound, but often which people they work with, though some singers do bring in songwriters and vocal producers they like. What these numbers tell us is that the vast majority of artists of all genders are choosing to work with male producers, and those male producers, in turn, choose to hire male songwriters in equally overwhelming numbers.

Grammy nominee K.Flay told Refinery29 that part of solving the problem is encouraging young women to enter STEM fields, a key part of audio production. She says, "I think that young women who love music are directed, in many ways, to perform and not often encouraged into the technical production side while young boys are. I have a nomination for Best Engineered Album this year, and I am, unfortunately, one of only two women in the category. I would love for there to be more, and I would love to be able to interact with younger women making music. I want to talk to them about the opportunities and tell them, you can be a lighting designer, you can be a mixing engineer. Now that I’ve had a chance to exist in this industry, I know the opportunities are quite vast."

Liz Hart, principal at Miss Management and the former first female A&R executive for XL Records (Adele, M.I.A.) told Refinery29 about working on an Oscar campaign for her client, Mica Levi, who was nominated in 2017 for an Oscar for Music (Original Score) for the movie Jackie. Levi was the first female nominee for the prize in 20 years and Hart says she did all she could to impress upon everyone, from Fox Searchlight Pictures to the head of the Motion Picture Academy, that it was their personal responsibility to improve representation (alas, Levi did not win in 2017, and no women earned an Oscar nomination in this category in 2018). "Because I was the executive producer on that score, I was able to affect change behind the scenes. In addition to a female composer, we had a female mastering engineer, head of orchestration, music supervisor — all of the top positions were women” Hart says. “When I control the hiring machine, I affect change."

The idea that visibility, opportunity, and lifting female voices helps to lift all women is one that many artists could take to heart. In the previous two years, the Album of the Year award has gone to two powerhouse female artists, Adele and Taylor Swift, along with their all-male production teams. This, against all statistical odds, as this survey shows that women only earned 6.1% of the nominations in this category, which recognizes the artist, featured artists, the producer, songwriters, recording engineers, mixers, and mastering engineers. Remarkably, both women had won the award previously for work with all-male production teams, though Swift did work with some female songwriters. Both could take a cue from Beyoncé, who has inexplicably never won a Grammy for Album of the Year. Her company, Parkwood Entertainment, cultivates a team of in-house songwriters, with an emphasis on women, who produce material for her consideration. She has also created a record label that is about developing female artists — and only female artists. "The music industry is dominated by men," Beyoncé told Elle. "And these labels go out and try to make carbon copies of whoever is successful at that moment. I'm over that." Same.

Correction: K.Flay is not the only woman nominated for Best Engineered Album at the 60th annual Grammy awards, she is one of two.

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