In the second golden era of television, composing memorable original scores might seem like a lucrative gig. Ramin Djawadi’s (a Hans Zimmer protégé) Game of Thrones score has become a concert experience that is touring the world under the slogan “music is coming.” The score for Stranger Things, created by Austin synth band S U R V I V E, was popular enough to debut at no. 3 on Billboard’s Alternative Album chart and inspire a performance at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles staged by Goldenvoice. Bear McCreary has created a cottage industry as the “composer king of Comic-Con,” landing jobs composing for The Walking Dead, Outlander, and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Blake Neely has cornered the market on The CW’s D.C. universe of series, scoring Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow. All these high-profile composers working on some of the most well-respected TV shows of the era have something in common: they’re all men. Women composers simply aren’t getting the same opportunities, even though they have the same training, the same capacity to create, and the same passion for writing music.
“We are trying to get to the bottom of [gender disparity in composers],” says Lolita Ritmanis, the current president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers. “The main thing is a lack of awareness. People may think there are no problems with gender parity, or that people have to just keep trying [to break in to composing]. Or there are no women trying to do it. That is not the case.”
Of 117 scripted primetime network TV shows airing in the 2017-2018 season with an original score, a total of seven list a woman as their composer. That gives women authorship of only 6% of television scores. Things aren’t much better on cable, premium channels, or streaming services: out of 201 series produced or co-produced in the U.S., 11 feature a woman composer, or 5.5%. On the majority of shows from this television season, women shared their credit with a man — along with a portion of the fee for the job.
Invite women composers to submit. It is not okay anymore to put all women in one kind of box. You can’t just put men in positions of power and tell women to be their assistants.
Lolita Ritmanis, president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers
Numerous critically acclaimed shows in the 2017-2018 season focus on themes of feminism or hinge on strong women characters: The Handmaid’s Tale, Westworld, GLOW, Jessica Jones, Insecure, grown-ish, UnReal, Orange Is the New Black, SMILF, Big Little Lies, and Dietland, just to name a few on-air this season. While women composers should not be stuck in a ghetto of writing music for female characters, are we missing out on something by not seeking out the input of women in shows like these? We’ve staffed the writers’ rooms with women to work out the nuance of female characters and better represent a woman’s point of view. Shouldn’t working with women composers come to mind when commissioning music to go along with a scene that hinges on the reaction, thoughts, and experiences of a woman?
This problem is not exclusive to the current season of TV. Since 1966, when the first Emmy for Outstanding Music Composition for a Series (there is a second award for limited series, movies, and specials) was awarded, no woman or team with a woman on it has won an Emmy for composing music for a TV series. In the last 10 years, only three women have been nominated. Two of those women worked on Victoria, a co-production between the BBC and Masterpiece, along with a man. The other is Ritmanis, who was nominated for the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold along with four men.
The discretion to find someone the showrunner or music supervisor is comfortable with can be seen in male composers who get hired for multiple projects. Atli Örvarsson works on many of the shows in Dick Wolf’s Chicago universe, while electronic collective Photek score a pair of Shondaland shows. Mac Quayle is the go-to on multiple productions by Ryan Murphy. They are all talented composers, but this industry-wide proclivity towards using the same person repeatedly finds men working on multiple shows per season, while equally adept women wait on the sidelines. In the 2017-18 television season, the only woman with multiple credits on a show is Sherri Chung, who works on Riverdale and Blindspot.
Composers are paid a negotiated fee per show that comes from the production’s music budget. Berklee College of Music estimates that composers earn $1,500 to $7,500 per episode for a half-hour show and $2,000 to $15,000 for an hour-long show. There is also a fee from their performing rights organization (PRO) with each airing — paychecks that add up if a show airs in syndication or in foreign markets. In short: the more shows you have a composing credit on, the more money you can make in a year. If you share credit with another composer, your fee is split in half and shared between the two of you, as well as the writing credit. Only four female composers in the 2017-18 season had their own, unshared credit. Composers who also produce, perform, or conduct the orchestra on a score get an additional fee. There aren’t a lot of orchestras on TV these days; bedroom producers with home studios are in demand.
Meshell Ndegeocello is a veteran Grammy-nominated musician and social activist who has scored all three seasons of OWN’s Queen Sugar. Even before joining the show, her musical pedigree was impressive. When asked if she’s been approached to work on multiple shows, like many male composers are, she just laughs. “I would love to have another show. I’m a musician and a creative person, first and foremost,” Ndegeocello says. “If it wasn’t for the diligence of [Queen Sugar creator] Ava DuVernay, I don’t think I would have a show.” Ndegeocello says being hired to compose is as much about the rapport one has with a show’s director, producers, or showrunner as it is about talent. “I haven’t quite figured out my Hollywood dance, to make myself seem friendlier,” she notes with a chuckle.
Women composing in TV have it a little bit better than women in film, who in 2017 comprised only 3% of composers, with 98% of films featuring no female composers according to statistics compiled by Women and Hollywood. Their plight is also slightly less dire than that of women hoping to hear their work performed in symphonies across the country; NPR found that the among major orchestras across the country, pieces by women are vastly underrepresented.
If everybody invested just a little bit of their time in cultivating the careers of women composers, wouldn’t we see a difference?
Jamie Jackson, composer
Jamie Jackson, who co-composed the music on The CW's now-canceled Life Sentence, got her start in music working in the very analog legendary Electric Lady studio in New York City, which was created and designed by Jimi Hendrix. “I got so used to being the only female in the room,” she says — a sentiment echoed by several of the women Refinery29 spoke to. “If everybody invested just a little bit of their time in cultivating the careers of women composers, wouldn’t we see a difference? It’s really about getting your foot in the door and then letting their work speak for itself. Let us get the job not because we’re women, but because we’re talented.”
Erica Weis, co-composer on ABC’s American Housewife, started her career in music editing and music supervision, working on the female-centric Ghostbusters reboot and Step Brothers. Weis studied composition in college and made the transition to composing for television after producer Jason Winer (Modern Family, Life In Pieces) asked her to give it a shot. She thinks the notoriously hectic, last-minute schedule that plagues work in episodic television might be part of what is so off-putting about the job to so many, regardless of sex.
“The schedules are so crazy, especially in TV. They shoot and edit during the day, but in music we get those cuts turned over at the end of the day or right before the weekend,” Weis says. In post-production, editors have to wait until producers are available to step away from a 12- to 14-hour shoot to review their work, with music getting placed in a show after that. Jackson explains the importance of a composer’s process by saying, “Once the picture comes in, we really understand the tone...and start developing the sound from there. You have to work around the actor’s dialog. Until you get picture, you’re really guessing.”
The craziness of the schedule and the tight turn-around times was something nearly every woman Refinery29 spoke to mentioned. “With women acting as overseers for their families, it doesn’t always integrate well into a normal schedule,” Weiss says. “Composing is not really a 9 to 5 job. You need a really good support system set up.”
If women are not hired or are systematically underpaid, on the front or back end, then it is harder for them afford the support system they need. Weis wasn’t alone among women we spoke to in mentioning that the work schedule on episodic TV is a struggle. Finding a balance between career and home life is a struggle for most working women, but it shouldn’t disqualify women from an entire category of work.
The decision of who to hire, promote, and spend their time and effort cultivating is very much in the hands of studios, agents, and showrunners.
Sherri Chung, who works on Riverdale and Blindspot, credits composer Blake Neely for bringing her on to work with him. He was her advisor in graduate school, and afterwards she kept in touch and began working for him, then with him. Chung insists she’s never felt held back by sexism in her career. She expressed a knowledge of how low the numbers were for working women composers, but was surprised to hear they are this low.
“It’s a difficult industry for everybody. There are less women composing, but I don’t know if that’s the result of us being specifically kept out, or if less women want to go into this industry,” Chung says. “I went to graduate school for composing, and there were two women. So, if only two women go up for jobs, [the lower numbers of women] are not going to be surprising when you look at it across the board. There aren’t 50% women versus men going up for jobs, so what the statistics are showing is the reality that there are less women in the industry.”
When Chung goes back to her university to visit, she says she is seeing more women in composing classes. She advises women to go to school and start changing the dynamic, with the advice that there is more to the job than simply writing music. “Get the writing skills, the people skills, and networking skills, because 80% of this job is not about writing music.”
Weis doesn’t recall a big gender difference in her classes at Berklee. “It’s hard to understand why exactly [the number of women composers] is so low, other than it being embedded in how things are for so long that it’s become a pattern.”
In conversation with these composers, everyone acknowledged that the idea of a male maestro who was allowed to be obsessed with his work and ill-tempered was something that once existed for composers, especially those who conduct — be it their own music or that of the masters. Nevertheless, it would be shocking on a modern-day television set to see that sort of behavior from either sex. What might linger, Ritmanis says, is the idea that composing and conducting, which some of the composers behind television’s more epic and orchestral scores do, is a man’s job.
“If you want to understand why this is a problem, everyone needs to evaluate their feelings about [who can be a composer and conductor]. If you see a woman conducting something, do you think, Oh, how is she dressed, how did she do her hair, should her arms be showing or should she be wearing a jacket? Are these the same things we think about male conductors? It is antiquated and unacceptable. It's similar to choosing a person of color to handle your jazz score. Why shouldn't an African-American composer be chosen for the epic symphonic project?"
If the idea that men will be freer to explore their creative impulses or more capable of weird working hours is a myth that persists, then it could be influencing the decision-makers who are hiring a surplus of men in composing jobs.
Jackson shares, anecdotally, that her agent has been getting more calls from networks and showrunners who specifically want to find a woman composer. Ritmanis concurs, telling a story about an unnamed network exec who told an entire agency their composers would no longer be considered for any jobs unless they started submitting woman composers for work as well.
On behalf of the women composers in her alliance, Ritmanis suggests a solution to showrunners, music supervisors, producers, and directors: “Invite women composers to submit. It is not okay anymore to put all women in one kind of box. You can’t just put men in positions of power and tell women to be their assistants.”
Indeed, the Time’s Up movement is pushing for inclusivity throughout Hollywood in below-the-line production roles. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative advocates through education for diversity clauses to increase not only visible women in production but inclusion for below the line roles that historically have gone to men. Women and Hollywood is tracking the gender disparity in film and TV, finding jobs that have historically been overwhelmingly staffed by men are now, at least sometimes, going to women. The reaction from women showrunners, stars, and writers has been overwhelmingly one of relief at no longer being outnumbered by men. For many, it has removed the pressure of being “the woman” on set and allowed them to just be themselves.
The decision of who to hire, promote, and spend their time and effort cultivating is very much in the hands of studios, agents, and showrunners. For these gatekeepers, it is imperative that they remain cognizant about diversifying who writes the music for their productions as well as who gets credit on their shows, in order to affect real change in representation.