In the year after #MeToo, women in music have thrived, despite having to function in an industry that still downplays their achievements and marginalizes them. This year’s Grammy awards set the tone for a women-lead year, if you want it. Women dominated with wins in the pop, R&B, country, and roots categories, while Cardi B made history as the solo first woman to take home the Best Rap Album Grammy. Kacey Musgraves was given the Album of the Year trophy and Dua Lipa nabbed Best New Artist, while Emily Lazar became the first woman to ever win a Grammy for mastering an album. We won’t say the glass ceiling broke, but it felt like, after last year’s dour, near-womanless ceremony after which women were told to “step up,” there was at least some acknowledgment that a glass ceiling exists, and that women threw everything they had against it in 2018.
Now that some women in front of the camera have taken a big step forward for parity, and the Recording Academy experienced a year of backlash to reckon with, we wanted to know what women behind the scenes want to see change in 2019. So we asked them, and the overwhelming answer was: they don’t want to be the only woman in the room anymore.
Deb Oh, a Senior Producer at Nylon Studios who has worked as a singer/songwriter in the past, wants more support for women and people of color trying to break into the industry, where the gatekeepers are overwhelmingly male and white. “There was one project where we had to record a full mariachi band for a track. Our Executive Producer, Christina Carlo, and I took the opportunity to book an all-female mariachi band, the Grammy-winning Flor de Toloache, for the session,” Oh tells Refinery29. “When we entered the room it struck me how palpably different the energy was, such an incredible vibe and, of course, they knocked it out of the park. This was just a simple studio session that happens regularly, but it was also an example of showing how the small yet conscious decision to hire women and women of color can make a difference.”
The problem of being the only woman was visible from the Grammy stage multiple times as the winners collected their trophies and performed. Musgrave’s Album of the Year acceptance featured her against a veritable wall of men who collaborated producing, engineering, and co-writing Golden Hour. Lady Gaga’s wins for “Shallow’ were the same — her, flocked by the crew of men who collaborated on A Star Is Born. If you looked past the wonderful, women lead performances that dominated the night, how many did you notice were backed by bands that were all men?
As the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative's report for 2018 told us, women are a lowly 2% of producers, 3% of engineers, and 12.3% of songwriters, according to data that analyzed the 600 most popular songs over the last six years.
Avoiding that is a big focus for multiple projects rolled out in 2019: The Grammys Task Force for Diversity and Inclusion launched an initiative and solicited pledges from some of the biggest producers, artists, managers, and labels in the business to consider at least two women for every available production job; the EQL Directory, rolled out by Soundgirls and Spotify, aims to connect women in production to potential employers; Grammy host Alicia Keys started a nonprofit, She Is The Music, which is broadly aimed at getting more women into the music industry.
Karrie Keyes, the Executive Director of Soundgirls, makes the point that there’s a lack of range in the storytellers working in music, which is a detriment to the breadth of voices we hear. If you’re someone who thinks all popular music sounds the same, Keyes says that’s a product of having the same people working on tracks over and over. “To change this, women in the industry need to hire other women in the industry. I am not saying just hire women because, but take some time to research and find some very talented women to at least consider hiring. The resources are there, people just are not taking the time to find them,” Keyes tells Refinery29.
Anna Volpe, a New York City-based indie-pop artist, songwriter, and producer, says she’s had a career full of “subconsciously extremely lonely and uncomfortable” moments where she was the only woman on the stage or in the studio. “I did have some experiences where I felt inferior as a back-up performer where I was in a band, not in a hired-gun position but as an equal band member, and I was not allowed to sing lead even when the opportunity and place called for it,” Volpe says.
To change this, women in the industry need to hire other women in the industry. I am not saying just hire women because, but take some time to research and find some very talented women to at least consider hiring.
Karrie Keyes, Executive Director of Soundgirls
What’s more, the dearth of women working in music, particularly in positions of authority, makes other women feel unsafe. For many women who spoke on background, the issue of powerful men with a a lack of professionalism has blocked them from networking. In careers that span the gauntlet, from tour bookers to composers, they volunteered stories of male connections who promised job recommendations — but then disappeared when their sexual advances that were declined. This practice is particularly insidious, because there are no HR networks or oversight into networking. Women are hungry for more women-only networks and female mentors to help give them a leg up into an industry that remains a boys club.
Women on tour feel this as well. Leslie Nuss, a recording artist/songwriter who started her own label and tried to become reinstated as a voting member of the Recording Academy this year, found herself running into barrier after barrier. One of which was figuring out how to maintain her personal safety while on the road — a necessity, she says because touring is “much more important in the industry ‘s mind as a marker of our professionalism than I imagined.” But being on the road presents different challenges for women and men as musicians. “Do male artists who have benefitted from all the unacknowledged privileged they receive try to rectify this discrepancy by bringing along female artists/acts?” she wonders. “I don’t know, but I would guess that they could do more.”
One resolution put forth by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is for women to start hiring other women. While their focus is on production jobs, their advice applies to all corners of the industry. There are an overwhelming number of men acting as leaders in music, from critics to radio programmers to executives to artist managers to tour and festival promoters. At the Grammys this year, women were finally taken seriously as artists. Now, for the industry to take us seriously as a whole, it’s time to start rethinking who the gatekeepers are. That starts with ensuring that we are never the only woman in the studio, on the panel, or in the office.