What It Will Really Take To Get More Women In Music

The beginning of 2018 highlighted yet another area of the entertainment industry that’s suffering from some vast gender inequality: music. While the dominance of female pop stars like Beyoncé or Ariana Grande might make it seem as though women run the music world, in comparison to men, the big picture numbers are shockingly low. A recent USC study revealed that only 16% of chart-topping artists over the past six years were women, and behind the scenes, the gender ratio of male producers to female producers is 49 to 1. Then there’s the Grammys, which the study found had 90% male nominees over the past five years, and only featured one woman, Alessia Cara, accepting her own award at this year’s televised show.
Unfortunately, things only got worse after the Grammys, when Recording Academy President Neil Portnow said in an interview that to solve this disparity, “women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level” need to “step up.” The outrage was swift from women and music fans who pointed out that there is no lack of women trying to get in the door; the problem is, the door rarely opens for them. Yesterday, several high-ranking female music executives from Universal, Atlantic, Epic, Sony, and Roc Nation signed a pointed letter addressed to the Recording Academy’s Board of Trustees declaring that Portnow’s comments weren’t just “inarticulate,” but emblematic of “the broader set of inclusion issues across all demographics.”
Amidst all of this discussion about music’s most pressing problem, one question still remains: What actionable steps can the industry take to change this problematic dynamic? So we reached out to female executives in the music industry to hear their perspective of what it’s really like for women in music — plus how the business can be more inclusive of the women who have been already been “stepping up” for years.
It’s become increasingly clear that the music industry has a major gender inequality problem, both in front of and behind the scenes. Have you felt that through the years? Are there a lot of women on the industry side — from assistants to executives — working at record labels?
Ethiopia Habtemariam, president of Motown Records: “You know, it’s interesting, because I think there are a good amount of women in the music industry in marketing and publicity roles. I think what I’ve noticed as I’ve come up is that we’re missing a lot of women — of color, specifically — in creative roles like A&R [the division of a record label that scouts talent]. When I was first coming into the game, I remember there being women of color running A&R departments, but that’s decreased. And that’s a problem, because those roles have the real influence on who gets signed, from artists to songwriters to producers.”
Gail Mitchell, senior editor at Billboard Magazine: “Those USC study findings are depressing. But they’re also inspiring as far as showing us exactly what needs to be done and making sure our male executive colleagues know that yes, we’re here, but there could be way more of us. Honestly, I was surprised when I saw the numbers, because recently I was at the She Rocks Awards put on by the Women’s International Music Network, and I learned about so many incredible women who are running the show, from artists to the folks in charge of merchandising. But just because they exist doesn’t mean we don’t need many, many more.”
Caron Veazey, GM of Pharrell Williams’ multi-media collective I Am Other: “Starting out myself, I used to see a lot of women staffers at the labels I worked at. But now, I’m at the studio almost every day with Pharrell, and on the production side, it’s overwhelmingly male. And Pharrell Williams is a proponent of gender equality — he has been for a long time, before it was ‘fashionable.’ So the fact that even working with him, a person that makes a real effort to surround himself with women, we still only see mostly men in production and in the studio, well that’s saying something.”
Jacqueline Saturn, co-general manager of Harvest Records: “One thing that I’m 100% known for is hiring women. I’ve had almost entire staffs that are female, and I’ve seen people that start as my assistant go on to grow to senior positions or running things in artist development. I’ve made it my business since early in my career to surround myself with and hire women, while also making sure they were the best people for the job. But I’ve seen and heard firsthand that that just isn’t a common practice in this business. And it should be.”
For any women out there who are looking to break into music — whether it’s as an artist or a producer or a publicist — what’s your advice on where they should begin?
Habtemariam: “As an artist, the opportunities are limitless for talent. If you’re creating amazing music, it’s about how you connect and network with your peers, which obviously these days is happening a lot on social media. I think that it all comes down to your ambition and how badly you want it, but at a certain point no matter how great your music is, someone has to give you a shot, and what we need is more people willing to give non-cookie cutter formatted artists a shot. So if you really want it, you have to have an incredible work ethic and ambition, because the odds are against you, unfortunately. It’s the same thing when you’re trying to get behind the scenes. A lot of people get into the music industry because they see the glitz and glam of hanging with artists and going to parties, but there’s so much hard work that goes into it. So you have to be willing to sacrifice and be let down sometimes and just really work hard. You could be working for one year and discover an artist that suddenly blows up, and all of a sudden you’re a sought after manager. I’ve seen that happen a lot recently. But you could also work in this business for years and never get a real shot. You have to be prepared for that too. And be prepared, especially right now, for this business to change by the minute. Because it is changing drastically every moment.”
Mitchell: “First off you gotta do some research. Back in my day you didn’t have Google, so take advantage of that! Use your resources. And be prepared that it’s not going to come easy. A friend of my daughter, she’s 24 and trying to break in as a singer. So she’s been applying for part time jobs and internships at music associated companies like BMI to be able to learn about publishing and songwriting percentages, in addition to creating music and sharing it via social media. I think if you really want to succeed in your industry, in addition to talent and it being who you know, you also want to educate yourself. Find seminars, internships, in Los Angeles there’s the Music Business Institute, go to panels during Grammy week. In fact, the Recording Academy hosts Grammy U during Grammy Week for college students which has lots of resources. It’s not easy — a slog a lot of the times, and as we’ve seen by the numbers, the odds are against you if you’re a woman — but if you really want it, your passion will keep you going.”
Veazey: “I think it’s important to identify a mentor. A female mentor. Someone you can turn to when you need advice and who can guide you and look out for you when there are opportunities. Even if you haven’t met that person yet, don’t be afraid to find someone and ask them to coffee, because most of the time, women truly do want to help women. In fact, this conversation has inspired me to make a commitment to do more mentoring and really support the young women coming up.”
Saturn: “Don’t be shy. Be passionate and be vocal. Because you never know who might somehow get you connected. It could be a parents’ friend who’s a piano teacher or the guy taking your order at a restaurant. I myself started out as a receptionist, and I was fine with answering phones, but in between I was telling anyone who would listen what I wanted to do.”
Recording Academy President Neil Portnow has since clarified that he was inarticulate and his statement was “taken out of context.” But what was your initial reaction when you heard that he said the solution to getting more women in music is that they need to “step up?
Habtemariam: “I thought that was so crazy! I’m blown away by that, because we step up every day. Women are the crux of the music industry, we live and breathe music and dictate the culture. Even the male artists that I work with — the first person they’re calling to come into the studio for their opinion on something isn’t their manager or their boys, but their girlfriends or wives or female assistants. There are a lot of women who touch and influence the music industry and never even get credit for it.”
Mitchell: “Neil did come back and say he had been misquoted. It was a misstep, but he apologized, so I think we all need to move forward. I think we’ll get detoured from the goal if we’re divided rather than united. Like Janelle Monae said during the show, we’re here, and we mean business.”
So, that leaves us with the big question: What can and should the music industry be doing to be more inclusive and welcoming toward women?
Habtemariam: “I think there has to be a real active effort for people like myself who are in positions of power to find people that have interests in the creative areas like talent scouting and artist development, and help bring them up. We need to focus on that area, because if it’s only men in charge of discovering artists, of course their lens is going to be specific. So the entire industry needs to focus on that and fixing the disconnect between assistants with these interests and the senior level executives. We need to help them grow into those roles and be prepared with the right tools. I recently told two assistants that I noticed stay quiet in big meetings with executives that I want them to speak up more. They were fearful because they didn’t think anyone wanted their voices to be heard. So I’m putting it on women like myself in senior roles to remind those coming up: Your voices need to be heard.”
Mitchell: “At our Billboard Women In Music Awards this year, American Express announced that in April, they’ll be launching the Women In Music Leadership Academy, a three to five day training to give leadership and management skills to 48 women in senior positions in music. I think programs like that are integral in helping us see real change, so any companies out there that might be reading this: We need more of them. The solution lies in anyone with power doing what they can to raise up the next generation of changemakers. The time has come!”
Saturn: “I want to encourage people in charge to pay attention to intern programs. Speak to college students and junior level employees, ask their their interests and perspectives, participate in panels, put yourself out there so that you have a bigger pool to pull from. I love when I interview an intern at my company and ask them a question and love their answer so much that I hire them on the spot. It’s a great feeling to help out someone who’s hungry and can make a real difference.”
Veazey: “It feels a bit like, wow it’s 2018, and we’re having to ask this question? I do think that at the moment we are in a renaissance period as it relates to Black excellence and gender inequality. One day we’ll look in the rearview mirror and reflect on this being an exciting time. I think this past week has been a call to action to everyone in the business: Hire more women. Hire more producers, take more time to find female artists — and female artists of color, specifically — talk to students, start scholarship programs, remind your employees that they need to go the extra mile….I’m so excited for the day when the only female producer names people know aren’t just Missy Elliott and Alicia Keys.”
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