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Not everyone gets a prize?

This is the first in our series of three articles on women and discrimination in the music industry in 2021.

Many music commentators have seen this year as the time in which women really arrived in the music industry, with the Brits and the Grammys showering awards onto the likes of Billie Eilish, Megan Thee Stallion, Dua Lipa, Beyoncé Knowles and Taylor Swift. Yet does this success, whilst belated and more than welcome, hide up the discrimination that lies elsewhere in the music industry.

Whilst the awards might represent the pinnacle of achievement as you work down through pop music's hierarchy, female representation gets noticeably less. As research by the BBC pointed out, the number of female acts credited on the best-selling hundred songs of the year was the same in 2018 as it was ten years earlier, yet the number of men credited over the same time period had risen by 50% mainly due to men collaborating with other male, rather than female, artists.

“Ninety-one men or all-male groups were credited on the Official Chart Company's top 100 most popular songs of 2018 - compared with 30 female acts."

Equally, it has already been reported over several years and many times, that when it comes to festival programmes women are frequently under represented in the line-ups. This is not just a trend in mainstream music but also in specialist genres such as jazz. As Dr Sarah Raine comments in her report on the Cheltenham Jazz Festival, the second largest in the world, that despite their pledge to programme a 50/50 gender balanced schedule by 2022...

" is very clear that women are still significantly under-represented in terms of actual 50/50 performances and (by extension) the total musicians scheduled to perform at this annual jazz festival."

Of the ten women in jazz that Raines interviewed to underpin her report, nine had experienced gender discrimination as musicians whilst three had experienced direct sexual harassment.

Once male artists become the dominant gender in the music industry they become hard to dislodge as a recent study by Bauer and Ferraro shows, when they examined how streaming playlists work:

"Our analysis of around 330,000 users’ listening behaviour over nine years showed a clear picture – only 25% of the artists ever listened to were female. When we tested the algorithm we found, on average, the first recommended track was by a man, along with the next six. Users had to wait until song seven or eight to hear one by a woman."

Of course it could be argued that male artists are simply more popular, even though this years awards suggest otherwise. However, if the findings are extrapolated from the above research its possible to discover how playlists can generate gender discrimination. For example:

  1. Lets assume, as the research found, that the top six recommended tracks on a new playlist would be by men and then assign all the next four to women.

  2. If we then further assume the top track gets listened to ten times more than the tenth, and then allocate the rest in proportion, ie, the second gets listened to nine times more and so on, and then say our total audience is a hundred people, then tracks by men would be heard 3,550 times whereas by women it would only be 300 times.

  3. Therefore, women would have 40% of the top slots but only 10% of the total plays (and presumably only 10% of the revenue).

  4. This would be further acerbated if the playlist used an an algorithm based on the number of plays any individual tune gets. The initial gender bias would become magnified, because the algorithm would be applied on the assumption that male artists were ten times more popular than female.

  5. Consequently, in the next iteration men would occupy the top nine slots and a woman artist the tenth, and so on. Therefore, if the original listing has a gender bias and the playlist algorithm is based solely on the number of plays, then the initial bias gets magnified each time the algorithm is applied.

Yet as the reports authors point out, if you alternatively distribute tracks equitably or randomly so that gender is balanced, people listen to more female artists. Changing the original way in which a playlist is constructed changes the prominence of, and rewards for, female artists.

If female artists find it hard to gain equality then such gender disparity only increases when you move into non performing roles, as a variety of reports have shown:

  • A report by the University of Southern California found that the ratio of male to female producers across 400 popular songs was 47:1.

  • In a second report in 2019 by the Annenberg Institute, in the case of songwriters, more than half (57%) of the songs studied did not credit a woman although only three tracks (less than 1%) failed to credit a male songwriter.

This is not just a phenomenon confined to the USA but is also true of the UK. As Vick Bain shows in her analysis of the salary data of the large UK music companies.

  • Taking the average figures of all eight companies across the industry, music companies pay their female staff 73p for every £1, that is 27% less than men.

  • 72% of all women and 76% of all men receive bonuses, but women only receive 77p for every £1 a man receives in their bonus, or 23% less than men.

  • Women work in 51% of the bottom quartile jobs but only 36.5% of the top quartile jobs.

In addition:

  • Although BME and female representation is rising across the industry, that rise decreases with age and seniority as the UK Music diversity report for 2020 shows. Only 28% of those earning over £100,000 were women with only 12.2% being from an ethnic minority background.

  • The report Gender Disparity across UK Radio Stations found that of the top fifteen music stations only 11% of their top twenty plays were by women, with three stations Kerrang, Radio X and Absolute having no women artists in their top twenty most played songs.

So well done girls, on your awards and your financial success. It shows what can be achieved, although the odds are not stacked in your favour. Not only do fewer women artists make it to the top but on the non-performing side of the business, women do even less well. To change that may be a lot harder than making an acceptance speech at an awards ceremony, but if achieved, far more beneficial.

This is the first in series of three articles on women and discrimination.



See also

Why women get the blues

As yet another report on discrimination in the music industry comes out, we look at how discrimination might be lessened for women in non-performing roles.

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