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Walking in the air (2/4)

In the first of our series of articles focussing on women, the music industry and discrimination we looked at some of the general data concerning, pay and prominence. Article three focuses on performance measured in terms of access to festivals and awards. But before women get to that prize and the over-hyped acceptance speech they need air time. Here discrimination seems to be at its highest.

First of all in terms of radio as a study by Women in Control pointed out, getting airtime is not easy. For the top 100 Airplay Chart in 2020 the following was true:

  • Men appear on 81% of all records played.

  • Only 19% of female solo songs are present.

  • Only 18% of credited songwriters are female.

  • Only 3% of producers are female.

The report also found that of the top 15 music stations in the UK, only 11% of their top 20 plays were by women, with 3 stations; Kerrang, Radio X and Absolute having no women artists in their top twenty most played songs.

This lack of airtime clearly has little to do with the number of female artists. For example, in the USA, where country music has more single radio stations than any other genre, and where there are a host of top female artists then you would expect at least parity. However as Sianna King reports...

"Historically, women were able to attain superstar-status in country more easily than in some other genres...In 1999, eight of the nineteen chart-toppers on the Hot Country Songs chart were by female artists, and equality seemed nigh. But since the turn of the century, the situation has deteriorated. Last year, the ten most played artists on country radio were men, and just two women topped the Hot Country Songs chart."

In 2019, University of Ottawa musicology professor Jada Watson,published a damning study on gender representation in country radio, which drew on a database that tracks the total number of plays individual songs receive on 156 country stations in the USA. Watson found that in 2018, plays of songs by men outnumbered those of songs by women nearly 10 to 1.

However, it could be argued that in terms of airtime, radio is increasingly irrelevant and its streaming and playlists with their wide choice that should be of greater help to women artists. Yet as a recent study by Bauer and Ferraro shows, when they examined how streaming playlists work, once male artists become the dominant gender in the music industry they become hard to dislodge.

"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, perhaps male artists are simply more popular. However, if the findings are extrapolated from the above research it’s 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. the disadvantage becomes 'in-built'.

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.

Clearly if women artists don't get played and don't get access to airtime equivalent to their male counterparts then it becomes increasingly hard to be a success in an already highly competitive industry.


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