Let the girls play: Where are all the female artists?

Wednesday, November 18, 2020 - 2:59pm

NOSELL

Kalie Shorr

How many female artists are included on your playlists? 

This is a question I’ve been asking my circles of friends, and their answers have been a bit startling. When I ask this question to my male friends, they often give an estimate of about one female artist for every five male artists. Even for my female friends, their estimates were only a little higher, sometimes even the same. After barraging my friends with this question, I found that even I fall short in maintaining balance in my female-to-male artist ratios: Only about about 40% of the artists I listen to are non-male. 

The glaring gender gap in the music industry is nothing new to music and is something music consumers witness every time they stream a curated playlist. On average, female and mixed-gender artists only make up 22.6% of Spotify streams, and when listeners play their personalized Discover Weekly playlists that number drops to 18.1%. In other words, major streaming services and their algorithms are systematically excluding non-male artists from their playlists, which makes it difficult for those artists to get discovered. 

At the 2018 Grammy Awards, after we saw an embarrassing lack of female representation among the winners and nominees, Neil Portnow, the President of the Recording Academy, said women need to “step up” and if they’d work harder, perhaps they’d make it the next year. This remark sparked a large pushback by major executives in music asking him to step down, but his comments on female work ethic reflect the current climate of a music industry that struggles to keep up with the times. 

While we’re familiar with the ways in which female performers are excluded from playlists and award nominations, the root of the problem lies in the roles behind the scenes that often go unnoticed by an average music listener. In 2018, Rolling Stone Magazine declared that the “music industry’s greatest gender disparity is behind the scenes,” citing a USC study that found only 12% of the Billboard Top 100 songs had female songwriting credits, and even more shockingly, the ratio of male to female producers was 49 to one.

The lack of female voices behind the songs playing on the radio is telling of the major gender problem within the music industry. Without women’s ideas behind the songs we hear, the voices at the forefront of the music we listen to are overwhelmingly male and lack stories of the female experience.  

The Song Suffragettes, a music organization based in Nashville, is a space for female songwriters to share their music and make themselves heard in a city that’s known to exclude female voices from the country music scene. In 2017, just 10% of Billboard’s top 60 country songs were by women, and this percentage decreased by 2018 when there were no female artists among the top 20 country artists, reflecting a widening gap between male and female artists in country music. Recognizing this growing problem, Todd Cassety, a film producer in Nashville, started up the Song Suffragettes to offer female songwriters the opportunity to participate in an all-female song showcase every week with the tagline “Let the girls play.” Since its birth, 10 of the organization’s 200 artists have landed record deals and 35 have received publishing deals. 

Kalie Shorr, a country music artist and member of the Song Suffragettes, wrote and released a song titled “Fight Like a Girl” in 2016 that earned millions of streams. The song highlighted the worsening gender discrimination within country music, but ironically, when Shorr reached out to record labels after the song’s success, they turned her away because they already had a female artist on their labels.

Shorr’s experience is just one of many, and while the lack of female representation we see onstage and in streaming is partly due to a lack of opportunities for talented writers like Shorr, the problem can be traced back even further, to outside of the studio. 

Like many sectors of the business world, women make up a very small fraction of the workforce in music business. While there’s little research on the gender disparities between men and women on the business side of music, we know that organizations like the Recording Academy are mostly male (though they recently appointed their first-ever female president, which is certainly a step in the right direction). Moreover, women work under much different circumstances than their male counterparts, with multiple reports of women feeling objectified or dismissed in their roles within the music industry. 

What makes this so problematic is that these are the roles that amplify women’s voices on stage and in the studio. Without lawyers, agents and managers advocating for female artists’ voices to be heard, we will continue to see a lack of female artists in our playlists. At its core, the music industry is still, in many ways, a boys’ club run by the same group of men that continue to run things the way they have for years. Music is a diverse art form that isn’t fulfilling its true purpose if it’s erasing certain voices while promoting others. 

The music industry has a long way to go, and we as music consumers also need to recognize that the music that’s pushed into our playlists doesn’t always reflect the current demographic of the music industry. Having every song at our fingertips should empower us to seek these unheard voices and lift up the talented artists who are struggling to get noticed.  

Daily Arts Writer Kaitlyn Fox can be reached at kjfox@umich.edu.


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