Tackling the Underrepresentation of Female Musicians
Sam W. Govan
There is evidence that those who fund and commission art believe that art made by women is in less demand than art by men, and thus less financially viable. In turn, this leads to a positive feedback cycle of “less supply, less demand” as commissioners curtail the potential of female artists. Do more accessible and democratic platforms such as internet streaming services represent an option for female musicians to realize their potential with greater ease?
The mechanism for music reaching the public via mainstream channels requires the input of commissioning bodies, sources of funding who decide which artists to invest in based on their analysis of where demand lies. The problem however is that if art made by certain demographics is deemed less economically viable, it will not be commissioned as frequently. Less commissioning equates to a smaller platform, a smaller audience, and as a result, less demand will be created. In other words, the listeners will not know what they are missing because they are not being given many chances to experience it. This problem is widespread for female artists in the musical art world.
There remains consistent data about the underrepresentation of female musical artists. Of the top 100 pop songs in the UK radio AirPlay chart between 1st Jan-1st august 2021, only 20% were by female artists compared to 44% of male artists. Of these songs, 76.4% were written by men compared to 23.2% of women. In 2015, renowned country radio consultant Keith Hill described female artists as “the tomatoes in the salad of country music”, insisting that “if you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out”. Elaborating on his statement following backlash, Hill clarified that in his experience of working in radio, the “gravity of the purchasing behavior of the users or listeners of a free radio product” leads country music stations to avoid broadcasting female musicians for fear of lowering their own radio ratings.
While certainly not intentionally engineered as such, music recommendation algorithms on streaming platforms were found in 2021 to play an average of 7 tracks by men to every 1 by a woman. The 2021 study into the fairness of music platforms found that a commonly used music recommendation algorithm used to generate rankings of artists in order to recommend songs to listeners was creating a positive feedback loop, where female artists were recommended less frequently than men and thus listened to fewer times. The cumulative effect of female artists being recommended less was found to lower their position in the algorithm’s rankings, meaning the algorithm did not promote them as frequently as male artists.
A 10 year study into the gender equality in popular music found that women only represented 2.8% of producers across 1000 popular songs from 2012-2021, 12.7% of songwriters and 21.8% of artists. Of Grammy nominees across all categories from 2013-2022, only 13.6% were female artists and producers. The issue is not a lack of female musical artists, it is a lack of belief in the financial viability of female artists and creators that leads to further underrepresentation and less demand for their art.
Showing The Listeners What They Are Missing
The regrettable nature of commissioning bodies holding the power over what kind of art gets funded is that it is easy to fall into a positive feedback loop; music gets funded that listeners then come to expect, at the detriment of other kinds of music that listeners are not being given as many opportunities to experience. If the problem of female creators' perceived unviability lies at the root of their smaller platform, there is potential to redress the imbalance through two approaches.
Firstly, by embracing and creating more democratic platforms such as online streaming services where female artists have greater chances of being visible. Now more than before, female artists and songwriters have more freedom to create supply in order to demonstrate that demand exists for their art and to seek out their listeners on their own without having to justify to a commissioning body that they are worth its investment. Already, artists like country musician Kacey Musgraves have been able to entirely surpass institutions like radio who have previously constrained female artists, by accumulating millions of listeners on Spotify.
With further work to address the unfortunate reproduction of gender bias by streaming service algorithms, online platforms can represent an option for female musicians to attain popularity and financial viability entirely independently of a label. To ensure algorithms do not limit which artists get playtime, one option might be to implement additional algorithms that promote a more randomized and varied selection of artists and introduces listeners to musicians they might not otherwise hear, as well as modifying algorithms to rank male and female artists on more equal terms. As of March 2021, Spotify’s EQUAL program has aimed to advance gender equality in music by curating over 35 genres specific and themed playlists a month featuring upcoming global female artists.
Secondly, by putting pressure on music institutions such as radio stations and labels to challenge the positive feedback mechanisms that affect female artists’ success. The Recording Academy’s “Women in the mix” study represents another positive step; the survey launched in 2019 focussed on the experiences of 1600 female and gender expansive people working in the American music industry and marked a concerted effort by the Recording Academy to actively improve the level of gender equality in the music industry. Furthermore, in 2019, the Academy launched the “Women in the mix” pledge as a means of addressing female underrepresentation in music: the pledge resulted in 100’s of music professionals and organizations pledging to consider at least two women in the selection process every time they hired a producer or engineer.
At the core of this problem lies the phenomenon where art is promoted or platformed based on what a commissioning body believes the listeners want, without giving the listeners an opportunity to explore a variety of options and choose for themselves. For female musicians, this comes in the form of reduced public exposure and therefore less opportunity to flourish, in turn leading to a landscape with fewer high-profile female artists and listeners without a clear idea of what they are missing
It is in the music industry’s best interests to foster a diverse landscape where female artists have as much of a chance as men to succeed on the strength of their art. It is in the best interests of commissioning bodies like labels and radio stations to learn from the positive reception of female artists by streaming service listeners; a landscape where female artists have more opportunities to be heard is beneficial for the artists, the listeners, and the distributors.
Sam W. Govan is a Social Anthropology Graduate from the University of Kent
This article is featured in JUSTIN Development Review (JDR) Vol. 02 Issue 03 — September 2022