Depending on which news story drew her eye, a young woman with serious talent might have taken a very different decision last week about whether to go into the music industry.
On the one hand, she could have seen headlines heralding the female lineup at the Grammys, the prestigious music business jamboree staged on Sunday evening in Los Angeles – because this year the awards ceremony will be packed with female nominees, including Janelle Monáe, SZA, Victoria Monét and Phoebe Bridgers. It is a fitting close to a year in which women have topped the charts and shone on the concert stage. And it is set to continue, with Adele announcing pop-up gig dates in Germany that go on sale this week.
But a rather contrasting picture was painted by coverage of fresh evidence of the struggle women still fact to be taken seriously within the industry. So while the Grammys are worth saluting, a quick look at the rest of the contenders tellingly reveals that no woman is nominated for (non-classical) producer of the year. It is a problem detailed by the hard-hitting Westminster report released last week into misogyny in the music business by the women and equalities committee. According to the cross-party group of MPs, the industry is still a “boys’ club”, where abuse and harassment remain common. It is an “endemic” problem, the report concluded, and only an urgent plan of action can counter it.
The industry’s track record is offputting, of course, with tales of abuse and manipulation rife before and after Tina Turner finally got away from Ike. If domineering husbands and unscrupulous male managers were not calling the shots, then male producers and record executives usually were.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the incredible marketability of talented women has not been recognised,” said former music executive Mike Smith, who has worked at the top of major labels and publishers since the 1990s. “I just hope that now they’re getting a bit more control of their destinies, instead of being puppets of a male business.”
The statistics are a cause for optimism, Smith concedes: “There’s never been a better time for a woman in the music industry, but we are starting from a spectacularly low bar.”
The chief executive of industry body the BPI, Jo Twist, and its chair, YolanDa Brown, responded to the “unacceptable” misogyny described in the MPs’ report with a little optimism too, saying in a joint statement: “As the committee acknowledges, record companies have increased representation of women in executive positions, and we’re seeing more women, as artists and in their teams, achieve success.”
So the Grammys will be an appropriately high note amid new statistics that detail music trends last year on both sides of the Atlantic. The BPI revealed that for the first time women spent 31 weeks at the top of the singles chart in Britain. What is more, they had a record-breaking seven of the year’s 10 biggest-selling singles, which amounts to more than half of the overall top 20. Even more striking perhaps is that almost half (48.5%) of all the songs that made the Top 10 this year came from women – working either as solo artists or in collaborations. These numbers represent the highest annual share of hits for women this century.
Leading the conquering heroines was Miley Cyrus, who had 10 weeks at No 1 with her single Flowers. But up there beside her, also taking the top spot in 2023, were Dua Lipa, Ellie Goulding, Kenya Grace, Raye, Billie Eilish, Doja Cat, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift. And when put together with Raye, SZA, PinkPantheress and the Cameroonian-American singer Libianca, Cyrus, Swift and Goulding have made more music business history by being jointly responsible for seven of the year’s 10 most popular tracks in the UK – the biggest share in more than 70 years of the Official Singles Chart.
The truth though, it seems, is that while an elite group of female artists is gaining greater stature and confidence in the industry, the story is not repeated at either the very bottom or the very top of the business. Female recording studio technicians and session musicians still have harrowing accounts of the obstacles and insults they have faced at work, while the most influential labels and music publishing companies are top-heavy with men.
An oppressive emphasis on the physical appearance of female artists made their life particularly hard, the parliamentary committee report found, analysing evidence gathered by a parliamentary inquiry that began last summer.
Limited opportunities to advance in the industry and persistently lower levels of pay are also hurdles, while racial discrimination holds back many black women from taking up influential roles in the music business, the findings suggested.
Most worrying was testimony about an enduring “culture of silence” that means women are often expected to sit next to known abusers at industry events. The only alternative is a potentially career-ending showdown. “Much of the evidence we received has had to remain confidential, including commentary on television shows and household names,” the report read. “That is highly regrettable but demonstrates the extent of the use of NDAs [non-disclosure agreements].”
Goulding is one of the prominent performers to use her secure position to speak out. Explaining the unpleasant environment that female artists can encounter, she recalled “a slight feeling of discomfort” whenever she walked into a studio to find she was alone with “one or two men”.
“There are still few women in really powerful positions in the record companies, considering at least half the consumers of music are women,” said Smith, “There used to be a teaboy route up through to the top of a record company, but if you were a 17-year-old girl, would you really want to be there with no status and all that male banter? It’s good that the music schools are now training women for these roles, because it would be hard for a young woman to put up with all that male stupidity. You can see why so many of them say ‘I’m out.’”
But Smith, who has worked with artists such as PJ Harvey, Elastica, Beth Orton and Iggy Azalea, sees grounds for hope. “I’m pleased to say there is a bit more control for women performers now though. When it comes to dance, DJs and producers, they’re really breaking through to become central players.”
And the numbers don’t lie. There has been a huge surge up the charts. In 2022 only two female musicians cracked the top 10 of biggest songs, with Kate Bush reprising the success of her 1985 single Running Up That Hill, on the back of television’s Stranger Things, and pop singer Cat Burns making an impact with Go.
It is the same heartening story in America. A study by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that the share of women involved in last year’s hits in the US had increased to 35%. The number of female artists has reached the highest since 2012.
“Whilst work continues towards achieving full representation for women across the music industry, 2023 has been a brilliant year for women in the Official Charts,” said the BPI’s Twist. “There is a more diverse range of recording artists than ever achieving great success with the backing of their labels. This should be celebrated, but without complacency, and our work in the music industry continues to ensure that this becomes the norm.”
The unlikely industry figurehead should arguably now be the diminutive form of Kylie Minogue, a true stalwart. Last autumn she became the first woman to top the album chart in five consecutive decades. When her 15th studio album, Disco, reached No 1, she could look back at chart-topping run that began in 1988 with her debut album, Kylie.