The 2020 Grammys almost made it over the finish line without controversy. The nominees for this Sunday’s ceremony boasted unprecedented gender equality. With Lizzo, Lil Nas X and HER among the most garlanded nominees, it would be untarnished by the #GrammysSoWhite criticisms of recent years. The Recording Academy was set to stride confidently into its new future, having publicly addressed its longstanding issues around representation. Two years ago, CEO Neil Portnow said women should “step up” if they wanted recognition: the resulting outcry led him to step down, and he was replaced by Deborah Dugan. Michelle Obama’s former chief of staff, Tina Tchen, led a taskforce on diversity and inclusion. In December, it published 18 recommendations; the academy promised to implement all but one.
Here was a rare music industry model of accountability and reform – until last weekend. After the academy fired Dugan, citing allegations of misconduct including bullying, she filed a 44-page discrimination complaint alleging that she had been sexually harassed by an academy lawyer and a former trustee. She said that Portnow faces a rape allegation, alleged corruption and racial discrimination, and stated that such behaviour was made possible by the academy’s “‘boys’ club’ mentality and approach to governance”. Portnow denies the claims; the academy said Dugan “never raised these grave allegations” during her five-month tenure.
Dugan’s specific allegations aside, her comments regarding the culture inside the academy offer a (rarely required) reminder that the music industry is more concerned with flattering optics than systemic change. Women may dominate this year’s four main Grammys categories, but gender parity in awards season only swabs at the festering wound of inequality.
This week, the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative published its third annual “Inclusion in the recording studio?” report examining the gender and ethnicity of creators across 800 US singles chart hits from 2012 to 2019. Across those eight years, just 21.7% of artists were women. Women fared worse behind the scenes: just 14.4% of 2019’s leading songwriters were female. Of the 800 songs analysed, 56.4% did not feature one female songwriter. Only 2.6% of producers were women. Study leader Dr Stacey L Smith said the music industry had “virtually erased female producers, particularly women of colour, from the popular charts”.
Should it bear repeating, it is not that female musicians, songwriters and producers are less talented – creativity and technical prowess are not gendered attributes – but that there are evidently cliffs where opportunity withers and ambitions are stonewalled. In this climate, it was almost refreshing to see the forthcoming 40th Brit awards’ brazen disregard for female British musicians: out of 25 possible nominations across mixed-gender categories, only one went to a woman, Mabel, and one to Sam Smith, who is non-binary. It offered zero pretence about the fact that male musicians are today’s beneficiaries of British music industry largesse.
The Brits experienced its own public reckoning after the #BritsSoWhite controversy of 2016 when it failed to nominate any black artists. In response, it diversified its voting committee. This year, its 1,445 members comprise 49% female and 24.5% BAME voters, to clear results in one field: half of this year’s nominees are artists of colour. While the refreshed voting board will have helped, this recognition is also inevitable given the recent dominance of British rap – a diverse, largely independent creative force that has become a commercial giant.
Because Brits eligibility doesn’t just depend on artists releasing music during the previous 12 months, but Top 40 success. This disadvantages female performers, who are being signed and promoted at an inferior rate: as industry reporter Rhian Jones identifies in her assessment of this year’s Brits, 2019 analysis by former Basca CEO Vick Bain of UK labels’ public-facing rosters found that fewer than 20% of actively promoted current signings were women. Unlike rap, in which DIY paths to the mainstream are de rigueur, pop as an art form relies on scale and infrastructure that an individual can’t create for herself.
The Brits could change its rules so that any British music released over the past 12 months might be considered – an opportunity to recognise our considerable creative influence over the bottom line – but as is often the case with music’s power brokers, they are shifting the blame, stating that the longlist was pulled from Official Charts Company data. This amounts to passing the buck from left hand to right: major labels produce the bulk of what goes in the charts. They also take turns running the Brits (this year, it’s Universal). Their voting representatives almost always tip their own product. And so the pool shrinks.
It is a strange time for the UK’s major labels to be so conservative – signing infinite hat-wearing balladeers named Tom and James – when female iconoclasts constitute pop’s biggest game-changers: Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Rosalía. These wildly diverse propositions are a far cry from how the British industry weds big female voices to male producers before the training wheels come off and – honour of honours – they get to make their new New Rules.
Industry figures claim there is no conspiracy against women. Capital’s co-president Nick Raphael told Rhian Jones: “If someone as unbelievable as Adele, Amy or Duffy sent in an amazing demo, had a great manager and was a really great artist, everyone would be fighting to [sign them].” Presumably he intended to indicate openness to female talent, but he only shows how limited that opening is: the expectation of preternatural greatness and access to managerial support, not to mention the risible idea that these ordinary boys are “unbelievable” as Adele. The expectations facing male and female musicians couldn’t be more polarised.
This is my 10th year covering these issues. While the noise has grown louder, little has changed. The only glimmer of hope is the continually renewing stream of brilliant female and non-binary acts who change the game from the sidelines. Change isn’t out of reach, which is why it’s frustrating to see the industry continually shrug off its power to make it happen.
Geoff Ellis, the founder of Scottish festival TRNSMT, blamed its heavily male-skewed 2020 lineup on a lack of “females” – always a revealing word – “picking up guitars, forming bands, playing in bands” and said that gender parity at festivals was a “while” away. Meanwhile, Barcelona’s Primavera has dropped the “New Normal” branding that signalled gender equality on its 2019 lineup because, as this year’s balanced lineup shows, it simply is their new normal. This week, a US country music radio station said it could not play two (here we go!) females back to back, a common policy among country pluggers. In response, the influential broadcaster CMT instantly pledged gender parity on its two radio stations.
How else might change look? Paying attention to where female producers, who enter education at the same rate as men, begin to face resistance. Major artists working with female producers – and especially male artists, ending the cliche that men push buttons and women sing. Female producers being given the opportunity to hone a singular craft, rather than diversify into “triple-threat” singers and writers, as the pop star Caroline Polachek has astutely identified. A diverse array of female A&Rs and executives imagining more creative futures for women in pop. More support for Britain’s female rappers, who have hardly benefited from increased attention to the genre. Male artists stipulating that they will only play events with balanced bills.
As another awards season slides down the pipe, one fundamental truth should underpin the backslapping: recognition is not possible without opportunity. A smoke screen can only hold up for so long. Until systemic change really begins, we should assume that the record industry’s “boys’ club”, as Dugan called it, has little interest in opening its doors.