Music predates all other forms of communication. In theory, it’s our most democratic and accessible art form – anyone can convey meaning through sound. Today, thanks to the efforts of businesses like our partner Native Instruments, Roli, Teenage Engineering and others, making music is getting easier. But not for women.
Women remain absurdly under-represented in music-making. Perhaps you know this already (or aren't surprised) but the stats demand attention: between 2013-18, just 9.3% of Grammy nominees were women; in Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest albums of all time, the highest-rated album by a female artist is at #30 (Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’); and in 2017’s Billboard 100, 12% of songwriters and just 2% of producers were women.
That means that for every woman producing music, there are 49 men.
Why? One industry insider we spoke to suggested that “men and women simply have different hobbies, and making music is not a hobby women typically pursue”. Another claimed that, “men and women’s brains are different, that’s why women don’t DJ as much, they aren’t able to remember the information properly". Sadly, this nonsense is now familiar, and revealing: the kind of piffle believed by a world that has been, as Elena Ferrante puts it, "poisoned at the root by millennia of male domination".
What’s odd is that the presence of women in music is even worse than film and tech, and receives less attention. Do we mistake the hyper-sexualised, high-profile pop starlets for diversity ambassadors? Because behind the scenes women are discounting themselves from, or being kept out of an industry that shapes our culture. This is a crisis, and it demands radical change.
Many expected the allegations against Russell Simmons to prompt change. They didn’t. But is that really what it takes? We’ve already had Weinstein – the canary’s dead folks, time to get out of the mine! Relying on the unearthing of deeply illegal and immoral behaviour to uproot entrenched power is bleak.
There must be a brighter way.
At the recent SXSW, female artists spoke out on the daily challenges they face trying to find one. According to artist Emma White, the solution is to "keep talking” and, crucially, to recognise that “it’s our responsibility as women...to choose to be supportive (of each other)” – often a challenge in a market where the competition for so few spots is so fierce.
It’s a challenge Shesaid.so, a support network for women in the industry, is tackling head on. But we can do plenty more. What’s the music industry equivalent of an ‘inclusion rider’? We need to, as Helen Lewis points out, “address the material conditions that lead to disadvantage” – it’s not just a case of adjusting the optics and it’s certainly not about women ‘stepping up’ – we need to dig into the systems and structures and radically alter them to suit everybody. Presently the systems are guarded by the labels, awarding bodies and brands like Native Instruments – if they are prepared to change, the culture can too.
But they need to move fast, because whilst gender diversity in music production is stuck in the past, technology that augments music production is rapidly progressing. And the majority of this technology is being made by men, who are literally encoding their biases and so futureproofing the patriarchal dominance.
Minor to major
Technology that automates processes and decision-making in music-making isn't new – arguably a normal piano does this, let alone a synthesised one – but the latest, produced by companies like Jukedeck, is going further. Algorithms that can create melodies and emotionally move their audiences are making us wonder: 'can machines be creative?' And if so, can AI-driven music compete with human music? Japan already boasts a successful virtual pop-star (or 'collaboratively constructed cyber celebrity’, if you like) in Hatsune Miku. It might not be long before ‘she’ can write her own music.
The potential of this kind of technology is exciting – machine learning systems seem poised to prompt a reimagining of the idea of an ‘artist’. Those closest to the technology are quick to highlight its limitations: Google’s ambition for Nsynth, a new technology which uses neural nets to create sounds currently impossible with traditional synthesis, is simply: ‘to aid the creative process'. But for businesses and artists struggling to make money in the industry today, it must be tempting to imagine that this ambition is limited, or perhaps disguised. Machine artists would eventually not only offer attractive new forms of creativity, they would be a lot cheaper, perhaps offering future profitability for businesses like Spotify.
As exciting as this all sounds, it’s a precarious situation for gender parity. Men dominate the efforts above, and male-led tech playing a bigger role in music would compound biases, making it even harder for women to have a place.
But there’s hope. Women are steadily, publicly playing more of a role in ‘AI, with female-led initiatives like AI4ALL willing the male majority to balance, fast. If we can reach gender parity in AI tech, there’s hope it could lead to gender parity in music-making.
It’s a big ‘if’ though. So while this tech and our hopes for women’s role in it are still developing, we must demand that those in power make every effort to make the existing industry radically more balanced, and support them as they do. As Andreea Magdalina, founder of Shesaid.so told us: “it’s time to start innovating for everyone”.
For an industry that’s so fundamental to culture-creation, this is crucial.