Where are the women in music?
Singer-songwriter and music venue boss Hannah White is a passionate advocate for more women’s voices to be heard in music. To mark International Women’s Day 2020 she explains why she feels so strongly
“Most of us listen to music. Whether it’s indulging us, stirring us, motivating us or bringing us comfort, music is always there with us in the wider cultural landscape, framing our own personal emotional experiences and influencing how we live them. So it has to be more than a little concerning that where this art-form-as-old-as-time is concerned, 50% of the population is not getting a fair look-in.
Just a few months ago in October 2019, Vick Bain [former CEO of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors] published findings from some first-of-its-kind research analysing the gender balance in the music industry. The survey of more than 300 UK music publishers and record labels found that only 14% of published songwriters are women. Bain also found that of all artists signed to record labels in the UK, only 20% are female.
The statistics that Bain uncovered suggests that the representation of women in music is only a fraction higher than the gender ratio of the construction industry, where women make up just 11% of workers. The repercussions of doing nothing to address this stark imbalance do not bear thinking about. When the gender-bias is unacknowledged, the lack of representation remains unseen. Why on earth would we all pause our daily activities to notice that the songs we are listening to (even when sung by a woman) are filling our heads with male words, male preferences and the male perspective? The industry is starting to wake up to the need for change, but the statistics remain demoralising for girls and women looking to make a career in music.
The lack of opportunity combined with the reluctance of women themselves to speak out and take action also explains why the shift towards gender equality is so slow. Only 18% of music publishing CEOs are female, so decisions backstage and behind the scenes are well and truly being made by men. Furthermore, the risks for people who live and die for their art are real! Women, like myself, in the music industry are fearful of kicking up too much of a fuss for fear of turning an inhospitable path in to a no-go zone.
There are signs, maybe not of transformation, but certainly of an awakening, and there is cause for hope. Certain events have prompted coverage in our media. In 2013 when all 13 winners of the British Composer Awards were men (yes all of them!) The Independent published an article urging the public to submit classical nominations composed by women. The press response following January’s Brit Awards when only 6 of the 28 nominations up for grabs went to women (equal to 21%, only 5% more than in the very first Brit Awards in 1977) was unequivocal in its condemnation. Having said that, in over 6 decades women have only been the recipient of 6% of all Ivor Novello (songwriting) awards, and it is no easy task to find any coverage at all on the subject. There are roads left to tread!
The UK’s PRS (Performing Rights Society) has launched what they call a ‘50/50 Keychange’ initiative to achieve a 50/50 gender split in the industry by 2022, and to date over 250 companies (including festivals) have signed up. When Glastonbury Festival organiser, Emily Eavis, said in the Guardian in 2018, “The pool isn’t big enough…everyone’s hungry for women, but they’re just not there”, she may perhaps not have been directing her words to the industry as such. Recent pledges do however suggest the industry’s ears were burning.
We desperately need these conversations to continue and to evolve, we need the data (and more of it), and we need people with platforms to use them to make things better. This is, of course, how change starts, and we all have a part to play when we sense that something is amiss. It is not just because I run a music venue that I believe firmly in listening hard and singing loud.
Singer songwriter and activist Hannah White jointly runs the Sound Lounge live music venue, currently in Morden’s Crown Lane after bases in Merton Abbey Mills, Tooting and Wimbledon. Her latest album Elephant Eye with her band the Nordic Connections was released on Sound Lounge Records.