Why Do Female Music Producers Only Make Up 5% Of The Industry?

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Fader magazine recently published an article about the low number of female music producers in the industry, and not only was it an interested insight into gender imbalance in music behind the scenes, we had to share some of the highlights.

On the performance side of the industry, women are dominating left right and center, as well as breaking records. Early October Billboard reported that for the first time in its 56-year history, female solo artists have occupied the top 5 spots on the Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 7 weeks, and the top spot goes to ‘All About That Bass’ singer Meghan Trainor.

And despite the fact she pulled her entire library of songs off music streaming service Spotify prompting speculation it would hurt the sales of her new album ‘1989’, Taylor Swift’s also just set a new record. She sold almost 1.3 million copies of her new album in its first week, according to data from Neilson. Between them, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and Lady Gaga have sold over 22 million records since 2008.

Needless to say women are at an all-time high in the music world, on stage. But why is the number of female producers as low as 5%? It’s not something new, according to the first female country music producer Gail Davies.

“People didn’t want to work for a woman,” she says. And by “people” she means “men.” Powerful men. “A lot of good old boys balked, and they blackballed me,” she says. “When you arrived in Nashville, women were still barefoot, pregnant and in the vocal booth.”

The social and cultural norms have had a massive influence on how the music industry has been run, it seems. But thanks to the internet, the rise of programs and opportunities to self-produce and distribute music (think iTunes and Bandcamp, for example) the tides are slowly changing, but it has never been a greater time to increase representation and break down stereotypes for future generations.

Fader spoke to 13 female producers on their thoughts about the industry being so gender imbalanced, and what their solutions are to increase the number from 5%.

“Beats aren’t gendered. We don’t listen with our genitals. So why are we still in the dark ages when it comes to gender equality in the music studio?” asks Fader. “It the vast majority of music that surrounds us is produced by men, then most of the music we document will be music that is produced by men.”

Fatima Al Qadiri, aka Future Brown, from New York says support is one thing, but women also need to be fearless in going after their goals in music producing and engineering.

“Unfortunately, the repulsive reality is women are expected to be the sexualized commercial object for sale in music, and production and engineering is rarely objectified for financial gain. [Barriers to career progression for women include] misogyny, sexism, unequal pay, alienation, pressure to sell your body for coins, pressure to make your body (rather than your music) the central focus of your career in order to survive in the industry, segregation.”

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Caroline Polachek, also from New York, says there are more opportunities for females to produce and perform their own music, but not necessarily others. They are typically good-looking women, which means anything less than Beyonce-beautiful (btw, she produced ‘I Am Sasha Fierce’) doesn’t get taken seriously.

“The archetype of Male Producer (take Rick Rubin, or Phil Spector for example) is not a man who necessarily composes, sings, or looks good on camera. Quite the opposite—the Male Producer is passionate about music but not a performer, putting in years hunched behind the console in unglamorous isolation before achieving guru status.”

“By holding up female performers as producer-icons, we could potentially be discouraging the girls who don’t feel comfortable presenting themselves as visual objects from entering the field. At the moment, an artist is not as likely to bring in a woman to produce his track as a man, not because of a bias against women per se, but because on some level it’s playing safe: a killer producer, history tells us, looks like a man.”

Ultimately her solution is that the music should (in an ideal world) speak for itself, but until then the onus is on women to step up more.

“I think it’s up to girls to teach themselves the skills they need and step up to the plate as musical pioneers, not up to corporate sponsorships to give handouts that emphasize that the recipient is a minority rather than as a expert.”

Wondagurl, aka 16 year-old Ebony Oshunrinde from Toronto who was picked by Jay Z to make beats for his Magna Carta album is one of those girls who is stepping up and taking those chances by the cojones.

“I believe there aren’t many female producer and engineers, because they find this side of the business to be mostly male-dominated and many woman do not like to have to compete with men,” she says.

“There should be no barrier to progress in this industry. I’m not sure why a woman has never won a Grammy [in this field], but I feel Missy Elliot should get a Grammy for her hard work in the industry as a producer.”

Holly Herndon from San Francisco gives a different perspective on the issue, saying despite the public perception, music is quite conservative behind the scenes, hence the dominant patriarchy still in place.

“It’s quite transparent how little the music industry formula, or major motion picture formula, has changed since the advent of the internet. It’s like they are in permanent austerity mode, and so play it safe. Every year we get a diva, a dancer, a bad boy, a crooner, a girl next door, a fashion queen, a dainty songstress; all younger updates on a previous model. No room for new archetypes,” she says.

“Our biggest barrier is our infatuation with these old archetypes, and a lack of insistence on establishing new ones that reflect a culture we would like to live in. That extends far beyond gender issues. We have to create new fantasies.” Part of creating new fantasies means women being allowed opportunities for greater visibility, allowing new imagery to be part of the dominant conversation.

Holly’s solution is to exist outside the archetypal boundaries, similar to what Missy Elliott did, and forge a new path yet untrodden.

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Los Angeles-based Tokimonsta is a producer who Kelly Rowland has been working with on her new album, and she says technology has (and still is) been traditionally dominated by men, which plays a huge part in digital recording, producing and engineering in music today.

“Men have to be open minded to the fact that women can make platinum selling beats in every category of music. Though women are starting to take over more music exec positions, there are still the big guys up there that may continue to undermine our ability to make quality tracks,” she said.

“The reality is that there is a systematic flaw in our culture. Women need to feel proud to stand on their own and be creative without worrying about how we may be inadequate. ”

London-based Ikonika says her solution would be female producers being paid the same as men for doing the same job, being considered for the same jobs, and being promoted just as much as men in the industry. Can’t argue with that!

Anna Lunoe, from Sydney, Australia, says visibility of more female producers is key.

“The more there are in the public space, the more young girls will see it as a option for them from a young age and find the confidence to start learning. That means we need women not only to be producing but—and this is important—to stimulate meaningful change we need them to actually rise to the top and become visible…it truly is a numbers game: the more women going into the industry means the more women going up, and visibility is the key to change.”

She has a two-pronged attack that she not only thinks will help change the status quo, but hopes she can have a hand in implementing when she has the time (between making sick beats of course).

” 1) Getting more girls exposed to introductory production workshops at a young age before they get into that teenage headspace of learning that they can’t. 2) Developing some quality production mentoring programs that are specifically aimed at promising young female engineers to develop their skills further.”

Jubilee, a New York-based producer says music is not that dissimilar from other industries where men outweigh the women, and a lot of it stems from early cultural road markers that girls are taught to adhere to.

“I think it stems from society telling girls they should be wearing pink and playing with Barbies and cooking in an Easy Bake Oven. Even if they aren’t specifically told these things everything leans towards it, which puts in people’s heads that they aren’t supposed to do such things, or it would never work or be accepted.”

She also says it can be a competitive thing, where men feel threatened by the increase of women in their “boys club.” Think of  the Gamergate issue and what is happening right now in the video game world, where although half the gamers are women, misogyny and sexism exists in a major way.

“I have worked with several men that started to feel threatened the second I started to get a little bit of attention. Most men get freaked out when women do things better than them or even as good as them and it goes for everything. Politics, music, business, whatever.”

Her solution is for women in that 5% of privileged positions to make way for others.

“The few women in high positions should take other women under their wing and help them. That goes for male engineers too. This all goes down to the basic bottom line of feminism in general though.”

Kelly-Rowland-Tokimonsta

Producer Leila from London thinks women in positions of power have traditionally been diffused by their positioning within the cultural context. But thanks to much easier access to technology, the younger generation have a better chance to portray women in the music industry as more than just the “pretty face”.

“Stop making cheap glamor, fame and attention so desirable—but this is a crisis within society as a whole and not just this business called show. Instead of revering people like Missy, the press champions nonsense like Madonna as a modern woman. Offer ALL your kids chemistry sets and coding lessons. There is hope because everyone has computers and it’s up to the parents and the girls themselves to put in the hours to learn these things. Raise humans with the confidence and the tools to do this and we may yet advance. Recognize Missy.”

Nightwave from Glasgow, Scotland says female producers need to be respected on the same level as men, not portrayed as a gimmick.

“Bigger female representation in music events and in music press, without drawing undesired attention to it (less click-bait articles about the problem, more focus on the work of women producers). And if you’re going to write about it, include men in the debate, we need to shift this paradigm together and work towards equality in the future. ”

Nice to hear a solution that includes men and reinforces it is about equality, not dominance.

Finally Emily Reo from New York says that although data suggests there are only 5%, its the unknown number of women that need to be taken notice of.

“There are obviously many other women still under the radar. They’re out there, just not included in that noteworthy percentage, which to me is the biggest problem.”

“Since power starts at the top, it would be great if both labels and high profile artists took a little more time and consideration when selecting producers, and reached out to talented women instead of cycling through the same ~10 men that are responsible for most of what you hear on the radio,” she says offering her solution suggestions.

The other half of her solution is doing exactly what Fader did with this article, and what we are sharing here on our site.

“Profiling talented female producers and engineers more frequently is a start. Profiling women in the music industry without the qualifier of ‘female’ would be great, since female isn’t a genre.”

If music is no respecter of gender, then neither should the decision-makers, artists, labels and execs. Pick the most talented person, and recognize that both male and female voices are vital for allowing music to continue to be the democratic medium is it today.

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5 Comments

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  2. Although there certainly is gender disparity in the technical side of the music industry, the 5% number is not true at all. The number is originally taken from the percentage of female members in MPG, the music producers guild, Which sounds like a very big and global association at first, but a quick search in their members directory shows that they only have a few hundred members, and of the producers I could think of (both legendary ones like Max Martin, Damon Albarn and Rick Rubin, to everyone you mentioned in this article), none were members.

    The Music Producers Guild doesn’t even come close to being an accurate representation of producers in the industry, and I think it honestly is hurtful for the progress of feminism to throw around completely wrong numbers that men’s rights activists and other misogynists easily can discredit.

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