This is a man’s world: the music industry and its boys’ club

This is a man’s world: the music industry and its boys’ club

The music industry, as with all fields, is slowly awakening to the imminent need to diversify its roster in order to cater to an increasingly diverse audience. Be it more LGBTQ+ representation, more BIPOC representation and, in its most simplest form, more female representation. But whilst strides towards progression have been made, there’s still a long way to go. In the USC Annenberg’s recent report examining 800 popular songs on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts over an eight year period, just 21.7% of all artists were female; that’s roughly 1 woman to every 5 men. To be clear, I’m not looking to take away from the irrefutable achievements of men in music – it’s notoriously a tough enough industry for any individual to break into it – but rather seeking to understand the disparity between this same level of representation amongst women. To put it bluntly: where the heck are they all?! Sure, there are women present in music, spanning each and every genre, but the figures speak for themselves. The discrepancy between the number of women in the industry vs men is indisputable:

Image source: USC Annenberg ‘Inclusion in the Recording Studio?’ report January 2020

The reality is even bleaker when you break it down by further underrepresented groups; if you’re looking for women of colour and those who identify as LGTBQ+ in music…well, grab a microscope. From the USC Annenberg’s findings, the ratio of male to female producers is 37 to 1, but when looking at minority groups, the ratio broadens extensively to 133 to 1.

The incongruity in the number of women vs men in the music industry may not be immediately apparent, however. If you go to question anyone on the lack of women in music, you’ll undoubtedly be met with a huff of disbelief as they unabashedly begin to reel off the names of the superstars; Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj, Billie Eilish, so on and so forth. And they’d be forgiven for doing so. The music industry does an excellent job of pushing the women who have made it to the forefront of any and all media attention under the guise of this being representative of the wider scene. But if you peer beneath the curtains, there is a stark discrepancy in the number of female talent at a grassroots level, at a boardroom level, and even amongst various musical genres; representation should be present at all levels, not just the most visible ones.

There was none more an important reminder of this than earlier this year when music blogger and promoter Lucy Mccourt posted a virally-acclaimed redacted version of the Reading & Leads line-up poster after having removed all of the male acts. What remained was an overt call to action for the industry to do better. As the post gained traction from bigger media outlets and sparked a wider discussion, the increased pressure was successful in generating at least some reaction, with Matty Healy of The 1975 responding with a pledge to only play festivals with a gender-balanced line-up.

Only 8% artists booked to headline the UK’s major festivals this year were female, so why isn’t it as simple as festival bookers just adding more women onto the bills? Speaking to Grazia Daily, Latitude booker Lucy Wood suggests that they have to respond to the market and, in some cases, the market just isn’t there: “At the end of the day we need to think about ticket sales and that the artists we choose attract people to buy tickets. That narrows you down to people who are in cycle, and there’s a narrow pool at the headliner end.”

If this is the case, then this leads to me to perhaps the most important question: why is the pool of women in music so small? What’s deterring young girls from entering the industry and, when they do choose to pursue a career in music, why is the window of opportunity for them so narrow? What makes the the record industry so averse to nurturing female talent? You’ve probably already deduced that the multiple streams hindering women in the industry all flow into the same river (*ahem* sexism), but let’s explore the factors further…


Or so the music labels would have you believe. ”Anecdotally, I’ve heard that labels are not too keen on signing and developing female talent because it costs more,” shares Rhian Jones of Music Business Worldwide. “There’s stylists, there’s make-up artists and the shows tend to be bigger productions. Whereas Lewis Capaldi can just get a guitar out, put a t-shirt on and everyone loves it.” 

This stems directly from the objectification and sexualisation of women in music. The boundaries tend to be higher, with women needing to offer the “full package” to get so much as a look-in. Female performers require a plethora of outfit changes, multi-coloured wigs, overly-choreographed performances in dangerously high heels, a meat dress for shock factor – else who would want to listen, right?

The double standards are evident, with women steered towards constantly reinventing themselves for every “era” of music they put out, where every limb and strand of hair is fair game for media scrutiny – just recall the significance placed upon Ariana Grande lowering her ponytail in the “no tears left to cry’ artwork. It’s both mind-bogglingly laughable and cry-able. 

And where there are highly successful powerful women in music, there often follows a shroud of drama…almost perfectly-curated. How often have we seen female artists pitted against one another in an unfounded feud fuelled by both the media and PR teams alike? Every rapper is compared to Nicki Minaj, every front woman to Hayley Williams. Where does the notion that only one woman can occupy a space at any one time derive from? Especially when we’ve seen what can come when female artists are given the freedom to collaborate, such as with Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’ soaring to the top of the charts following a Nicki Minaj remix, followed closely by Beyoncé’s remix of ‘Savage’ by Megan Thee Stallion.


TW: rape, sexual assault

The indiscreet sexualisation of women leads to female artists being revered for their eye candy appearances more so than for their talent. This then meanders us down the murky ideology that those women who have been given the opportunity to showcase their talent owe something to the men in power who gave them their big break, because obviously women aren’t capable of great things themselves. Obviously. It’s not hard to find instances where men in powerful positions have outrightly abused their status, often with zero to minimal impact on their careers, which makes me question just how safe the music scene is for women. Perhaps the most notorious example to epitomise the exploitation of women in music is the infamous Kesha vs Dr Luke case, whereby singer songwriter Kesha accused her former producer of rape and sexual assault, and detailed the contractual agreements in place that limited her freedom as an artist. After years of court proceedings, the final verdict sided against Kesha and in favour of Dr Luke. I can’t dispute the legal outcome, but I can remind you all that it wouldn’t be completely out of the question for a corporation to seek to save its skin and silence the underdog wherever possible. To add further weight to this, the overwhelming outpouring of solidarity from other female artists, from Lady Gaga to Miley Cyrus to Taylor Swift, suggests that the experience perhaps hit fairly close to home for a good chunk of women in the industry.

Situations like this make it glaringly obvious as to why a young girl would see this unfolding and be deterred from getting into music. There are still very few barriers in place to prevent this type of exploitation and mistreatment from reoccurring, so how can we can ensure women in music are safe? Quite simply, if the men in charge can’t make music a safe space for women, they’re not cut out for the job.


After interviewing 75 female songwriters and producers to get a view of their experiences in the music industry, USC Annenberg discovered that more than 40% had had their work or skills dismissed or discounted by colleagues. With so few women in music in comparison to men, it’s little surprise that women aren’t always taken seriously and have to fight to legitimise their talent. When there are less women in a field or genre, it’s stereotyped that it’s because they’re simply not good enough. 

And where women are permitted, it’s typically where it fulfils the male gaze. Females fare best in pop music where the ratio of male artists to female artists on the charts is 2.1 to 1. That’s not bad. However, when you look at alternative music, the ratio expands to 8.1 males to every 1 female. I wouldn’t say this comes as a shock. Pop is conventionally happier and more upbeat, in line with societal expectations of women. When a woman branches out into more complex, introspective lyricism that can be seen as weird and self-indulgent, the media reaction is less desirable. Just ask Lana Del Rey. In an interview with Vogue, Taylor Swift reinforced the idea that a women’s success is tethered to the topics she sings about, which are essentially limited to knowing one’s place. When she was singing inoffensive fanciful love songs, her popularity propelled, but when she became more political and outspoken, there was a seismic change in public and record label response.

For women in alternative music and, more specifically in a band, the core of their identity becomes affiliated with them being a woman in a band. This could explain why so few embark upon the journey, with the number of women in bands totalling a mere 7.3%. With her autobiography, ‘Girl in a Band’, Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon uses the title as a tribute to how often an interviewer would ask her what it was like to be a girl in a band. Being a woman in music seems to have become a defining trait and, more worryingly, has taken the form of a genre in its own right. In an ideal world, women would not need individual platforms, organisations, and workshops based on their gender alone for them to be included in the industry. Ironically, the day gender equality in music is achieved and the concept of Mean Muse Magazine as a platform solely for women in music therefore becomes redundant, is the same day it will have reached its goal.


If you follow the breadcrumbs long enough, you get to the very core of the problem upholding inequality in the music industry: deeply-embedded systemic sexism. It wasn’t too long ago that we were applauding the Grammys for hiring their first female president, Deborah Dugan, before shortly hearing of her termination within the organisation soon after, following accusations of verbal abuse from her colleague. As a counter-claim, Dugan cited allegations of sexual harassment and corruption against ex-boss Neil Portnow. Dugan’s lawyers also heralded the decision to fire her as proof that the Academy will “stop at nothing to protect and maintain a culture of misogyny, discrimination, sexual harassment, corruption and conflicts of interest”.

This is the experience of just one woman in a high position in the music industry, but it’s interesting to note the sheer lack of women in these positions in music in general. In 2019, Marie Claire disclosed that, within pop music, men hold 67.8% of the jobs, of which the vast majority are positions of power. Of the women who are in music, the average gender pay gap across three major music labels in 2019 was 29.6% lower for females than men. Pay gaps of course aren’t limited to the music industry, but it’s yet another example of a disincentive for women. Why go through all of this for so little reward?

But nothing highlights the subtle systemic impediments women face clearer than a post last year by country singer Martina McBride sharing her frustration with Spotify’s recommendation algorithm. When trying to curate a country playlist, the first 135 suggestions of tracks to include were all men. Spotify’s explanation for this was that country radio doesn’t play as many women, resulting in labels signing less women, meaning listeners are less familiar with female country singers, and are therefore more likely to skip their songs, with the algorithm just doing its job and responding accordingly. This all feels a bit chicken-and-egg. After a meeting with Spotify on the issue, McBride fed back that Spotify hadn’t really been aware of the issue, which begs the question: on how many more occasions has something like this happened?

In an age where the fight for equality has become a collective battle, what can we do to achieve a gender balance in the music industry? To reiterate, change is happening. Take Barcelona’s Primavera festival as an example, where booking agents achieved a 50:50 gender balance two years in a row, deeming it “the new normal” in an attempt to normalise a well-rounded bill. Women have also taken things into their own hands, with organisations such as WXMB 2 aiming to connect womxn and non-binary people in music through workshops, panel discussions, and music event, as well as Vanessa Reed leading the Keychange initiative that aspires to achieve a 50/50 gender split in the music industry by 2022.

Ultimately, the only way to create long-standing equality within the music industry is for everyone to back the same horse, and that includes involving men in these conversations. We rely upon all divisions in the industry from labels, promoters, journalists and fans to do more to provide equal opportunities for women to get into the industry, and provide a safe space to nurture their talent when they’re there. After all, more women in music can only mean more successors.

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