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Inclusion in the recording studio – Is the music industry still a “boy’s club”?

2020 has been a very successful year for women in the music industry so far: Billie Eilish became only the second person to ever win a Grammy in all of the 4 major categories (Best New Artist, Album, and Record and Song of the Year) at only 18 years of age and Hildur Gudnadóttir, the Icelandic composer became the first woman to win an Academy Award for a film score since 1997. Great achievements, indicating that women are starting to get the recognition they deserve. But those changes seem to happen at a slow pace. 

Hildur Guðnadóttir points out how rarely female composers are getting honored in the film industry and claims that “… we should be opening up the industry to more women”. In her acceptance speech, she urged girls and women “…who hear the music bubbling within, to please speak up – we need to hear your voices”. 

But what is the current state of gender disparity? How far have we come and how far do we have to go when it comes to inclusion in the music industry?

A recent study conducted by the University of Southern California Annenberg evaluated the Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Artists, Songwriters & Producers across 800 Popular Songs from 2012-2019.

It revealed that around 20% of those artists and only 12,5% of those songwriters were women. Even more significant, only 2,6% of the producers involved were female, meaning in other words, the ratio of male and female producers last year was 37 to 1.

A similar picture is painted when having a profound look at Grammy nominations of the recent past. Over the last 7 years, only 10.4% of the nominees were female and since 1974 only six women have even been nominated for “Producer of the Year.”

What are the potential reasons behind this? 

Recent studies found no differences between male and female artists in terms of their “high-level compositional quality”. Statistically, there are even more girls than boys in high school bands, choirs, and orchestras.

Dr. Stacy L. Smith, who led the study on “inclusion in the recording studio” believes that this is partly due to the perception of women in the industry which is still “highly stereotypical, sexualized, and without skill. Until those core beliefs are altered, women will continue to face a roadblock as they navigate their careers.”

Mastering engineer Emily Lazar (Sia, Foo Fighters, Adele) agrees with this statement and adds that gender stereotyping is the main problem and already occurs early in children’s lives. Shaping what girls’ interests and skills should be. Inevitably leading to the phenomena that “94% of people [who] buy high-fidelity audio equipment are men”.

Grammy Award-winning engineer Emily Lazar

Grammy Award-winning engineer Emily Lazar

New Yorker producer, sound engineer, and journalist Nick Messitte believes that the Grammy awards have been playing a big role in this disparity over the last years. He underlines this statement by pointing out that the more men are rewarded for their production, the more we perceive the industry as a “boy’s club”. Making it a vicious circle where men are constantly coming out on top, and simply broaden their sphere of influence. Making it even more important for female producers to break through into this realm and start getting in the game. 

Inclusion: Sylvia Massy

Sylvia Massy

Producer Sylvia Massy (Tool, System of the Down,…), who gave a great workshop at our institute in Berlin last summer, points out that it is more difficult for women to build up a network in a field that is so dominated by men: “A career in music production means a lot of 14 hour days in a dark studio with little outside contact.” Being locked away in a dark room does not seem like an appealing prospect for anyone, regardless of gender. But the small percentage of female producers and engineers make it incredibly hard for women to grow socially in the industry, eventually gravitating into other fields. Especially because men traditionally tend to prefer working with other men.

Another aspect that interests us a lot as an institute is to find out what our students think about this topic. For this purpose we interviewed our graduate Megan Ashworth and our current student Gabrielle Betty and asked them about personal experience and opinions regarding this issue:

Megan Ashworth

Megan, when we interviewed you one year ago for our blog you had just graduated and told us about your plans of becoming a professional songwriter. How was the transition for you into the industry? What did you experience?

The transition was pretty seamless for me. Even before I graduated from Abbey Road Institute I was contacted by an A&R (a kind of talent scout) at one Open Studio Day. It was pretty straight forward from thereon. They placed me in a session and a few weeks later I was offered a contract as a songwriter at Guesstimate.

There are various studies and the statistics reveal that it’s more difficult for women to start a career in the music industry. The latest studies also show that the percentage of female songwriters is only around 12%. Does this match your experiences? Or to put it differently: Do you perceive the gender structure as one-sided?

From my experiences, the percentage of men indeed is higher, especially in the Songwriting Camps. In these camps, those few attending women are mostly writers while almost all of the producers are men. On the contrary, it can also be easier for a female songwriter/singer to get booked because of the lower competition.

Megan Ashworth

Megan Ashworth

What were the main motivations for you to become a songwriter? Did you have role models growing up?

I couldn’t help it, songwriting just always came naturally to me. Like a language, you speak by birth. Which is why I never really had any specific songwriting role models.

In the context of the upcoming festival season, discussions are going on if organisers should introduce a quota of women. Do you think that such a regulation could also be applied to songwriting camps?

Of course, it would be great when publishers and organizers would take an effort to balance out the amount of female and male songwriters. But I don’t think that it’s necessary to implement such regulation as I think this would lead to an unnatural atmosphere.

If you are a good writer you will be booked either way. Then it is not important what kind of people you are surrounded by.

What are your next steps? Are there any projects or songs you are involved with which will be released soon?

Every beginning is difficult. I’m not allowed to give away too much information but over the last year, I was able to already write a bunch of songs for well-known artists and DJs. I will be posting release dates and all the other relevant information regarding my music on my Instagram account @novaskyofficial

Gabrielle Betty

Gabrielle is a Jamaican singer-songwriter currently studying our “Advanced Diploma” at Abbey Road Institute Berlin since September last year.

Gabrielle, what are you working on at the moment and what are your ambitions for this year?

I am currently writing and working on singles which I plan to release during this year. I plan to go on tour with this music after my time here. Additionally, I’m Jamaican and my hope is to also produce music for the young talented people there who might not have the resources to get their music produced and engineered by a professional. I remember when I was younger and had just started making music.  If someone had given me the help I now hope to give it would have been such a gift to me.

According to the latest study only, approximately 21,7% of the most successful artists and only 2,5% of producers are female. What are your thoughts on the gender gap in the industry?

In most occupations, the ratio of men that are hired and well paid compared to women is still disproportionate. I’ve also noticed that in the field of engineering whether it be sound or even mechanical engineering, that the number of women is few and I think it all has to do with how we women/girls are socialized at a young age and the ideas that we conclude about jobs that women do. I think it doesn’t occur to most women that this is a job they could do. When in reality all it takes is the willingness to learn.

Inclusion

Gabrielle Betty

How is it for you as an artist? Have you ever felt discriminated against based on your gender?

It’s funny that you asked me this question because just yesterday a friend/classmate of mine pointed out to me that I was both the only female and also only black student in the class. So I said, “wow I didn’t notice, do you think the others noticed?“ Then he said, “I won’t tell them if you don’t”. To which we both started laughing. I guess you could say we have a dark sense of humor. I guess this also shows something about how healthy the work environment is at the Abbey Road Institute because while at school I really don’t notice this fact. However outside of school (in the field) I do sometimes become painfully aware that I am female. For example, when I’m in a studio and a new person walks in they automatically assume that I am someone’s girlfriend. However, I’ve come to view this element as an opportunity to surprise people. I see this as an advantage because people who surprise you are memorable. People who professionally do a good job and are memorable get hired more often. So I no longer mind.

What next? How might things change in the future?

Both interviews underline that the perception of female artists, songwriters, and producers drastically needs to change. For that to happen, it needs more female role models, producers like Emily Lazar, Sylvia Massy or Linda Perry who show that it’s possible to be successful as a woman in the music industry.

With established and respected pop stars like Taylor Swift, Lorde or Billie Eilish, aware of their responsibility as role models and using their power, the ambition is that this contributes to change through the influence they have on the market. They are raising awareness of issues such as gender inequality and support organisations that try to make a change.

Selena Gomez, for example, is part of the so-called “Taskforce” that was introduced by the Recording Academy to examine issues of diversity and inclusion within the Academy and the music business itself.  She joined to help create opportunities for females in the music industry. 

While recording her new Album “Rare” she ensured that “…there were women involved in the creative process on every song whether as songwriter, producer, or engineer.” Adding that “it’s a start, but there is much work to be done to amplify women’s voices in our business.” Stacy L. Smith says those decisions can have a huge impact on the gender imbalance:  “We could dramatically change [what the latest study found] if just 10 artists ensured that at least one individual in all those roles was a woman. We could see a major shift by next year.”

Other non-profit organisations like “SoundGirls” and  “She is the Music” are very important as well, as they help to “empower the next generation of women in audio.” The rate of women in the audio industry is still less than 5%. Or the Keychange Initiative, founded in 2017 to create a gender balance on stages. Over 120 international festivals already support the initiative and helped to improve the number of female artists on festivals across the whole of Europe over the last years. Unfortunately, most of the festivals still lack female headliners.

But what else can be done? Nick Messitte also recognises the responsibility that  Music Production schools have. By offering and actively encouraging alternative profiles in music where young girls can begin to see themselves as more than just clothes, pretty faces, and style icons, we might start to see more women work behind the scenes in the art of music-making. 

 “This is where our institute comes into play”, says Tolga Tolun, managing director at Abbey Road Institute Germany. “By inviting school classes to our institute and giving them valuable insight into professional recording studios, we try to break the gender barrier for young girls/women and make them aware that those career possibilities exist for anyone who has a passion for music. And the feedback is often overwhelming. But we know there is still a lot to gain  and we will certainly do more in the future!”

Just this week Abbey Road Studios launched Abbey Road Equalise, in collaboration with our London Institute, a program developed to actively drive equality in the control room and production studio. Their first event was a masterclass in music production from Marta Di Nozzi, London alumni and now a Runner at the studio. A great initiative and something we will certainly keep a close watch on for further implementation and collaboration at the other institutes

So where does that leave us?

It can be concluded that the gender imbalance in the music industry remains a relevant and complex issue. The deep disparities between successful female and male artists, songwriters and especially producers underline that it’s still more difficult for women to start a career in the music industry than for men. This mostly seems to have to do with the perception of women in the industry, which is unfortunately still stereotypical and sexualized. But the latest developments also show that change is happening, slowly but steady, giving reasons for hope.

New Initiatives are launched to improve diversity and inclusion within the music community and to help create opportunities for women in the music industry. Supported by famous, powerful role models that inspire other women to speak up and to be who they want to be, not what society tells them to. 

In the meantime artists like Billie Eilish and Lizzo have been dominating the Grammy awards and charts this year, while Hildur Gudnadóttir was the first woman to win an Academy Award for a film score since 1997. Additionally, the numbers of female artists, songwriters and producers are slowly increasing. 

These developments are positive signals showing that many things start to turn in the right direction. Tolga Tolun is convinced that this is only the beginning and that we all can try to contribute to improving gender inequality. 

“As an institute, our main goal is to offer people the opportunity, independent from their gender or heritage to study music production and sound engineering and create an inclusive space to learn in. Preparing them for a career in this industry by not only focusing on theoretical knowledge but rather on how to capitalize on this knowledge and apply it practically in the recording studio. To gain experiences and make mistakes before their career kicks off. Like many of our students, Megan and Gabrielle have great potential to become very successful. May they be an inspiration for other girls and women! They have our full support and we are very excited to see what comes next.”

 If you are also interested in the journey of Megan Ashworth and Gabrielle Betty, then make sure to follow their social media pages.