There’s a wonderful new film titled Here To Be Heard: The Story Of The Slits, which not only chronicles the ups and downs of punk rock’s fabulous first all-female group, but exposes the shameful sexism of the music industry back in the seventies and eighties. After watching the film, I reflected that we have come a long way from those days and while other creative industries grapple with the issues thrown up by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, in gender terms popular music proudly operates on a level playing field. How complacently wrong could I be?
A week after, a major new initiative called Keychange was announced aimed at redressing what turns out to be a vast gender imbalance in music. The statistics behind the campaign are staggering. A BBC study of recent UK music festivals found that out of 660 headline appearances, only 37 were all-female acts. The Wireless Festival, held at London’s Finsbury Park in July, has just three female artists across three days, while this year’s Green Man Festival lineup has no women among its headline acts. A survey by The Guardian found that on any given night, more than two-thirds of the gigs taking place all over Britain feature an exclusively male lineup.
Why did the rallying cries turn out to be little more than hollow slogans?
The stats are just as depressing away from the stage. According to the PRS Foundation, women represent less than 15 percent of all registered composers and songwriters. Meanwhile, earnings for women in music are on average far lower than for men and women are chronically under represented in executive roles, making up just 5 percent of all sound engineers, according to industry group SoundGirls. The Music Producers Guild says that only 6 percent of its members are women. Of the almost 900 acts nominated for the last six ceremonies at the Grammy Awards, 91 percent were men. Gender diversity in the American music industry, it turns out, may be even worse than it is over in the movie business.
The Keychange initiative, set up by the PRS Foundation, has so far recruited 45 international music festivals, which have pledged that by 2022 at least 50 percent of their lineups will be made up of women. Those signing up to the equality pledge include the Proms, Liverpool Sound City, the Aldeburgh Festival and Cheltenham Jazz Festival. BBC Music has also lent its support, promising a 50/50 gender split on the ‘Introducing’ stages it hosts for new performers across various festivals.
The big ticket rock festivals from Glastonbury to Roskilde in Denmark are yet to sign the pledge and are reluctant to move away from boys armed with guitars and fuelled by testosterone, although Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis is a Keychange ‘ambassador’ and supports in principle.
What is perhaps most depressing is that long before the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, popular music was singing about gender and power. It’s more than 30 years since Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin told us “sisters are doin’ it for themselves” and more than 20 years since the Spice Girls celebrated ‘girl power’. So why did these brave anthems and rallying cries turn out to be little more than hollow slogans?
Every one of the 25 musicians featured on David Byrne’s new album American Utopia (HFC 435) is male. When this was pointed out to him, his response was contrite and instructive. “It’s hard to realise that no matter how much effort you spend nudging the world in what you hope is the right direction, sometimes you are part of the problem,” he admitted. “I never thought of myself as being ‘one of those guys’, but I guess to some extent I am.”
Many remain uneasy about positive discrimination and I’ve long had reservations that quotas are the best answer, preferring to cling naively to the belief that change should come through education and awareness campaigns. But David Byrne’s experience has forced me to change my mind. If someone as cool and enlightened and well-meaning and right-on as the former Talking Heads singer can make the mistake of releasing an album featuring more than two dozen men and not a single woman, the message is clear. Sadly, it seems quotas are the only way anything is ever going to change.
Riot Grrrl ■