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Popular music is still missing female voices

The volume of questions about women’s participation in music has spiked over the past few years. As the Grammy Awards approach this month, a new study asks: Has being louder made things better?

The report, “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” is the third annual report on the music industry from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and was funded by Spotify. The study examines gender and race/ethnicity of artists and content creators across 800 popular songs on the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End Charts from 2012 to 2019. The report also evaluates gender for eight years of Grammy nominations for Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Producer of the Year, and Best New Artist.

Across all eight years examined, 21.7% of artists were female — roughly 1 in 5. After hitting a six-year low in 2017 (16.8%), the percentage rebounded in 2019 to 22.5%. From 2012 to 2019, women were most likely to appear on the charts as individual performers (31%) compared to the percentage in duos (5.8%) or in bands (7.3%).

In contrast to the findings on female performers, artists from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups represented more than half of 2019’s artists (56.1%). During all years included in the study, people of color represent 45.4% of the more than 1,600 artists.

“Women are still missing from popular music,” Professor Smith said. “Yet we do see that the music industry values women of color and their contributions. In 2019, over half of the female artists on the popular charts were women of color. This is in stark contrast to what we see in the film industry.”

Female songwriters and producers, though, are vastly outnumbered. Across eight years, 12.5% of songwriters were female, though the percentage increased slightly and non-significantly in 2019 to 14.4%. The number of women of color working as songwriters has steadily increased over the past eight years, and underrepresented female songwriters now outnumber white women on the charts. Nevertheless, more than half (56.4%) of the songs examined did not credit one woman as a songwriter. Less than one percent of all 800 songs featured only female writers.

Only a slight increase occurred in 2019 for women working as producers, and the percentage of women in this role across 500 songs remains at 2.6%. This translates into a gender ratio of nearly 37 males to every 1 female producer. Only eight women of color have received a producer credit across the 500 songs analyzed. The ratio of male producers to underrepresented female producers is 133 to 1.

“The music industry has virtually erased female producers, particularly women of color, from the popular charts,” Professor Smith said. “As producers fill a leading creative role, it’s essential to ensure that women from all backgrounds are being considered and hired throughout the industry. Moreover, the industry itself must continue to expand its commitment to representing the voices and talent of women in all aspects of the business.”

“Almost a year ago, I joined on to the initiative from the Recording Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force to create opportunities for females in the music industry. While recording my new album I wanted to ensure there were women involved in the creative process. I feel proud that women were essential collaborators on every song whether as a songwriter, producer, or engineer. It’s a start, but there is much work to be done to amplify women’s voices in our business,” said Selena Gomez, commenting on her new album, Rare.

The report also updates last year’s analysis of eight years of Grammy nominations in five categories. 2020 was an eight-year high in the percentage of female nominees, with 20.5% of nominations in the select categories going to women. This is an increase compared to the percentage of female nominees in 2013 (7.9%) and 2018 (8%). The latter year saw the launch of the Recording Academy’s Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion and efforts across the industry to increase women’s presence in music. Overall, 11.7% of all nominees across the last 8 years were women. Women were most likely to be nominated for Best New Artist or Song of the Year — which reached a peak in 2020 as 44.4% of nominees in the category were female. Women of color made up 38.5% of Grammy nominees in the past eight years in these categories.

“The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is a crucial tool for informing our understanding of the gender disparity issues facing the music business and will play an important role in shaping the industry response to this challenge,” said Dawn Ostroff, Chief Content Officer, Spotify. “The work of Dr. Stacy Smith and her team is essential and we are proud to support their efforts.”

The authors highlight three organizations working to create change in the music industry for women. She Is The Music works to increase the representation of women throughout the business with songwriting camps, mentorship programs, and external outreach. The Spotify EQL Residency program places emerging female engineers in recording studios to gain experience alongside industry mentorship. Women’s Audio Mission trains the next generation of music producers and recording engineers. The report also offers solutions that industry members can enact to improve the participation of women throughout the workforce, including suggestions to reduce potential negative outcomes in work environments.

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and can be found online here.

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