Men make the music: Study reveals that women’s voices are missing from popular charts

A first-of-its-kind report shows that 2017 was a six-year low for female artists in popular music.

Diversity may be the word of the night at the Grammy Awards on Sunday, but a new study released today demonstrates that the back-patting and celebrating may be premature. Women in particular are still not equally represented in the ranks of popular artists — or as Grammy nominees in select categories. They are often missing from the songwriting and producing process.

The report, entitled “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” is the first from Professor Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to investigate the music industry. The report examines gender and race/ethnicity of artists and content creators across 600 popular songs on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end charts from 2012 to 2017. The study also evaluates gender and race/ethnicity for six 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.

Only 22.4% of all performers across the 600 most popular songs from 2012 to 2017 were female. Moreover, 2017 was a six-year low with females comprising just 16.8% of popular artists on the top charts. Across all years, women are more likely to receive credit as solo artists and rarely appear in duos or bands. 

“The voices of women are missing from popular music,” said Professor Smith. “This is another example of what we see across the ecosystem of entertainment: Women are pushed to the margins or excluded from the creative process.”

Female songwriters and producers are even more egregiously outnumbered. Just 12.3% of songwriters of the 600 most popular songs of the last six years were women, while only 2% of producers across 300 songs were female. For producers, this translates into a gender ratio of 49 males to every one female. 

“Women are rarely credited as the creative force behind popular music,” said Dr. Smith. “The lack of female songwriters and producers means that the epidemic of invisibility we have catalogued for women in key creative roles in film and television extends to music. These agenda-setting songs are like so many other forms of entertainment — reflective of a largely male perspective.” 

The study also explores the percentage of artists from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups working as artists. Here, the music industry reaches proportional representation with the U.S. population, as 42% of artists were from underrepresented groups across six years and 600 popular songs. Among female songwriters, 40.2% were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. Where diversity lags is among female producers, where just 2 underrepresented women in the last six years produced popular songs.

Females were more likely to write or perform in the pop genre than their male counterparts — a finding that the authors point to as indicative of the relationship between female songwriters and female artists. The majority of songs with a female artist were penned by another woman. However, 65% of those songs were written by the artist herself — only 35.2% of female-performed songs were written by or with a non-performing female writer. “Female and male artists both have opportunities to advocate for their female songwriting colleagues,” said Professor Smith. “Becoming more inclusive means that everyone takes steps and makes different choices to bring new voices and different perspectives to the table.”

While most songwriters were credited only once across the sample, there is a notable disparity between top-performing males and females. The investigation catalogues the individual writers working on popular music, finding that the top nine male writers penned between 13 and 36 songs, while the top nine females crafted between 6 and 15. These nine male writers with the largest number of credits are responsible for roughly 20% of the 600 popular songs sampled.

“After a year in which women forcibly took hold of some of our most crucial cultural conversations, music is yet another arena where a handful of men are driving popular discourse,” said Professor Smith. “Expanding the occupational ranks and influence of women behind the scenes in entertainment is imperative to giving women equal voice in the public sphere.”

The report also examines six years of Grammy nominations in five categories. Less than 10% of all nominees were female. Not one woman has been nominated for Producer of the Year since 2013. Women were most likely to be nominated for Song of the Year or Best New Artist. Fewer than 10% of nominees for Record or Album of the Year were female. Roughly a third (31%) of the female nominees at the previous six Grammy’s were women from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups. 

“Our goal is to work with industry members and companies to continue to explore this topic, leveraging the theoretical and empirical knowledge of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative to address exclusion and create large-scale systemic change,” said Leah Fischman, Annenberg Inclusion Initiative Board Chair.  

The report is the latest from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and can be found online here. On Saturday, January 27, Professor Smith will be leading a conversation with top female executives about music and inclusion. The event, in partnership with WME, is co-hosted by WME partner and Annenberg Inclusion Initiative board member Samantha Kirby Yoh.

To download the full report, please click here

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