The 2% Female Producers: Tokenism in Entertainment Management
The #MeToo movement and revelations of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry have lit a light to the continuing problems associated with sex, but women still live under too many delusions of a post-gender-bias and therefore post-feminist world. Women who complain that they are sidelined because of their gender are dismissed as emotional naggers. A telling example of the widening rather than shrinking bias comes from a recent study from USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism, “Inclusion in the Recording Studio? Gender and Race/Ethnicity of Artists, Songwriters & Producers across 600 Popular Songs from 2012-2017,” by Dr. Stacy L. Smith, Marc Choueiti and Dr. Katherine Pieper. While every statistic in this 32-page report is bleak for women, the one that stands out is that female producers make up only 2% of the reviewed credited producers for these pop songs. And most of these producers are given this credit for their leadership rather than for their technical work on the record. For example, this short list includes Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift. It is popular for millionaire singers to be offered an executive producer credit for even miniscule contributions. Thus, the list of female producers who have been successful at technically producing music shrinks down to around seventeen. A Billboard article, “Where Are All the Female Music Producers?” by Melinda Newman names them: Linda Perry, Ebony Oshunrinde (WondaGurl) and Catherine Marks (technical mixers, who worked up to producers from engineering); Janet Jackson, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lauryn Hill, Mariah Carey, Lisa Coleman, Wendy Melvoin, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga (for producing themselves); Lauren Christy (the only female producer nominated in the non-classical category who was not a recording artist); Judith Sherman (classical Grammy winner); Imogen Heap and Trina Shoemaker (best engineered album non-classical winners); and Missy Elliott (best in pop and R&B). The names of 6,000 or so male producers who were involved in the making of the 600 top pop songs would not fit in this article. Thus, the portrayal of women as barely clothed sex toys in music videos and the nonsensical pornographic songs female entertainers are spewing out is the work of these male producers who impose their notions of femininity onto their subordinates.
This topic caught my attention because I have made a couple of attempts to enter this industry with sadly laughable results. One of these was a few years ago when I happened upon a SAMLA (southern MLA conference) presentation of post-modern music. After asking a few of my usual critical questions I met the producer of this noisy composition, who had succeeded in breaking out REM earlier in his career. I was torn between asking him and the musician he represented to do an interview with me and asking them if I could help them write lyrics for their next record. I leaned towards the latter because I really felt they needed the help, but while they were reviewing my pitch, I released an issue of my journal wherein I ridiculed their music in a brief note. One of the reasons for my derision was that they clearly made fun of my attempt to pitch my writing ability to them, treating me as if I was a groupie (i.e., he kissed my hand).
On another occasion, a decade ago, I read Donovan’s autobiography cover-to-cover, The Hurdy Gurdy Man, and tried to interview him after his concert, and he let me in backstage only to have me watch him making out and taking photos with his groupies, before the guards kicked me out and told me to wait for him to exit, wherein his double emerged and insisted that it was indeed Donovan and gave me nonsensical answers to my complex questions. I remember this now because none of the female producers listed above agreed to an interview request I sent to all but the singers.
All these uncomfortable and emotionally painful meetings made me want to attempt to produce some music myself to test what exactly made these people feel superior. I was already experimenting with creating background music and automated voices to read the texts for Anaphora’s YouTube book trailers. I had also made an experimental satirical animation on the Star Trek theme. Through these previous experiments I had discovered how easy it was to mix sounds in a program like MAGIX Music Maker, which offers loops in different styles (deep house, dubstep, hiphop, jazz, rock pop and techno), and pre-recorded sounds in a variety of musical instruments (bass, brass, drums, guitar, keys, synth and vocals). It allows users to create their own unique mixes of these or it can even create an automatic random mixture complete with an intro, chorus and the other elements that make popular music so formulaic. Nick Koenig was featured in a film for his intricate recordings of unique sounds that he uses in his own music, including how strange caves or money under water sound. But, most pop musicians just reuse a library of sounds in predictable patterns, including the “wa-oh, wa-oh” millennial whoop hook. I created a relatively original combination of techno sounds and over these inserted the words from William Shakespeare’s sonnet, “Let Me Not to the Marriage.” I repeated phrases, and isolated words in a similar pattern as a standard techno combination, but mine was more complex because I played the entire sonnet. I mutated a computer-generated male voice into very deep and very high notes, and scratched and otherwise damaged the original recording with similar standard audio FX distortions, like the reverberations, concrete walls, crusher, echo, and helium (the high-pitched sound that mimics the noise made after breathing in helium). I also inserted several “uh” and “ah” sounds that formulaically fill in the empty space between standard repetitive lyrics. Once my composition was finished, and I created a little square cover image for it, I researched places where I could post it for free and found a handful of platforms including SoundCloud and RadioAirplay, which are free to join, but cost money to really reach an audience. On SoundCloud, my composition has had 32 plays and 7 likes in the year since its release. I attempted to find some musicians to record these lyrics with a more human voice as my next experiment, but out of the approximately 30 replies I received to my IMDb posting, all said they were about to record themselves with their cellphone, but none actually emailed a recording. This experiment proved that both female and male singers viewed a female producer’s attempt to create original music as a joke worthy of a fake expression of interest.
In summary, an average woman who attempts to become a producer or a songwriter is going to face an avalanche of misogynist chauvinism. Without doing any research into your education or employment history, male leaders assume that women who attempt to break in are targets not only for rejection, but also for derision, if not for sexual harassment. Women who climb to the top of this industry are likely to be overwhelmed with this sexism and thus likely to opt to produce themselves and to write their own lyrics. But, women who are starting out with nothing have to deal with the insults, and with lower pay and status, or opt not to pursue music. Music production is easier today than it has ever been before. Men make it sound like it’s rocket-science for the purpose of excluding the competition. The few top producers and songwriters bar entry by monopolizing the few high-paying openings at the top of the music industry. Millions are spent to launch a new musician into the mainstream, and these marketing dollars drown out the female producers who are forced to compete from the fringes of independent production. A grassroots movement is needed to assist these far more innovative and technically competent producers in reaching a larger audience. Without true access to the market for these suppressed voices, we are all going to be drowned by the same repeating “wa-oh, wa-oh” noise. I am definitely not recommending my own music as worthy of the mainstage, but there are plenty of female producers who should be a lot less humble and prouder of their creations.
The standard response to complaints of discrimination is for a company to claim: “‘We’re committed to making the right changes’”, the slogan that appeared in the title of Music Week’sarticle on this topic. In this study, three top labels self-reported that their gender pay gaps were: Warner Music UK: 49% average, with an 82% mean bonus; Sony Music UK: 22.7%, and 45% bonus; and Universal Music UK: 29.8% mean, and 49.2% bonus. In other words, while around half of these companies’ employees are women, most of these women make around half of what the men make and they are far less likely to hold leadership roles. If any of these companies were committed to changing this problem to comply with fair standards, they could instantly offer the bulk of their women raises and promotions to match their equally qualified male competitors and these numbers would automatically drop down to 0%. In truth, they all benefit from the cheap labor women provide because they are forced to accept lower pay rates or face unemployment as these trends are endemic across most industries.
The details of USC’s study into the music industry help to fill in the picture. The number of female artists among the top 600 songs actually dropped by a third in 2017 to 16.8% from 28.1% in 2016, so the trends are moving backwards. The researchers also stress that most females work “solo” rather than in duos or bands. I have seen a few documentaries that stress the presence of a few female drummers, but these isolated examples and merely tokenism meant to give the illusion that the industry is integrated. If I set out today to become a drummer in a band, my chances are 98% less than any random guy that sets out on the same quest. Only 12.3% of the hitmaking songwriters were female. The top female song writers were the pop female singers who crowd the media with their bombardment of marketing: Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Adele Adkins, and Sia Furler. On the male side, only Drake stands out as also being a chart-topping singer.
Prolific male songwriters include Lukasz Gottward, or Dr. Luke (with 21 hit song credits), the producer-writer who has been in legal battles with Kesha. She filed a lawsuit alleging drugging and sexual assault. Dr. Luke retaliated by filing a defamation suit in the Manhattan Supreme Court. Kesha’s case was dismissed in 2016 by a judge. Meanwhile, Dr. Luke is still pushing Kesha to pay him $50 million for the accusations. The courts have refused to let Kesha out of her contract with Dr. Luke. Kesha is complaining that she has not seen any profits from her music in her latest Rainbow(#1 on Billboard Hot 100) album or from the earlier 2013 Timber. He is even using Kesha’s attempts to obtain supporting proof of abuse from other female singers to affirm her guilt in defamation: i.e. her message exchange regarding Katy Perry also having been raped by Dr. Luke. Meanwhile, Dr. Luke was dropped in 2017 by Sony’s Kemosabe Records from his CEO position, despite having founded this imprint back in 2011 and producing some of the top hits on the charts across this stretch. Thus, Kesha and other musicians who are contractually tied to Dr. Luke and now his primary form of income.
Who are the winners in this kind of a hostile work environment? All parties have lost money, their reputations and their creative freedom. If the entertainment industry finds a way to keep sex and gender out, while becoming genuinely unbiased in its hiring, a lot more creative work could get done, and a lot less harassment would seep in. It should be in producers’ and singers’ contracts that they cannot have any sexual contact with anybody else on their label. So far, the clash between Dr. Luke and Kesha is only scaring more women from entering this arena (perhaps this is one of the causes for the lowering numbers since 2014). These women might be afraid that they will be sexually assaulted on the job, and then sued for defamation. While Bill Cosby has been convicted, the odds of winning a sexual assault lawsuit are still heavily in the men’s favor. For every 1,000 rapes, 310 are reported to the police, 13 are referred to a prosecutor, and only 7 get a felony conviction (RAINN). America does not lead the world in the percentage of sexual assault cases, but neither is it a beacon for women’s rights. High pay and employment gender gaps in America are the result of a culture of exclusion and discrimination that needs to be corrected.
Dr. Luke, alone, is responsible for writing over 2% of the 600 most popular songs, equivalent to the percentage from all female producers. The top 9 male songwriters wrote around 20% of these songs. What makes these guys better writers than somebody like me with a PhD in English? There are around 35,000 women with English PhDs just in the US, and all of them could write a more beautiful and well-structured lyric than a guitarist who rose up the ranks in the music industry. Are members of the public really consciously voting for the simplest, most formulaic, most repetitive, and least sophisticating music, or are they following the barrage of marketing messages that tell them that this is the type of “cool” music they are supposed to enjoy?
The 2% female producers reflects the low cultural standing of the modern music industry. Other fields with extreme pay gaps have also been suffering from reputation drops lately. According to a SmartAsset study, “Occupations with the Largest Pay Gap,” the occupations at the top of this list included credit counselors and loan officers (71.92%), and financial managers (71.09%). Loan officers have helped sink America into a monstrous $1.48 trillion just in student loan debt by 2018. Financial managers have assisted with the construction of the Great Recession, the subprime mortgage housing bubble burst, and the various other fiscal problems Americans are going to be paying for in the coming decades. Giving men power and money only creates problems. Corporations should acknowledge these statistics and allow female producers to restore the music industry to a state that the rest of us can be proud of.
Anna Faktorovich, Ph.D., is the Founder, Director, Designer and Editor-in-Chief of the Anaphora Literary Press, which has published over 200 titles in non-fiction, fiction and poetry.