Stepping Up: An Examination of the 2018 Grammys and How to Achieve Gender Equality in The Music Industry

In recent months there has been increasing discussion about the lack of female representation in various aspects of the entertainment industry. The worlds of  film and television have both received significant criticism, while the music industry is currently on the hot seat in light of this year’s Grammy Awards. Though the statistics regarding the underrepresentation of women in music are both discouraging and difficult to ignore, two UK-based initiatives are challenging gender inequality, shining light on the issue, and doing important work to help achieve gender balance in recording studios and music festivals. The all-female songwriting camp sheWrites gives talented female artists an opportunity to control all facets of song creation. Meanwhile Keychange, an exciting initiative that Trackd is proud to sponsor, wants music festivals to achieve an equal 50:50 gender balance by 2022. Despite both organisations facing a difficult road ahead, they are already seeing positive results because of their efforts.

In all of the recent discussions about gender representation in the music industry, the backlash from 2018 Grammy Awards seems like a flash point moment that will set the wheels of change in motion. Despite the controversy surrounding the 2018 Grammy Awards and the #GrammySoMale hashtag that emerged to protest the male-dominated performance roster, the awards show did provide us with some notable reasons to celebrate the achievements of female artists. Rapsody received a Best Rap Song and Best Rap Album nomination for Laila’s Wisdom’, SZA earned five nominations for Ctrl’, Cardi B’s ‘Bodack Yellow’ was nominated for Best Rap Performance and Best Rap Song, Lorde’s Melodrama’ was in the mix for Album of The Year, and Alessia Cara won Best New Artist.

Although the work and subsequent recognition of these artists and other female nominees deserves to be rightfully celebrated, their achievements do not outweigh a troubling and well-documented truth—the music industry is still rife with gender inequality. And while the success of someone like SZA may serve as a beacon of hope, the data gleaned from a selection of recent chart-topping singles and Grammy nominations highlights just how difficult achieving true equality within the music industry will be.

According to a recent study from the USC Annenberg School Of Journalism and Communication headed by associate professor Stacy L. Smith, a paltry 9.3% of Grammy nominees from 2013-2018 were female. The study also examined the proportion of male to female producers across 300 hit songs in 2017, finding a stunning 49:1 male to female ratio. Further analysis showed that out of 600 songs taken from Billboard’s 2012-2017 end-of-year Hot 100 charts, only 22.4% of the 1,239 performing artists were women. These numbers indicate a lack of gender parity in the music industry that may be worse than Hollywood.

The underrepresentation of women highlighted in the USC Annenberg study was further reflected in the programming choices for the 2018 Grammys. Though there were several powerful performances from female acts like SZA, Lorde wasn’t given a solo performance slot despite being the only female Album of the Year nominee. When asked about this programming decision, Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich told Variety, “These shows are a matter of choices. We have a box and it gets full. She had a great album. There’s no way we can really deal with everybody.”

Unfortunately, Ehrlich’s explanation is at odds with the actual performance roster. Bono and Sting both performed on stage three separate times despite neither being nominated for a single award. Ehrlich also managed to fit in a Shaggy/Sting collaborative performance as well as a skit featuring both of them. If there was time for these segments, it’s reasonable to expect that the female nominee for Album of the Year should have stage time as well.

Making matters worse, when Variety asked Recording Academy president Neil Portnow about the gender disparity with Grammy nominees and Lorde’s snub, he told Variety, “It has to begin with… women who have the creativity in their hearts and souls, who want to be musicians, who want to be engineers, producers, and want to be part of the industry on the executive level… [They need] to step up because I think they would be welcome.”

Though Portnow did go on to say, “it’s upon us — us as an industry — to make the welcome mat very obvious,” his comments seemed to imply that women bare the bulk of the burden to change the industry. When Portnow faced immediate public backlash for his remarks, he expressed regret over using the phrase “step up” and created a task force for female advancement. But for many women in the industry, this gesture felt unsatisfactory. Moments after the announcement, a group of female executives led by veteran industry attorney Rosemary Carroll released a letter calling for his resignation.

Whether Portnow decides to resign or not remains to be seen. Regardless of his final decision, one thing is clear: the lack of gender diversity in popular music isn’t a mere byproduct of women not “stepping up.” And instead of improving, 2017 saw a marked decline in participation from female musicians. According to Dr. Smith’s aforementioned USC Annenberg Study, 2017 was a six year low point for involvement from female artists, as only 16.8% of artists responsible for popular songs were women.

Despite these grim statistics, there is still reason to be optimistic that gender equality in the industry can improve in the coming years. Women in the music industry have long been stepping up and will continue to do so, regardless of Mr. Portnow’s thoughts on the matter. And a number of organisations are taking bold steps to level the playing field and empower women as content creators.

One such group is the UK-based non-profit BitchPlease. Backed by The PRS Foundation’s The Open Fund—which “supports the development of outstanding songwriters and composers of all genres and backgrounds and at different stages of their career”—BitchPlease was co-founded by engineer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, and songwriter Charlie McClean and singer/songwriter Violet Skies.

According to Skies, the roots of gender inequality in the music industry are much deeper than a mere lack of female performers. It starts with the fact that there are so few women handling engineering, producing, and songwriting duties. “The problem isn’t the number of female performers,” she says. “It’s the number of women behind them creating the music.”

To help combat this issue and advance her organisation’s mission, Skies wants more women to be a part of all aspects of song creation and production. As a result, McLean and Skies launched “an all-female songwriting camp initiative” named sheWrites in September 2017. The camp gives “a much needed space to allow women music makers—writers, producers and engineersto meet and realise they are not alone, create, and provide informal mentorship.”

In an industry where being the only woman in a recording space is an all too familiar experience for many artists, sheWrites creates an environment where women control every aspect of each song from initial concept to final product. “Women can learn from one another without judgement and explore creativity in a space without the pressure that sometimes comes from being the only female in a writing room,” says Skies.

Though the camp provides a nurturing creative space, sheWrites isn’t merely a place for female musicians to meet up and create in an abstract sense. The first camp in London yielded some remarkable, tangible results. “The camp in London produced 50 plus commercial songs made entirely by women,” says Skies. “If we are to change the number of women involved in making the music in the Grammys, the charts, the radio, etc., we need to feel empowered to make music and to understand that it is possible to achieve without a male producer or mixer involved.”

sheWrites Writing Camp 2017

BitchPlease’s status as a non-profit also allows them to give the song creators complete control of their music so they can reap the benefits of their hard work. After an artist records a song at sheWrites, BitchPlease retains none of the copyright and the artists are able to keep full publishing rights.

While BitchPlease and sheWrites works on creating equality in recording studios, PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative wants to encourage music festivals to “achieve a 50:50 balance by 2022.” To help them with their cause, the initiative recently selected 60 female creative visionaries out of a pool of more than 200 applicants from all around Europe. The selected participants will help run a series of collaborations, discussions, performances, and  creative labs at seven different international music festivals. “The idea was that we’d create a network and encourage cross-border collaboration,” says Keychange Project Manager, Jess Partridge. “We wanted them to get to know each other, come up with ideas, and help advise and mentor each other as well. And these are not just people we’re throwing out into a group. It’s an elite group of women who are able to help each other from all different backgrounds and all different places.”

The goal of achieving festival gender equality and a 50:50 balance by the year 2022 may seem ambitious at first glance, but Partridge thinks it’s important to set a high mark to help initiate change. Though the results “completely vary from festival to festival” due to the sheer number of festivals and diversity of genres, Partridge has seen encouraging progress thus far.  In September 2017, Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Germany, hosted a well-received Keychange panel that included an appearance from Garbage’s Shirley Manson and UK singer, songwriter and musician Nadine Shah, amongst others. And even in genres where meeting the 50:50 balance will prove most difficult, Partridge has been pleased to see that these festivals sometimes have “the most forward thinking staff.”

Keychange Panel at Reeperbahn Festival, Hamburg in 2017

Some festivals have been resistant to committing to Keychange’s 50:50 goal, but those who are hesitant to agreeing to a specific target are often still open to improving the representation of female artists. For Partridge, being flexible and meeting people in the middle as a starting point is sometimes an important part of moving the needle. “It’s about having people work towards something so they can really measure what they’re doing,” she says.

Although 2017 was a recent low point for female involvement in the music industry, BitchPlease’s sheWrites camps and the Keychange initiative are doing the work necessary to bring about widespread change in the music business and help balance the scales. Their efforts could leave a lasting impression on the industry and bring us closer to a reality where equal numbers of men and women occupy recordings studios and stages all around the world. Though it will take a great deal of commitment and hard work to bring about the progress sheWrites and Keychange seek, their dedicated members seem more than up to the task.


Written by Gino Sorcinelli

Find out more about Keychange here.

Find out more about sheWrites here.

Follow Violet Skies on Trackd here.