I originally set out to write this column "celebrating" some incredible female artists. Then I thought of touting artists who just happened to be female. Then I wasn't going to highlight gender at all
I originally set out to write this column "celebrating" some incredible female artists. Then I thought of touting artists who just happened to be female. Then I wasn't going to highlight gender at all. Then I gave up. I kept coming back to the same question: why was gender important to me in the first place?
A couple of times last year, I was asked to speak to radio and television about a Billboard Top Women in Music feature, which highlighted several ladies who were making noise in the industry, re-shaping it. Reporters asked me about these women and their work, but thankfully, they never asked why it was important to recognize these women. Frankly, I don't know how to answer that.
I'm not the first, and won't be the last, person to point out that the music industry has a long-standing reputation of being a boys' club. So part of me thinks that attempting to "celebrate" women in the industry makes their amazing achievements seem like anomalies, further alienating them from their male counterparts and helping to paint them as outsiders or "others." It'd be mind-melting to host a Top 20 Men in the Industry or Top 10 Male Musicians issue.
On the other hand, it's the relative scarcity of women in the industry that makes their status so important, and recognizing their achievements brings the subject of diversity to the forefront.
Does feting women dissolve or reinforce the inequalities of artists and at labels, music networks, publicity houses and marketing teams (hell, even music magazines)? Chicken, meet egg.
Melinda Newman, a former Billboard staffer, wrote an article for the L.A. Times late last year discussing female A&R representatives at labels -- and the lack thereof. She noted that when Steve Greenber joined Columbia Records as president in 2005, he said "it was nearly impossible to find young female A&R execs with experience at major labels, since they were basically nonexistent." Yet, industry vet Ron Fair said a female presence on an A&R team was essential. "There's a different viewpoint from the two sexes in the way talent is evaluated and the way music is heard."
What that viewpoint is, exactly, is nearly impossible to quantify, but we have some ideas -- at least when it comes to the music itself. Take a look, for instance, at the 2006 Jackin' Pop music critics poll hosted on Idolator.com last year. For female voters, 16 of the top 25 albums were by artists that had one or more females in the group, with Joanna Newsom in at No. 2, followed closely by Neko Case at No. 5, Cat Power at No. 6 and Regina Spektor at No. 7. For male voters, only 9 of the top 25 albums included female artists, with Newsom as the highest ranked at No. 6. (Also, interestingly, less than 5% of the 503 ballots were from female voters, according to one of Idolator's editors.)
Radio is another key arena worth a look. Adult Contemporary, Adult Top 40 and Top 40 formats are generally considered to be angled toward women. In the Sept. 22 issue of Billboard, six of the top 25 slots on the Adult Top 40 chart are occupied by women; 11 of the top 50 on Hot 100 Airplay; and 9 of the top 25 on Adult Contemporary. Keep in mind, there's a lot of crossover on these charts. But take a gander at rock airplay, which is typically centered on a more male demo. Four of the 25 slots on the Modern Rock tally have ladies in them (only one with a leading lady: Flyleaf), and out of the 40 on Mainstream Rock, you're only talking three (Flyleaf, Smashing Pumpkins and the White Stripes).
Obviously, these aren't scientific indicators, but these numbers raise some interesting questions. Do male critics and radio audiences skew toward music that is typically crafted by males? Do females listen based on gender? Do acts with females in them need to work harder to be heard? Does it matter if the musical act is lead by a female singer or not?
Back when I was part of the concert planning committee at my college, the team generated some ideas for our 2004 year-end bash. One female member pointed out that it had been a number of years since we'd had a woman perform in any of the slots. Her comment was met by the committee leader with a resounding "who cares?," adding that "there's isn't any good female talent out there." Wow, we gasped, and proceeded to name a number of acts that countered what we considered to be his unjust opinion. In the end, we ended up booking a bunch of fratty bands anyway, with no female groups among them; the dude went on to be employed at a top talent agency in New York.
It's instances like this that make me cling to many of the Top Women spotlights I come across. I rah-rah Bust, Venus and other magazines that focus primarily on the ladies of music (full disclosure: I'm a contributor and former intern at Venus). I voice distaste when a critic faults or estranges an act simply because they're female.
But do I have more insight about a female artist because I'm a female? Will the industry ever employ and promote enough females to eradicate the Women In Music issue? Do women still need extra encouragement to succeed at their jobs of making art and getting it heard? Hopefully, these questions won't matter as more and more people discover worthy and worth-while artists, regardless of their gender.