How Women Are Rising From Songwriters to Producers in the Recording Studio

Lauren Bodin for REBOOT
From left: Simon Wilcox, Jenn DeCilveo, Claudia Brant, Bonnie McKee and Maria Egan (President, Pulse Music Group)

On Tuesday afternoon, a group of female songwriters packed into a room at Pulse Music Group's L.A. headquarters for the second workshop in a series called REBOOT, a new initiative seeking to empower women in the music industry.

The latest installment tackled leadership in the studio, and included a panel of high-profile producers and songwriters: Jenn Decilveo (Anne Marie, Rae Morris, Madison Beer, Melanie Martinez) Bonnie McKee (Katy Perry, Taio Cruz, Britney Spears, Cher), and Claudia Brant (Camila Cabello, Carlos Santana, Ricky Martin, Josh Groban). The trio took questions from the room and shared their wisdom on how to advance into more of a leadership role within the studio environment.

Highlights from the conversation:

Panelists agreed that their roadblocks could be just as internal as external.

McKee revealed that early on in her career, she, like many of her female counterparts, found herself being shot down. She said she had to work hard to break through that self-limiting mentality. "I think I have carried a lot of that with me into adulthood, believing that I don't know what I'm doing, and I'm really trying to program myself into thinking more along the lines of 'I'm full of great ideas.' I've just been told again and again that I'm not,'" she said.

Brant noted that at a certain point in your career, you have to start being able to challenge people who try to override your decisions as a producer, take a stance, and say, "I do think that this should go there." She added, however, that this is confidence that you earn with experience and having the credits to support it. "It the beginning, it's very hard," she explained.

There was a debate over how to handle an uncomfortable comment made by a male in the studio -- do you stop the session and say something immediately, or hold back and quietly address it behind the scenes?

One audience member said she strives for professionalism and doesn't interrupt the session but does attack the issue afterwards. "Privately afterwards, I say, 'This made me feel really uncomfortable and I feel I'd do a better job, we'd get a better song, if I didn't have to navigate that kind of thing.' But I don't say it in the room; I don't say it in front of the artist,'" she said.

Others said, no: absolutely address it in the moment. "There is a lot of talk about being afraid to ruin the moment. Whose moment are you worried about ruining? Because your moment is already ruined at this point," said Maria Egan, president/head of creative at Pulse Music Group. A songwriter in the room followed that up with "Don't let the fear of not getting invited back into that room, the fear of being rejected or shunned, stop you from being respected."

Another woman suggested the importance of getting male coworkers to advocate for you on their behalf in these situations: "This is an exciting time to create allies and give them the words they can use to help us to stand up."

Ultimately all agreed that you should say something if a situation rubs you the wrong way.

"I understand the being professional and being like, OK, that's offensive, I'm upset but I have a job to do and I'm going to get it done, and then say something afterwards," said McKee. But she advocated for following through on speaking up later. "If you don't say something, then they don't realize that they've even offended you."

The panelists stressed the importance of establishing your role in the project before entering the studio.

One woman shared her experience of doing a song with an artist and putting in more hours than the actual producer. When she asked for co-producing credit after the fact, she was given the additional credit with no added fee or points. "Now I know when I come into the room to be like "If I'm going to be vocal producing this, if am going to have ideas like this, I want the production credit," she said.

Men ask for what they want. Women should too.

A woman who recently sat in on a music panel shared a theme that emerged from that event: "Women think, 'Let my work show and then I'll get what I want.' So you stay quiet but many years have gone by before you feel you can ask for what you want," she said. Having been recently inspired to start speaking up, the attendee noted that every time she did, her request was granted. "I feel like we always have to be so humble and like, 'Oh let my work speak for itself' -- but no! Let's ask for what we want. Because dudes do!" she said.

Another woman said she gave in and hired a manager to advocate for her, which has worked wonders.

Tackling imposter syndrome

Egan noted that one of the biggest challenges that female professionals face is the ability to internalize their accomplishments. "I'm a fraud and people are going to find out if I speak out, if I say something, if it doesn't work, people will know that I don't know what I'm doing, that I'm not supposed to be here," she said, adding, "You deserve to be there. This isn't an accident. You didn't end up in the room by accident. A series of people at some point made the decision that you were talented enough to be in the room so own that."

Added skills can get you ahead.

Egan suggested that you don't have to do a four-year course to beef up your production skills. "There are a lot of one-year programs available where you can learn the basic abilities around production and organizing yourself as a traditional track person," she explained. Egan also added that there are scholarships for women available. Spotify, for instance, just launched an initiative called the Equal Studio Residency with scholarships for female producers.

Be OK with what you don't know and use it as a learning opportunity

Decilveo said that even with all her personal success, she's still working on bettering her craft. "It's an ongoing process. I'm always learning, always trying to figure out who are the artists that I want to work with, who are the great writers, who are the great producers, who are the great engineers, who are the great executives, who are the great A&Rs?" She added that it's important to "find your people" and use any opportunity in the studio to pick up new skills. "Ask, 'What does that compressor do? Oh I didn't see that one. Can you show me? Ok great. Got it," she said.

Build your team and don't worry if people don't get you

"There are a lot of writers and producers and artists and executives that will be fans of yours and there will be tons that aren't and you have to just slowly build a fan base," said Decilveo. She explained that per her experience, some people won't get what you are doing. "But that's OK. There are tons that do. "It's just finding the people."

What makes a great producer?

Brant: You have to understand the nature of the artist and then decide what direction to take and what people to call to join in and deliver the best product without touching the essence of the artist.

McKee: Being a good people person. I've worked with some great producers that aren't and I think it ultimately poisons the well and leaves everyone else feeling shitty, and then I've worked with some great producers who are humble but who also give credit where credit is due and really compliment you on your work. Great job. Great idea! As I move more into executive producer roles, I'm trying to be really loving and encouraging to writers. That's what kept me wanting to work with someone, as a writer. I made better work when I felt confident, when I felt seen.

Is it possible to balance having a family and being a songwriter or producer?

Brant, a single mom with twins, said it's not easy but it's definitely doable. And parenthood does bring some creative benefits. Brant noted that she'll often play a song for her kids and have them give her their honest critique. "My daughter plays me Billie Eilish and I feel like I am connected with a lot of new things that are happening because she teaches me that," she explained.

Another female songwriter, who recently became a mother, revealed that she put off having kids until later in life out of fear of losing steam in her career. Ten months into motherhood, however, that's been far from her experience. "I edit while I'm breastfeeding. I have a nanny," she said, noting that she has just as much creative ambition now than she did before becoming a mother.

The session ended with the panel providing their best advice for women wanting to transition into a producing role.

Decilveo: Don't stop. If you believe in yourself, keep going. If you don't go harder than anyone else, you're just unfortunately not going to get to the top.

Brant: I think it's very important that we hold our ground and ask for what we deserve. We have to stand for our ideas.

McKee: it's really about hard work. It's really about putting in the hours and becoming an expert at your craft. I never had a hit song that was written in a day. Ever. I rewrite. I rewrite. I rewrite and that's how it gets better.