'Starting to See Change': USC Annenberg Study Finds Small Shift Toward a More Inclusive Music Industry

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Efforts are having a small but encouraging impact, according to the latest data from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

After the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative released its first study in January 2018 highlighting a stark lack of women in the music industry, artists and executives spurred into action to change it. The Recording Academy added a Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, Spotify launched the EQL Directory of women audio professionals, and Alicia Keys introduced the organization She Is The Music, which hosts all-female songwriting camps (an in which Billboard is a partner), among other initiatives.

Now, the Annenberg Initiative's third annual study, funded by Spotify, reveals that those efforts and others are beginning to move the needle. 

"While these shifts are small, collective action takes place when multiple companies, in multiple positions of gatekeeping, take action," the Initiative's founder and director, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, tells Billboard. "We're starting to see change."

Among the findings, the 2020 Grammy nominees included the highest percentage of women in eight years — 20.5%, compared to just 7.9% in 2013 — across five major categories: Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Producer of the Year and Best New Artist. This year, nearly half (44.4%) of the writers nominated for Song of the Year were women, including Lady Gaga, Billie Eilish and Taylor Swift; and in the Best New Artist category, five of the eight are nominees are women: Eilish, Lizzo, Maggie Rogers, Rosalía and Yola. 

The numbers show that last year's slight uptick in female nominees "wasn't a one-and-done," Smith adds. "If we see a continued upward trend, it suggests that some of the guidelines adopted by the Task Force" — like taking steps to make all Recording Academy committees gender balanced — "have yielded dividends in a positive direction for women."

She also hopes that the increase in female nominees will inspire more young women to pursue careers in music. "When you have an inclusive stage, it signals who belongs," she says. "People like Lizzo or Billie Eiliish are really illuminating to young [women] that this is a space they, too, could thrive in."

Yet overall, just 11.7% of nominees in those categories across the last eight years were women (and of the women nominated, 61.5% were white). Fewer than 10% of nominees in the Record of the Year or Album of the Year categories over that timeframe were women, and most jarringly, only one woman was been nominated for Producer of the Year across the last eight years: Linda Perry in 2019.

Annenberg researchers also updated their examination of 800 songs from the Billboard Hot 100 Year-End charts, from 2012 to 2019. Overall, women represent 21.7% of performers, 12.5% of songwriters and 2.6% of producers.

Still, the percentage of female artists rebounded to 22.5% in 2019 after two particularly low years: 17.1% in 2018 and 16.8% in 2017, which represented a six-year low. And while the gender gap is still most egregious for songwriters and producers, 2019 did feature the highest percentage of female songwriters across all the years evaluated (14.4%, up from 11.6% in 2018), and the number of female producers in 2019 doubled from 2018 (11 women vs. 5 women, respectively).

A section on racial diversity included more bright spots. In 2019, more than half (56.1%) of all artists on the Hot 100 year-end charts, male or female, were from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups, up from 38.4% in 2012. The percentage of women of color working as songwriters has steadily increased (from 14 credited women of color in 2012 to 44 in 2019), and female songwriters from underrepresented groups now outnumber white women on the charts.

While these statistics are a positive sign, Smith adds that in order to see sustained change, music industry players must approach "every song as an opportunity" to involve women: "Now is the time to step on the gas."