Latin Women Take The Reins: Insights From the Latin Alternative Music Conference
Executives and artists spoke about proactively creating change and opportunity.
Expect a sea change in the Latin music business as women both on and offstage assume leadership roles and fight back against an industry that is legendary for sexism. At the Latin Alternative Music Conference in New York City on July 12, a panel of female leaders in publishing, promotion, management and booking, moderated by Criteria Entertainment's Diana Rodriguez, highlighted how musical and cultural trends are allowing more women to succeed.
"The current crop of executives are reaching retirement age, hopefully, and there are all of us that can replace them," said Yvonne Drazan, vice president of Peermusic’s West Coast Latin division. "[The music industry is] going to shift so the major label system won’t be able to just shove down your throat what they want you to hear. They’ll make decisions on signing based on what you want to hear."
Drazan believes the Latin music industry is segmented, offering regional Mexican and Latin urban sounds from the mainstream side, and a diverse, direct-to-consumer independent avenue that’s becoming increasingly financially viable. Panelists representing both mainstream and independent camps said their companies nurtured female talent and provided role models, but noted that an unflappable drive is necessary to get ahead.
"It’s very important as females to have a level of fearlessness," said Drazan. "Be very self-aware of where you are in your career and know that getting comfortable in your position isn’t an option if you want to grow."
The most successful people working with Colleen Theis, chief operating officer at at distribution company The Orchard, are those who created their own role by developing unique skill sets. “If I were giving advice to anyone in the music industry…it’s work harder and deliver better results, but be entrepreneurial and create their own lane," said Theis.
Hard work, of course, isn’t enough. As with many industries, women working in music face institutionalized sexism as well as minimal representation at the executive level. Similarly, the lack of female executive producers and label heads makes it difficult to elevate potentially influential female artists.
“I think there are a lot of missed opportunities for really, really talented female artists because the person writing the checks is not female and has no concept of what the female audience is looking for,” Drazan said, adding that the most talented Latin artists are often in alternative or independent spheres. “That is not going to change until there are people in the position to…listen to the female artist about what they want to do, and not say ‘you need to sing this or wear that.’”
The Latin Recording Academy is working on this disparity by hiring more women and growing its female membership, said Membership Director Livys Cerna, whose team is majority female. In 2017, the Latin Grammys debuted its Leading Ladies of Entertainment event to highlight women excelling in arts and sciences, for example.
Independent festivals are excelling at gender balance and representation, Eventbrite’s Stephanie Streetcar noted. However, a recent article on gender in 2018 festival lineups found that seven out of 10 artists performing at festivals such as Bonnaroo and Governor’s Ball are men or all-male bands. Many women performing on the festival circuit also experience significant wage disparities said several panelists.
Erika Elliott, the executive arts director of New York’s SummerStage (and the longest-standing program director in the festival’s history), said women aren’t cultivated to be headlining artists in the same way as their male counterparts. While noncommercial festivals like SummerStage and Celebrate Brooklyn allow for women like Mala Rodriguez to own space as headliners, only a few women occupy that echelon. “It’s not one fix. I think it has to be about an industry cultivating careers,” Elliott said of festival booking.
Female artists, and particularly Latinas, must also grapple with issues of overly sexualized representation. This is particularly problematic in urban music and reggaeton, which continues to have significant crossover success. Elliott took issue with assuming responsibly for the genre’s hyper-sexualized depiction of women.
"It presumes a lot of responsibility on women to change male voices about the way that they see us,” Elliott said in response to an audience question at LAMC. “It’s not our responsibility to fix society; it’s the responsibility of those managers, those voices," added Elliott to big applause from those in attendance.
Rodriguez, a Spanish emcee who rose to fame in the ‘90s, often juxtaposes femininity with tough backgrounds. In the video for “33,” Rodriguez combines a schoolgirl look and pigtails with snarling vocals against a junkyard backdrop. “Sexuality is an important part of humanity,” she told Billboard in response to an email inquiry. “It can be a driving force if you know how to use it properly. But it can also hurt very much if not controlled.”
Ultimately, it will be up to women to strengthen their networks and mentor each other to create change. Women are well represented in rock and guitar-based genres but need more exposure in electronic music, Theis added. Despite the many challenges facing women in the music industry, Theis is optimistic.
“[The industry is] much more democratic and a lot more artists across genres are able to earn a sustainable living,” she said. “It’s not as dire as you may think. It’s a great time to be a female artist.”