Women Tackle Discrimination at Annenberg Inclusion Initiative's 'Moving the Needle: A Celebration of Women in Music' Panel

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Cam attends the 53rd Academy of Country Music Awards at MGM Grand Garden Arena on April 15, 2018 in Las Vegas.

When USC Annenberg’s groundbreaking “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” study was released last January, it hit the music industry like a bombshell.

Among other stark statistics, the study revealed that across the Top 600 songs between 2012 and 2017, women made up only 22 percent of artists, 12 percent of songwriters, three percent of engineers, and a mere two percent of producers.

The study made clear what many women had felt and noted all along. “You can’t solve a problem that you can’t see, and that you don’t know where it is, [and] you don’t know what the dimensions are,” Tina Tchen, a lawyer and activist who currently serves as Chair of the Recording Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion Task Force said. “I often say, it took us like a millennia to get to this position. Cause we’re really talking about overall culture. This isn’t just the music industry…this is everywhere.”

Tchen was just one of the strong voices taking part in Feb. 5’s panel “Moving the Needle: A Celebration of Women in Music” at USC’s Wallis Annenberg Hall. Hosted by Annenberg Inclusion Initiative founder and director Dr. Stacy Smith and study co-author Katherine Pieper, panelists also included music engineer Ann Mincieli (co-founder of the non-profit She Is the Music); singer/songwriter Aluna Francis; Grammy-nominated record producer and DJ TOKiMONSTA (a.k.a. Jennifer Lee); and country music singer/songwriter Cam, who serves as a member of Tchen’s task force.

The panelists took the stage to an overflowing crowd composed mainly of women, though several notable male allies were also in attendance, including Recording Academy president/CEO Neil Portnow and songwriter/producer Jimmy Jam. Universal Music Publishing Group Chairman and CEO Jody Gerson—who co-founded She Is the Music alongside Mincieli, Alicia Keys, and WME partner Sam Kirby Yoh—also took the stage to deliver opening remarks, while Keys appeared in a pre-taped video praising the women on the front lines.

“This is just the beginning,” said Keys in her video message. “So let’s make this all about the successes we’ve had so far and planning for an amazing, unstoppable future.”

While representing a diverse selection of voices, the women on Tuesday’s panel had one undeniable thing in common: close personal experience with the systemic discrimination that continues to plague the music industry. While all conceded that strides have already been made in the year since the study’s release, the attitudes that gave rise to that discrimination are stubbornly ingrained. That reality was perhaps crystallized most plainly by Cam, who compared some of her experiences in Nashville to living in “the fucking Twilight Zone.”

“When I first came into country music, people were strategizing with me—‘How are we gonna get you over this hurdle of the fact that you're a woman?’” said the singer, who has written songs for artists including Miley Cyrus and Sam Smith, in addition to releasing two studio albums of her own. “All of this is like blowing my mind.” 

Indeed, even some of Cam’s fellow panelists expressed shock at her description of country radio’s often-overt biases against women artists. Tchen, who conducted listening sessions in Nashville as part of her work on the Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, described the problem, although already well known and documented in country circles, in stark terms.

“There is a sort of unwritten but not unspoken rule in country radio that you don't program more than two women per hour, and you never program two women back to back, because of this myth that people don't listen to women,” Tchen said. “So women aren't getting airplay as a result of the rule…and radio play will determine chart position [and] chart position determines whether you get another record.”

The other panelists provided equally disheartening examples of the industry’s long-standing biases.

“I find that the atmosphere that surrounds electronic music, like festivals and raves and clubs, it tends to be very positive and they try to share this idea of equality amongst each other,” said TOKiMONSTA, who is Grammy-nominated for best dance/electronic album for her album Lune Rouge. “But in the industry itself, there really aren't a lot of women producing. There's not a lot of women on stage at these festivals. There's not many women being booked…And when you're doing electronic music, so much of it is festivals. We may not sell that many records, but we can make the vast majority of income through touring.” 

As for her work in urban music, she added: “I don't know if I've actually met face to face another female producer. Though I know there are.”

As a successful engineer herself, Mincieli (who runs Jungle City Studios in Manhattan) was shocked to discover just how few women engineers were represented in the Annenberg study.

“The one thing that was perplexing to me is there's a lot of female engineers,” said Mincieli. “And I'm wondering, ‘Why are they not on these records?’ And really when we dove into that, it's because we have to help them connect the dots. We have to create the opportunity.”

If nothing else, the depressing statistics represented in the study served as a springboard for women like Mincieli to combat sexism in the music industry in all its forms, from micro-aggressions to outright sexual assault. As to the latter issue, Mincieli stressed a need for clear standards on what should be considered acceptable in recording studios, which often create an unsafe environment for women. 

“[At Jungle City,] every room has an iPad, there's a log -- client arrives, who arrives, what happened in the session. I have an assistant on the session, I have [someone] watching the cameras. And the assistant stays in the room at all times,” she said. “I can't say that with the gamut of studios that are around these days...the labels, they'll go to a studio for five dollars cheaper than mine, but you're putting an artist and a songwriter in a horrible environment as opposed to a protected environment where they're gonna feel free and creative.”

Every woman on the panel noted strides both large and small in the year since the Annenberg study was published, despite the fact that a follow-up study, released Feb. 5, showed little gains by the numbers.

“I think that the statistics really sparked a hunger,” said Francis, who noted that she recently shot her first all-woman music video and has opened up slots on her tour for women artists of color. “I was talking to people in the industry, women in particular, [and] it was like, ‘Oh, we get to want this.’ There’s a new horizon that we didn’t see before and an opportunity…I think it’s at the really early stages, and there’s a whole generational processes that needs to catch up really fast.”

“I feel like the last year in country music has definitely been an awakening of voices,” added Cam. “A lot more people are stepping up and saying something publicly, where in the country music sphere, there’s a lot of inhibition. …When people come back with excuses for these horrible numbers, they’ve started to say, ‘You know what? I don’t believe you.’”

It’s not just a feeling. As many on the panel noted, concrete steps have already been taken, including the Recording Academy’s commitment to increasing the number of women serving on key Grammy committees (according to Tchen, the numbers increased from “around 23 percent” to 50 percent in a single year on the task force’s recommendation). Additionally, Tchen said that since launching on Feb. 1, the Recording Academy’s Producer & Engineer Inclusion Initiative—which aims to dramatically increase the number of women working as producers and engineers in popular music—has received the buy-in of every major label as well as artists including Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Nicki Minaj and Justin Bieber.

Additionally, noted Mincieli, She Is the Music on Tuesday launched their Billboard-powered Global Industry Database, which seeks to increase employment opportunities for woman professionals in the music industry. Meanwhile, other initiatives spearheaded by the organization include all-female songwriting camps and a mentorship program for women and girls looking for a way forward in the industry.

There’s still a long way to go before inclusion becomes the rule rather than the exception, but the Annenberg study has given rise to a crop of outspoken voices, both male and female, who are committed to taking the challenge on—and showing non-allies the door.

“If you're not taking the time to listen to this stuff, then you are a part of the problem,” said Cam. “And if you're not listening, and you're not really hearing, you need to step aside. Because you're not gonna be a part of the solution.”