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These Major Producers Are Changing the Future For Women In the Studio

A growing group is making significant strides with star artists -- and pushing for equity in a field that can look like a boys club.

TRAKGIRL has produced and written for Vic Mensa, Jhene Aiko and Dawn Richard, among others — and her manifestation board has even higher goals, from having a Barbie made in her likeness to seeing a woman finally take home the Grammy for producer of the year. “We’re trying to do things that are 'impossible,' because it’s all possible,” she says with a contagious sense of positivity.

TRAKGIRL is one of a handful of producers — including Alex Kline, Suzy Shinn, Jenn Decilveo and mastering engineer Emily Lazar — who are not only more in-demand than ever, but are also fighting for equality in the field.

Growing up in Virginia, TRAKGIRL (born Shakari Boles) was inspired by local heroes like Pharrell, Missy Elliott and Timbaland and studied footage of them hard at work in the studio, saying, “There’s no producers in my family, no music industry people, so I wanted to build something for myself, legacy wise.”

She’s well on her way — and is building something for others, too. In 2018, she and her manager Ashley Kershaw co-founded The 7, an empowerment initiative named to represent the less-than 7% of engineers and producers who are women, with the aim of encouraging women to seek both creative and business roles in music.

An even bleaker stat arrived this March, on International Women’s Day, when the fourth annual “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” report, conducted by Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative with funding from Spotify, revealed that of the songs to hit the Hot 100 in 2020, just 2% were produced by women.

“The numbers are disheartening,” says TRAKGIRL. “I don't try to think about the elephant in the room, because it distracts you from your purpose. Of course, when I first started getting into these rooms it wasn’t like I always had that armor. It took some time to build that.”

On the same day the USC study arrived, Grammy-winning engineer Emily Lazar, who’s worked in the industry for 25 years, launched her nonprofit We Are Moving The Needle, which prioritizes representation and inclusivity across all technical fields within the recording industry.

“I hit this place where it was like, not enough is changing,” she says. “No more bench warming.”

Lazar — founder of New York City mastering facility The Lodge, with credits on thousands of albums from Foo Fighters and Garbage to new immersive audio reissues for the Beatles and Rolling Stones — was shocked when John McBride, owner of Nashville’s Blackbird Studios and director of its Blackbird Academy, told her in January he hadn’t had a female applicant in two years. McBride suggested creating a scholarship for women to encourage more applications, but Lazar pushed for two scholarships a quarter. As she told McBride: “I'm not sending women down there by themselves to be the only woman in the room.”

Within days, hundreds of applications poured in. With We Are Moving the Needle, Lazar hopes to drive more application numbers with other scholarship opportunities — not only for women, but underrepresented people of any gender identity (she cites the importance of male allies, praising her co-mastering engineer of a decade, Chris Allgood). The nonprofit is currently offering scholarships to the online program She Knows Tech; in less than 30 hours, they had 75 applicants. Lazar says the response confirms “what I felt in my heart was true: the numbers were going down, but the people are out there with the desire to learn and, for whatever reason, they're simply not comfortable enough to engage.”

Suzy Shinn can understand why. The producer has carved a lane in alternative-rock, most recently producing Weezer’s Van Weezer, which debuted at No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Rock Albums chart in May. Yet while studying music production and engineering at Berklee College of Music years ago, she was discouraged by her professor — and the only one who was a woman. “I was so excited to work and learn from her, and she pulled me out of class to be like, ‘Hey, it looks like you're not getting it, maybe you should drop out,” Shinn recounts. “It really fueled the f--king flame of like, ‘All right, you want to tell me to drop out?’ I know how I look. I know that, at the time, I was bleach blonde wearing pink — I know how it was.”

She says her goal is to make producing “seem awesome for a girl. You don’t have to hide in a dark room and not wear makeup and your hair is never done — that's not the life that I live, and that's the life that I thought I had to live.”

Jenn Decilveo — best known for co-writing and -producing  Andra Day’s 2015 smash “Rise Up” and co-producing Marina’s new Ancient Dreams In a Modern Land — has also been “overlooked and discounted as a woman.” She says, “it f--king sucks. It makes me feel like I want to quit.” Three years ago she started a boutique publisher, Manzanita Lane, in hopes of making sure other artists, songwriters and producers never feel that way. Manzanita Lane recently partnered with Kobalt, and reps Ryn Weaver, Wens and Appleby, among others. “I want to pass the torch when it's time and give people the knowledge I have,” says the Grammy-nominated Decilveo.

Marina says she started prioritizing collaborating in the studio with women as she became "aware of the lack of balance in this part of my industry. I was so used to working almost exclusively with male producers, engineers, etc. that I didn’t question why that was or if that could be different." The solution, she says, "isn't 'female everything' — it’s equal opportunities, regardless of your gender.”

Country songwriter-producer Alex Kline adds that while her perspective is indeed specific to being a woman, that shouldn’t limit her to only working with other women. “Even though there's all of these barriers being broken, it's still like, ‘I've got this girl and the girls should get together.’ I'm happy there's tons of talented women in town, but I also want to be like, ‘Let's just make sure that we're not having the boys over here and the girls over here.’”

Kline — who recently scored her first major hit as a sole producer for Tenille Arts’ “Somebody Like That,” which peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart — is far from the only producer making strides — and history.  In June, WondaGurl —  the Toronto native who has worked with Mariah Carey, Travis Scott, Drake and countless others — became the first Black woman to win producer of the year in the 50 year history of Canada’s Juno Awards. She followed the win with a partnership deal with Red Bull Records for her label imprint, Wonderchild. Lazar, for her part, says “I've had quite a few ceiling-breaking moments” — from becoming the first woman mastering engineer nominated for record of the year (Sia’s “Chandelier”) to the first woman mastering engineer to win best engineered album, non-classical (Beck’s Colors). But, she adds, each time someone described those feats in terms of gender, “it ended up oddly discounting the achievement.” Which is why this year, when three projects she worked on all scored album of the year Grammy nominations (Coldplay’s Everyday Life, Jacob Collier’s Djesse Vol.3 and Haim’s Women In Music Pt. III) — a first for any mastering engineer — she could only describe the feeling as “boggling.” She says, “It wasn't about gender anymore, it wasn't about male or female. I was the first person.”

And ultimately, for these top producers, that’s what it all comes down to: unbiased respect. As TRAKGIRL says, “What we’re pursuing, it’s bigger than me and my career.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Lazar, who adds: “We’ve been able to help create pathways and a support network and avenues for people to fight their way through this — and I couldn’t ask for more.”

Although, she adds, she actually could: “More money, more support, more employment opportunities. More and more and more. We need it.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the July 17, 2021 issue of Billboard.