American Express Women in Music Leadership Academy Class '19

Rising Execs Eye a More Inclusive Industry at American Express' Women in Music Leadership Academy

“If we can give more women, people of color, and ‘otherized’ communities access, then we’re going to change lyrics and ultimately we’re going to change culture.” That was just one of many insights delivered by Dr. Stacy Smith to the attendees of American Express’ second annual Women in Music Leadership Academy. Since 2008, American Express has set out to train, connect, and empower emerging changemakers across industries like education and social services before setting its sights on music in 2018.

The 3-day event series aims to develop female leadership within the music industry by providing attendees with training seminars, networking opportunities, and executive coaching. Deb Curtis, the brand’s vice president of global brand partnerships and experiences, was an ardent supporter of this year’s academy. “Our global brand stands for powerful backing. We saw a need to pave the way for future female leaders in the music industry, and have their back, as we acknowledge there are still challenges to overcome. Through the ‘Women in Music Leadership Academy,’ we strive to identify, develop and support women who are making an impact not only on their industry but also for other women.”

From A&Rs and artist managers to marketing leads and agents, this year’s academy brought together a diverse cohort of rising female executives who came from a variety of backgrounds but shared a singular focus: putting more women in leadership positions in the music industry. The significance of representation and opportunity was a resounding theme of this year’s conversations as the Leadership Academy’s 48 attendees engaged in a number of group seminars and moderated discussions.

One such conversation paired Dr. Stacy Smith, Director of USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, and Billboard senior editor Danica Daniel for a gripping deep dive into the findings of Annenberg’s most recent report analyzing the inclusion of women across the music industry. The report showed slight year over year progress, (representation of female songwriters and producers rose by .7% and .5% respectively) but the overarching conclusions suggest a continued resistance to accepting women as leaders who are able to hold their own in the recording studio or the boardroom. Dr. Smith discussed the detrimental stereotype and its ramifications at length. “They’re not considered for leadership roles. They're discounted and their skills are called into question. [The perception is that] leadership roles don’t fit cognitively with being a female.”

John O'Boyle Photography
Stacy Smith in conversation with Danica Daniel at American Express Women in Music Leadership Academy '19

These stereotypes that preclude women from equal consideration for executive leadership contributes to a detrimental cycle that results in homogenous, reductive perspectives in creative spaces. Smith went on to share an alarming statistic that underscores how this narrow frame of reference can adversely affect the breadth of messaging in popular music. “If you look across 600 songs [included in the study] roughly 20 percent of the work product of who writes the songs come from nine men, and it’s nine men who primarily live in one European country.”

The following afternoon, Leadership Academy participants sat in on a discussion amongst industry leaders who are actively working to broaden that narrow scope. The “Solidarity in Session Panel,” was moderated by Billboard editor Bianca Gracie and programmed in partnership with She Is the Music, a nonprofit that aims to increase the number of women working across various facets of the music industry. The panel featured members of the organization’s executive and creator committees including Ann Mincieli, She is the Music co-founder and Jungle Studios owner, Ebonie Smith, Atlantic Records producer and founder of Gender Amplified, TRAKGIRL, producer and founder of the 7% Series and Jenifer Mallory, executive vice president, and general manager of Columbia Records.

The group came together to discuss the impediments to gender equity amongst music’s creative ranks and, more importantly, potential solves for the issues at hand. TRAKGIRL put it plainly in the panel’s early minutes. “We need to start creating more opportunities for girls, they need to be able to see us in the studio. And there are a lot of us female producers out there, it's just about getting them in the door.” Following up, Ebonie Smith spoke unequivocally about the pervasive “gatekeeper issue” that’s central to the door’s foundation. “As producers, we have to professionalize ourselves. We have to ready ourselves to be in these rooms and we have to put our 10,000 hours in. Once we’ve done all that, there still has to be someone on the other side of the door that’s willing to open when we knock.”

In recent years, platforms like Soundcloud and Spotify have given aspiring creators more access to prospective audiences, but record labels still play a large part in dictating the door’s entrants. When asked what label execs can do to advance the careers of aspiring female creatives, Jenifer Mallory spotlighted the efforts of organizations like She Is the Music. Over the past several months the nonprofit has developed a growing database of female producers, songwriters, and engineers that can be referenced by A&R’s in the process of booking studio sessions and seeking out collaborators. “We’re working to spread the word in the industry and reminding our A&R’s and our artists to use the database. We just have to continue to get the word out.”

John O'Boyle Photography
Solidarity in Session panel during American Express Women in Music Leadership Academy featuring (Left to Right): Jen Mallory, TRAKGIRL, Ebonie Smith, Ann Mincieli and Bianca Gracie

The database in conjunction with female-driven songwriting camps, mentorship programs, and inclusion mandates are all effective means of developing and creating opportunities for female artists. Their effectiveness, however, will always be undercut if we don’t shift our perception of a woman’s ability to excel in roles like producing that have been historically, and falsely, stereotyped as male. Ebonie Smith spoke vehemently on the need for a fundamental cognitive shift. “People’s hearts and minds have to come around to the idea of seeing a woman in that seat and trusting that she can do that job. The more that TRAKGIRL, myself, Ann, and others do to prove that we can, the more we shine a light on that, but there also has to be a give and take because there are systemic, gender-based issues in our industry that need to be addressed.”

Much of the Leadership Academy was spent discussing a myriad of challenges to a continual push for gender equity, but the enduring tone was a positive one as attendees and speakers alike shared anecdotes that were emblematic of a gradually changing tide. Stacy Smith highlighted the shift at the Recording Academy following the appointment of Tina Tchen to the helm of its Diversity Task Force. “There was a task force that was called for that has created landmark change in one year. It’s in our data, we saw an uptick in Grammy nominations [for female artists] as a function of the committees at the Recording Academy becoming more equitable.” Stories like that give us cause for optimism in spite of the stats that remind us of the long road ahead. As long as organizations like She is the Music, Gender Amplified, and the 7% Series continue to channel idealism into collective action, one can only imagine the results the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative will report in year three.