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At REBOOT Workshop, USC Researchers Ask Songwriters to Aid Spotify-Funded Study on Women in Music

On Tuesday afternoon 50 guests gathered at Pulse Music Group's Los Angeles headquarters to discuss issues female songwriters and producers face in a male-dominated industry.

On Tuesday afternoon 50 guests gathered at Pulse Music Group’s Los Angeles headquarters to discuss issues female songwriters and producers face in a male-dominated industry. Attendees included star songwriters Bonnie McKee, Claudia Brant and reps from Songwriters of North America (SONA) and She Is the Music, a group that’s been running all-female songwriting camps.

It was part of the launch of a new workshop series called REBOOT, a female-led music business education and empowerment community that, according to Pulse president Maria Egan, “will blend town hall meetings, songwriter panels and producer master-classes to educate the songwriter and producer community on the state of the industry–.” Subjects will include, Egan continued, “how women can lead in the creative process and be better credited for their work, while offering guidance from guest experts and leading female creatives.”

It was also a research opportunity for the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s founder and director Stacy Smith and her colleague Dr. Kate Pieper, research scientist, who made waves earlier this year with a report about the lack of representation by women in the music industry. That study featured damning data about inclusion at the Grammys, including that less than 10 percent of nominees have been women. Now, their think tank is investigating inequality in the studio — including how female songwriters and producers get paid.

“This is now a qualitative investigation where we are actually interviewing songwriters and producers that are female and asking them about their experiences, the barriers that they face,” Smith said at the event. She added that their study will rely on females within the industry to come forward and share their experiences with what is and isn’t working for women.


Smith continued, “We also want to spend time focusing on solutions around splits and how splits are adjudicated and changing that process moving forward. That’s one of the agenda items for 2019.”

Pieper noted next they will next be looking into inclusion in the fields of mixing and mastering, instrumental positions and session singers. She said, “We are also interested in music executives and their experiences at companies working with labels, agencies, people working as managers, as well as the live aspect of the industry, touring, booking.”

The current study will be funded by Spotify, they told the crowd, but promised that the initiative will continue to run “independent of who pays the bills.” They are striving to have the results out before the 2019 Grammys.

Some of the highlights from the workshop:

People’s abilities to recall the names of big female artists has led the public to think the issue of inclusion less dire than it is. “That is a process known as the availability heuristic,” said Pieper. “People think that women are doing much better in music because top of mind they can think of quite a few female artists. If you can think of a few female artists quickly, you will overestimate that category.” She called this phenomenon both a blessing and a curse. “Sure there are a few high profile women that are doing well, but it doesn’t represent the entire scope of women working in that particular domain.”

Women in television are generally doing better than women in music. Said Smith: “In film, it’s less than 1/3 of all speaking characters are female and in music, you’re clocking in under a quarter.”

The initiative has also taken a recent look at stats on female engineers, mixers and master engineers — and it’s even more dismal. “That number was 3 percent,” said Pieper, who reminded the room the current ratio of male to female producers is 49:1. “This number needs to change because this changing has a ripple effect on everything,” said Egan, adding that next REBOOT seminar will tackle “females stepping into the studio.”

The Grammy data has been instrumental in catalyzing some change. Smith noted she was shocked to see how bold women in the industry were when responding to Recording Academy President and CEO Neil Portnow’s comment that women who want to be a part of the industry need to “step up.” The Recording Academy has since launched a task force to address inclusion issues in response.

But the Grammys is just a start. Smith reminded attendees that while recent changes suggest forward momentum, the award show is merely “at the end of a cycle of a song, and that means that there is an entire other industry that also has to be addressed.” She said, “I think it’s commendable but I want to see the actions. The rest of the industry is still part of the issue.”

The fact that only 12 percent of songwriters are female doesn’t make sense to the researchers. “Every year I ask my students, ‘How many of you like science and math?’ and no one raises their hand,” said Smith. “But writing has always traditionally been a venue where females flourish both in terms of numbers of electives or majors or high school programs — but we do not see that in music in film or in television. The numbers are really low.” She added that for this reason, she is particularly interested in chatting with female songwriters about the impediments they face.

Hidden roadblocks abound. A woman in the audience suggested the gender bias of women in the industry starts from a young age when “feminine instruments” like the violin and piano on pushed on girls over more male-oriented instruments like the drums. Female producers shared their frustrations over having worked hard to produce a song, only to have the label send in a bigger name in the final hour to add one line to the track, resulting in them losing executive producer credit. This inspired a chat about the need to speak up. “If you want to be a producer, speak up and ask to be a producer. Stake your claim and ask,” said Smith.

Many of the females in the room said their first big breaks came when female executives gave them a chance, but Smith cautioned: “We don’t need mentors. We need sponsors. Mentors meet with you for coffee, give you advice, share their opinions. Sponsors actually open the door. We need to move to a sponsorship model in the space where people are literally opening the doors for opportunity.”

After the meeting, guests exchanged information and vowed to champion one another. Said She Is the Music’s Kristen Smith: “We as women are each other’s biggest resource and it’s time to tap into that and advocate for each other and start to change that model.”

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