PopGirlz Scotland: Campaigning for an even playing field

In 2020, PopGirlz Scotland found that Scotify, Spotify’s biggest playlist for Scottish music was skewed heavily towards male artists. Here, founder Rachel Alice Johnson and member Josephine Sillars break down PopGirlz’ role in tackling gender-based discrimination within the music industry.

PopGirlz Scotland
  • By PopGirlz Scotland
  • 24 May 2022
  • min read

Scotland is a small country, and musicians operate in intersecting spheres, so meeting the challenge of positively promoting individual female artists within a white, male dominated industry — with integrity — is of key importance to PopGirlz Scotland. 

Created by SAMA-nominated, interdisciplinary artist Kohla, PopGirlz is a support group for female-identifying, non-binary and trans artists in the Scottish music scene and is over 150 members strong. 

Kohla, real name Rachel Alice Johnson, is a regular on the BBC airwaves, with her most recent single Gorgeous playlisted on the BBC Radio 1 Introducing Hot List. But despite her successes, Johnson’s experience of gender inequality in the music industry compelled her to create a safer, more motivating space for women. Operated through collaborative Facebook and Instagram pages as well as social events, Popgirlz Scotland is now a place where members can meet, collaborate and build connections with likeminded people.

In November 2020, Rachel teamed up Leeds-based musician and PopGirlz member Josephine Sillars to launch to PopGirlz Scotify campaign. The campaign worked to highlight diversity issues within Spotify's Scotify playlist, with an overwhelming overrepresentation of male acts/performers. 

The Scotify playlist in November 2020 showed that:

67 percent of the playlist featured male artists, and 33 percent featured female artists (including mix-gendered bands). Of the 57 artists featured, it transpired that only five of these artists were solo female-identifying (9 percent). With 70 tracks on the playlist, eight male acts had multiple songs featured (18 songs in total), whereas only three female acts had multiple songs featured (six songs). The playlist was also found to feature no non-white artists.

The results were published on social media and caught the attention of the Scottish music scene and press. Within a week, the playlist was updated to a 60/40 gender split, and the following January it featured its first non-white artist — PopGirlz member Sarya — on the cover photograph. It still only featured three  non-white artists. 

Editorial playlisting can be make or break for an artist. Together we can speak out for equality and dismantle the gatekeepers to create a safer, more diverse music industry.

When the Scotify playlist was last updated on 3 March 2022, 58 percent of the playlist features male artists/bands and 42 percent feature solo female artists, mixed gendered bands, non-binary and trans artists. Two male acts had multiple songs featured, one female act had multiple songs featured. There are only five non-white artists, one of whom is a featured singer on one track. 

Gender representation is an issue on an algorithmic level. Research conducted at Utrecht University and Universitat Pompeu Fabra analysed the listening patterns of 330,000 users over nine years and revealed that only a quarter of the artists listened to were women. It’s suggested this is because on average the first algorithm-recommended track was always by a man, and so listeners had to wait until the seventh or eighth song before hearing from a female artist. With 400 million people subscribing to at least one streaming platform in 2020, this becomes an industry problem on a wide scale. It means that ‘music discovery’ in favour of non-male artists is significantly reduced.

Similar to these findings, research published in Counting the Music Industry, revealed that just over 14 percent of those currently signed to 106 music publishers, and just under 20 percent of those signed to 219 record labels, are female.

Since the initial campaign, gender representation has been slowly moving in favour of a 50/50 split. But it is important to note that PopGirlz Scotland are a collective that specifically aim to tackle gender-based discrimination within the music industry, and that conversations surrounding 50/50 gender splits are a binary way of understanding criticism, and that discrimination based on class, sexuality and disabilities is also a major form of inequality in the industry. In particular, the barriers that the social politics of race bring to the conversation are immense, and the restrictive and damaging practices of institutionalised attitudes to artists of colour should not simply be blended with the arguments of gender, as this dilutes and diverts from those issues. 

This can be seen in the artist placement on the playlist, with current placements — as of 3 March 2022 — showing Scottish Album of the Year winner Nova being placed low at number 52, and SAMA winner and SAY Nominee TAALIAH placed lower at number 58. 

'Within PopGirlz Scotland we believe that our best chance to tackle sexism within the music industry is to support one another.'

White women artists are much more easily assimilated into performance spaces and maximising their opportunities may end with social contracts that exclude others. PopGirlz recognises the dangers here and is actively working with other groups to ensure campaigning and support are mutually beneficial and not inadvertently antagonistic.

The fact we have any women navigating and creating successful musical careers demonstrates the ambition, strength and resilience of women artists today. But more progress is needed and PopGirlz asks for:

  • Advocacy for change and speaking out against unfair practices
  • Record labels to sign more women artists
  • Improve music pathways/entry routes for graduates and more communication/collaborations with the music industry
  • Government funding and support for gender diversity initiatives
  • Legislation acknowledging the pay-gap, sexual harassment and parental leave

Rachel and Josephine say, 'Within PopGirlz Scotland we believe that our best chance to tackle sexism within the music industry is to support one another. We realise as women we are stronger together, and we are constantly recruiting new members through word of mouth, social media, press articles and social activities. PopGirlz Scotland aims to act as a community focused group which welcomes elements of the wider industry and is practical and useful to members. It is a safe space for members to discuss their experiences of the music industry in a non-judgmental and learning-focused manner.'

Editorial playlisting can be make or break for an artist. Together we can speak out for equality and dismantle the gatekeepers to create a safer, more diverse music industry. We are the network that we create.

*For songs that feature artists collaborating, if mixed gendered, we have counted this as a mix gendered band, or if both collaborators identify as the same gender, they have been counted in the corresponding gender category.

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