Women in music: roundtable discussion

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN'S DAY: We gathered some leading women in music to hear their experiences of working in the industry.

Kyle Fisher
  • By Kyle Fisher
  • 8 Mar 2013
  • min read
The current crop of high profile women in music seems to reflect a healthy and diverse industry.

Emeli Sandé’s album Our Version of Events is the biggest-selling record of the year so far. Meanwhile, Adele has continued to dominate both sides of the Atlantic, the pinnacle of her year being the six awards she scooped at the Grammys back in February.

Closer to home, women songwriters received seven nominations in four of the judged Ivor Novello Award categories. They won three of those, and also picked up the Ivors Inspiration Award and Songwriter of the Year.

But behind the headlines, PRS for Music membership has a ratio of 13 percent female to 87 percent male, a figure that remains pretty constant among both new joiners and existing members. Sarah Rodgers, Chairman of the British Academy of Songwriters Composers and Authors (BASCA), says that her society’s membership is 20 percent female to 80 percent male. Meanwhile, the Music Producers’ Guild (MPG) is even more divided, with women making up less than four percent of its members.

M wanted to hear from some of the industry’s leading women about the current state of play. So we organised a roundtable to mull over the big issues currently facing women in music. It was attended by Shelly McErlaine (singer, songwriter, producer), Helienne Lindvall (songwriter, author, journalist), Adrienne Aiken (producer, songwriter, director at MPG), Paulette Long (PRS deputy chairman, Westbury Music director), Mandy Oates (director Eaton Music Publishing), Sarah Richardson (head of digital, Anorak PR) and Kelly Wood (live performance official, secretary to Gig Section, Musicians’ Union). Here’s what they had to say:

M: How has the industry changed over the last decade?
Shelly: Since I’ve been in a band it’s totally changed. My first band was in the late 90s and I’ve worked with men and women across the industry. All attitudes have changed. Everyone’s more fearful of their jobs whereas back then money was thrown at anything.

Sarah: If you look at the role of a press officer these days, it’s very different because of digital technology. I deal with bloggers a lot and it’s all hidden behind email. Traditionally public relations (PR) was very much about building those personal relationships and taking clients out schmoozing.

Adrienne: Possibly there are more women in PR now because you can get on the phone or have a digital conversation – you don’t have to do the whole social thing in quite the same way.

Sarah: Yes, it’s pretty much unlimited now. There are so many blogs, websites, publications, you need to be better organised. It’s less about being seen at the right gigs, being out every night, being able to drink a lot...

Helienne: A&Rs don’t even go out to that many gigs any more. They look on YouTube to check out how many hits things are getting!

M: Which areas do you find to be more male-dominated, and why do you think that might be?

Adrienne: I am the first female producer on the board of Music Producers Guild – they voted me on because the odds are so low – especially within production. The engineers are 99 percent men – the only female live engineer I’ve met is me!

Kelly: I definitely deal more with men than women through the Musicians’ Union. Our membership is split 28 percent to 72 percent, female to male. From my perspective, there are women in certain pockets of the industry, such as PR or performance, but there are other areas where it’s probably around one percent. If you look at sound engineering and production, the figures are really low.

Shelly: But you need to know the technical side to be a songwriter these days.

Helienne: And it’s not that women are inherently bad producers; we’ve seen competent producers who are female. It’s just that women don’t even think about going into that field.

Kelly: Probably to a lot of college kids it looks like a man’s world. It can feel like they’re trying to get into something that isn’t really theirs. Really it shouldn’t be an issue.

Sarah: If you look within the labels, the pockets of people who have relationships with the producers – the A&Rs for example – are predominantly male. Whether you like it or not, they have these little boys’ clubs. I’m good friends with male producers and they get a lot of work through being pally with A&R bosses.

Shelly: But that can work in our favour as well – I do it all the time too. It’s necessary to schmooze A&Rs. I don’t mean to say that I use my feminine wiles but I’m happy to go and party with the boys.   I’ve never found it to be a man’s world, maybe because I’ve always run my own ship.

Paulette: Is that because you are a singer-songwriter?

Shelly: I’m a producer as well, and the production world has completely changed. I know a lot of older men who call themselves producers but nowadays loads of songwriters are producers as well – you have to be. So if that’s the producer role these days, women are doing that and they’re good at it.

Mandy: I think the traditional roles have changed a lot too. In orchestras there are so many more women now, not so much within older age groups but if you go to the young orchestras they are often 60-40 female to male.

M: Do you think there are still perceived roles for men and women?
Adrienne: Yes. Whenever someone doesn’t know me sees me in the studio, the first thing they say is, ‘Are you the singer?’ It’s weird because I understand it – I have that perception when I see a woman in the studio. I’m just not used to seeing a girl in that role so you automatically make assumptions.

Paulette: One role that has changed is the artist manager. It’s become acceptable for women to do this and I’m seeing many more women managers these days.

M: Is it as easy for women to work their way to the top?
Paulette: While there are definitely more women than ever in the low and mid tiers of the music industry, there’s a third level at the top – the big boys – and women haven’t penetrated that. I think it’s generational and in the next 10 years we’ll move up and become part of the heavy pack.

Sarah: Even though there has been a seismic shift within record labels over the past 10 years, at director level it’s still predominately male. Aside from that it feels really mixed in most departments.

Paulette: With regards to the perceived glass ceiling, I think a lot of women look at who is up there and what’s going on up there and decide not to do it!

Mandy: It’s not just in the music industry, it’s across all industries. I think it’s down to choice. Do you think the music business will ever become truly equal? Women might want families or not want the lifestyle that goes with being in music.

M: Does raising a family still present an obstacle for career women?
Paulette: The problems with regards to family are the result of the way different countries view family life.

Kelly: It’s the time away from the industry that represents a problem, as opposed to the return to work and juggling a family and job. The industry moves fast, and freelancers are aware that other people are happy to take on work they turn down during maternity leave. Whether that work comes back to them when they return is anyone’s guess.

Helienne: I’m from Sweden where attitudes are very different. Maternity and paternity rights and pay are much more equal and it doesn’t matter if you’re self employed or whatever, because the government takes care of it. It hasn’t always been like that: you can see a big difference in attitude with the younger generations.

M: How does the music industry differ from other businesses?
Shelly: It’s so fast moving that if you don’t keep up you can’t do it anymore. Music is changing all the time. I’m always scared of my position, everywhere.

Mandy: We look after 16 screen composers and two of them are women. We haven’t chosen it like that. It’s very hard to get into but I don’t think being male or female should make any difference. There are far fewer females that go in that direction, for one reason or another.

Paulette: There is a hole somewhere in the industry that we’re not quite covering, where the numbers of women seem to drop off somehow. They don’t get far enough to register with PRS for Music.

Adrienne: If the girls aren’t producing the demos they aren’t presenting their songs successfully to the A&Rs. They can’t manifest their ideas without getting in the studio and just doing it.

M: Are there any quick wins for women in music?
Paulette: Networking is very useful. We haven’t quite established the networking mentality yet, the guys are more used to doing that.

Helienne: Networking can bring women together and make them more successful in their roles as they share skills and tips.

Mandy: But I fear that may increase the divide. There should be openness.

Shelly: At the moment we’ve got a lot of female artists so the charts are quite female heavy, which actually makes a topliner’s jobs easier. They need my vocals on the demos because there are more female artists which is great.

Kelly: I think it starts at the top and drips down. If we do all we can to redress the balance, it’s better than just expecting or hoping things will change.

Adrienne: This business has always been about who you know, more than just what you know, so communication and networking both within female groups and across the sexes is key to success.