Is gendered power being redistributed in the music industry?


The sea of black dresses and suits which flooded the red carpet at the 2018 Golden Globes awards ceremony emblematised the emphatic statement of solidarity women in Hollywood were making against the prevalence of sexual harassment. As a result of this unified group of women under the ‘Time’s Up’ movement and #MeToo campaign, a conversation about the inherent sexism within the acting industry was necessitated, leading to greater awareness and active steps toward change. Such progress within Hollywood demands we question whether this will set the precedent for the music industry or whether more steps need to be taken in that industry for changes to be stimulated.

Indeed, gender discrimination within the music industry is an entrenched issue. However, recent months have seen growing numbers of female musicians more fervently demanding changes to the dominant gender discourse in an industry which undeniably subjugates women. In recent weeks Taylor Swift announced the upcoming release of the re-recorded version of her album Fearless, the masters of which are officially owned by her previous record company Big Machine. After a series of male producers sold her music amongst themselves without her consent, Swift has reclaimed control over her music and explicitly demonstrated that the rights to music is not just an issue of power but an issue of gendered power.

The discourse of ‘freedom’ is not a novel concept in the gender politics of the music industry

Additionally, the increasing momentum for the #FreeBritney movement accompanies Swift’s declarative reclamation of power, with Britney Spears demanding that her father’s legal control over personal decisions, finance and business deals be removed. The conservatorship was awarded to her father in 2008 as a result of Spears’ struggles with mental health. With an awareness of its context, the persistence of this legal control adds a disturbing dimension to the debate, in which Spears is seen as mentally inferior to her father (accusations against which female activists were fighting in the early 20th century). Paralleling the strength of the demands that Swift was making, Spears’ refusal to perform or work again until her father’s control is removed is symbolic of the shifting attitude amongst women in the music industry towards permanent and emphatic change.

The discourse of ‘freedom’ is not a novel concept in the gender politics of the music industry. In 2014, the #FreeKesha campaign proliferated after the musician Kesha entered a legal battle to demand freedom from her music producer who she claimed had “emotionally, mentally, verbally and physically abused” her. This precipitated a wave of support from other female musicians, with Swift donating $250,000 to her case and Adele dedicating her Brit Award for Best Female Solo Artist to her struggle; it also influenced other women to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment within the industry, including Lady Gaga.

Kesha’s experiences align with the unsettling narrative of sexual harassment which pervades the music industry. The former CEO of the Grammys, Deborah Dugan, accused her male predecessor, Neil Portnow, of allegations as extreme as rape; R. Kelly has been the subject of countless allegations of sexual assault, rape and child pornography; Tekashi 6ix 9ine is a convicted sex offender.

Yet despite the stance of solidarity with Kesha (which was built on with the Time’s Up campaign in the acting world) and the presence of both allegations and convicted acts of sexual violence against male figures in the music industry, the statistics of the gendered distribution of power remain dismal. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiation report found that in 2019 women accounted for only 2.6% of music producers in America and only 21.6% of accredited songwriters. Compounding this, between 2012 and 2019, only 10.4% of Grammy nominations went to women.

Only when individual campaigns are assimilated into a larger movement will noticeable progression be achieved

When these figures are positioned in parallel with the acting industry, the similarities are striking. Yet, whilst the ‘Time’s Up’ and #MeToo movement saw the unification of female actors to decisively fight against the gendered discrimination in their industry, the music industry has not experienced a comparable movement of solidarity which would be constitutive of decisive change. Although there has evidently been a discursive shift towards ‘freedom’ for women from the misogyny of the industry, it is only when such individual campaigns as #FreeBritney and #FreeKesha are assimilated into a larger movement, like that within Hollywood, that a noticeable and longer-lasting progression towards gender parity will be achieved.

When speaking about the ‘Time’s Up’ movement, Emma Thompson commented that the allegations against Harvey Weinstein were “the tip of the iceberg.” With both the overwhelming evidence of gender discrimination and sexual violence in the music industry and recent attempts to reclaim power and achievements of this by female musicians, the so-called “tip of the iceberg” for the music industry’s ‘Time’s Up’ equivalent appears inevitable. However, this inevitability must come to fruition in order to generate gender equality.

Illustration by Anna Kuptsova.

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