Why Are Women Still Underrepresented in the UK Music Scene?
In the grand old year of 2023, no women were nominated for Artist of the Year at the BRIT Awards, no women will headline Glastonbury, and no women were nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. If we’ve moved beyond the need for gendered awards categories, why are so few female artists being celebrated?
Women’s literature is literature. Women writers are writers. Differentiating based on gender does more to belittle and diminish than it does to uplift. In 2022, the BRIT Awards merged its male and female categories in favour of one single gender-neutral award for Artist of the Year, a definite step in the right direction for levelling the talent of all gender identities. Yet, an unintended consequence of this move was the complete lack of female nominees this year. But does this snubbing of female talent really suggest we need to return to gendered awards to ensure women are celebrated?
In order to be eligible for Artist of the Year, the artist must have achieved at least one top 40 album or two top twenty singles within the previous year. As a result, of the 70 acts eligible, just 12 female acts and one non-binary act qualified, with Charlie XCX, Rina Sawayama, and Florence + the Machine among the 12 not nominated. Thus, it’s not that women are being actively excluded, but that very few are meeting the strict eligibility criteria. The voting body are likely not to blame either, with this year’s bloc being 52% female. The nomination system itself, therefore, does not seem to be exclusionary. Another reason given by a BRITs spokesperson was “the lack of high profile women artists in cycle with major releases”, such as Adele and Dua Lipa. However, the root of this issue is surely not that female artists are simply less talented. Yes, the number of nominees could be expanded and the criteria altered, but that would be like putting a plaster on a gunshot wound. The real question is why so few female artists are reaching the same heights as their male counterparts.
The issue is systemic. Women make up only about 20 percent of artists and 14 percent of songwriters signed to British record labels and publishers, according to Vick Bain, the president of Britain’s Independent Society of Musicians. Whilst this gender equality in music may not seem noticeable when glancing at the charts, it is undeniably present in all areas of the industry. Over the past decade, only 12.7% of songwriters were female, and as of 2021, less than 3% of producers are female. If women continue to be underrepresented, they will remain vacant from ungendered award categories. The British music industry requires real meaningful change from within. More women need to be signed, and they need to be fostered and marketed with the same level of support as male artists.
A purposeful step would be booking more women for major slots at festivals. However, following the drop out of a female artist who “changed her touring plans”, Glastonbury Festival was, of course, forced to resort to a lineup of all-male headliners. Three time Grammy award-winning Lizzo simply didn’t fit the bill. Like the male-only Artist of the Year, the lack of female headliners has also been deemed a “pipeline” problem. Emily Eavis, the event’s co-organiser, claimed it is the music industry’s responsibility to invest in female artists to create future female headliners. Whilst the music industry undoubtedly has a lot to answer for, I would argue this is an arbitrary separation. The only thing stopping female artists from being headliners is the organisers themselves. Unlike the awards, there is no criteria, so there is no excuse. Aside from the headliners, Glastonbury’s bill is largely balanced in terms of gender and race, with 48% of acts female and 43% non-white. In light of complaints, Eavis has also promised we will see two women headlining next year.
However, offering women such positions shouldn’t be viewed as ticking a box. There shouldn’t be quotas. It’s not a numbers game and enforcing the inclusion of women in the name of equality is not the solution. They deserve to be celebrated because of their talent, not in the midst of a gender parity ploy. Increasing the number of women in the music industry is not an overnight job. But, enabling and aiding female artists in reaching the successes their talents warrant is a non-negotiable if we want to see the figures change.
In the words of Charlie XCX, when asked to comment on the all-male nominations for Artist of the Year, “there’s many of us. We’re doing everything right, I don’t think it’s our fault, I think it might be theirs”.
Illustration: Olivia Jones