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The industry must do more to redress the gender imbalance in pop music


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In recently published research by the BBC into the male-female ratio in the UK chart, it's been found that the gender gap in pop music has widened over the last 10 years. 

Image: Dua Lipa by Justin Higuchi via Flickr

In 2018, 75 per cent of artists featured in the UK’s top 100 singles were male. Only 30 of the highest selling songs were performed by groups containing women or by female solo artists and a meagre 13 singles were credited solely to women.

In comparison with similar analysis carried out on 2008’s chart, 2018 shows a clear growth in gender disparity with 22 fewer female-only singles breaking into the top 100 last year. More changes include the overall number of artists featured increasing but the number of women being proportionally fewer as the total of female acts has stagnated. There are also very few mixed groups.

Collaborations don't work (seemingly)

Other trends that the BBC’s research uncovered include the increase in the number of collaborations. These one-off meetings of minds and voices grew 150 per cent with 25 male/female collaborations last year versus only 10 in 2008.

This is in a culture where crossover episodes are becoming ever more popular and there is a rush to create a cinematic universe as quickly as possible in mainstream cinema. In the music industry, however, there is a further commercial impetus to bring artists from different worlds together that is bound up with how we consume songs – different genres tend to be segregated on streaming platforms such as Spotify. If two musical worlds collide, the song is likely to pick up more streams.

Image credit: via Flickr

More collaboration is far from a gender-neutral phenomenon, however. Where it is common for female singers to feature male rappers to break up the verse/chorus/verse formula, it’s much rarer for it to happen the other way around and have female singers feature on male rap singles. Currently, rap is a dominant force in the charts and so this bias finds expression in 2018’s imbalanced top 100.

Male-dominated is rap not helping gender balance

Rap is thoroughly male-dominated apart from select anomalies such as Cardi B, who features three times in 2018’s list and on every count alongside male artists (Maroon 5, Bad Bunny & J Balvin, Bruno Mars), only once taking the lead position (‘I Like It’). Nicki Minaj is also a notable exception. This is despite a raft of up-and-coming talent yet to break into the mainstream such as Little Simz and Rico Nasty.

Cardi B’s Grammy win was taken by some as a sign of sea change in the industry, but others saw her award as mere apologetic over-compensation for a male-dominated list of awardees last year. Other female winners included the country musician Kasey Musgraves, Lady Gaga for her duet with Bradley Cooper and Dua Lipa (one of the few female solo artists on 2018’s chart). This shows in a sense that symbolic progress is being made. In cold hard sales, however, there has been a clear regression – these accolades are not representative of material reality.

Image: Kasey Musgraves by Bruce Comer

Dance music is the other cultural juggernaut asserting hegemony in the best-selling singles of today. It’s a genre that often features male/female collaborations but this often an unequal partnership with the singer nearly always being a woman and the DJ/Producer a man.

What can be done?

Consumers are, by and large, not sexist in their music tastes – the fault lies with the industry. Labels, festivals and promoters need to do more to ensure parity and equal opportunities for rising talent. Those who are booking acts need to have a look at their line-ups and ask whether this is representative of what’s out there.

A governing principle here is risk. Creative progress, or for that matter societal progress, is only achieved when people have the guts to try something new. Don’t just book the same old white-boy indie bands or megastar male DJs because they seem to be selling well – bump a newbie up the list!

The power of the consumer is very limited regarding music unless you become the musician (this is not the Grammy organisers of last year’s “step up”). We, therefore, need to change behaviours in the industry, such as the unnatural hierarchy in collaborations; we also need to see more female team-ups, more female producers and more female rappers. A combination of adaptation to and shaping of current trends and creating something new is required.

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