The UK Music Industry Doesn’t Always Take Chances On Women, So Meet The Female Exec Who Does

by Vanessa Reed
A woman in a striped shirt and tattoos on her arms is using a mixing board
Aaronbelford Inc/Stocksy

When I entered the music industry many years ago, I quickly became aware of a representation problem. I was impressed by the music we were supporting, but I also realised that we needed to get better at reaching more of the UK’s talented music creators who might need and benefit from our support. The truth is, if we want to build a more inclusive and successful music industry, we have to recognise that talent is everywhere whilst opportunity is not.

That’s why I joined the PRS Foundation, which was established nearly 20 years ago to invest in the future of music. We do this by enabling songwriters from all backgrounds to realise their potential and by investing in UK organisations that nurture, commission, and promote all kinds of new music. Since 2000 we’ve given over £32m to more than 6,800 projects, and every year we support around 550 projects, which involve thousands of musicians reaching audiences in the UK and across the world.

The questions I was asking were simple, even if their solutions proved more complex. How could we help emerging independent artists who were suffering from the lack of industry investment available at the early stages of their careers? How could we make sure that we were open to outstanding musicians who aren’t used to filling in application forms? And why were there so few women and applicants of colour amongst those coming to us for support?

Women Make Music 2017 grantee Emma McGrath / Photo credit: Richard Harris

The information we received from the foundation revealed how pervasive the problem is in the music industry: In 2011, only 16% of applications submitted to PRS Foundation featured female music creators and 13% of registered UK songwriters identified as women. Of course, 2011 was pre #MeToo and the debate about the gender gap in music was still under the radar. The initiative we began as a result of this information, Women Make Music, which is open to women, trans, and non binary artists, revealed that 79% of those who applied in the first year had never put themselves forward for our funding and 85% of the women supported said that their project wouldn’t have happened without our support.

This highlights what we know from other sectors: that confidence and competitive processes can be a greater challenge for women than men and that gatekeepers often operate within networks, which lack diverse perspectives and space for “taking risks” or being open to diverse talent. We also learnt that launching an inclusive fund like Women Make Music encouraged a high proportion of women of colour who felt welcome and able to apply: 49% of music creators supported by our fund in the first five years were from a Black or Minority ethnic background.

Women Make Music 2016 grantee Michelle O Faith

All of this meant that the balance of our emerging artist community at PRS Foundation was vastly improving, but was the world following suit? Had anyone else in positions of power noticed the severity of these gaps, and how could we could get more people involved? In 2016, just one year before the #MeToo movement exploded, we tested this by organising a roundtable discussion in Parliament where we invited women from across the industry — artists, publishers, musicians — to share testimonials about their experience with a mixed audience of leading figures from politics, the BBC, and industry trade bodies. From this point on, I and those who heard the testimonials that day were convinced that we were facing a deeply embedded, industry-wide crisis that was still not being recognised or addressed.

When I interviewed Shirley Manson, Garbage frontwoman, at SXSW in Austin, she pointed out that the music industry is a microcosm of society. I agree. Most sectors — including music — lack female role models and women in top jobs. Working conditions have generally been designed by and for men; sexism, sexual harassment and the gender pay gap is worse than we had realised; and women are almost invisible in certain professions (in music that’s in the recording studio, backstage, and at the very top of record labels).

PRS Foundation’s Momentum Music Fund 2017 grantee Anna Calvi / Photo credit: Maisie Cousins

All the more reason for music to be the place where we make visible change for the millions of fans who look to our industry for inspiration. One of the ways we’re pushing for that change is via a manifesto we launched in European Parliament last November. This makes specific recommendations about working conditions, investment in female entrepreneurs, research into the economic benefits of increasing female participation, and education programmes that tackle stereotypes for all genders. This is stimulating discussion amongst policymakers and industry leaders, and we know that some of the recommendations relating to the gender balance of European funding are already being adopted.

Within the industry, we’re also collaborating with inspirational influencers like DJ Annie Mac, who is Ambassador for the wide-reaching Smirnoff Equalising Music campaign, which encourages everyone in the industry to do one thing for gender equality. This aligns with many music fans’ concerns and has resulted in numerous artists and music businesses — including the electronic music and dance magazine Mixmag — backing the initiative. Because the gender gap is such a deeply rooted societal challenge, I strongly believe that we need a multitude of campaigns which each look at different challenges. We need people and companies with experience of different parts of the industry to raise awareness of specific challenges and find ways to tackle them.

Annie Mac for Smirnoff Equalising Music

Movements like the Smirnoff Equalising Music campaign, the global She Said So movement, Festival Republic’s ReBalance, Yorkshire Sound Women, and the Women Produce Music labs matter because they each recognise, first and foremost, that our industry will be stronger, better, and more representative of our audience if we include more people from under-represented backgrounds (i.e those who are not cis white male). They also matter because they create new networks which sustain awareness and provide platforms that will help everyone to access the talent we could be tapping in to for a truly progressive, 21st-century business.

Looking to the future, I’m optimistic that an increasing number of people in music, of all gender identities and particularly from the youngest generations, see change as something that’s urgently needed. They want to show they’re doing something tangible through collective action, and social media is helping all of us to call out bad or lazy behaviour. We’re also benefiting from wider recognition that gender balance, diversity, and inclusion is not just morally the right thing to do — there’s a proven economic case. In this context, businesses risk being left behind as artists and customers make value-based choices and reject playing at or paying for events that present a one-sided take on our world. Imagine the difference we’d see if headlining musicians followed the example of Oscar-winning actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Frances McDormand who refuse to take on films with gender gaps in pay and casting?

Perhaps the most obvious reality of all is that doing nothing really isn’t an option anymore.