Beats aren't gendered. So why are we still in the dark ages when it comes to gender equality in the music studio? Women represent less than 5% of music producers and engineers, something that Grimes recently highlighted in a tweet responding to a Guardian piece about the sexual assault and emotional abuse allegations recently leveraged by Kesha against Dr, Luke. Unfortunately, it's a story that's disturbingly familiar in relation to the female performer/male producer dynamic.
Yes, the music industry—like every industry on this patriarchal planet—is sexist. That is not news. But this means we're missing out on a whole world of sounds, stories, and perspectives. If you'll allow me to go a lil' Virginia Woolf for a second, if the vast majority of music that surrounds us is produced by men, then most of the music we document will be music that is produced by men, which is how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.
The hunger for change is there, and crucially at a mainstream level: Kelly Rowland told us she couldn't be more excited to be collaborating with a woman—LA producer Tokimonsta—on her new project, and J Dilla's mom Ma Dukes reminded us that "music is universal; you don't have to speak a certain language to understand what you get from music." So what's up with our current situation? Are women simply less interested than men in being producers, or is society not providing the support? The FADER spoke with 13 producers, who also happen to be women, about the challenges faced by women in production and engineering, and what they think can be done to make things better.
Future Brown, New York
Unfortunately, the repulsive reality is women are expected to be the sexualized commercial object for sale in music, and production and engineering is rarely objectified for financial gain. [Barriers to career progression for women include] misogyny, sexism, unequal pay, alienation, pressure to sell your body for coins, pressure to make your body (rather than your music) the central focus of your career in order to survive in the industry, segregation (for example: all-female line-ups).
How to change things: My mother supported my dream, so without her, I wouldn't be answering these questions. Support is one aspect, but women should also be fearless, go forth and battle the crescendo of bullshit in their path.
Chairlift/Ramona Lisa, New York
There are plenty of female artists out there now who are self-produced and doing cutting-edge productions to surround their own vocals or compositions, which is vital part of the musical landscape right now, but the resulting message is that the female producer is an aesthetically presented vocalist who only produces her own songs. This sets up three additional hurdles to an already challenging field, because vocal chops, aesthetic presentation, and songwriting are three separate and time-consuming skills that should in no way be prerequisite. The archetype of Male Producer (take Rick Rubin, or Phil Spector for example) is not a man who necessarily composes, sings, or looks good on camera. Quite the opposite—the Male Producer is passionate about music but not a performer, putting in years hunched behind the console in unglamorous isolation before achieving guru status. By holding up female performers as producer-icons, we could potentially be discouraging the girls who don't feel comfortable presenting themselves as visual objects from entering the field. At the moment, an artist is not as likely to bring in a woman to produce his track as a man, not because of a bias against women per se, but because on some level it's playing safe: a killer producer, history tells us, looks like a man. Also the steep minority of women producers to choose from makes it a less likely match for artists seeking it out. But Jay-Z brought in 16 year old Ebony "WondaGurl" Oshunrinde to make beats for his Magna Carta record, and hopefully more rappers will follow suit.
How to change things: For others aspiring to be the next WondaGurl, there's an uphill battle to push through to be taken seriously by clients and create a whole new archetype for girls on deck, and the ones who do will be heroes and exponentially attract others to the field. I think it's up to girls to teach themselves the skills they need and step up to the plate as musical pioneers, not up to corporate sponsorships to give handouts that emphasize that the recipient is a minority rather than as a expert. Ultimately the music has to speak for itself and make the biggest change. I really think it's only a matter of time though. I'd give it five years max till we have a top 10 track made by a female producer.
I believe there aren't many female producer and engineers, because they find this side of the business to be mostly male-dominated and many woman do not like to have to compete with men. If you have the art of sound, and feel you can put the music together to make yourself feel good, there should be no barrier to progress in this industry. You just have to have the right team around, the music speaks for itself. I'm not sure why a woman has never won a Grammy [in this field], but I feel Missy Elliot should get a Grammy for her hard work in the industry as a producer. I would also like to win a Grammy one day, that would be so cool.
How to change things: I feel women should enter more beat battle competitions, that would be the first step in getting noticed by people from all over. There are many industry people that attend those events and that I feel would be a good place to promote yourself.
Music, despite common misconceptions, is quite conservative. The archetypes don't seem to ever really change. It's quite transparent how little the music industry formula, or major motion picture formula, has changed since the advent of the internet. It's like they are in permanent austerity mode, and so play it safe. Every year we get a diva, a dancer, a bad boy, a crooner, a girl next door, a fashion queen, a dainty songstress; all younger updates on a previous model. No room for new archetypes. The most powerful thing about hip-hop is that it has a history of setting it's own agenda and taking risks, but sadly is often also burdened with crippling gender issues. Our biggest barrier is our infatuation with these old archetypes, and a lack of insistence on establishing new ones that reflect a culture we would like to live in. That extends far beyond gender issues. We have to create new fantasies.
How to change things: I think this is something more complex than just female involvement. I think a number of people struggle to find a place within the industry due to this preoccupation with old archetypes, and insistence that people adhere to the same affected role-playing in order to be considered worthy of opportunities. Adherence to those kind of roles inherently creates barriers for people of diverse lifestyles and opinions. What distinguishes someone like Missy Elliott, for example, is that she exists outside of those narrow roles, and ultimately I think that until people insist on seeing greater diversity of style and opinion in popular music we will continue to face this challenge.
Nguzunguzu, Los Angeles
I think a lot of girls get intimidated by such a male-driven profession. The set up for ages has been female performers and male producers, and I think people simply get used to this arrangement. A big barrier is the stigma. Like "You're good, for a girl." Having to explain yourself, simply because people aren't used to the idea of a woman being in charge.
How to change things: Simply encouragement. From friends, family, supporters, etc. That is what helped me.
I think our culture has systematically engrained this idea that technology is more of a man's thing. Men were ones that fixed the VCR, women were the ones that watched the VHS of Titanic on the VCR. Men have to be open minded to the fact that women can make platinum selling beats in every category of music. Though women are starting to take over more music exec positions, there are still the big guys up there that may continue to undermine our ability to make quality tracks.
How to change things: It would be too easy to name things like "start school programs" or air PSAs. The reality is that there is a systematic flaw in our culture. Women need to feel proud to stand on their own and be creative without worrying about how we may be inadequate.
There needs to be acceptance from those higher up, that this industry is both sexist and racist. I don't wanna hear none of this 'you're making a fuss over nothing' bullshit. Once we acknowledge this, things will be better.
How to change things: You can start by booking me at the same price as males, stop leaving me on the bottom of the pile, work with me, talk to me, endorse me, promote me.
Engineering and producing is a scary thing to start and a very difficult thing to stick with and excel at. Making it to the top is very competitive. A lot has already been said about the idea that women are generally less likely to initially try something for fear of judgment or failure than men and to combat this I really believe the key to change is more visible female producers. The more there are in the public space, the more young girls will see it as a option for them from a young age and find the confidence to start learning. That means we need women not only to be producing but—and this is important—to stimulate meaningful change we need them to actually rise to the top and become visible. Producers by nature aren't always visible, so that means to create most change, she must not only be a producer but also potentially have what it takes to be a performer—publicly seen and embraced. We all are aware of the standards expected of women in this area so I'll just leave that there. We need some pretty one in a million girls to help break the cycle so it truly is a numbers game: the more women going into the industry means the more women going up, and visibility is the key to change.
How to change things: It's a two prong attack: 1) Getting more girls exposed to introductory production workshops at a young age before they get into that teenage headspace of learning that they can't. 2) Developing some quality production mentoring programs that are specifically aimed at promising young female engineers to develop their skills further. This mentoring program is something I have thought a lot about initiating when I get the time and support.
I think there are a million reasons and it's way deeper than the "boys club" theory. I think a lot of professions are like this. Less doctors, less lawyers, less filmmakers, less directors whatever. I think it stems from society telling girls they should be wearing pink and playing with Barbies and cooking in an Easy Bake Oven. Even if they aren't specifically told these things everything leans towards it, which puts in people's heads that they aren't supposed to do such things, or it would never work or be accepted. I think it starts there. I also think that not a lot of females are mentored by the right people. I have worked with several men that started to feel threatened the second I started to get a little bit of attention. Most men get freaked out when women do things better than them or even as good as them and it goes for everything. Politics, music, business, whatever.
How to change things: Production and engineering schools should encourage women to join, maybe look at their ratio, start mentoring programs. The few women in high positions should take other women under their wing and help them. That goes for male engineers too. This all goes down to the basic bottom line of feminism in general though.
Honestly I don't know why there aren't more female producers and engineers. Maybe because the industry doesn't highlight the few females that are in that profession, unlike the many males that get plenty of attention. Or maybe because some females just aren't interested. It takes more than creativity and a good ear, to be a producer and/or engineer takes time. So there's this thing called passion that you must possess.
How to change things: I think the industry should highlight the many female producers and engineers we do have in the music industry, no matter what scene they may be in, and maybe that will encourage more girls to take on the challenge. There's numerous females that work magic outside of the vocal booth—Sylvia Robinson who produced the hip-hop classic "Rapper's Delight" to Beyonce who was a producer on her I Am.. Sasha Fierce album—but that gets no praise when it should.
There have been a fair few [female producers and engineers] actually. From Delia Derbyshire to Tina Weymouth to Susan Day to Missy to Zavoloka. Game changing birds that all the boys know about and listen to, but whose impact was/is always somehow defused by their positioning within the cultural context. Women must also take responsibility for playing the role of titty, cutie, breeder and feeder. The world isn't fair and it is a harder stance to take on than to just acquiesce, and most humans will go for the road most travelled. Humans crave validation and we all have to take responsibility for how we manifest that. The newer breed are much more computer savvy and ready to have a go on the technology (less girls who just want to have a sing).
How to change things: Stop making cheap glamour, fame and attention so desirable—but this is a crisis within society as a whole and not just this business called show. Art has children and instead of revering people like Missy, the press champions nonsense like Madonna as a modern woman—and if u look at what she has "bred," it's verging on cultural crimes against humanity. I understand that she has made money etc, but if that is the criteria then Starbucks really is God. Offer ALL your kids chemistry sets and coding lessons. There is hope because everyone has computers and it's up to the parents and the girls themselves to put in the hours to learn these things. Raise humans with the confidence and the tools to do this and we may yet advance. Recognize Missy.
The road to the top is hard everywhere: music, science, academia etc. It takes a lot of work, courage and perseverance. By the time we reach true expertise in a certain field, we are usually confronted with the choice between career or motherhood and, although both are possible, I just can't imagine being able to exceed in both. I'm 31 and I don't have children (yet) because I chose to work on my music career. Tracy Emin said in an interview recently "There are good artists that have children. Of course there are. They are called men." Perhaps this is why a lot of women 'give up.' Some are scared to enter the male-dominated industry but that shouldn't be an excuse anymore. If you don't stand up for your work you won't get anywhere. This industry is hard and nasty a lot of the times, you just have to keep your chin up and create strong work that can't be ignored.
How to change things: Start young! Encourage music programming in schools or kindergardens, show how easy and fun it actually is, let them fall in love with it and pursue it as a career. Provide workshops and learning events where girls (and boys) can learn and practice for free. Encourage mentoring by other women artists. Bigger female representation in music events and in music press, without drawing undesired attention to it (less click-bait articles about the problem, more focus on the work of women producers). And if you're going to write about it, include men in the debate, we need to shift this paradigm together and work towards equality in the future.
In any field that's so heavily dominated by powerful men, it's extremely difficult for women to gain respect or be welcomed, and in the music industry the sheer intimidation of how women are treated probably keeps many aspiring female producers from moving up the ladder and garnering proper attention. Whereas only 5% of high profile producers and engineers are female, there are obviously many other women still under the radar. They're out there, just not included in that noteworthy percentage, which to me is the biggest problem.
How to change things: Since power starts at the top, it would be great if both labels and high profile artists took a little more time and consideration when selecting producers, and reached out to talented women instead of cycling through the same ~10 men that are responsible for most of what you hear on the radio (also a good look for the general diversification and progression of pop music). But since that takes more time and effort and equality doesn't seem to be much of a concern to the industry higher-ups, we need to keep having this conversation and having it loud. If pop music's audience is vocal about a change needing to happen, maybe we can shake the structure from the bottom. Profiling talented female producers and engineers more frequently is a start. Profiling women in the music industry without the qualifier of "female" would be great, since female isn't a genre.
This article was updated on October 20 2017 to remove the line "We don't listen with our genitals" as that incorrectly links gender with genitalia.