Female artists were heavily represented on year-end critics’ lists, so why aren’t women getting the same level of airplay on radio?
The year is winding down and, for many of us music nerds, that means snuggling up with a hot cup of cocoa and reading the lists of top 2017 artists, albums, and songs from every corner of the internet. Depending on where you look, it was either a great year for women in music, or completely the opposite.
On the one hand, NPR’s Top 10 Albums of 2017 included six female artists, SPIN magazine’s included seven, Bandcamp’s included eight, both Pitchfork and NPR gave top song honors to women from completely different genres (Cardi B for “Bodak Yellow” and Big Thief for “Mary,” respectively). NME’s top album went to Lorde. And while we’ve become accustomed to hearing about the successes of women in pop like Beyonce, the second-highest-paid musician of 2017, and Taylor Swift, who sold more records in a week this past November than any artist had all year, we’re now seeing that female artists have had an impact across genres, from hip-hop and pop to electronic and rock.
On the other hand, if we look at the numbers from popular music streaming services, the women all but disappear. The Top 10 Albums on iTunes for the year included one by a woman–Taylor Swift, and one featuring women–the Moana soundtrack. The top 10 songs include zero women. According to Spotify’s numbers, the top five streamed songs of the year all came from men, as well as the top five artists, top five groups, and top five US tracks. Zero women. ZERO. So, while critics are embracing women en masse, the numbers aren’t necessarily translating to listeners. Why?
As misogynistic as some people are (looking at you, 46% of Americans who voted a man with over a dozen sexual misconduct accusations against him into the White House), it’s hard to believe that a majority of them would purposefully not listen to female artists. What’s more probable is that what’s being presented to the average listener is still skewed to be heavily male.
According to Nielsen, radio remains the number one way to consume media. With that in mind, I took a look at Billboard’s Radio Songs of 2017 Chart, which is compiled using “This year’s most popular songs across all genres, ranked by radio airplay audience impressions as measured by Nielsen Music.” Out of 75 songs, 28 were either by women or featuring women. Only 19% of the songs had women as the only or lead artist. (That song by Cardi B that Pitchfork named the song of the year? It was number 47 on this list.) So it’s not necessarily that people don’t want to hear women, it’s that they’re barely given the opportunity to do so.
For artists, visibility (and hear-ability) is key, but at a time when thousands of new musicians are putting music out each year, getting airtime can be difficult without the help of a major label. With the exception of Taylor Swift, all the women on the Billboard Radio list are signed to major labels with money to spend on marketing and press. Seeing as radio playlists and festival lineups are still far from equal when it comes to gender representation, having the clout of a big name behind you is sometimes the only way to get wide-ranging exposure. But labels have been known to push artists, especially female artists, into a marketable mold. In an interview with The Guardian, musician Victoria Hesketh, also known as Little Boots, explained that she turned down a record deal with Atlantic because being an artist today “is about branding and your visual representation, and this can mean something very different for a female artist, than it does for a male.”
A vast majority of the women cited by critics for their music this year, including Kelela, JLIN, Big Thief, St. Vincent, Sheer Mag, and Aldous Harding, are on independent labels, which can mean less financial resources to help promote their work but more control over their image and music. But for many artists who are just starting out, a label (indie or otherwise) is not an available choice.
Emma DeCorsey, lead guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter of the band I Am the Polish Army (and full disclosure, a friend of mine) self-released her band’s debut album My Old Man this past year. She told me: “Self-releasing is in many cases the only option for a new artist that has no sales track record or ‘following’ or whatever that’s measured by. The industry is in such dire straits that it takes a lot of trust for a label to give a band a deal on their first record. I see bands getting signed more like on album 3.”
When you consider what goes into releasing an album—recording, mixing, mastering, vinyl and cd production, PR—it adds up. DeCorsey took a full-time day job in order to totally fund the album, “using literally every dollar I had that didn’t go to rent.”
Another plus to having a label behind you—one that may not always be apparent—is the confidence factor; that is, knowing someone believes in your music enough to want to put it out there. DeCorsey notes, “The importance of that on the frail, feeble artistic mind cannot be overstressed!”
And for women in the business, feeling like you’re being judged for your music rather than your sex is not an easy feeling to come by. I asked DeCorsey about this and her story was similar to what I’ve heard and read from a lot of other female musicians.
“I was taken advantage of a lot when I was starting to network in the NYC music world in my early 20’s,” she said. “No one took me seriously. If I was hanging out with musicians and trying to give out demos or book a gig, I was considered a groupie. Dudes were way more interested in getting my number and hooking up with me than helping me out in the industry. It’s different now that I have real friends in the industry through other bands I’ve played with, I have a guitar strapped to me that’s like having a shield and a rifle in one to protect you…10 years ago if a dude saw my guitar, he’d ask if he could see it and then proceed to shred on it like he assumed I didn’t know how to do! Such a dick move. Now they see I can play and they leave me alone, for the most part.”
If you need any further proof that sexism exists in the music industry, take I Am the Polish Army’s album, My Old Man. DeCorsey wrote the songs over the course of a decade in response to the abuse she suffered while trying to start her career as a singer, including some nasty predatory behavior from a producer and fellow musicians. “That’s the sexism that I’ve faced – an excuse to take advantage of my youth, need, passion, aspirations – things men also happen to have, but never get questioned about.”
But if you need any further proof that musicians are passionate enough to put up with this shit and then still have the stamina to do what it takes to make it, then check out Rolling Stone’s list of “15 Great Albums You Probably Didn’t Hear in 2017” – I Am the Polish Army’s My Old Man is on that list.
There does seem to be a momentum building across media and entertainment that is addressing, if not correcting, the unfair standards women, non-binary, and people of color have historically faced. Is it too soon to believe that tastemakers have become gender-blind, and are solely judging music based on the art and not the artist? Maybe. We’d do it a disservice to call this representation a trend, reinforcing the usual marginalized status of these people. It shouldn’t be about having that token female performer on a bill or even an entire side stage or Awards Show dedicated only to one sex. Otherwise, the canon itself will never change.
But what I found most heartening about the overwhelming inclusion of women in the lists put out by critics is that the majority of them didn’t bring attention to it. There was no banner stating “women have arrived in the top 10–finally!” It felt, even if just for a moment, like the only thing a musician had to do to get recognized is put out a good album.