Caroline Groff, Contributing Writer
“I just want to f—ing talk to my fans and sing and write songs and drop it the way these boys do.”
Billboard’s Woman of the Year, Ariana Grande, said something in her acceptance speech that seemed to resonate in more genres than just her own. When someone with her amount of pop success says she feels these confinements in the music business—where else can we find them?
The topic of women struggling to break through the male-dominated barrier of sound is one that has always been apparent. The notion of a “boy’s club” has been seen in all industries but is most widely observed in the entertainment industries.
The issues are found in mainstream pop and the alternative scenes alike. It is international to local. Kelly Hunziker, a sound engineer for local bands and live circuits in the St. Louis area, has experienced the journey. “I’ve really gone out and chased down opportunities because I want to be a great engineer. Sometimes people are receptive to that, others ignore me,” Hunziker said. As a woman in the St. Louis music scene, she is part of a shift in the changing roles of women in music.
What seem to be changes, never seem permanent. In a study done by Stacy Smith at the University of Southern California, Smith examined the number of women in high-powered positions in the industry: artists, songwriters and producers. The study spans across 700 popular songs in the past six years. In the collection of songs being studied from 2018, the number of female artists was at 17.1 percent. This is only looking at the ratios in pop music, but other genres seem to follow suit in these statistics. A glance over at the last week on the “Billboard’s Top 40 Alternative Hits” list shows part of the problem. Out of 40 artists, six women are present on that list, some of which were either in groups or simply featured with a male artist.
This certainly is not due to any lack of talented women, but rather the disconnect from artist to critic to audience. “I think women have always been fighting to carve out space for themselves as performers. They’ve always been there, but they’ve always been the minority,” said Hunziker. The world of critics and radio programmers seem to be living in the past, alternative rock, fog machine-filled haze. Male line-ups like Greta Van Fleet finding success in the reproduction of classic rock-fueled sounds that seem to be recycled by the genre year after year. While there are some breakout artists, a lot of what gets attention or airtime feels repeated—male and female alike. New, experimenting artists are still able to reach new audiences, but audiences are finding them with new technology rather than traditional media and radio.
In the time of streaming, the listener has endless catalogues of artists to discover. Playlists are curated to mirror one’s listening patterns as well as to filter in upcoming artists. The audience seems to be expanding faster than the standard forms of media have, but this has not dissolved the issue of breaking into the industry. The struggle of female artists and musicians to get their shot seems directly impacted by the lack of women in more powerful positions on the business side. Maybe these problems are trickling down from higher up. In Smith’s study, the ratio of male to female producers across 400 of the selected popular songs was 47 men to 1 woman. This does not even delve into the issue of gender along with diversity—findings also showed only four out of 871 producers were women of color. This lack of women in the producer’s chair or in today’s radio programming shows the difficulty women are facing getting through the barrier of a largely male dominated space.
“40 percent of interviewees stated that they face difficulty navigating the industry, including breaking into the business, making connections and getting into different rooms,” said Smith.
From songwriters to producers, women in these roles seem to have to break through a specific level just to be taken seriously. Hunziker said, “It’s still very uncommon for me to work with engineers or tour managers or crew members that identifies as a woman.” Those in the industry may not want her to really fail, but the current limitations and statistics have created that environment. Her ability to find success had to come with a stamp of acceptance from a male-centric environment.
It’s hard for anyone to make it big or to even make it in a small sense in today’s landscape. With so many artists appearing in streaming platforms where people can pick exactly what they want to be listen to, one barrier seems to be lifted to make things slightly easier. A female artist doesn’t have to be in the Billboard Top 40 or 100 to find an audience. The cycle feels like it is finally changing. It doesn’t mean that radio—and its silence toward the female artist—is dead, but it certainly means it needs to catch up.