BY OLIVIA TAMBINI
Last week, Festival Republic and PRS For Music announced a pioneering 3 year project called ReBalance, aimed at addressing the gender imbalance in the music industry, by offering apprenticeships, studio time, and festival slots to core female bands and musicians. Since the announcement, a healthy debate on the pros and cons of positive discrimination in the music industry has been rekindled, but as with many female-friendly initiatives, the campaign has also been met with backlash from members of the public.
It’s a well known fact that the music industry and particularly the rock sector is lacking in terms of fair representation for women. When the Reading And Leeds Festival line up was first announced in January, there was only one female headliner in comparison to 57 male fronted acts, and a report by the Guardian in 2015 found that men made up a concerning 85% of the line ups in a study of major UK festivals. More recently, an investigation by the PRS For Music has found that only 16% of their registered songwriters and composers are women, with ‘engineering in particular, viewed as an almost entirely male ‘closed shop”. Even knowing what we do about the patriarchal nature of the music industry and society as a whole, these figures are a shocking indication of the way we have to go until we achieve gender equality in music.
ReBalance, whilst it doesn’t address the socio-political roots of this inequality (nor does it claim to), and it doesn’t address the inequalities that ethnic minority and queer women face in the music industry, surely any attempt to strengthen the progression roots for female musicians is a good thing? Not everybody thinks so. Just take a look at the comments below Sky New’s Facebook video on the matter if you don’t believe me. The usual right-wing trolls have reared their ugly heads, as is to be expected, bemoaning ‘political-correctness gone mad’, all-caps cries of ‘feminazi!’ permeating the thread like a bad smell. This is to be expected – white men tend to get defensive when they think something is being taken away from them.
What was really surprising, was the backlash from members of the music industry, people you would expect to know better. Some rightly questioned the sincerity of the campaign (it is not entirely cynical to suggest that this could be a clever PR stunt aimed at giving large companies a friendlier image), but there are a few who point blank denied the presence of gender inequality in the industry, citing the success of Adele (that seemed to be a popular example) as an indication that women are viewed as equals by both the music consumer and those who work within the music industry.
Clearly, Adele is not representative of the majority of women performers, and as a pop musician, faces different challenges to those working within the rock sphere. Since popular music has existed, there has been an unconscious dichotomy between pop and rock, with the latter being viewed as a largely male domain. There are a number of reasons for this, with one being the concept that pop music is centred around the ‘body’ (through dance for example), with rock viewed as more cerebral – and therefore men are encouraged into rock and are more well received by consumers.
Furthermore, the pop world is hardly a good example of gender equality, with many female performers reporting instances of sexual assault and exploitation at the hands of their male producers, label execs, and managers (the Ke$ha v. Dr Luke case is a good example of this). Women in pop are often objectified, and whilst artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé have reclaimed their sexuality as a feminist stance, there are many more female performers who are coerced into presenting a highly sexualised version of themselves on stage.
Music consumers and industry professionals alike have condemned the project, saying that artists should be included on festival lineups based on merit rather than gender. They say, that if a woman is truly good enough, she should have no problem rising to the top like her male contemporaries. Why then, are artists like Marika Hackman being sidelined for the likes of Rag ‘n’ Bone man, whose latest releases are being met with far less critical acclaim than hers are? Why are artists like Foo Fighters being given headline slots as opposed to someone like Björk, who has released music far more recently? We all know that Madonna would bring in a bigger (and better) crowd than Kasabian, for God’s sake.
There have always been arguments for and against positive discrimination. Many people feel that it is patronising to marginalised groups to suggest that they need ‘extra help’ to achieve the same goals as their more privileged contemporaries, and that is a valid viewpoint to take. What is not valid, is the denial of the discrimination that women face every day, not just in the music industry, but in wider society – the fact that women are being actively excluded from festival lineups should be taken as seriously as the fact that women earn on 80p for every £1 that a man earns.
In a world where women are routinely marginalised, shouldn’t we be supporting any effort to address this imbalance? This project is a small step, but at least this facet of the music industry has made a small step in the right direction – if only we didn’t have to take two steps back every time we do.