The timing of this year’s USC Annenberg music report, which for the past several years has cleanly benchmarked the long-whispered-about-but-rarely-quantified demographic imbalances of the music business, couldn’t be more fitting. In addition to capping a year of newly transparent discussions about gender equality in the industry, it comes amid ongoing drama regarding Recording Academy CEO Deborah Dugan, who was ousted from her job last week for, according to some insiders, being too vocal about the Grammy parent organization’s biases.
Tuesday’s third annual report — funded by Spotify and conducted by USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative — examines the gender and race of content creators across 800 top songs from 2012 to 2019 and bears the title “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” (question mark and all). The report proffers one main takeaway: While the demographic makeup of the music industry has improved a bit over the last year, things are nowhere close to equal. In 2019, for instance, 22.5% of the top songs were made by female artists, bounding up from 16.8% in 2017 but only moving the eight-year average to 21.7%.
The numbers dip further in the behind-the-scenes of the industry. In 2019, 14.4% of songwriters were female, compared to 11.6% in 2018 and 11.5% in 2017 — which moves the eight-year average only slightly upward, to 12.5%. The same narrative – if not a worse one – emerges in other parts of the industry: Women comprised just 5% of producers in 2019, taking the eight-year average to 2.5%. Last year’s report, surveying music professionals, found that the main barriers to career success for female songwriters and producers had to do with objectification, stereotyping, and being a statistical minority.
“The qualitative portion really illuminates that being female is, in and of itself, a barrier facing women navigating the space. A lot of what we are seeing is just a rinse and repeat of what we saw last year,” the study’s lead author Stacy Smith, a communications professor who founded the university’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, told Rolling Stone in 2019. In comments attached to this year’s report, Smith noted that, despite changes in specific metrics such as the number of minority female artists on the charts, the lack of women across the board in music is still a “stark contrast to what we see in the film industry.” (Smith also conducts research on both the on-screen and on-set demographics of movies.)
USC’s Annenberg report points out that the 2020 slate of Grammy nominees sets a new high for female nominees, with 20.5% of nominations in the top five categories going to women, compared to 8% in 2018 and 7.9% in 2013. It also attributes the uptick in women working on top projects in the music business partly to the Recording Academy’s Diversity and Inclusion task force, which sprang up in almost direct reply to the infamous “step up” remark made by former Recording Academy CEO Neil Portnow at the 2018 Grammy Awards.
Smith and the study’s co-authors do caveat the study with possible limitations, such as the fact that an examination of data broader than the entries on the Billboard Hot 100 chart each year could shift the findings. But they also note that other studies of the gender balance in specific genres such as Latin and country music have suggested even wider discrepancies than the ones that emerge in popular music.
The authors highlight three particular institutions — outreach and mentorship group She Is the Music, Spotify’s EQL Residency for emerging female engineers, and training organization Women’s Audio Mission — as leaders in bringing forth a more balanced music industry, and point to the Grammys’ championing of female nominees this year as an act that could have a noticeable effect on the demographics of subsequent years.