Gender inequality goes pop: Brit Awards showcase songwriting's women problem

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This year’s Grammy Awards were marred by a lack of women musicians being recognised for their work. #GrammysSoMale trended on Twitter after just two women were given awards during the televised ceremony during the biggest celebration in the music industry’s calendar. Worse, the results came mere days after a study by academic Dr Stacey Smith, who found women comprised just 12.3 per cent of the songwriters behind the 600 most popular songs of the past five years. Female producers were even rarer, making up just two percent of teams behind a subset of 300 of those most popular songs released between 2012 and 2017.

The statistics shocked even those enmeshed in the industry. But research by The Telegraph has found that gender inequality in the UK music industry is almost as bad. Women are similarly terribly represented in the writing and production of songs. Furthermore, female representation among writers of pop music has made almost no progress.

An investigation into Brit Award nominations found that women made up just 108 of the 616 songwriters to have a credit on a song nominated for Best Single since 1999. This equates to just 17.5 per cent of all writers. The figure is pertinent – of approximately 120,000 writer members of the PRS for music, 17 per cent are female.

While the size of teams writing Brit Award-nominated songs has increased over the past 20 years, there hasn’t been a rise in the number of women involved. Between 2009 and 2018 there were 3.6 writers per song on average, up from 3.1 per song in the previous decade. This jumped again in 2018, where there were 5.3 writers per Best Single-nominated song.

But while this increased number of songwriters has resulted in more songs featuring female writers, the number of female writers has grown proportionally with the number of male writers.

As a result, the level of female representation has stayed resolutely static. Between 2009 and 2018, 18 per cent of writers were female compared to 17 per cent for 1999 to 2008.

The data also shows that while male songwriters write for all kinds of artists, women songwriters are far more likely to write songs for other women than they are for men. Many of the female songwriters listed are those who have written songs that they also perform, for example, Adele, Shaznay Lewis and Jessie J. However, the number of silent female songwriters – who don’t perform the songs they’ve written – is tiny.

Among the Best Single-nominated songs performed by all-female or mixed gender acts, 30 per cent of songwriting credits went to women. Among songs performed by all-male acts this figure was just six per cent. Maegan Cottone, for instance, is a named songwriter on Olly Murs and Demi Lovato’s song Up, nominated in 2016, while Leslie Bricusse contributed to the writing of Robbie Williams’ Millennium.

As with Smith’s research, women fared worse when it came to production credits: just 15 of the 285 producers behind these songs were female – that’s less than 5 per cent.

For Vick Bain, CEO of the British Academy of Songwriters, Composers and Authors (BASCA), these figures are familiar – she has been conducting research into how many women writers are signed to music publishing companies. “For many decades songwriting and composing was almost totally a man’s world,” she tells The Telegraph.

Bain argues that awards ceremonies – such as the Grammys and the Brit Awards – are inevitably going to suffer from a gender bias because women are not fairly represented at the core of the music industry. “If women are not being asked to write the songs, perform the songs or have their songs commercially released and played, then they will not be submitted or considered for judging,” she explains.

While the Musicians Union claims that 30 per cent of its 33,000 members are female, it is unknown how many of these women are signed to a record label. Bain, however, suspects the numbers could reflect Smith’s findings that nearer 10 per cent of professional songwriters are women.

Bearing this in mind, Bain says, the BPI, who manage the Brit Awards, “manages to get a more gender balanced view of the industry at the Brits than what actually exists, because two of its eight categories are for female artists.”

The Brit Awards are, however, aware of their historic gender problem, and say that the overhaul of the Voting Academy in 2016, to include more than 1,000 industry experts, was intended to “encourage more equality and balance in the voting process”.

The changes to the Academy caused a considerable shift towards gender parity: from 70 per cent male to 30 per cent female before 2016, to 52 per cent male to 48 per cent female after.

A Brits spokesperson told The Telegraph: “We know that there is more to do and we are continuing with our commitment to have the best processes in place for our Academy, who ultimately choose the winners, to vote for who they think is most deserving of the Awards.”  

“We have been pleased by the nominations this year which sees 47 per cent of the nominations going to female artists – up by nine per cent from last year.”