In light of the findings of the gender disparity in Irish radio report released this week, Louise Bruton talks to Irish artist CMAT and others about sexism in the music industry…
“Oh yeah? Name three songs by them.”
This is the question that many a teenage girl has been pressed with if she had the gall to wear a T-shirt by her favourite band. Put on the spot, the question is almost always asked by a boy her own age and any delay is seen as a lack of knowledge, evidence that you’re faking your fandom.
That’s how it starts.
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The music industry is rife with misogyny; starting with how we view and talk about women who love and make music and snowballing to the point where music made by women does not get played on primetime radio. This week, music PR and champion of Irish music Linda Coogan-Bryne released the Gender Disparity Data Report on Irish Radio, which detailed how much airplay female musicians received versus their male peers on top stations across the country.
Assessing the top 20 tracks by Irish artists played on radio from June 2019 – June 2020, only one station achieved a 50/50 split between men and women and that station was RTE Radio 1, a station most people do not tune into for the tunes, while most other stations gave women five per cent of their airtime. FM104, LM FM, WLR FM and South East Radio didn’t have any music by women in their top 20. Sadly, these figures are no surprise, but it’s a reassurance to all the women working in music that no, you weren’t crazy for feeling like you had to work doubly – triply – hard to get to where you are.
In 2013, Canadian electro wizard and producer Grimes wrote a post on her now-deleted Tumblr account about the systematic sexism she experienced as a woman working in the music industry. “I don’t want to be molested at shows or on the street by people who perceive me as an object that exists for their personal satisfaction,” she wrote. “I’m tired of men who aren’t professional or even accomplished musicians continually offering to ‘help me out’ (without being asked), as if I did this by accident and I’m gonna flounder without them.”
She added that appearance always works its way into reviews of her music. “I’m tired of being referred to as ‘cute,’ as a ‘waif’ etc., even when the author, fan, friend, family member etc. is being positive,” she wrote.
And she’s right. Whether we’re discussing Sigrid, Lizzo, Adele, Billie Eilish, Beyoncé or Kylie Minogue, a woman’s appearance is almost always mentioned on the same level as their musical output, whether they’re too skinny, too large, too provocative or too modest. Of course, the spectacle and the sequins are part of any Kylie or Beyoncé show but when you remove their bodies from the equation, their body of work is amazing in every sense; technically, critically, culturally, academically, religiously.
The language we use around women in music matters because this othering, this belittling, feels like an immovable block.
IN THEIR PLACE
Caroline O’Sullivan, a sociologist and the head of Creative Media in TU Dublin (formerly DIT), published the academic paper The Gender Barriers in the Indie and Dance Music Scene in Dublin in 2018, and her findings read like a sigh of relief to any female music lover who’s been patronised in front of “the lads”. Honing in on DJs and club culture, she notes how the male obsession of mixing (the act of
blending one song into another during a live set) is a way to keep women in their place.
“Over the sustained period of time in the field, it became evident to me that one of the most profound differences between male and female DJs is their attitude to the importance of mixing and the mix. Almost all female DJs prioritise an extensive knowledge of music over the ability to deliver a successful mix,” she writes.
“For men, however, the technical ability to mix takes precedence. It has become somewhat of a flash point where men’s dismissive attitudes have become normalised, as men just assume that females simply do not possess the innate technical ability required to mix.”
Mixing is the grown up version of “name three songs”. This gatekeeping ensures that women, as talented as they are, feel edged out of their space, their techniques are quizzed and questioned and their appearance rated.
Irish pop sensation Ciara Thompson, known professionally as CMAT, says when she was making a music video with her old indie band, the way that the music producers treated her has stuck with her forever. At their first meeting with them, she and her male band mate said that they wanted something really campy, with the two of them fishing for old boots. Their request was for a silly, fun video.
“About a week later, I get an email and the treatment was the most misogynistic thing I’ve ever read in my life. I don’t know what gave them the idea that this was what I wanted for the video,” she says, “but they were like ‘Ciara stares down the barrel of the camera and flirts. She has a parasol in her hand. She’s twirling the parasol. She’s sexily skipping down the banks of the canal. She’s lying across her male bandmate’s lap and they’re gazing into each other’s eyes’.”
“It was all this coded, sexual language that was mainly focusing on me. I was 19 at the time and these guys were in their 30s. It really enraged me because it was just so blatant.”
Photo used with permission from CMAT
When she told them that nowhere in her own brief did she mention that she wanted to be sexy, the men eventually said that they wouldn’t work with her.
There is this sense that if you complain, you risk advancing your career and in a scene as small as Ireland’s music scene, you can feel trapped by the system. When Alice Kiernan was recording her debut solo single Running Now as a self-managed artist, the whole process almost put her off a career in music.
The first producer she worked with kept adding in more costs and adding up unnecessary studio time, which she couldn’t afford as a student at the time. On top of hefty invoices, he also gave her unwarranted career advice. “He told me I would need to change my name to a band name or be ‘Alice Kiernan and the ____’ because he didn’t believe I was strong enough to hold the attention of the audience as just Alice Kiernan, a solo artist,” she says. “I quickly left him and lost a lot of money.”
Her second attempt at recording the same single was with a well-known studio but they kept cancelling her slots because a popular male Irish band needed her slot. “I totally get that that band were probably paying more money than me but again it repeated that narrative of ‘You are not important here. The boys are more important than you’,” she explains.
This same studio tried to wrangle more money out of her, claiming that they owned 50 per cent of the lyrics and melodies of a song she wrote and 100 per cent of the production. “It was after a songwriting course with RuthAnne [Cunningham, who pulled together 40 female musicians for the Irish Women in Harmony’s cover of The Cranberries’s Dreams, which is raising money for SAFE Ireland] that I realised I actually owned 100 per cent of the lyrics and melodies and I owned 50 per cent of the production.”
TWICE AS HARD
Women in music have to work harder to literally get on the same stage as men and, when they do, they have to work even harder to assess if they’re being duped or tricked somehow. Sometimes women don’t get to excel within their own genre because they’re just tagged as “female” on playlists and when it comes to gender equality on festival line ups, the fight can feel never-ending.
A female booker, who has asked not to be named, explains the back and forth she has with her older, male employers when it comes to booking more women for festivals.
“When I brought it up to my employers, I was told first off ‘yeah, yeah, yeah’ but then it would be ‘we don’t want to book someone just because they’re a woman’. They’d ask me to make a list and then nothing would come from it,” she says. “I got quite fed up because I realised that after a year or two, I was exclusively a female booker.”
She was doing double the amount of work because not only was she booking acts, as per her job description, but she had to convince her employers why it was a good idea to do so. “After a while, I realised that it was emotional labour that old men were just not willing to take on. They weren’t willing to do the work to see where their bias lay and instead, they were like: ‘If you want more women, you have to book them’. And at that point, I went ‘No, it’s not my job to fix your mistakes. You need to look at yourselves and you have to decide if you want to be seen as someone who exclusively books men’.”
Just like CMAT, when she pointed out the inequality in this, she was dismissed: “I’ve been told that I have an agenda when my only agenda is… fairness”.
“If you moan about misogyny, the perception will follow you,” says CMAT, adding that she’s heard her name come up in arguments against feminism, led by male musicians, about women who “hate men” in music.
This is when the personal becomes professional.
FEMINISM IN MUSIC
For years, big name acts like Beyoncé, Katy Perry and Lady Gaga were hounded to fly the flag for feminism, when men rarely get pressed for their personal politics. Before Beyoncé stood in front of a giant ‘FEMINIST’ backdrop at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, feminism in pop culture was perceived as something that would alienate male fans and offend female fans who shaved their legs, wore pink, had children and enjoyed wearing makeup. That was the argument back then. That’s how it was delivered. Now you can buy a jumper in Penneys with “feminist AF” stitched across your chest.
As ownership of the word feminism becomes easier, louder, clearer, it lands with a sting that some women are late to accept the word because they have to be convinced of their self-worth. If you’re told from a young age that you have to work harder to be noticed, how can you ever know your true value?
The music industry is rife with misogyny. I see it in written album reviews because that’s the world I live in but it appears in many forms; women not getting credit for songs they’ve written or produced, women being dismissed as groupies when they’re the main act and women not getting played on the radio.
It starts with grilling your female friends as teenagers about their devotion to a band and it evolves into patronising their skills behind the decks or in the studio. That’s peer-to-peer scrutiny – your friends, your colleagues, your bandmates – so it’s no wonder that this attitude is prominent on a bigger scale as well. These people start on your level but because of the gatekeeping that’s in place, this attitude is a stone wall that needs to be introduced to a wrecking ball.
It’ss easy to paint the bad guys as the big corporate men in suits who don’t know a thing about music but sometimes it’s the good guys and the language they use. It’s not just on the airwaves, it’s everyday interactions.
Change at the top is sorely needed but the way you view, review and enjoy music by women needs to change. Misogyny doesn’t just seep down, it works its way up too.
To hear more of Louise’s conversation with CMAT, see episode two of her podcast, Just a Chat, with Louise Bruton.