The music industry has a woman problem. It’s a long-standing fact. Looking at last year’s biggest hit singles in the UK, there were three times as many male as female pop stars. It lingers behind the scenes, too; women made up just 12% of songwriters and 2% of producers on the Billboard Hot 100 between 2012 and 2018.
Despite years of head-scratching over the cause, one reason is hiding in plain sight. Or, perhaps it is intentionally overlooked. New figures from the Musicians’ Union – which represents more than 31,000 artists, from rock musicians to orchestral players – suggests almost half of its members have experienced harassment at work. More than four in five did not report it.
The music industry has consistently struggled to reconcile its female presence with the “sex sells” mantra at its very core, resulting in objectification at the very least and abuse at its worst. Last year, the #MeToo movement had its moment at the Golden Globes, with several high-profile actors donning black dresses in solidarity with survivors and female activists in tow. In the same year, the Grammys awkwardly skirted around the issue, uncharacteristically coy when it came to making a statement.
Eye-contact was only briefly afforded to the elephant in the room, in the form of the white roses worn by a handful of attendees to mark their support for the Time’s Up campaign. In addition, Kesha, after levelling accusations of sexual assault against producer Dr Luke, performed a heartwrenching rendition of Praying, a song widely believed to be about him. With a celebrity choir comprised of Camila Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Bebe Rexha and others, it was rousing enough to make you momentarily forget that the original version of the song was released via Dr Luke’s Kemosabe Records, because she is unable to get out of her contract. It feels as if there are far more songs that glorify sexual harassment released by record labels than there are voices within them condemning it.
The 2018 Grammys were widely criticised for failing to recognise female achievements – with only one woman even nominated in the four major categories. Which is why 2019’s Grammys had an unapologetically female focus. Alicia Keys hosted, bringing her “sisters” Michelle Obama, Jennifer Lopez, Lady Gaga and Jada Pinkett Smith to the stage. And there were the female winners, from Kacey Musgraves to Cardi B, who became the first solo woman to win best rap album. These are all welcome changes, but I can’t help thinking it feels more like a “Girl Power”-branded plaster placed on the music industry’s deep-seated rot.
Strides have been made. Off the back of the harrowing Surviving R Kelly documentary at the beginning of the year, several musicians have removed their collaborations with him from streaming services and Sony Music has dissolved his recording contract. In July this year, Kelly was arrested on 13 federal sex-trafficking charges. But looking at the world in which he and artists like him have come up, it is unsurprising that his fall has taken so long. It is a culture that normalises abuse, and it is yet to be adequately challenged.