who run the world?

Having only men in key positions in the music industry isn’t only regressive, it also has a direct impact on the way in which women in music are being signed and sold.

by Hattie Collins
06 October 2015, 8:50am

Since Beyoncé dropped the F-bomb in 2013 - after fumbling with it for a few months - feminism has become a hot topic in the mainstream again, with a new generation of women figuring out what the word means to them. While many women in music have followed Bey's lead by doing their bit for the cause, isn't it time the industry started to get with the programme? Where are all the female executives? Why aren't more women headlining festivals? Why are female artists still being told to be "more sexy" in order to succeed? While charges of misogyny in music are often aimed at hip hop, I think it's time we all did a bit better.

I was born into a brilliantly feminist household; my mum sent me to a women's lib playgroup, she marched at Greenham Common, read Spare Rib with abandon and sang Joni, Joan and Janis at the top of her lungs on the regular. Brought up in the relatively hippy hamlet of Kings Heath in Birmingham I had no idea - until my mid-teens - that "feminism" was such a dirty word, laden with connotations that conjured up lesbianism, sandals and, worse, muesli. To admit to being a feminist was to become a social pariah, automatically prefacing apologetic sentences with "I'm not a man-hater but…" before trailing off and "sitting my pretty little ass" back down while simultaneously allowing a man to hold the door open for me. As I got older and learnt to love muesli (and lesbianism), I realised how ridiculous it all was, to be so ashamed of wanting the same rights for women as men. While the semantics and politics of feminism have mutated over the years, it all boils down, in my opinion, to the same thing: equality. Fuck it, I'm a feminist and I don't even need to burn my bra to prove it.

It all became a little more complex, though, when feminism began to muscle in on my musical tastes. Discovering Snoop Doggy Dogg at the age of 14 presented a plethora of problems. That is until I accepted that Ain't No Fun (If The Homies Can't Have None) was an absolute banger, feminism be damned. If this was the sound of misogyny, I wanted more, damn it. More, more, more.

The struggle of balancing a feminist ideology with a love of hip hop is nothing new. Joan Morgan's seminal 1999 book When Chickenheads Come Home To Roost: A Hip-Hop Feminist Breaks It Down articulates the dichotomies far more eloquently than I ever could. Indeed, I can attempt to intellectualise it as much as I like, but my love of hip hop was - is - purely visceral. It may set the feminist agenda - let alone the black female agenda - back a thousand years - but, wow, don't hip hop sound so good? Rap reached right into my middle class white girl heart, cleansing my Madonna-clogged arteries by injecting N.W.A directly into my bloodstream, Pulp Fiction-style.

I became tired of the whipping hip hop always got, some of it justifiable perhaps, but at the expense of other genres whose sexism, while not so obvious, was as significant. Too often hip hop's contribution to the cause was overlooked, despite, for example, the pro-feminist offerings of TLC, Missy Elliott, Lauryn Hill, Salt-N-Pepa and Queen Latifah, names rarely seen in the "Top 100 Album/Artists" type lists trotted out by titles with typically male editors. And it wasn't just the women of rap whose positive offerings were often overlooked. Tupac may have propagated stereotypical tropes through some of his work, but far more powerful were his pro-women anthems like Keep Ya Head Up, Dear Mama and Brenda's Got a Baby. In the Method Man and Mary J. Blige duet, I'll Be There For You (You're All I Need To Get By), Meth pointed out that "I got a love jones for your body and your skin tone/ Five minutes alone I'm already on the bone/ Plus I love the fact you got a mind of your own […] Nothing make a man feel better than a woman." The Beastie Boys, Kanye West, Drake, Lil B, Skepta, D Double E, Swiss, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common also spring to mind as having delivered powerful messages of female empowerment over the years. In recent times it seems hip hop is doing as much, if not more, than any other genre in testing the gender and sexuality boundaries; Syd tha Kyd, Azealia Banks and Angel Haze meditate on everything from sexual abuse to the queer experience while binary-challenging rhymers including Cakes Da Killa, Mykki Blanco, Zebra Katz and Le1f have pushed the gender conversation within hip hop beyond the boundaries of perceived masculine or feminine ideals. Rap has also long been known to put its ladies first: Sylvia Robinson set up and ran the seminal Sugar Hill Records; Sylvia Rhone was CEO of Elektra (Wayne, Nicki, Busta, Missy); and Julie Greenwald is chair'man' (cringe) of Atlantic Records, overseeing the careers of everyone from Rick Ross to Ed Sheeran.

I'm not trying to let hip hop off the hook here, it would be remiss and reductive to attempt to do so, but it's, I don't know, just exhausting that hip hop is consistently the genre that is always held accountable.

Is pop music really that much better? Is pop so pro-feminist? Ten years ago, the Brits struggled to fill its Best Solo Female Artist category, with Annie Lennox, Beverley Craven and Des'ree left regularly rotating their winners' speeches. Then came Amy Winehouse and everything changed; now you'd be hard pushed to find a global male solo star - Sam Smith, Sheeran and Bieber being the obvious three. Yet, despite the current charts overflowing with brave, brilliant and beautiful women, we still rarely see a woman perform at, let alone headline, our major festivals. In the last ten years - and 27 headliners - of Glastonbury, just one female soloist (Beyoncé) has taken the top slot at the Pyramid Stage. Reading and Leeds, Download and the Isle of Wight have had a big fat zero. Producer-wise, while there's a plethora of women to be found in the electronic realm (Ikonika, Cooly G and the wonderful women of Future Brown), outside of that we have, at a push, WondaGurl, Trakgirl and Missy. Why aren't TOKiMONSTA, Cooly, Asma and Fatima being invited to the studio with Bieber and Beyoncé in the same way Diplo, Duke Dumont and Skrillex are? Female songwriters seem to start and stop at Sia, although more than honourable mentions go to Bonnie McKee, Linda Perry, Ester Dean and Diane Warren. Break down the doors of the boardroom and you will find woefully few women behind the careers of Yoncé, Jessie Ware, Rihanna, Miley, Taylor Swift or Adele - those making a real, lasting impact on popular culture.

Alexi Cory-Smith, executive vice president at BMG UK, who oversees the publishing and records businesses, acknowledges that while the industry is top heavy with the "old boys' network", things are improving. "Numerically it's hard to argue that there isn't a gender imbalance at the top of the music industry, but it's clearly changing," she says. "There are some very impressive women holding senior roles in the industry these days: Alison Donald at Columbia, Nicola Tuer at Sony, Kim Frankiewicz at Imagem and Rebecca Allen at Decca to name a few. Come over to BMG and half the UK management team is female, so it is important to recognise that the worst of the bad old days are behind us…" There are other women too (though they are almost exclusively Caucasian): Later… with Jools Holland producer Alison Howe; music video director Dawn Shadforth; director of label relations at Spotify, Laura Kirkpatrick; and ATM management owner, Amy Thomson. Sarah Stennett's Turn First, populated almost exclusively by women, manages the careers of Rita Ora, Zayn Malik and Ellie Goulding, among many others.

Cory-Smith also feels that it's not about having more women at the top - it's about having the right people, regardless of gender. "One of the few positives that have come out of the music industry's well-publicised problems, and the reduction in the number of jobs, is that a lot of the old deadwood has been cut out. That's allowing a new generation to come through, male and female." To encourage more brilliant intelligent women to get involved in music in the first place, she says, we need "to be relentlessly meritocratic". "As long as we stick to that, I think we will see more women coming through. But we also need to create an environment which is flexible. Like it or not, in society generally, women are still mostly responsible for running homes and bringing up children, therefore we should ensure that the working environment is flexible and supportive enough to enable both women and men to prosper at work."

Having only men in key positions isn't only regressive, it also has a direct impact on the way in which women in music are being signed and sold. Those women making music who dare to be really, truly different often struggle to be heard beyond the blogs and Tumblr - Banks, Kelela, Shura, Grimes, Låpsley, Soko, MØ and Jhené Aiko all immediately come to mind.

"I feel like labels here aren't fucking with me because they don't know what to do with me," says Little Simz, who turned down major labels to record her album at London's Red Bull Studios instead. "For example, I was told that my shit would only work if I was a bit sexier, if I stopped wearing hats and dressed 'more like a girl'. That's real life shit, people actually told me that. 'This isn't marketable because you're not sexy, and that doesn't sell'. That's pretty fucked up." Don't we have enough of those women already? "But that's because they've seen that it's worked; being overly sexy has sold records," Simz points out. "What I'm doing is unproven in this country; in America I feel they're more open to taking risks and trying new ideas. I'm supposed to either be overly sexy or very tomboyish and one of the guys. But I'm neither of those things, I'm just me. The one thing that should be easiest to do is the most difficult: being yourself." But, consider the sales figures of women like Adele, Susan Boyle, Emeli Sandé and Lady Gaga, all of whom wear, you know, clothes, and we can see that it's not only sex that sells.

And we women need to check for each other more too. As Nicki Minaj pointed out recently, the entertainment industry regularly mistreats women - black women in particular - because they don't conform to the size eight-ideal perpetuated within the music videos we are fed. When pointing this out via Twitter, Minaj was subsequently told, by two of her female peers, that she was being unsupportive of women (Taylor Swift: "It's unlike you to pit women against each other") and aggressive (Miley was quoted in the New York Times as saying "I don't respect your statement because of the anger that came with it"). This, people, is not okay (although who else really wants a 'Miley What's Good' T?) As Maisha Z. Johnson wrote recently on Everyday Feminism, this patronising admonishing from white women towards black women is not cool. "Tone policing - which takes up so much space in feminist movements these days - is when marginalized people speak up about our struggles, and people from more dominant groups focus not on what we said, but how we said it." The churning out of the "angry black woman" conceit to brush away a serious subject calls to mind a former, male editor very recently telling me to "lighten up Hats" when I told him his insistent propositioning, via email, was just a tad inappropriate. No I didn't want (and I quote) "hot hard SEX" and I don't need to lighten up either, thanks. His final response? "Just out of interest, are you exclusively lesbian or more of a bi-sexual woman."

Sometimes you think "It's 2015; aren't we all so progressive?" and other times you think "It's 2015, and we're still being told to 'calm down' and 'lighten up', we're so regressive."

It's a complex and confusing subject, feminism, but thank goodness the conversation is being had on podcasts, in books, on the internet and with friends on Friday nights in the pub. Some of i-D.co's most popular pieces are those addressing feminism and gender, not - as you might assume - Kim, Kylie or Kendall. People are talking about the implications of semantics, what a woman is and what a woman needs to be, how we progress. It's certainly at the forefront of my mind and it's via music that I tend to process a lot of my politics and what I think about music's part in the subjugation and dissemination of the feminist agenda. The results aren't always conclusive. Hip hop is bad sometimes, but I love it. Pop music is bad sometimes, but I love that too. Let's just all be better people and get more brilliant women in key positions because they deserve it, not because it's feminist. 


Text Hattie Collins
Photography montage of Janis Joplin performing on the television programme Music Scene via

Think Pieces
the music industry
hattie collins
the fall issue