Grammys look now to take charge of the music industry’s diversity problems

Singer Cam arrives on the red carpet for the 58th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, Feb. 15, 2016.
(Valerie Macon / AFP / Getty Images)

While music has long been considered pop culture’s most rebellious mainstream art form, this week in the lead-up to the Grammy Awards a clearer picture has emerged as to why a wide-scale, #MeToo-inspired reckoning — one that has begun to reshape film and media industries — has largely bypassed the music business.

New studies have painted a stark picture of what it’s like to be a woman at work in the industry. A research initiative released by USC this week gets to the point, arguing that in the studio there’s essentially “a gender ratio of 47 males to every one female.”

Here’s what happens in such a setting: “You don’t want to risk saying anything out loud,” said country singer and songwriter Cam (Camaron Ochs).

She was speaking earlier this week during a panel called “Moving the Needle: A Celebration of Women in Music” at USC’s Wallis Annenberg Hall. The capacity crowd was one of many indicators that an evolution is occurring.


Last week, the recently formed Recording Academy Diversity and Inclusion Task Force published a list of measures aimed correcting inequities in its ranks. Elsewhere, the nonprofit group She Is the Music, co-founded in 2018 by singer, songwriter and Sunday’s Grammy host Alicia Keys, recently unveiled a global database of female music professionals in response to what it called “the unacceptable data about gender equity in the music industry.”

Another newly formed collective of Los Angeles artists and thinkers called “Turn It Up” has supporters including Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, punk singer and songwriter Alice Bag, and writer/musician Solvej Schou, and held its first meeting last week. It describes its mission as “seeking gender parity in music.”

There’s much work to be done. That much was clear when the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which hosted the “Moving the Needle” event, published its study entitled “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?”


According to the report, for much of the past decade female songwriters and producers were “vastly outnumbered” by their male counterparts on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. Across seven years (2012-1018), a mere 12% of songwriters who made the year-end chart were female.

“There’s not really a safe space to speak about this, and when you do talk out loud about it people generally try and discredit what you’re saying,” Cam said in a follow-up phone conversation.

For the crowd of mostly young female music professionals gathered at Wallis Annenberg Hall, findings of the study “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” has real-life consequences. Onstage, an all-female panel led by Annenberg Inclusion Initiative founder Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her colleague Dr. Katherine Pieper spoke about challenges of working behind closed recording studio doors with a bunch of guys.

“The statistics really sparked a hunger,” added Aluna Francis of the electronic duo AlunaGeorge. “There’s a new horizon that we didn’t see before, and an opportunity.”

And, in the words of Cam, a newfound motivation. “I feel like people are starting to say more out loud.”

The two were accompanied onstage by the electronic music producer Jennifer “Tokimonsta” Lee; Tina Tchen, a lawyer and former chief of staff for former First Lady Michelle Obama who serves as chair of the Recording Academy’s task force; and music engineer Ann Mincieli.

What Francis called opportunities, as proscribed by the Task Force, include calls for those who screen audio producers and engineers for jobs to commit to a hire “only after considering a slate of candidates that includes at least two women,” and advises that producers take gender into account when mentoring young professionals.

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. -- WEDNESDAY, JANUARY 2, 2019: Dr. Stacy Smith poses for a portrait on campus at
Dr. Stacy Smith of USC has done several studies on inclusion and diversity in the entertainment field.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The need for a shift was punctuated last year by outgoing Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, who stated, in a response to a question about a male-centric Grammy show, that women in the music business needed to “step up.”

Portnow, who announced that he will resign later this year, quickly clarified his “step up” comments, and went a step further in early 2018 by helping to form Recording Academy Task Force with the aim of plotting measurable goals.

He was in attendance at the USC panel, but not in an official capacity. Rather, he listened along with the few hundred others, watching from the periphery alongside famed producer Jimmy Jam. Both are members of the task force.

Such organization and evidence was a long time coming, said Cam, citing her relief at seeing “hard, tangible data. To see that there is a problem and name it opens up a whole world. It validates my experience. It validates a lot of other women’s struggles — especially in the country music sphere.”

At the Grammys, women have fared strongest in the best new artist category, claiming 41.1% of the nominations, whereas female artists have only accounted for 6.6% of the album of the year nods.

Worse, in the five Grammy categories analyzed by the study — song of the year, record of the year, album of the year, best new artist and producer of the year — 89.6% of the nominees were male.

The picture inside the recording studios was even more stark. As with 2018, female producers were credited on only 2% of 400 Hot 100 songs. Only four women of color were represented in the sample. Combined, note the authors, the difference “translates into a gender ratio of 47 males to every one female.”

There’s a new horizon that we didn’t see before, and an opportunity.
Aluna Francis, member of the electronic duo AlunaGeorge

To enable success, the academy will create a web presence devoted to “facilitating the process of identifying working female producers and engineers” and encourage gender parity in internship programs.

That’s not the only initiative helping to correct the imbalance. In a show of strength, the nonprofit group She is the Music helped facilitate the USC discussion. Its co-founder, Jody Gerson, the chairman and CEO of Universal Music Publishing Group, introduced Wednesday’s panel.

Gerson, who signed a teenage Keys to her first publishing deal, started the event by introducing a brief video that Keys recorded for the occasion. Keys will host Sunday’s prime time award ceremony for the first time and congratulated the audience for the progress made over the past year. Calling the meeting “just the beginning,” she urged attendees to “make this all about the successes we’ve had so far and planning for an amazing, unstoppable future. Let’s get it!”

She Is the Music’s mission includes building what Gerson called a “pipeline of opportunities.”

Launched Tuesday, that pipeline was built as a global online search engine for professionals. Need a Chicago-based sound person, or a sharp-eared mastering engineer? The hope is that the ever-expanding database might serve as the bridge.

Those bridges are crucial, and one reason why singer Cam said that she saw reason to be optimistic — with a caveat.

“The depressing is always mixed in, though — so don’t get me upset,” she added with a laugh.

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