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Off The Record: Gender Equality

Music & Recording Industry News By Dan Daley
Published March 2018

Gender equality in music production still has a way to go.

Back in 2010 I wrote a survey story for Grammy Magazine, trying to get a sense of where women stood in the hierarchy of music production. And if the intervening years have taught us anything, it’s that social and technology forces now change faster than ever. Back in 2010, women in general were celebrating achievements that included the recent appointments of two female justices to the Supreme Court, the end of the ban against women in military combat positions, and the enactment of the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which allows victims of pay discrimination — statistically, mostly women — to file a complaint with the government against their employer. The main problem at the time centred on pay inequality.

Off The Record 0318 header artwork: pen writing signature on cheque.In the Grammy article, the women I spoke to sounded strong and optimistic, as though, at least in the studio, inequality had already been dealt with. Ann Mincieli, who was nominated for a Grammy Award for her work on ‘Empire State Of Mind’ by Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, and is a principal in Jungle City Studios in Manhattan, had already put it in the past tense back then, seeing instead a merit-based landscape. “I don’t really think of it as being a woman in a man’s world — that’s old mentality,” she said. “I’ve seen some people, assistant engineers in studios years ago, get overtaken by that thinking. If you’re good, if you’re on your game, you have a chance like anyone else.” Trina Shoemaker, who at the time was the only woman to ever have won the Best Engineered Album (Non-Classical) Grammy Award (for Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions LP — Imogen Heap would also win that award later that year), put it even more bluntly, saying: “As soon as you say there’s an obstacle there because you’re a woman, then you put the obstacle there.”

That sentiment was echoed by the Millennials just coming into the industry at the time. Bridget Guise, then a 21-year-old student in an audio production program in Nashville, seemed to feel inequality was just so much ancient history. “Gender is immaterial,” she told me, further noting that while she was aware of and appreciates the work done by women who pioneered production and engineering careers before her, her own role models were all men. With the widespread acceptance of spectrum-based perception about gender roles (and gender itself) in recent years, her words seemed prescient and optimistic.

The overarching question seemed to be, is it fair? Are women being paid commensurately with men doing the same jobs? Do they have the same potential for advancement? Not quite a decade later, however, the question has become considerably more ominous: Is it safe?

Things Have Changed

The past year has been a rogues’ gallery of allegations of sexual harassment and worse. There are very big names involved, particularly in the entertainment business, perhaps most notably Hollywood über-mogul Harvey Weinstein. And not to try to put a dollar value on all this for any reason other than to portray its scale, Weinstein’s production company, one of Tinseltown’s most successful, is headed towards a fire sale at a fraction of its once-estimated value in the hundreds of millions of dollars, shunned now by creatives and investors. The lengths Hollywood went to distance itself from sexual abusers would have also made its own good movie and a great tech article: after actor Kevin Spacey’s misdeeds became public, director Ridley Scott literally erased him from a leading role in the film All The Money In The World, in a last-minute re-shoot and digital edit that cost $10 million.

Music production has had its share of sexual imbroglios, the most extreme being legendary producer Phil Spector’s conviction for the murder in 2003 of an actress. Not as lurid but far more complex was the long-running battle between recording artist Kesha and producer Dr Luke, whom the singer claimed was guilty of sexual assault, battery, and harassment, among a host of other wrongs. What clouded the issue, however, was how those allegations were bound up with legal wrangling over a contract with Dr Luke’s production company she wanted out of.

Much of the commotion around the case centred on “fairness for Kesha”, a call echoed by artists like Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga. But less apparent was the emerging sense that safety and security had become the more important issues. “Safe space” is the term that Terri Winston, Executive Director of the Women’s Audio Mission (WAM), used when I asked her about this. WAM, based in a studio facility in San Francisco, is indeed safe: as Winston describes it, “What is unique about WAM is that our facility is the only studio in the world built and run by women, and our classes are all taught by women, so this creates not only a safe space to tackle these thorny issues but also demonstrates what a harassment-free workplace looks and feels like.”

However, she could also be describing a technologically advanced convent. The point being that audio is not immune to the gender sociopathy that seems so suddenly ubiquitous, but that some solutions seem to emphasise isolation rather than engagement. And in any event, the refuge WAM provides, while laudable, is not geographically or financially accessible to the vast majority of women in our field. That’s not to say it’s not a good solution — more women are lately resorting to all-female co-working facilities like The Wing in New York or Rise Collaborative in St Louis. It is to say, though, that it’s terribly unfortunate that we might need that kind of solution in the first place.

The world of music production is, let’s face it, a fairly small and insular one, and thus less subject to the intense scrutiny that politics, entertainment, Silicon Valley, journalism, sports and other fields have lately experienced. When more and more recordings are made in homes, it’s hard to know to what extent the issue exists. But that’s merely a matter of degree — we know that gender-based wrongs are a reality here like everywhere else.

It’s also, however, an opportunity for all involved to think about where each of us stands in relation to it. Because whether one thinks of the judgments taking place now as a cleansing or a purge, a teachable moment or a reflexive indictment, it is certainly something that’s not going to go quietly away. And nor should it.