Sunday, 5 July 2015

Women in music; a shifting balance.


Live? That's one thing. But at Radio, it's already changed. And there's a programming rule for that.


Sometimes it helps to have a dinosaur perspective. I've been looking at music, local and mainstream, over 40 years or more, and I'm seeing changes. I'm only talking about these two areas in this post. But that's already a lot to be going on with. 

       Rebecca Downes     pic Mick Schofield
The week before last, I chased around Birmingham catching bands I hadn't yet seen. I started with Rebecca Downes - a two-person powerhouse blues/jazz set at the Blue Piano. Then headed to the Rainbow's seven-band indie night, to catch Shaake, a new project from Suzi And The Backbeats, and damn good they were too. Then to the Fiddle and Bone for some of Hannah Johnson And The Broken Hearts elegantly spinning tales of country heartache, love and loss. 

I had a great time: on night, three bands, all led by strong women. It's part of a trend. 

The shift

It may have been a long time coming, but there is a definite gender shift. There are more women in music now than ever there used to be back in the days of my youth. Not just working solo, but leading bands, DJing, managing, promoting, and filling a lot more roles than ever before.  

Of course, indie and most other rock genres have a long way to go. So does rap and hip-hop variations. And Jazz.... I could go on. Many live music and club DJ scenes are still howling bastions of macho male assertiveness. Possibly that's one of the things that actually holds our scene back.


Macho shenanigans

The old attitudes - man's game, always been done this way, chicks are only there to stand and admire - is, frankly, a barrier to progress. It shuts out an awful lot of potential, and conditions audiences to think the wrong way. The love for music making aside, one of the key things driving live performance is ego: the desire to be noticed, to strut and pose... and, boy, does that ever fit right in with rock guitar and rap peacock shenanigans on stage

So while progress has been made, it's still limited. The Guardian did some embarrassing analysis last week, looking at the serious under-representation of female acts at festivals. It shows exactly how far things have to go. 


What about female artists at radio?

Kanye winning Taylor the 2009 sympathy vote     Flicker: Giddy
And I'm also seeing this, most noticeably, in pop. I've been setting up a pop radio station database this spring; it's been about five years since I last did this sort of thing. That timespan allows an interesting comparison. 

Radio database work centres on looking at the balance of the music you programme, and thinking seriously why you choose what you choose for your theoretical audience. In a way it's quite academic and certainly pretty geeky. 

I've done some grunt work- assembling and testing - for a small experimental outfit, before handing it over to the programming team who will take charge of it all, and getting out of the way. The project is aimed at younger female listeners, so as a true ancient, I really won't fit. But should the project develop and stabilise, it will yield some fascinating insights.  


The new pop generation

So, for this project, I've been thinking very much about who's producing pop, and who they produce it for. And I see a massive shift towards strong female acts, who, in general, produce positive messages for a female audience. Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Florence, Ellie Goulding, Lilly Allen, Adele, Emeli Sande, Lady Gaga, La Roux, Lorde, Pink, Rihanna and Meghan Trainor are the tip of the iceberg. Even Katy Perry, who tends towards deeply irritating ikky image-driven cuteness, has produced a couple of empowered anthems. The strongest established acts from round here? I'd suggest Laura Mvula, Beverly Knight and Ruby Turner. All of them put out messages of positivity, strength and empowerment.

And it's interesting to think back to the roles that Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Mavis Staples, among others, had in putting a double message across, two generations and an ocean away.  


The old trailblazers and our young guns

These days, stepping past the steady flow of identikit all-boy and all-girl pop outfits, there are way more up and coming bands with female members. Locally, Erica Nockalls's EN (all-female) and Boat To Row, of whom more in a few weeks, boast a majority of women members, and there's plenty of others: Table Scraps, Vix (who now leads the all-woman Vix And Her MsChiefs), Kate Goes, MahaliaEkkah, Lady Leshurr, Layla Tutt.... 

Back in the day, that was pretty rare, and most of the roles were for female singers, not players. So: Fairport, with Sandy Denny, Vinegar Joe with Elkie Brooks, Fleetwood Mac with two, count 'em, two female members. Later came big solo acts like Alison Moyet and Annie Lennox, and of course many more. I'm not going to try to come up with a definitive list, because I'm guaranteed to miss someone out. But there were always, always, significantly more men than women.  


Splendid programming isolation doesn't work any more   

Now, this shift has filtered through into music programming at radio. And has anyone else noticed that lot less records end in fades? I put it down to dance crossover mixing. When I started doing the radio balancing trick over a generation ago, there was a very definite gender split. There were simply way more male lead vocals than female. Maybe three times as many. That meant that scheduling systems were often set to only allow one female singer at a time, to spread them around the schedules evenly. That pragmatic decision went hand in glove with a solid, chauvinist attitude: no female artists back to back. It fit the thinking of the time like a glove, and it fit a lot of formats in the US.

Now? Take a look at this US radio article from two weeks ago, wherein Top 40 radio frets about the impossibility of ensuring that 'no back to back' programming, because there are simply too many significant female artists that they can not not play or limit. And that's exactly what I'm finding with this new experimental radio station's database. 

I'm looking at the numbers, running test schedules, working out who is probably seriously important for this station. And time and again I'm dealing with songs about strength, confidence, willpower from female singers. While the interchangeable cute boy bands - lads with skinny jeans, great hair and guitars - are still banging on... about, er, banging. That stuff, while still part of the package, is definitely not as important as it used to be, especially in a female-oriented music mix.  

And you know what?  The new balance sounds just fine.

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1 comment:

Jack said...

Elkie Brooks , amazing singer !!!