“If you strip it down, it’s easier to sell your music” – The reality of female artists in the music industry

I would like to say that women’s equality has been achieved in the music industry for a long time, and there will only be some mistake here, but the statistics are still devastating – also in the Anglo-Saxon market.

The so-called Annenberg report, prepared for the sixth year at the University of Southern California, examines how and in what proportion women are represented on the overall Billboard list (that is, the top list compiled based on sales data) of the given year.

Based on the data of the report summarizing the year 2020:

  • although the proportion of women has increased from 28.7 percent to 30 percent compared to the 2021 report, we can agree that this is still quite different from the real proportions of society
  • only 14 percent of songwriters were women, a decrease of 0.3 percent
  • a total of 232 producers worked on the songs on the hundred list, only 3.4 percent (!) of them are women, and only one producer is nonbinary

Based on the 2021 data in Hungary, about 80 percent of professional performers are men and only 20 percent are women.

And these are just the numbers… What’s behind them!

When I back up my statements with statistics, I usually find that although the numbers are important, it often makes no sense to argue with them, because the answer comes regularly: “the opportunity is open to everyone”.

Well, this is one of the biggest lies that they want to shove down my throat a million times during fifteen years of cultural journalism.

Because when someone says “anyone can become a star”, they probably never thought about it abbaat what points must a female performer, songwriter, producer meet the standards of an industry with a fundamentally male chauvinistic structure.

Including but not limited to:

  • to what extent do the education system and social stereotypes make them believe that women do not understand technology (and therefore also the “gadgets” of producers and composers)?
  • whether they are told how “feminine” a particular instrument or role is?
  • do the publishers and managements allow them not to write songs on stereotypical “girly” topics (to such depths that they can speak badly in their songs, for example)?
  • can they dress according to their own rules, tastes, and wishes, or do they have to appear sexy (so that the articles are not about their performance…)
  • can they sing in their preferred style, timbre, phrasing, etc.? (Britney, for example, was forced to sing girlishly but sexy, not in her own voice…)
  • can they have an artistic say in their own music videos, or are the views of the men who make them prevail there as well?
  • does the medium allow the female performers to support and build each other up, or does it artificially generate a catfight (or create the appearance of one in the media) between them?

And the same on the other side:

  • to what extent do the audience and potential students judge and take them seriously based on the above?
  • How does the public react to the image formed of them (sometimes distorted by men)?

Behind the numbers are decisions

So that all of this doesn’t seem like just a reflection, I called on Juli Horányi, who in her response video to Andi Tóth’s announcement quite strongly supports the above. Let’s see how the male chauvinism of the music industry can be seen in small (and not so small) moments!

“The above research shocked me too. Of course, I sensed before that there are many more men in the music industry, but it became especially obvious after the talent show. For example, it was very difficult for me to get the head of my publisher to consider me as a partner.

It was once said that “if I went to Playboy, it would be easier for me”. He obviously made it a joke, but it was clear that he meant it, and this is a generally prevailing view: if we strip him, show that he has a sexy body, then his music can be sold more easily.”

Juli Horányi says that solo female performers are in the most disadvantaged position in this respect.

“If you sing in a band, you’re in a better position because you have a group of guys behind you. I was also the frontman of the band before the X-factor, it was a much safer environment. As soon as you exit and you are the product, it’s very tough from then on. In this status, to achieve professional recognition, to have the audience curious about you, to go to your concerts, very few female performers in Hungary manage to do this. Currently, Magdi Rúzsa is the only one who can fill an Arena, and who has been recognized as a musician both professionally and by the audience. However, there are very good, qualified musicians who are just as valuable in terms of quality and what they have to say, but the domestic market can’t take any more of them at the moment.”

Juli also draws attention to the fact that, in response to this, many would throw in the significant female performers of the previous decades, but the truth is that within a given period only very few women were able to assert themselves at the same time in Hungary.

If you speak up, you’re in trouble

I’ve experienced it myself (not as a speaker, but as a journalist, but that’s a segment of the same industry) that if you regularly and loudly speak out against sexism, you’re going to have to deal with it when someone mistreats you just because you’re a woman. then the end is that you are called problematic.

Logical, right? If there are no women to speak up, the problem goes away. Such ossified systems, which have existed for decades and centuries, expel the “intruder” much more easily than they revise their own standards.

“Of course, we are the ones with the problem if we speak up… After the X-factor, the only thing I got from my publisher was that they sent me: thank you very much, that’s the door. These are mostly really imperceptible processes: what the head of the publishing house gives money for, for example. What kind of clip, what kind of media appearance, what budget can the management work with, etc. I think that it is also possible to build a female speaker in Hungary, but not with the attitude that “well, we won’t give money for this, because there is no demand for it”. This attitude means that at the end of the day the management will win: “well, no one needed it”. Shall I give a very specific example?

I had a hit, Petőfi radio played the song in rotation, but a video clip was never made for it. Because the person in charge said it wasn’t important. These are the steps that lead to a career not being built. That they say, take your flash drive and go hack, don’t want to perform with musicians, because it’s fiddly and costs money.”

The distorting effect of the media

It may seem that everything is fine, there are a lot of articles about female performers. Yes, but it doesn’t matter what it’s about.

Feel free to enter the name of any (domestic or foreign) female artist in the search engine and spend some time between the headlines. The rusty point here is that the articles that sing the praises of professional success, singing voice, and songwriting qualities are not predominant, but:

  • what did he record (and what didn’t), did he flash (but even almost-flashing has more news value than a good lyric)
  • who are you dating or broke up with?
  • what your colleagues say about who you are dating or broke up with
  • does she have cellulite on her bikini body
  • is she allowed to wear a bikini at her age

And if anyone thinks that all this is “just” part of the life of a pop star, let me give you an example from my gender journalism class, both sentences are from real ads:

  • “Pretty Cellist Sol Gabetta Performs”
  • “Diana Krall, who also twisted Elvis Costello’s head, will perform”

Obviously, why would any Grammy Award, Gramophone Award, or even musical skills, raging audience success be more important than whether she is pretty and has a boyfriend, right? How much more professional is it to “screw Elvis Costello’s head” than to fill the biggest concert halls in the world, right?

Like it or not, the media can be particularly harmful on this topic (also).

If people read that instead of professional successes and qualities, the teasing content the important thing is that female speakers will be treated accordingly. And this is a self-stimulating process: if publishers see that a on the counter there is demand, then they distort the product even more in this direction.

A tale of self-determination

Let’s stop here for a moment, because all the newspapers are full of such resounding headlines about the brilliantly talented Andi Tóth: “Hardly anything covered the body of the sexy singer”.

Yes, I can already hear the answer: “why would you wear such a cut-out dress if you don’t want articles about your boobs”. I don’t like hypocrisy, that’s why I think it’s important that we see:

the question is not what a female performer wears, but whether she wears it of her own free will, for her own happiness, or because of external pressure or internalized expectations.

Also: if we love beauty, why slut shamingelünkif someone is happy to show more of their body – and why are we socially less interested in someone who doesn’t show anything?

What can the audience do?

I truly believe that the most important link is still the audience. How can we, the listeners, contribute to making the fate of female speakers easier? According to Juli: with attention.

“It will be very idealistic and it’s easy to say that, and I don’t know how this can be put into practice, but one of the most important things is openness: if we see a new female performer, listen, follow, like, comment, go to her concert, share the its contents.”

According to Juli, it is easier for male performers to trigger this activity, it often takes a young girl several years to get herself in a position. (I don’t think the reason for this needs to be looked for elsewhere than in the statistics at the beginning of the article: the male performers who belong to the moon court of individual male producers support each other, often featelve they are building their careers – which, by definition, is much easier if there are six times as many male producers and performers as female…)

The article continues after the ad!

And according to Juli, if we dig even deeper in search of the reasons, we arrive at socially coded misogyny: “In itself, the fact that someone is a woman causes a little resentment: “ah, here’s a singer again, isn’t it?” On TikTok, if I process it songs by male artists, most of the comments are about “stop whining, this doesn’t even come close to the original” – yes, I’m a woman and I sing in a woman’s voice, why should that be a problem in itself?

I regularly run into someone claiming that women are not popular because they can’t make good music.”

Can Meg White play the drums?

The other day there was quite a scandal on Twitter when a (apparently male) journalist revealed what a great band The White Stripes would have been if one of the duo’s members, Meg White, “wasn’t such an amazingly shitty drummer”. Dozens of famous male musicians, starting with The Roots’ Questlove, reacted with outrage to the tweet, which later forced the author (whose name I won’t write down, haha) to apologize publicly. In the Anglo-Saxon area, there is already some kind of brake, which is socially unacceptable if criticism is not based on professional grounds.

According to Juli Horányi, there is an image in the minds of many people that does not allow someone to be a good musician just because that person is a woman – this case is an excellent example of this. In particular, Jack White, the other member of the duo, said on every existing platform: Without Meg, the White Stripes would never have been what they are.

And – if we talk about what we, students, women, etc. can do. – here at the end is the most heartwarming answer that came to the above attack. Jack White’s ex-wife was defended most vehemently by none other than – Jack White’s other ex-wife.

Songwriter-singer and model Karen Elson angrily posted:

“Don’t you dare use the name of my ex-husband’s ex-wife!”

There you go, sisterhood in action.

So much for the “two women can only be enemies” stereotype artificially generated by the music industry.

As for my contribution: I regularly recommend wonderful Hungarian and foreign female performers to the readers of WMN. Here is a playlist for you, full of songs by Hungarian female artists dear to my heart: spin them, share them, hum these songs and go to a concert.

Featured Image: Instagram/tothandi.andee

Adrienne Csepelyi