The music industry continues to face a crisis in representation for women. Following the release (before the 2018 Grammys) of the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study on the subject, the Billboard Music Awards (airing this Sunday) seem to have course-corrected for their heavily male awards nominees by booking as many women as possible to perform on the show.
If you look down the list of Billboard Award nominees this year, you’ll see that women make up roughly 20% of the list. That’s because Billboard creates their nominations lists based on chart data. Other awards, like the Grammys or the VMAs, send a ballot out to artists, music industry execs and voting member bodies to decide, very subjectively, who lands a nomination. The Billboard Awards make their determinations based on data they collect all year, including all the elements that identify chart positions: online streams, sales, radio play, social media buzz. It’s quite a democratic take on what music is being consumed across multiple mediums, so this is truly the most popular of music.
The Annenberg Institute used Billboard’s charts to drive their data set in the “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” study, in which Dr. Stacy L. Smith and her team of researchers found that women were only in 16.8% of 600 most popular songs released in 2017. So, it’s no surprise that men dominate Billboard’s nominations.
The problem isn’t actually the Billboard Awards or the charts: the problem is that this suggests record labels are spending their money to sign and promote significantly more male artists than female artists. IS THERE ANYTHING TO BOLSTER THIS? PERCENTAGE OF MAJOR MALE ARTISTS ON MAJOR LABELS VS FEMALE? There are many possible reasons for this. Labels may assume that male artists are more in line with what the market demands right now. There is undoubtedly ingrained sexism in the industry towards women, which includes a bias to take them less seriously as artists, songwriters, and producers. And the Annenberg Institute found a sharp drop-off in representation from 2016, when women were on 28.1% of the most popular songs; so perhaps in 2017, there is a statistically significant difference in the number of well-established artists who are women releasing records. That said, shy of 30% isn’t gender parity, and that number is troubling.
Thus, after the furor over the lack of gender equality at the Grammys, it seems like the Billboard Music Awards are striving to correct the problem in their telecast by booking a ton of women to perform, and tapping Kelly Clarkson as host. So even if women aren’t taking home the awards, the telecast won’t feel like it’s an event orchestrated to solely celebrate men. The show will include performances by Camila Cabello, Ariana Grande, Dua Lipa, Christina Aguilera with Demi Lovato, Kesha, Salt-N-Pepa with En Vogue, Maren Morris (with Zedd and Grey), Jennifer Lopez, and host Clarkson. Janet Jackson is being awarded the Billboard Music Awards ICON Award and will also perform. Some dudes will make it onstage too, with BTS, John Legend, Macklemore (who joins Kesha), and Shawn Mendes slated to play.
It’s not ideal, because winning awards is still important for representation. And, at this year’s Billboard Awards, Kendrick Lamar, Bruno Mars, and Ed Sheeran are tied for the most nominations with 15 each. When we look back at the Music in 2018 Wikipedia page in 20 years, their nominations (and whoever wins) ultimately dictate which artists gets the most significant legacy. But Billboard can’t nominate what doesn’t exist. The only way to fix music’s woman problem is for the industry to fund and promote artists who are women.
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