Female Artists Speak Out Against Music Industry Sexism at SXSW

A panel of women singer-songwriters opened up about Time’s Up and the incredible sexism misogyny and they’ve faced as female musicians.

Sarah Rogers/The Daily Beast

AUSTIN, Texas — In contrast to the Golden Globes, a sea of activists and actors mingling in Time’s Up pins, the 2018 Grammy Awards adhered to the motto of more of the same. In a year of seismic change, when open secrets were outed and survivors felt as though they were being heard for the very first time, the music industry’s biggest night of the year all but sidestepped the conversation.

Even more insultingly, the timid telecast failed to appropriately highlight the work of women in the industry, with only one woman ascending the stage to accept a solo award. While this is hardly an anomaly—according to one report, only 9.3 percent of Grammy nominees in the last six years were women—women in a post-Weinstein world had run out of patience for this brand of inexcusable inequity.

In response to the backlash Neil Portnow, the president of the Recording Academy, told reporters that women need to “step up” in order to claim an influential position in the industry. Pushback came quickly, with artists like Pink coming for Portnow on social media: “Women in music don’t need to ‘step up’—women have been stepping since the beginning of time. Stepping up, and also stepping aside.”

During a Wednesday SXSW panel, “#TimesUp: Turning the Hashtag Into Action In A Structureless Music Industry,” singer-songwriter Mary Lambert shared her reaction to Portnow’s comments, recalling, “I laughed so hard when I heard that. I was like, that’s so funny that that’s what you’re saying to people! Don’t tell people that, that’s not real!”

Lambert, who famously lent her vocals to 2012’s Grammy-nominated single “Same Love,” had an explanation for why Portnow’s suggestion was so absurd. After acknowledging the secrecy of the Academy, Lambert briefly summarized their process. “Right before the Grammys you have a voting room of about 20-30 people and they’re pretty much handpicked,” she explained. “You’re handpicked to decide who wins the Grammys, who gets the top five. And actually I think it’s a good process, because the Grammys don’t want it to just go to the most popular. But there is this secret room for like a weekend, that people decide who’s going to win. And that power is really—crazy—to be in a room with just like 20 or 30 people that are deciding this thing that all of us take so much stock in.”

As the decisive backlash to Portnow’s comments proved, and as Lambert pointed out, the idea that women are responsible for their own lack of inclusion…is laughable.

Admitting to being in the voting room “a couple years ago,” Lambert recalls looking around the room “and just being like, there’s so many straight white dudes here.” She continued, “It’s just all straight cis white dudes. And maybe three women? Maybe three people of color? In the whole room! And those people are picked by the Recording Academy, by the executives. That accountability needs to be there! You can’t say ‘step up’ if you’re not providing opportunities for those people. It’s really silly. So of course we’re going to have a membership and an Academy that’s typically voting with the male gaze. It’s going to happen over and over again.”

Her fellow panelist, artist Emily Hackett, added, “Tell me how it’s not possible to hand-pick a few more women? [Portnow] is the one who needs to step up.”

Hackett and Lambert were joined by the Nashville-based Emma White. The three female singer-songwriters were tasked with navigating the under-discussed and endlessly complicated issue of #MeToo in the music industry, from sexual harassment and rampant misogyny to gender equity and subverting the male gaze. As the decisive backlash to Portnow’s comments proved, and as Lambert pointed out, the idea that women are responsible for their own lack of inclusion—or, by extension, responsible for dodging misogyny or evading sexual assault—is laughable. But in the face of a largely structureless industry where men hold the majority of the power and women are often devoid of recourse, legal or otherwise, women have had to take up the heavy burden of demanding equity in an industry that is built to keep them out.

White opened up about her efforts to get a publishing deal, and the terrifying, often unspoken notion of a gender quota. “I’ve been told so many times that we can’t sign you,” White said. “I literally had someone tell me, you know how to write a song, but we can’t sign you because you’re a woman, and we can’t sign another female. To me I’m like, that can’t actually be a reason for you not to sign me! There’s some kind of loophole with publishing where it’s not like a normal job that you apply for where if you’re discriminated against that it’s illegal, but to me it’s very apparent discrimination.”

While all three women praised the Time’s Up movement and the women who had spoken up, citing strength in numbers, it’s difficult to imagine far-reaching change in an industry where men have so much unchecked power. White, who is a member of the collective Song Suffragettes, remembered being “terrified” to appear in their video “Time’s Up”: “I was thinking, what if all these guys that I work with judge me and think that I’m being like a bitchy woman, complaining?”

Lambert shared a recent revelation about how her music has potentially been warped by a pop music landscape that caters to men and male creators. “What we hear on the radio and mainstream music, it’s all now through a filter of the male gaze, so what we’re excited about and listening to are just these slamming productions that are just like so intense—and they’re great, they’re genius, but it’s also through this one specific frame of mind and understanding of what things sounds good.”

The Washington native, who’s producing her next album, continued, “As I’m producing and listening to stuff I’m like, ‘Oh it doesn’t slam, it doesn’t do the thing,’ but then I’m like, ‘Does it need to do the thing? Or is that part of the insidious male gaze that I’m now internalizing to create my music so it sounds good to men?’ I feel conflicted about it, because at the same time, I want to play. I want a seat at the table. So does that mean that I have to start producing in a more aggressive way to get heard? Does that mean that I need to start being the ‘cool guy?’”

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In that struggle to secure a seat at the table, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the systemic issues and focus on taking out your competition. Hackett explained the common, uneasy feeling of being “in direct competition with other females,” adding, “It’s our responsibility as women, especially during this movement, to choose to be supportive. Because it’s not necessarily easy…Especially in the music industry, where there is such a small market for us, we choose to be competitive instead of choosing to support.”

She joked, “If I’m giving a compliment to a woman about her craft in the same industry that I’m chasing, I’m working hard by saying it. But it’s so important to have said it.”

Female pop icons are often the faces of the music industry. It’s impossible to imagine a radio station, let alone an awards show or label roster, without talented female artists. But even the most successful, marketable female artists are vulnerable to abuse or harassment, whether it’s from an invasive fan or a world-famous producer. Lambert, who makes a concerted effort to hire women, recalled being overwhelmed by the sexism that her mostly female crew faced during a tour a couple of years back.

“When you’re doing a larger tour it’s like forty dudes that really are working super hard, probably with little pay,” she explained. “Working with that set-up—the amount of misogyny that happened on that run, just like every day—the things that people come up with to say to you just as a human female person are just so bizarre. I couldn’t believe some of the things that were said. And it was the vulgarity with which the artist was speaking to my team as well, that my tour manager at one point was like, ‘Hey you’re being disgusting.’ And I think she squirted him with water or something, she was just like you need to chill out.”

Then, Lambert says, she got a call from her agent and manager informing her that she was getting kicked off the tour. “So my record label at the time, they calmed him down apparently, and his solution was like, ‘Well she needs to be invisible. I don’t want to see her team, I don’t want to know that they’re there,’” Lambert recalled. “At this point, I was touring in the Midwest, so I’m this fat, bipolar lesbian talking about, like, my shit, in the Midwest, at 4 p.m., to old people and babies as an opener, and then I’m being told from the artist to be invisible. And that really broke me. Like, you must be completely silent, I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to know that you’re there. Just the amount of power that one person had to do all of that, when it really shouldn’t have been that way. There should have been so many checks in place.”

Artists, like women in all industries, often have to calculate what level of harassment they are willing to suffer through to secure an opportunity or avoid losing a job. Hackett told a story about meeting a manger after a recent show. “He was talking to me, being complimentary, and then I walked away and he had a conversation with my mom who was at the show. And she told me later that one of the first things that he said was, ‘I know she has this whole grunge thing going on onstage, but she probably should have gotten her nails done before the show.’” Hackett went on to explain why that comment was the ultimate deal-breaker—“whether he was powerful or not whether he could help me or not”—concluding, “That is where you have to make the choice. You don’t brush those things aside.”

White followed up with a horror story-meeting with a publisher. “They had barely listened to any of my music, and their note to me at the end was that I might want to step up my outfit game,” she recalled. “I’ve been turned down so many times, but to have that been said, that was just a breaking point—the fact that he still has his job and can say that to me? And then he proceeded to tell me that he fights for women’s rights. I’m like, I disagree with you.”

She added, “Don’t compromise in the moment because we all make the mistake of going along with things in the moment, when we’re like, oh, but I might need them down the road.”

When the panelists were asked about how they intended to move forward, White replied with a set of resolutions. “Keep talking. Don’t be afraid to speak up, ever. I have been silent about so many things, and I have to remind myself daily to just speak up, to not be afraid of being ostracized, and know that other people who want to do the right thing will support you.”