Female Artists and Misogyny in the Music Industry

Hello fellow artist just trying to make your way in the world. It’s been a hard road to walk, hasn’t it? You’ve probably faced a lot of rejection and probably dealt with a lot of drama so far, and that’s okay because you’ve kept your head up and you’ve kept going. I’m proud of you. Not everyone has those kind of guts. But here you are giving it your best.

You probably clicked on this post because you’re curious, or more than likely you’ve experienced this yourself. I found through my own experiences that you most definitely do not have to be a musician to suffer at the hands of misogyny and toxic masculinity, but as a musician, you know how much harder it is to be taken seriously as a female-presenting musician, or at the very least, have to endure some very uncomfortable comments along the way.

I remember a time when I was traveling around to a run of a few shows with my then-boyfriend, a very talented synth player, as well as the rest of his band and their significant others. I was there to take photos of the show, as live music photography is one of my main jobs here at The A&R Agency, and of course, support him in doing what he loved up on stage. Aside from the fact that I was obviously the photographer for the show, with my huge equipment around my neck and swooping around the edges of the stage to get the shots I wanted, as soon as people found out I was dating someone in the band, the “groupie” comments started before the show was even over. I think a lot of people think that “groupie” just means “someone who travels around with the band as someone’s significant other” and not someone who, you know, sleeps with the members of the band…but let me add that this show was in a CHURCH. Whether people are well-intentioned or not, comments like these creep into our psyches as women, belittling our talents and creating a caricature of what a female musician or someone involved in the music industry looks and acts like.

Because this is our reality, we’re forced to fit in a box of what the industry demands of us. This box was made, little by little, by patriarchal and misogynist ideas that female musicians are pretty, young, sexy singers who aim to be the subject of every male’s attention. And while some female-presenting musicians do go toward this idea (and there is nothing wrong with that at all!), to hold this standard to all female-presenting musicians is harmful and unfair. If you’re a woman who plays an instrument, you know that you’ll have to work hard, most likely a lot harder than your male counterparts, to be taken seriously as a competent musician because you already don’t fit the mold of a female in live music. If you’re a female vocalist, at best be prepared to be compared to Hayley Williams, or Paramore. At worst, get some *very cleaver* side-comments about how you probably sleep with the band/producer/manager to get what you want if your band happens to be co-ed. (Disclaimer: This is mostly referring to women in bands or who are solo artists in the live music scene and may not apply, to at least the same extent, as other female-presenting musicians, such as those who play in professional orchestras or do accompaniment).

Everybody, especially those just starting out in their musical endeavors, will face so much rejection and hardship to make their dreams a reality that musicians have evolved to have thick skin. Whether you’re in a band or you’re a solo artist, all of this is probably starting to sound familiar. Being a musician of any kind and of any gender takes guts and the power to take criticism, but if you’re a female-presenting musician of some type, you know that there’s always another layer to all of this. That’s why I thought it was important with this kind of subject matter to get some insight from a real female musician and to maybe shed some light on what can be done about this industry-wide problem.

Ashley, let’s call her, and I have been best friends for ages. Once she moved to New York to pursue her music dreams, I know there was something there waiting for her to help her spread her wings. She met a producer there who helped her create an album, much to her disappointment due to a lot of things that didn’t seem all that right. Unfortunately, like so many others, she has a story or two that is very common in the industry. Here are a few questions that I asked “Ashley” about her experience, and what advice she has for young, female musicians trying to make a name for themselves.

There are a a few trigger warnings that I need to point out here for before going forward: eating disorders, unrealistic beauty standards, sexual themes, sexual harrassment

1. Have you experienced a time in the music industry/on social media as an artist where you felt like you were treated as less because you are female?

Unfortunately, the “producer” I worked with was in fact a scam artist. He had a couple of real contacts and worked in a legit studio, but significantly over-exaggerated his experience and success. He was just in it to take people for as much money as possible, without actually providing much for it. I say that to emphasize that I don’t think my experience was necessarily typical of the whole and/or legit music industry. However, it is one of the many pitfalls people can fall into in pursuing a career in music, which makes it still relevant to the discussion of the industry. That being said, this man definitely sought out women specifically to scam, I think there was maybe one male artist in the entire group of us working with him at that time. I definitely got the vibe that this dude preyed on women because he saw them as more vulnerable and desirable for himself. I would guess (though I don’t know) that he legitimately saw women as less intelligent or savvy than at least himself, if not all men. His “advice” consisted of encouraging extreme dieting (zero carbs or sugar, that type of deal), active social media presence as the primary catalyst for fame rather than the art (in other words, look hot online for attention before even worrying about the music because “that’s how you get famous”). He pressured me to consider stripping or prostitution in order to get ahead or to make the money I needed to get ahead. He even tried to date (or whatever) with all of us, and if you rejected him he would just ignore you in the studio after that. Pretty much if you didn’t do what he said or give him what he wanted, you weren’t a worthy client anymore. We were definitely reduced to what we looked like or what we could do for men, visually or otherwise, rather than who we were or what talent/art we brought to the table

2. Was there ever a time when you thought that you might be taken advantage of in some way by someone in the industry? Did you feel like this was a result of misogyny? 

“I was taken advantage of, and while I could have been more vigilant for myself, I also can’t blame myself too much for a person being that manipulative. Again, I wouldn’t consider this man to be big in the industry, but at the time I believed he was, and that created a certain power dynamic that was much harder to resist than some scummy guy on the street hitting on you or something. You felt the pressure to give in, because “that’s how you get ahead”. I do take responsibility for myself, and the fact that I was technically free to leave or discontinue working with him at any point. But I would’ve lost money that way, as I paid him up front, and as I said I really believed at first he could get me somewhere. This made me fearful that he was right, maybe this is just how the industry works and what was to be expected from anyone in the business going forward. I have since realized that that’s most likely not true, not every producer is a scumbag. But then again, where would this guy have learned this behavior if not from others in the industry? There’s definitely a loaded question of just how prevalent these situations are in the industry as a whole, and I think that uncertainty alone creates a lot of fear and anxiety for women that while not every person in the industry is out to get you, it’s something you have to be vigilant for to protect yourself. Kind of like walking down the street in a way. Not every person that passes you is out to hurt or r*pe you, but you still worry and pay close attention to your surroundings anyway, just in case. 

The guy I worked with was certainly a misogynist lol no question. He looked down on his clients in general, which were all female. You could say he was just out for the money, and not necessarily looking to treat women badly in particular, but based on my experience he seemed to have degrading and unfair views of women in general, which I would define as misogyny. And I would agree that misogyny still exists in the industry, and it’s something to watch out for, though again I don’t believe this to be the case in the entire industry.”   

3. What are some things, if any, that have helped you fight sexism and misogyny in the music industry as a female musician? 

“The biggest thing for me was building my own confidence and knowledge. A lot of times people get away with this crap because no one is confident enough in themselves or what they know to call it out; I was no different in the beginning. I’m not one to look for or assume misogyny in any instance of personal discomfort, but it’s definitely important to be vigilant and call it out when it does exist. I think the way feminism has developed has also helped, since more and more women seem to be calling out these instances and making it harder for men to get away with things they shouldn’t. The Kesha case is one that comes to mind, and I think women should take those instances to heart. Misogyny is still out there, we have a ways to go to fix certain things for women, but we are only getting stronger and more visible. We are not powerless housewives anymore which I think is showing more and more, both in ourselves and in the systems we operate in. Establishing my personal boundaries and firmly deciding on what I will and will not allow also helped a lot in standing up for myself. Lastly, sharing this story!! Share your experiences, the things you’ve seen and the people you’ve dealt with. Knowledge is power, and the more we share the more we know. 

Lastly, I just want to say to women: do not let this knowledge discourage you. Yes, there are people in the music industry who just want to take advantage of you. Hell there’s people in every industry who just want to take advantage of you. But there are plenty of others who don’t, and we should not be afraid to go after what we want in this industry. It’s only going to get better for us, the more we fight for it and encourage others to do the same. Even after my terrible experiences, I firmly believe that.”

“Ashley’s” story unfortunately also reminds me of K$sha’s, in which she was under extreme conditions of sexual abuse and control by her producer, Dr. Luke. This is proof that this kind of control can happen to anyone, regardless of your social standing, budget, or musical talent. From “Ashley’s” story, we get some insight on some steps to take to fight back from “Ashley” and a direct cause-and-effect of her time with her “producer”. By the end of her experience, she quit his project, owns all of the music that he helped make, and is able to make her music and her project on her own terms. Like K$sha, sharing her story and speaking out on her experience gave her her power back, as well as saved a lot of other female-presenting aspiring musicians the same pain. She mentions that sharing her story and gathering all the knowledge you can is how you can fight back, and that’s something that we can even see happening among more popular names on the chart through different means.

Like it or not, The Riot Grrrl projects (of mostly the 1990’s), helped spread this exact message. These bands helped take the original themes of punk, and change it so that their music was able to reach audiences from a variety of groups to understand and fight back against the vile injustices that women face everyday, as well as to inspire women and girls to move beyond any of those patriarchal standards that we knew previously to be their whole and authentic selves. This was a game-changer for women in the industry, and still remains a powerful genre that puts women in power.

Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill: “All girls to the front, I’m not kidding!” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LU1bEeKsHs8

In more modern music of the last 10 years, we see an increase of a vision of strong women in the music industry, and how this is slowly flipping the tables of what female musicians are even able to put out. People like Megan Thee Stallion, P!nk, and other big female names in the industry, have made their names by their talent and by the themes of being a “bad bitch”. With their image, and by songs like “WAP”, these women are exceeding the expectations of what female musicians in the music industry normally look and feel like, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, and even pushes the limits of what is acceptable in a song and how a woman should act. This does not mean that they are free from criticism, of course, but no matter your feelings on the song and your opinion on the direction that modern music is going, themes like this force traditional patriarchal standards of music to the back, making way for new ideas and ways to make music. We already see the effects of these changes, such as when we compare modern music to that of female musicians of the 1960’s. By these stories and by the methods listed below, I truly believe that the industry will someday not just be a place that is dominated by men.

So as a women wanting to be involved in the music scene, what can you do right now?

  1. DO YOUR RESEARCH. Among local music industry professionals, even those who aren’t involved in the music-making process themselves have the capacity to hurt you and the project you’re trying to accomplish. Do they have credible and traceable reviews, or is it your friend’s cousin’s uncle who will mix your EP for $20 in his stretchy basement?
  2. SPEAK OUT. Let me first say something very important-existing in this space as a female musician is neither your fault or your responsibility to fix alone. It will take time, continued change, and patience to change anything, and that’s okay. But by telling your story and by speaking up for people we love, our voices slowly become part of an army who is willing to fight.
  3. FIGHT BACK. Especially if you are a man or you are male-presenting. Men, you’re actually vital to this. People with misogynist mindsets don’t typically like to be told what to do by women, and therefore listen to those they respect and see as on their level- other men. Any time you see something that you feel is messed up, step in if you can. Show your friends and colleagues that you are ready to accept a world that has women as empowered as men in music. And while you’re at it, don’t be afraid to show your feminine side and just be a human. The patriarchy hurts men in this too. If you’re a woman, hold your male friends, family, spouse, or boyfriend accountable in this. If you’re feeling especially fired up, you can join a group with like-minded people to plan how you can affect the local scene with fighting against misogny in mind. Maybe even start your own Riot Girl band!

By following the lead of artists like Megan Thee Stallion, P!nk, K$sha, Bikini Kill, and my personal favorite, Sleater-Kinney, as well as taking into account stories like “Ashley’s”, we can fight back against misogyny, sexism, and the patriarchal concepts that are deeply rooted in the industry (and in our society as a whole). Don’t be afraid of criticism if you go out and wear an outfit on stage that makes YOU feel good, if you release a song about how some ass made a sexist comment on your Instagram post, or if you just generally want to be YOU out there. Not only are you taking the power back into your own hands, but you’re also slowly changing the industry into being a safer and more friendly place for women.

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Sarah Peterson
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