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Tackling the gender gap: from tech staff to streaming playlists


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From man-heavy diversity statistics for music companies to fears that women artists are losing out in the recommendation algorithms of music-streaming services, there are a number of challenges facing the music industry around the gender gap.

A panel at the Midem conference this morning explored some of them. Moderated by Vanessa Reed of PRS Foundation, it featured Songtrust’s global head of business development Molly Neuman; MusicTech Germany founder and VP Claudia Schwarz; and Resonate industry relationship manager Jim Hatch.

The tone was notably positive: while there are challenges, there are also opportunities for the music/tech world to tackle them.

“It’s definitely an opportunity… This is a rather new space where people can start building their own ideas about how they want to work, and how they want to build a team,” said Schwarz. “That’s an opportunity, I think, but at the same time there’s the question of how many women are going to be involved.”

She added that when it comes to workforces, the problem may be less about the “pipeline” of new people coming in to the creative tech industry, and more about how companies help women develop their careers, so that they get the opportunities to fill the senior roles that have been dominated by men.

Reed noted that this is not just a tech issue, referring to research showing that people coming in to the music industry are roughly 50% men and 50% women, but that this ratio skews much more male for the more senior roles.

Resonate is a streaming service due to launch in October, and Hatch said that it’s working on a ‘diversity charter’ which will be published on its blog to get feedback, before being turned into a set of guidelines on how the company should approach these issues.

“That’s the key: that there’s awareness that there needs to be different dimensions to the makeup of the executive team, and that if there’s a gap… you’re missing something if you have homogeny in how you organise your company,” said Neuman.

“It takes a lot if you’re in a more-dominant position in society – which I may be – to say ‘I don’t know everything, there’s something missing if we don’t have a different inflection here.”

Neuman, whose past roles include VP at US independent trade-body A2IM, accepted that for smaller music (or tech) companies, diversity can feel a tough issue to tackle. “It’s very entrepreneurial, and you don’t necessarily have the luxury of human resources, or people teams… You might not have the capacity to say ’I want to have this kind of difference in how we move forward’,” she said.

“But when I look at the music industry now and some of the challenges and hot topics we’re trying to improve on, it seems there’s a way to open up and acknowledge that the way the executive teams are designed at most of the major companies and the organisations aren’t what they should be.”

“It’s about having that vision, being aware and wanting to make that change,” agreed Reed.

The conversation moved on to music-streaming services, and the playlists that are driving a growing amount of listening on Spotify, Apple Music and their rivals. Reed cited a recent, widely-shared article by journalist Liz Pelly, analysing the gender ratios in a group of Spotify’s most popular playlists.

“I found Spotify’s most popular and visible playlists to be staggeringly male-dominated,” wrote Pelly, but she also suggested that “Discover Weekly effectively reproduces gender bias. And the numbers show a slight intensification of said bias, too” – for her, 79.2% of her Discover Weekly was tracks by male artists in the period covered.

In the Midem panel, Reed asked whether music-recommendation algorithms can “perpetuate the status quo and become a very narrow echo chamber for certain artists and sources of music”.

“We’ve had this discussion with festivals who keep saying the lineup is male-dominant because that’s what the audience wants. It’s just not true,” said Schwarz, who said that it should be possible for algorithms to help drive change, rather than perpetuate the existing power structure.

“The beauty of technology really is that we can address these under-represented groups. Not just female artists, but artists from different regions, and languages and genres. We can do that, but the question is: is anyone interested in doing that?” she said.

“I’m not a big fan of quotas, I think that wouldn’t work in a free market, and especially not in a tech market. But raising awareness is the first step…” On that note, she recommended the work of the Algorithmic Justice League, which has been researching algorithmic bias through media, art and science.

“We need more diverse workforce in the development community to address these changes, because otherwise you write for your persona. You write as if you’re looking into a mirror,” said Schwarz.

For Resonate, the approach here is to get rid of algorithms altogether. “There’s no algorithmic curation within our platform. We’re going to be building out an incentivisation system for curation to allow DJs, curators, bloggers, artists, labels, to go into the service, discover new artists, talk about them and promote them,” he said.

“We believe the next big sound or the next big artist in music should not be discovered by an algorithm. Would David Bowie have ever got so big if Spotify had existed when he was growing up?”

The counter-argument to this might be that the algorithms work with the data they’re given: people’s listening. Which is where Pelly’s article makes for bleak reading: given the gender ratios on big Spotify playlists like Today’s Top Hits, New Music Friday and particularly RapCaviar, perhaps efforts around those would have a positive knock-on effect on the algorithmic playlists.

Neuman said that there are some challenges around all this. “Who’s identifying the user and the artist? There’s no metadata field for gender for artists, and for privacy reasons, many services don’t collect gender identity. And there’s discussion of there’s more than two genders and all sorts of challenges with this being pure data analysis anyway,” she said.

Neuman suggested that a good area for more effort would be “encouraging young women to consider themselves as having a potential creative career, and having them involved in the production piece… Having that expertise from their earliest days and having more diversity there is something that needs to be encouraged.”

Spotify has launched playlists focused on women artists, and for International Women’s Day this year it teamed up with Smirnoff on a feature called the Smirnoff Equalizer, to show people the gender ratio of their listening, and recommend tracks to even it up.

“There is more discussion: people want to do the right thing generally, I think – how they’re doing that and being a bit more creative, and putting their core functions at work? A little less of the marketing and a bit more of the data teams and business-intelligence teams who can tackle these things in an impactful way would be a pretty good use of their resources, if it matters to them, which it seems to,” said Neuman.

“What I have struggled with is the companies in our ecosystem not accepting that there’s a majority of women in the world. And something’s wrong with the ratio of only 13% of a playlist being women… It’s just not really okay, and we have to think more deeply about what we can do, and put more strategy in place.”

Schwarz said that all-women playlists make a statement, but shouldn’t be the only thing a streaming service does. “For me it’s all about playing together,” she said. “Gender’s not a genre,” agreed Hatch.

The session ended with a question on how companies can work towards a more-diverse workforce. “Your recruitment teams need to think more strategically about where they’re finding their candidates,” said Neuman. “Hiring the best candidate is fine! But if you don’t have a pool of candidates that has much more diversity, it [the gender imbalance] is going to stay the same.”

Stuart Dredge

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