Women and music: ‘The famous glass ceiling hasn’t been smashed’ (#SlushMusic)


Earlier this month, 1,993 women signed an open letter calling out sexism, sexual harassment and assault within the Swedish music industry. One prominent major-label executive there has since been suspended following multiple accusations of harassment.

This is the tip of the iceberg, there will surely be more dominoes falling, and discussion of how the music industry can get its house in order around these issues.

Part of that involves more women at every level of the industry, including in the senior roles that recent studies suggest remain largely male. A panel at the Slush Music conference in Helsinki discussed these issues.

It included Linda Portnoff, founder of Riteband and CEO at Musiksverige; Claudia Schwarz, VP at MusicTech Germany; Anya Trybala, founder of feminist music collective Synth Babes and The Banshee Club; and Atte Hujanen, founder of karaoke startup Singa.

“This topic has to do with power and power structures, and how we as a society are losing out because we’re not using this power resource that women represent,” said Portnoff.

Trybala gave her view. “When I was growing up it was really difficult to access role models, really difficult to really thrive in music. It’s only now that I’ve started to do that. This is a continuing discussion. Hopefully we can find some solutions to it,” she said.

“I’m focused on getting women more involved in the industry, and especially in the tech industry. We need to talk about solutions to get women more involved and create new power structures, as opposed to just talk about how women are underrepresented in the industry,” added Schwarz.

“The music industry has to open up to technology, so it might actually be an opportunity, while we get people more involved in tech, to get women and men involved more at the same time… It’s actually an opportunity to start getting in at the very early stage of a new industry. Definitely music/tech has a lot of potential to be a beacon for the empowerment of women.”

Trybala said that there is huge potential to use technology and online networks for feminism, citing The Banshee Club as an example: it encourages women and non-binary / transgender musicians to

“Let’s remember that technology made the #MeToo revolution possible. In Sweden, industry after industry, they now publish the situation for women who have been sexually harassed and raped,” said Portnoff.

“This wouldn’t have been possible if women could not organise in closed groups on Facebook. So I think technology is really an enabler for gender equality.”

What are the key things that need to change going forward? “A lot of it is about visibility,” said Schwarz, who talked about her experience of trying to plan conference lineups. “We end up with the top five names in my head are men, just because they’ve been around longer and are more visible. That’s somewhere we can start improving things.”

She has been working on a database of women who can speak on certain topics and act as mentors. “You can’t bring up the excuse of ‘I didn’t know the women in this space’,” she said.

“Once you have more women on stage, once you increase that visibility, there’s a lot of young female professionals out there who will see someone to talk to, a mentor, and in time that will increase the numbers we see in higher management in the industry.”

Trybala suggested that much more work needs to be done in schools, to tackle assumptions that science and technology subjects are more for boys than girls.

“I don’t think the problem is that young women and girls don’t see themselves as capable of doing things. It’s the famous glass ceiling,” said Portnoff.

“It hasn’t been smashed. I’ve been working on collecting statistics on this topic for several years. If we look at women in leading positions: women being the CEO or being on the board of a company in the music industry, nothing has changed since 2007… It’s even less than 20%”

“The music industry is actually doing worse than the whole industry – all companies in all of Sweden. Why? You should ask the people in power, which is not me! The problem is not only that we don’t have someone to look up to… The glass ceiling is in the way!” Portnoff continued.

“When we have a homogenous group of white men who define what is good, what is quality, what is the profile of the CEO, we’re going to end up with this same situation. And something needs to be done now. I’m getting more and more frustrated every year.”

Trybala summed it up as “more diversity from the top” with more women managing projects. She praised indie label Milk Records, founded by artist Courtney Barnett, and said it inspired her to start Synth Babes.

“It’s not really a question of getting women more engaged. It’s how do we prevent women from dropping out of the industry, or dropping out of a career?” said Schwarz. “To provide an infrastructure or an environment or a community that supports women.”

She cited parenthood as one issue that is also used against women who are making their way in the industry.

“I’ve seen a lot of managers not sign a female artist in their late 20s and early 30s, they were expecting that person was going to become a mother soon and not be a reliable client. That notion is such a bad development! So how do we build infrastructure to keep women engaged later on?”

“It’s important to get men more involved in the debate too,” added Schwarz. Trybala agreed. “We all know there’s an issue, but we need that camaraderie from all angles.”

“We need to have a society that is supporting also of women having a career,” said Portnoff. “It’s all in the societal structure about sharing and responsibilities for family and work.”

“It’s really a big jigsaw puzzle of slowly but surely – well, maybe not slowly – improving the structure that’s underlying the whole industry,” said Schwarz. “It’s really about connecting different initiatives, building synergies and having a more powerful voice. Not just in a country, but across disciplines and across countries.”

The panel were asked about changes, and returned to the topic of power structures and capital. “Let’s face the facts: we work maybe twice as hard. And if we look at venture capital towards our industry, 98% of that capital goes to men!” said Portnoff. “The VC statistics are really grim, and that’s in Sweden!” said Trybala.

Schwarz said one issue is that “there’s not a lot of female founders: why is that? How come a lot of female experts, despite their real deep knowledge in the field, don’t want to speak on a panel or get involved in the funding team, or go for risky money?”

“Maybe they get tired having to struggle so hard, facing glass ceiling after glass ceiling,” concluded Portnoff.

Stuart Dredge

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