How to be a boss woman in the music industry

The music industry is hugely homogenised. In the UK, all three heads of the major record labels are men, and there’s just three women occupying power positions among the major’s sixteen frontline imprints. A&R wise, there are a handful, at best, of females scouting and developing talent. It’s not dissimilar in the indie sector either: amongst the fourteen significant labels, there’s two powerful women, and publishing and management isn’t any better.

Quite rightfully, the music industry has been hit with a barrage of criticism for its lack of diversity. Race is as much a problem as gender, as is the lack of class representation. As WIN CEO Alison Wenham explains, “A male-dominated club-culture is what the music business started out with. As it became more powerful and defined it was reliant on a constant feed of university educated middle class kids who came through via unpaid internship programmes.” It can be seen in the industry’s output, and the lack of truly exciting and innovative breakthrough acts coming from the major labels. We are in dire need of some different ears.

I’m a white woman who works across two very male, white and middle class industries: journalism and the music business. So I’m just about qualified to tackle the gender problem. Firstly, I applaud the articles calling out sexism, the women-only award ceremonies, and the conversation that’s started recently. However, I can’t help but feel that the only way anything’s going to change imminently is if the men in charge care enough to implement special measures.

So, some advice for those men: take steps to ensure your recruitment process isn’t influenced by subconscious bias, have a zero-tolerance policy to sexism at work, include any females in the ‘pack’ (if there is one), let them know they can talk to you about anything and take them seriously when they do. Understand and be okay with that fact that they may communicate in a different way to you, and make sure their hard work is recognised. Also, obviously: pay them the same as their male counterparts, accept the fact they might take time off to have a baby at some point and find ways of working around it. What advice is there for the women who have a chance of breaking through the music industry’s glass ceiling?

Don’t talk about it in the office

In the words of power manager Sarah Stennett, don’t talk about gender issues in the office. “It’s like nepotism, you might have to work twice as hard, you might have to show that you are more committed, but my advice is basically keep going,” she says. “If it becomes something that’s making your life a misery and you feel that you can’t achieve what you want to in the role that you’re in because of some sort of male/female issue, find another job that will recognise your talent, respect what you do and support you in achieving your potential.

“Nobody needs to hear people complaining about the reasons why they are not doing well, it can very easily become an excuse and sound like a whinge. You have to make your own destiny, create your own boundaries and live your life to achieve your dreams.”

But don’t stand for discrimination

In the same vein, digital exec Sammy Andrews, who started her career as a tour manager and left her position as Head of Digital at Cooking Vinyl last year to set up a data analytics business, says she’s powered through by refusing to accept bias and standing her ground in negotiations.

“I worked with Annie Lennox for ten years and she taught me a lot about being a woman in the industry. You just have to get on with it and don’t accept [discrimination]. I used to have the worst rows about my salary, ‘How much are you paying him? Then you pay me the same!’ and that’s the way you’ve got to take it. And fuck apologising for ourselves, honestly. No matter who you are, know your worth. Take control of what you want to do and don’t stand for it.”

Stop apologising

When making deals and pitching ideas forget ‘Can I borrow some of your time?’ ‘I’d like to pitch you something’ ‘I’ve got an idea you might like’ and instead present the deal. Don’t apologise, or, if you really need to, do it once. Comedian and career coach Deborah Francis-White was given a challenge during this episode of the Guilty Feminist podcast. She had to ring somebody up who could be helpful to her career and ask for a meeting without apology or qualification.

Francis-White rehearsed what she was going to say, which was: ‘I’ve just won the Writers’ Guild award for Best Radio Comedy and a lot of people are calling me and asking me what I’d like to do next. I thought to myself, ‘Who do I want to work with? I don’t just want to be reactive’ and I thought I want to most work with you (which is true).

“I said I have some ideas, didn’t say they were good or otherwise, and I want to pitch them to you. I would like to meet you next week for a coffee. The man said, ‘Oh that’s so nice, that’s really flattering.’ He was so happy and then he started pitching himself to me and explaining why I wanted to work with him.

“In the comedy world there is a part of me that goes, ‘I know that I am a woman and I know that that’s often seen as an obstacle, I don’t know that this person wants to hear from me so I don’t make the call. Today I made the call, it was really great and I have a meeting next week.”

We need to sing better songs

Men have ten times more testosterone than women and testosterone is a very powerful self-promoter because it makes you think you are better than you are, Francis-White continues. “It’s a biochemical lie to make you think you can catch a woolly mammoth when you can’t. I see board rooms all the time where the men come in and they’ve just won a big deal or developed a product. They stand up in front of all their peers and bosses and go, ‘Okay, so as you can see here from the first powerpoint slide… I saw the beast and the beast was scary but the beast didn’t get me, I fought the bears, I killed the beast and I brought it home for tea.’

“Then a woman will stand up, who does not have a biochemical lie telling her she’s a rock star, and go: ‘As you can see from the first slide… I’ve got a beast but it was kind of old, it was probably going to die anyway, sort of fell down in front of me… team effort?’ We’ve got to start singing better songs ladies.” Amen.

A final note: women need to be nice to one another, never competitive and combative. Stick up for fellow females in meetings and private conversations and see strengths not weaknesses. Refuse to feel threatened. There is so much strength to be found in solidarity and encouragement. It also feels really good.