Women Who Score Can Score At The Box Office
Hollywood is all about diversity, and especially female empowerment, these days. Yet, I could have predicted in advance that when the Academy Award nominations were announced, not one of the nods for original score went to a female composer.
The sad fact is just two percent of the top-grossing 250 films from the past three years were scored by a female. Over the course of the 90 years that the Academy Awards have been given, only seven nominations in the original score category went to a woman, and only two women have won Oscar for original composition.
So it comes as no surprise that The Celluloid Ceiling Report, conducted last year by the San Diego State University Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film, revealed that women constituted just 17 percent of all directors, writers, producers, editors and cinematographers working on the top 250 grossing films in 2016. In fact, women directed just seven percent of the top films last year, a two percent drop from 2015 and 1998, the first year the study was conducted. Perhaps even more shocking, of all the behind-the-scenes positions polled, only three percent of music composers were female.
The Music Industry’s Gender Gap Problem
Outside of Tinseltown is no better. The music industry, which, like the film industry has done throughout this awards season, made a highly visible demonstration of support for the #metoo and #timesup movements at the Grammy Awards. Yet, just like the film industry, it was very much show-and-tell and very little substance. Consider that of the nearly 900 individuals nominated for a Grammy between 2013 and 2018, less than 10% were female. And only 2% of music producers during this time were women, according to the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
The problem is particularly acute in the classical music industry. In a Baltimore Symphony Orchestra survey of 85 American orchestras and their programming for the 2016–17 season, female composers made up only 1.3 percent of the music performed. Looking at the current 2017–18 concert season, there are organizations like the Cleveland Orchestra, which will feature 38 different composers but no women. The New York Philharmonic will perform works by 34 composers and only one woman.
Even with the industry under arguably more pressure than ever before to change the tide and, in particular, close the gender gap, this is still a glaring problem. Yes, there are some anomalies: last year, for the first time in over a century, the Met featured an opera composed by women. We celebrated Taylor Swift for being the highest-paid musician in the world. Missy Mazzoli’s “Breaking the Waves” was among the year’s strongest operatic premieres, and Ashley Fure’s new orchestral piece, “Bound to the Bow,” left a memorable mark at the New York Phil Biennial. Yet, for the most part, the arts and entertainment landscape remains exclusive. Indeed, when it comes to the arts, we’re singing the same somber tune we’ve heard again and again.
There’s No Scarcity of Talent
It’s not as if there is a scarcity of talent. Women like the trailblazer Meredith Monk, Pulitzer Prize winners Caroline Shaw, Julia Wolfe, and Jennifer Higdon, and composer-performer Lera Auerbach, not to mention the aforementioned women, would make any critic’s list of top living composers, male or female. And an acclaimed 2017 documentary by Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sara Nesson, “Women Who Score,” has spawned a number of concert events highlighting the work of female composers.
But it’s clear that the overarching issue is deeply rooted and its prevalence widespread. So, it’s time to change the tune and do our part to bring women into the spotlight. We can do this by cultivating an environment where they are welcomed, encouraged and empowered, and by investing the resources to grow their talent — as early as possible.
It’s Time to Change the Tune
As composer Mazzoli said recently in an interview in the New York Times: “When you’re young is when you receive the brunt of this sexist behavior. You don’t have the defenses or the perspective to deal with it at such a young age, which is why I think a lot of women are discouraged from being composers when they’re teenagers.”
Mazzoli is one example of an artist who is helping young women find their voice. Working in collaboration with Kaufman Music Center’s youth orchestra, Face the Music, she along with acclaimed composers Ellen Reid, Reena Esmail and Kristin Kuster, are participating in a program called Luna Composition Lab. Luna Lab aims to address the gender imbalance head-on by creating role models, mentorship and performance opportunities for girls, along with providing access to a professional network of musicians. By connecting young women with established female composers, the program is starting to close the gap, providing girls with positive role models, fostering their confidence, giving them an outlet for self-expression and encouraging them to follow their dreams.
Kaufman Music Center’s Luna Lab is not alone in providing young female composers a pathway. Since 2013, the organization Opera America has awarded grants to women composers to create new works and to opera companies to commission them. Similarly, the League of American Orchestras sponsors orchestral opportunities for women in the early stages of their career. The Earshot project of the American Composers Orchestra has featured the music of more than 100 women composers over the past 15 years.
While these programs are going a long way to inspire young women to partake in the arts, much more needs to be done. We need the help of local communities and leaders, schools, organizations and individuals across the country to truly level the playing field once and for all. And we need those in Hollywood, those leading orchestras and opera companies, and even those whose philanthropic dollars enable the arts to flourish to think outside what would be widely considered as the safe, traditional box. Women who score can score big at the box office; all they need is the chance. In fact, let’s make 2018 the year that women composers truly take center stage.