Time for sexism to face the music

The music industry’s public image is in a difficult place as high-profile cases of ingrained sexism come to light. In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, Canadian artist Grimes (real name Claire Boucher) revealed that numerous male producers have demanded sex from her, refusing to continue working on her songs unless she acquiesced. This isn’t the first time she has commented on the entitled and offensive attitudes of men working in music; as the producer and engineer behind her 2015 album Art Angels, Grimes is understandably dismayed when male producers try to prevent her working on the technical side of her music, or offer her unwarranted and unwanted ‘help’.

Earlier this year the issue was dragged into the spotlight as #FreeKesha exploded onto our screens, creating a flurry of media activity which highlighted the struggles that artists can face in the industry. Recording artist Kesha Sebert had sued her producer Lukasz Gottwald, otherwise known as Dr Luke. She claimed that she was the victim of sexual, physical, emotional and verbal abuse and applied for an injunction to release her from the contracts between them. Dismissing Kesha’s claims, New York Judge Shirley Kornreich wrote that insults about her “value as an artist, her looks, and her weight” were “insufficient” to constitute “extreme, outrageous conduct intolerable in civilized society”. It was further held that Kesha’s claims of physical or sexual abuse, which had occurred in 2008, were barred by the five-year limit imposed by the statute of limitations, and consequently were not actionable.

When Kesha signed with Dr Luke’s label, Kemosabe Entertainment, she was just 18 years old. She would go on to sign a six album contract which gave her limited creative control and forced her to work with a man who made her “scared for her life”. Ten years later, Kesha has released only two of the required six albums, and despite well documented creative differences and alleged abuse, the recent decision of the NY Supreme Court leaves her unable to create music with another label. In her reasoning the Judge wrote that degrading an artist as to her “value, looks and weight” was neither “extreme” nor “outrageous” and was insufficient to justify allowing her to find work elsewhere.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the verdict provoked an extreme reaction, with hundreds of thousands taking to Twitter in protest. Among them were a number of high-profile female celebrities, including Kelly Clarkson, who tweeted that she had “nothing nice” to say about Dr Luke, and claimed that she had been blackmailed into working with the producer before. In her acceptance speech at the Brit Awards, Adele publicly declared her support for Kesha, while Taylor Swift donated $250,000 towards the singer’s legal fees. Producer Brad Walsh summarised public feeling behind the situation, writing that to force a woman to work to “profit her rapist”’ was a “failure of justice”.

Whatever the truth of the situation, it’s highlighted the unquestionable fact that men dominate behind the scenes of music-making. We may currently have several high-profile female artists, working in a variety of styles, but a massive 95 percent or more of music producers and engineers are male. It seems inevitable that this imbalance is helping to perpetuate itself, which Grimes for one believes to be the case, saying: “I don’t think there are few female producers because women aren’t interested […] It’s a pretty hostile environment”. An online campaign, Musicogyny, was set up to challenge that hostility, aiming to expose experiences like those of Grimes; the list of targets for sexual harassment goes back to the 1970s and beyond, and includes artists from Lady Gaga to Cyndi Lauper.

Not everyone agrees on why there are so few women in music roles outside the public eye; suggested factors range from the unpleasant objectification of female artists to a straightforward lack of interest. If the cycle of man handing on music to man is to change, the industry itself will need to re-evaluate its own culture, which will surely take some time. But as more female artists speak up about their experiences, we can hope that the process has begun.