The Music Industry Is Out of Tune: Women in Music Are Underpaid and Underrepresented

By: Kyle Kennedy

In 2018, the principal flutist from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Elizabeth Rowe, filed a lawsuit against her employer alleging gender bias because the male principal oboist of the orchestra made $70,000 more per year. This disparity of pay is a common trend among professional orchestras where men earn an average salary of $255,000 while women earn $202,000. Men fill 80% of the top-paying orchestra roles, and of the one-hundred conductors of major orchestras across America, only four are women. The gender-based disparity of pay is prevalent across the entertainment industry, as the median annual earnings for women in art are $45,156 while the median for men in art was $60,497. In 2018, the sister rock trio, Haim, recounted firing their agent because the male artist sharing their stage at a festival was paid ten times more.  Women are chronically underpaid and underrepresented in the music industry because its unique characteristics naturally foster gender-based discrimination while simultaneously making it extraordinarily difficult for plaintiffs to prove employment discrimination or harassment claims.

Women are chronically underrepresented in the music industry.

Women are chronically underrepresented in music compared to men. In 2019, USC Annenberg conducted a study analyzing the top 100 songs from 2012 to 2019. The data showed that only 17.1% of the Top 100 songs in 2018 featured women artists, compared to 22.7% in 2012 and 28.1% in 2016. In the range of years studied, the ratio of male to female artists was 3.6 to 1. Women were also more likely to work as individual artists with 31.5% of individual artists being women compared to only 4.6% of duos and 7.5% of bands featuring women. Women were especially underrepresented in creative roles making up only 21.7% of artists, 12.3% of songwriters, and 2.1% of producers. The ratio of male to female producers in the years analyzed was 47 to 1.  

Perhaps the best example of the underrepresentation of women in music is the gender gap in Grammy nominations. Winning a Grammy is the pinnacle of achievement in the music industry, and between 2013-2019 only 10.4% of the nominated artists were women. Grammy awards and nominations often carry substantial financial consequences, as these types of accomplishments lead to higher pay and more opportunities.

In addition to being underrepresented and underrecognized, women in the music industry face barriers to advancement because of their gender. 39% of the Annenberg respondents reported being stereotyped and sexualized by their male co-workers. Of 75 respondents who worked in the studio, 39% reported being objectified, 25% were the only women in the room, and 28% were dismissed. A 2020 study released by Annenberg surveyed 401 women creatives and found that “64% [named] sexual harassment and objectification “as a major challenge women face in the industry.” The inaugural ‘Women in the Mix’ study surveyed 1,600 women or gender-expansive people working in the music industry to identify trends in their shared experiences. The study demonstrated the prevalence of discrimination in the industry, as 77% of respondents said they were treated differently because of their gender and 56% believed their employment in music was affected by their gender. Women also tend to be overworked and underpaid, as 57% of the respondents hold two more jobs while 28% work over 40 hours a week. Despite this investment of time, 36% of respondents make less than $40,000 per year and 57% felt they should be further along in their career compared to non-performance artists working in music. Gender expansive artists face heightened discrimination and were twice as likely than artists who identified as women to make less than $40,000 per year.

The data and statistics clearly show that women have a harder time breaking into the music industry, are paid less than men, and are provided less opportunities for recognition or advancement.

The music industry is uniquely situated to foster gender discrimination.

         Women in the music industry face more severe gender-based discrimination because of the prevalence of relationship-based hiring, gender stereotypes, and the practice of underpaying inexperienced artists.

         The music industry has traditionally relied on informal hiring procedures based largely on personal relationships. It can be quite difficult for outsiders to get their foot in the door, and one female jazz musician reported that people would often hire their male friends over equally or more skilled women.  The Annenberg data showed that men are disproportionately placed in positions of power in the industry, and they hire men at a disproportionate rate. This ‘boys club’ mentality fosters the chronic underrepresentation of women in music.

         Women in the music industry also must battle against common stereotypes that are often used as poorly disguised gender discrimination. Women in music report being given work that is rooted in gender roles, such as “the cliché of women possessing good communication and “people’s skills”, and men traditionally being seen as the decision-makers and the assertive ones.” These stereotypes lead to the devaluation of women in the workplace because employers value “alleged natural skills” differently which impacts hiring decisions. These adverse decisions lead to wage gaps and “prestige gaps” as men are more often thrust into roles of importance. Additionally, women are often forced to work in uncomfortable or hostile work environments as 39% of the 2019 Annenberg respondents were sexualized, objectified, or stereotyped at work. Women already face tremendous barriers entering the music industry, which are only worsened by the prospect of facing harassment or mistreatment in the workplace every day.

         The music industry is known for underpaying inexperienced artists who still must “earn their stripes”, and the commonality of this practice allows employers to get away with blatant discrimination. Many artists report having to work for little or no pay upon entering the industry, and many said that once you are paid “nobody talks about how much.”  Women entering the industry often work for free or are underpaid for extended periods, and the normalization of this practice makes it even more difficult for women to break into the music industry.

It is difficult for artists to prove their employer discriminated against them.

   The difficulties in comparing various artists and the social norms of the music industry make it difficult for women to recover from employers who discriminate against them. Those who face gender-based compensation discrimination can sue under the Equal Pay Act or any applicable state law. Under the EPA, men and women in the workplace must be given equal pay for equal work. The jobs must be substantially equal, which is determined by the job content. However, it can be difficult for artists to demonstrate that two jobs are substantially the same in court, where they have the burden of proof as plaintiffs. Artists offer various skills and make various contributions to musical projects which can be hard to compare or objectively value.

Artists could also sue under Title VIII, the Age Discrimination Employment Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act which prohibit compensation discrimination without requiring the jobs be substantially similar. There are certainly legal avenues to pursue claims, but the realities of the music industry make pursuing employment discrimination claims less appealing. The relationship-based, quid-pro-quo nature of the music industry discourages women who have been discriminated against from pursuing claims because of fear of retaliation from the industry. The common practice of underpaying newer employees makes it difficult to find explicit evidence of discrimination. In discrimination cases, courts will often look for the “smoking gun” showing intentional discrimination, which is a lot more difficult when employers can point to the tradition of grossly undercompensating new employees. Finally, the music industry is extremely competitive and young artists of all genders are incentivized to compete against each other by accepting lower pay or worse treatment from their employer. Women are already systematically mistreated in the music industry, and its ultra-competitive nature leads to normalizations of discrimination.  

The music industry must take better care of women in music.

Women are underpaid and under-represented in the music industry. The unique characteristics of the industry make gender discrimination more prevalent and more difficult to enjoin. Courts would have an easier time sorting through gender-based compensation discrimination for musicians or other artists by coming up with some standardized system of value analysis for musical contributions. While some underpaid women artists might still be undervalued by such a system, some relief is better than no relief. Additionally, the threat of relief might lead to much needed advancements in the industry itself. The music industry could experiment with more standardized compensation for artists and performers, higher wages for inexperienced workers, and some equitable system that opens opportunities outside of personal relationships. The music industry today is sadly out of tune and continues to discriminate against women through unequal pay and career advancements. The music industry should strive to shift its common practices to encourage equality, fairly compensate new artists, and deter workplace harassment and discrimination.