Beth Orton tackles lack of women in music industry

Beth Orton and participantsBeth Orton (centre) says female acts have to deal with “an ingrained sense of being on the back foot”
From Dusty Springfield to Kate Bush to Adele, women have played a prominent role in UK music for decades. But figures show they in fact make up less than a sixth of the professional talent.

Acclaimed singer-songwriter Beth Orton has spent the week addressing this issue in Manchester, working with 13 aspiring musicians at the city’s Band on the Wall venue on a programme designed to combat the challenges that women face in the industry.

Orton says the scale of the problem is shown by the fact few women came forward at previous events, something she calls “a shame” and which she puts down to “an issue with how [women] view ourselves”.

“That is a direct effect of our upbringing and culture, an ingrained sense of being on the back foot [or] lacking in something,” she says.

The event was inspired by a Performing Rights Society statistic that showed only 14% of its members were female and organiser Brighter Sound’s own experience of one in four applicants to their music residencies being women.

Jesca HoopSinger-songwriter Jesca Hoop says unlike male performers, “a woman is never simply and gloriously a musician”

Their head of programmes Kate Lowes says there is a “huge gender gap” in the music industry, “particularly if you look outside the charts”.

For US singer-songwriter and BBC 6 Music DJ Jesca Hoop, women do not engage with the industry as much as men because of the issues they face when they do.

“A woman is sexualised in a way that a man isn’t,” she says. “A woman has to decide if she is going to exploit her sex or not. If she does, what are the consequences?”

“Also, women are not allowed to age and a woman has to decide if she is going to be able to face aging in public view.

“And then, unlike a man, she is never simply and gloriously a musician. She is ‘a female guitar player’ or ‘a female drummer’. Her gender precedes her.”

The issue of image is one which rankles with many female performers. Rachel Unthank, who fronts BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winners The Unthanks with her sister Becky, says the pair have had to deal with ignorant presumptions throughout their career.

She says when they signed with EMI, “we had comments on social media about how [the label] had styled us in floaty frocks and high heels”.

The UnthanksAdrian NcNally (left) says he is “frequently perceived as having some sort of Machiavellian dominance” over the Unthank sisters

“It was presumed that our sense of fashion and occasion must have been forced upon us by men or by the industry.

“If we had have been male, I doubt that we would have been subject to such speculation.”

Adrian McNally is married to Rachel Unthank and is a member of her band and their producer.

He says he is “frequently perceived as having some sort of Machiavellian dominance over Rachel and Becky”, which he sees as “people implying that they are either suppressed or stupid”.

“The suppressed camp assume that without me, they would be free to be the traditional folkies they were brought up as, and the stupid camp assume that all the clever stuff is done by me and they are just the pretty faces at the front.

“It is an extremely offensive but completely regular patriarchal starting point to assume I must be the one in charge.

“If we were all men, there would be no such extreme juxtaposition between me and them.”

Eliza CarthyEliza Carthy, who featured in a BBC Music promo, says “women are received better professionally if they look a certain way”

The Unthanks are far from alone in facing such scrutiny of their appearance. Double Mercury Award nominee Eliza Carthy says women “are received better professionally if they look a certain way”, something which she finds “infuriating”.

“Certainly, if you are pretty, things come to you easier.

“People like sweet female singers in dresses and I’ve never been that. Being a big shouty woman is never going to be as easy as being a little pretty one, a little whisperer.

“I was reading about myself in a magazine where someone described me as full-figured.

“I just thought ‘well, there you go’, people don’t say that about performers like Antony Hegarty.”

It is not just passing comment on what a performer wears or what size they are that is a problem. There is also the issue, as Hoop put it, of whether a woman “is going to exploit her sex”.

Liverpool trio Stealing Sheep have resolutely refused to do that but band member Rebecca Hawley says a lot of the major success stories in the industry are of women who “have played on their sexuality”.

“This tends to reinforce the ‘sex sells’ ethos… which can be playful and ironic or simply and undeniably sexy,” she says.

“It’s difficult to decipher whether they are subject to some kind of exploitation or are liberating their own free will and displaying anarchical messages, but whichever, it can stimulate a negative ideology [and] lead to the objectification of the female artist.”

Being expected to be “massively over-sexualised” is one of the chief issues that Josephine Oniyama, who has been working with Orton at the Manchester residency, says the industry has to deal with.

“Sometimes it seems like every women has to do a semi-nude video or photo shoot before anyone pays attention.

PinsPins’ Faith Holgate (centre) says the industry needs to stop treating female acts “like we are a novelty”

“Of course there are exceptions, Adele being the most obvious example, but the media tends to point out that they are just that – exceptions.

“Wouldn’t if be nice if we were all allowed to leave our clothes on and be the rule rather than the exception?”

That wish highlights another problem – that of women, however they are involved in the industry, being seen as an unexpected inclusion.

That perception is leant weight by a problem Hoop also identifies, that for a female performer, “her gender precedes her” and she is continually defined by it.

“This kind of otherness only strengthens the myth of women as out-of-place, as anomalies within music practice, as performers not creators,” says Becca Williams, who has also been working with Orton.

“I’ve lost track of the amount of times I’m described as a ‘female’ singer-songwriter’ – why not just a singer-songwriter?

“And if you find a band made up of female musicians, they’re an ‘all-girl’ band.”

Beth Orton’s Brighter Sound residency at Band on the Wall culminates with a show at the venue on Friday 20 February.

One thought on “Beth Orton tackles lack of women in music industry

  1. Here here! Not many with Beth’s credentials are willing to actively advocate for fairer representation in music industry. Congrats for taking action.

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