The music industry: Is it a “boys’ club” and who decides who gets in?

Singer, songwriter and Trinity student Aoibh Ní Mhuireartaigh examines the gender biases within the music industry, from the inside

About two years ago, I made a point of expecting handshakes in professional contexts. I am in no way a stickler for formality, but the handshakes taking place around me while I was offered hugs, and kisses on cheeks, irked me on a deeper level. There was nothing, other than gender, that set me apart from my colleagues. We were playing the same gigs, attending the same shows. These were my peers. But time and time again, I watched my male friends shake each others’ hands and then lean in for a hug from me. I resolved to put a stop to it where possible. Someone would lean in for a hug and I would sternly extend a hand to shake while trying my hardest to keep the expression on my face genuinely friendly.

I didn’t mean this as an aggressive manoeuvre. I wasn’t trying to eschew anyone’s affection. I just wanted to be treated the same as my peers. Overall, the reactions were positive. Aside from the odd expression of affable surprise, my handshakes were accepted. I made an effort to have a firm, businesslike handshake, the kind they recommend in TED Talks. I thought for a while that this the most feminist way of dealing with this inequality, by demanding to be treated the same as the men in the room. However, it didn’t erase the issue that there were quite so many men in the room, and that they saw me as someone who merited different treatment in the first place.

“The way that female musicians are treated does not exist in a vacuum… This is not a world in which many women are afforded the opportunity to be themselves.”

The term “boys’ club” is thrown around a lot, and not just in reference to the music industry — a lot of professional sectors can be described in this way. Systemic sexism is prevalent across the spectrum of career paths, but in an industry that praises outlandish behaviour, that rewards the passionate outburst and that has long-honoured traditions of sex, drugs and rock and roll, what is the avenue through which one can voice their discomfort? When addressing gender inequality in the music industry, it’s important to come at it from two intercrossing angles: access and acceptable behaviour. There is, of course, an argument to be made for the element of chance. Maybe there just aren’t as many women who want to be involved in the music industry. Maybe those who are involved just don’t release as much material as their male counterparts. Maybe what they do release isn’t really suitable for the festival circuit. A lot of coincidences, such as these, are bounced around the conversation about sexism. But I just don’t think they are coincidences. It’s important to address the structural issues that inhibit women from participating fully in the music industry. The way that female musicians are treated does not exist in a vacuum. Female musicians are expected to be all things to all people. Sexy but not too sexy. A role-model, but not self-righteous. Romantically available but not obsessed with love and relationships. This is not a world in which many women are afforded the opportunity to be themselves. You have to carve out a niche, and you have to do it without stepping on any toes.

When we create art, we often do it based on our lived experiences. A lot of music is derived from the more tumultuous times in our lives; loss, grief, heartbreak. The feminine lens on these topics is often disregarded as whiny or superficial, maybe because it’s taken as a given that women are sentimental. We’ve all heard the argument that women are too emotional to think rationally, yet they are often deemed too emotional for the self-indulgence of the songwriting process. Though it would be reasonable to assume that our predisposition to doting sentimentality would work to our advantage in the musical world, the opposite appears to be true. Female songwriters who lean into their sentimentality are often dismissed as romantically fixated, especially when the subject of the song is a breakup. The things that male songwriters are praised for are seen as mistakes or frustrating tropes on the part of the female songsmith and are often met with vitriol from their critics.

One of the most controversial instances of this trope is, of course, Taylor Swift. Love her or hate her, it is difficult not to acknowledge the spite she inspires. Her catalogue of breakup songs is illustrious and, debatably, infamous. Strangely, however, her array of A-list exes never encounter the same scrutiny. Take, for instance, John Mayer, who writes often and in detail about his breakups. He dated a 19-year-old Taylor Swift and wrote about it afterwards. But for some reason, he has not triggered countless opinion pieces on the matter as she has. The goalposts are simply in different places. What makes a woman a scheming, obsessive megalomaniac makes a man a romantic.

“It is indeed a boys’ club, but what is additionally troubling is the factors that allow women conditional access to this club.”

The behaviour we deem acceptable from male artists is highlighted when compared with behaviour that is criticised from female artists. The value with which women and their autonomy are considered in the music industry must certainly be taken into consideration when examining the accessibility of the music industry as a space for women. The “rock star” lifestyle is, unfortunately, particularly conducive to sexist behaviour and often presents barriers to those who attempt to modify this situation. This is an environment where the progression of your career is often irrevocably linked with your willingness to put up and shut up. A recent instance that epitomises this dilemma is the behaviour of Slowthai towards comedian Katherine Ryan at the NME awards, where he aggressively sexually propositioned her mid-performance. Though Ryan managed to defuse the situation with a lot of grace and humour, her wry resilience is the exception, not the rule. The ability to remain unbothered by the aggressive advances of your peers should not be a prerequisite to a woman’s success in this industry. The way Ryan dealt with the inappropriate behaviour directed towards her is certainly commendable, but she shouldn’t be viewed as any less professional if she had been visibly upset by Slowthai’s behaviour. But, unfortunately, she would more than likely have been viewed as such by commentators. Women who speak up about inappropriate behaviour or sexual inequality are often considered whiny or attention-seeking. The question then arises: how are women supposed to access the music industry when it seems so perfectly designed to work against them? How can they be expected to participate to the same extent as their male counterparts when what makes them more readily accepted is often their capacity to tolerate bad behaviour?

I was once asked in an interview who my musical role models were. I rattled off a list of my favourites, not thinking much of the question. The follow-up question was whether female artists should feel the responsibility to act as a role model for younger women. Though it is perhaps unfair to put this responsibility on female artists, they are certainly unable to function without the pressure of the expectation to be a role model. This is an industry that demands a lot from women. It is indeed a boys’ club, but what is additionally troubling are the factors that allow women conditional access to this club. The trouble is that a woman’s membership of this club is inevitably defined by her relationship to the men around her. When she succeeds, it is often in spite of the conditions of this industry, whereas a man can often attribute part of his success to these same conditions. We are not on equal footing, so how can we be expected to reach the same heights?