Australian music skips a beat on gender equality

Moving from the current “bro-fest” should be a top priority


Darcy Goss Media

BENEE performing at Laneway Festival. Of the top 100 songs played on Australian radio across 58 stations last year, just 21 were by female artists.

It’s a rowdy Friday night in Brisbane’s musical hot spot, Fortitude Valley. Fans are lined up outside the venues as they wait for the clock to strike eight so they can flood through the doors and watch their favourite acts perform live. Production is testing sound check and lighting, photographers are adjusting their settings, and the artists are prepping themselves backstage as they await their performance cue.

But for the singular female punk rock ensemble on an otherwise all male line-up, VOIID are stranded outside the back door of the venue as staff question why they are there. “Are you the girlfriend of one of the band members?” “Who are you all sleeping with to be coming backstage right now?”

In 2020 it’s hard to think of any circumstance where sexism this blatant is considered acceptable. Yet for VOIID and other female-identifying bands and creatives, these kinds of stories are the harsh reality of working in Australia’s music industry.

It’s an issue that exhausts VOIID’s drummer Mina Cannon and her band members as they recount their time in the music scene so far. “Sexism and gender inequality are absolutely still prevalent and we have had countless experiences of it,” she says. “Whenever we do get to play with other women, we often ‘bond’ over the experiences we’ve had. Almost every woman we have played with has a similar story to ours to tell.”

She says that the entire industry needs a complete overhaul. Living in 2020 it would be simple to assume that the age-old issue of sexism and gender inequality would be well into the past as society faces all of these new-age obstacles. But misogynistic ideals appear to be as alive as ever as the music industry’s bro-fest lingers on.

In an era where so many talented women are working their butts off just to get noticed, the music industry is falling short. (Darcy Goss Media)

According to Hack’s award-winning annual report into the representation of women in the Australian music industry, men are still dominating the scene at almost every level. The report revealed that while there was a small improvement towards gender parity in 2019, women were still being underrepresented in nearly every avenue of the industry – including on festival line-ups, the boards of top music bodies, radio stations and record labels.

Of the top 100 songs played on Australian radio across 58 stations last year, just 21 were by female artists. That’s an average of just two out of 10 songs sung by a female. Cannon says there is far too much she can think of that would be needed to stop sexism in the music industry.

“We need to tear it all down and start again,” she says. “Females and female-identifying persons in music need to start being treated equally. [We need] to hold those accountable who participate and encourage this divide, because the divide didn’t create itself, and now it’s being upheld by people who would rather shy away from the topic because it doesn’t affect them.”

Twenty years ago, this might have come as no surprise, but in an era where so many talented women are working their butts off just to get noticed, it appears that the music industry is falling short. A study assessing the gender equality in the Australian music industry revealed that males dominate the key decision-making roles which shape the entire industry. They decide not only what the core values and practices are, but what is promoted and distributed to the public.

Melbourne-based punk trio Camp Cope preach about the systematic control males have in the industry with their single The Opener – a searing condemnation of sexism in the music scene. Lead singer Georgia Maq snarls quotes that her male “superiors” have said to her throughout her career.

“It’s another straight cis man that knows more about this than me, it’s another man telling us we’re missing a frequency,” she sings. “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up a room. It’s another man telling us to book a smaller venue.” She says she speaks for a generation of women who are literate in, yet wholly intolerant of, the excuses for gender inequality and sexism they keep hearing.

Many festival organisers have added more female artists to their line-ups in the past two years (Darcy Goss Media)

Fortunately, there are organisations and start-ups fighting for gender equality in Australia’s music scene. This includes the Her Sound Her Story documentary examining what gender inequality means for women operating within the industry, the Girls To The Front triple j initiative featuring a full day of female-identifying artists music, and the Electric Lady platform that amplifies the strength of women in music.

Likewise, many festival organisers have added more female artists to their line-ups in the past two years. But Cannon says it can make female artists be seen as a gimmick or pawn piece in a diversity act.

“We’ll be put on a show and be the only female act,” she says. “Or we’ll have someone email us regarding a show and really press on the fact that they’re contacting us because they want to show that diversity in a line-up. The reality is that people don’t actually expect us to be any good because of that.”

She says when people do think they’re good it’s never left at that, it’s that they are “pretty good for a chick band”. Festivals and gigs created to showcase women’s musical talent further highlight the disparity in opportunity and recognition between the sexes.

The truth is that nothing is going to change if it’s only women that see it as a problem. It’s something University of Sydney Business School professor of gender, Rae Cooper, agrees with. She says the first thing the music industry needs to do is own up to having a problem.

“The gender-based inequality is so ingrained and so significant some radical action is needed,” she says. “Leaders can start by setting set targets to build gender equality in employment, in signing and development and in share of voice. They need to get serious about eradicating sexual harassment and violence from the industry and they need to start to take their female audiences and consumers seriously.” She says moving from the current “bro-fest” should be a top priority.