How Music Conferences Perpetuate The Industry’s Gender Parity Crisis

[Due to the granularity of the graphs you are about to see, this piece is best enjoyed on a desktop!]

As a music journalist, and as a genuinely curious human being, I love attending conferences.

If that sentence makes you cringe, I completely understand. At their worst, music conferences are time-sucking, self-promotional, useless showcases of bullshit that trade in deflection and avoid any honest conversation about the industry. Unfortunately, most conferences have at least one panel that ends up in this bucket, due to factors both controllable (e.g. booking a panel entirely of male CEOs that lasts only 30 minutes) and uncontrollable (e.g. a panelist shows up stoned or on three hours of sleep after taking a redeye flight from across the ocean).

At their best, however, music conferences are vibrant scenes of intellectual inquiry and cross-pollination that scrape this aforementioned bullshit from our eyes. It’s basically the only chance that otherwise siloed stakeholders get to convene in one room, illuminate mutual pain points and growth opportunities, and subsequently make deals that enact meaningful change. I would certainly not be where I am now professionally were it not for attending my first conference back in 2015, and I’ve also made some of my closest friends at these events.

For better or for worse, conferences serve as social tokens in business and commercial culture, and particularly in music. As a space we all share, this culture must be taken seriously—and challenged.

One axis that I believe is not being taken seriously, hence my writing this article, is gender representation. As a 21-year-old woman passionate about meeting, interviewing and learning from leaders in my field, I am consistently the outlier in a sea of older males. I usually don’t bring it up—I’m frankly used to hanging out with an older, mostly-male crowd at this point, and many of these males have become invaluable, supportive mentors that are the farthest thing away from sexist—but am well aware that gender equality in the music business, and particularly at music conferences, is still a remote fantasy.

Moreover, I’ve noticed a recent deluge of anecdotal coverage about sexism and discrimination in the music business, without any quantifiable benchmarks illustrating how significant the magnitude of the problem actually is. Of course, data does not provide the ultimate infallible answer, but people still need numbers to be convinced. Gender equality advocates in Silicon Valley constantly demand more statistics about their industry, and they are slowly but surely achieving the right results. Why shouldn’t the music industry, which supposedly celebrates multifaceted creativity and diversity, follow suit?

Interestingly, the few reliable measures I’ve seen on gender in the music industry have all come from across the pond. PRS for Music, one of the largest collection societies in the UK, revealed in its latest Women Make Music report that only 16% of its membership is female. Trade group UK Music recently launched its first-ever Diversity Taskforce, which found that females in the UK music industry account for around 60% of entry-level employees, but only for 30% of senior executives. Back in 2012, the UK’s Association of Independent Music (AIM) found that only 15% of its label members were majority-owned by women.

To date, no such measures have been taken in the US, or on a global scale. The likes of Nielsen, the Music Business Association and the RIAA regularly publish gender-related studies about music consumers and fans, but never about music professionals or their own membership.

I decided to fill in that gap by quantifying the gender inequality problem at music conferences, the hubs where some of the industry’s most powerful leaders and decision-makers converge to take the pulse on what’s next. Data about who speaks at these conferences is widely and publicly available, but has never really been dissected or critically examined—perhaps because we are afraid to discuss the results.

Data Summary

I compiled and analyzed a dataset of 1,644 total speakers from the following music industry conferences, listed in chronological order:

  1. NY:LON Connect (January 24–25, 2017 in London, UK)
  2. Pollstar Live! (January 31–February 2, 2017 in Los Angeles, CA)
  3. FastForward (February 23–24, 2017 in Amsterdam, NL)
  4. SXSW Music (March 13–17, 2017 in Austin, TX)
  5. Canadian Music Week (April 19–21, 2017 in Toronto, ON)
  6. Music Biz (May 15–18, 2017 in Nashville, TN)
  7. IMS Ibiza (May 24–26, 2017 in Ibiza, Spain)
  8. A2IM Indie Week (June 5–8, 2017 in New York, NY)
  9. Midem (June 6–9, 2017 in Cannes, France)
  10. CD Baby DIY Musician Conference (August 25–27, 2017 in Nashville, TN)
  11. Bigsound (September 5–8, 2017 in Brisbane, AU)
  12. Future Music Forum (September 13–15, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain)
  13. NYME Digital Music Forum (September 26, 2017 in New York, NY)

Full disclaimer: I was a panelist at SXSW and FastForward this year, and attended the NYME Digital Music Forum and A2IM Indie Week as a member of the press. My active participation in these conferences doesn’t necessarily bias my analysis, since I’m taking objective measurements of gender parity. What it does do is enhance my understanding of these conferences’ goals and priorities, which certainly influences whom they invite to speak.

I parsed each speaker’s job description to see whether gender inequality was consistent across different role hierarchies (e.g. C-Suite, Founders, VPs, Directors), role verticals (e.g. Digital, Licensing, A&R) and company verticals (e.g. Major/Indie Label, Booking Agency, Consulting Firm). For the sake of protecting speakers’ and friends’ identities, I anonymized the data for this writeup, but, again, non-anonymized information is widely and publicly available for your perusal.

In addition, since my analysis is focused on the business side of music, I decided not to include full-time musicians, producers or songwriters in my dataset. These artists account only for around 6% of conference speakers anyway, and their gender imbalance is consistent with the wider average (yeah, I know, those two points alone warrant an entirely separate blog post), so the overall results are not significantly affected.

View from the top

From a bird’s-eye gender parity perspective, music conferences exacerbate real-world imbalances. 73% of speakers at these conferences are male. The percentage inches even higher among C-Suite executive speakers (CEOs, COOs, CMOs, etc.), 81% of whom are male.

Compare this to the findings from the UK Music Diversity Taskforce, which we can assume is directionally similar to the US: the UK music industry overall is 54% male, while, as previously cited, the distribution skews to 70% male among senior executive ranks. This means that music conferences on average are actually doing a worse job with gender equality than the real world!

By Conference: More equitable = less distinct

To better understand each conference’s positioning, I mapped them onto a bubble chart along axes of % male speakers and % speaker overlap (the proportion of speakers that a conference shares with other conferences in the dataset), as shown below. The bubble sizes refer to the relative conference size, as measured by the number of speakers (Future Music Forum, the unlabeled yellow dot, is the smallest, while Canadian Music Week is the largest).

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