Swedish women in music speak out: why the male dominated industry needs a drastic make-over


Source: Sony Music

With #MeToo going viral and dominating the news for weeks now, the stories of sexual abuse are not limited to the movie and TV industry of Hollywood anymore. It is no secret that in a lot of ways, the music industry still is a male dominated place as well. The three major labels (Universal, Warner and Sony BMG) are all lead by male CEOs and a 2016 study in the UK pointed out that just 30% of the senior executive roles within the music industry are occupied by women. What these inequalities mean in terms of power and influence on a day to day level, became painfully clear in Sweden. No less than 1993 ladies working in the music industry, including artists like Robyn, Zara Larsson, Tove Lo, First Aid Kit, Icona Pop and Seinabo Sey (full list here), signed a statement saying they have experienced sexual assault, harrasment, intimidation or other forms of sexism.

You read that right, almost 2000 women working in music acknowledged they had negative experiences with men in the work place. They described their position in the industry as follows:

“We work 24/7, often with insecure contracts and temporary employment. Being accommodating and not making a fuss is important in order not to be replaced. This makes women in the music industries targets of power demonstrations, often with a sexual nature. In our existence, laws on consent are far away, we are objectified and sexual assault and harassment are more rule than exception. If we report these incidents, the cases are usually dropped before being investigated, as it’s our word against theirs. If we talk back we lose our jobs or are subjected to threats.” To read the full statement, including personal experiences of the women about rape, sexual objectification and other horrendous examples, head over to Dagens Nyheter.

With this whole #MeToo storm raging over Sweden and the rest of the ‘Western’ world, one would think that things truly are about to change. The CEOs of the Swedish departments of the three major labels already released statements promising a better situation for women and ‘a correction of the imbalances’ in the industry.  But as the ladies already pointed out in their article:

“The people who reproduce the culture of silence, and make sure it is kept in place, are the same men who sit in TV-programmes, in t-shirts with feminist aphorisms written on them, or who set quotas for how many female artists should be booked to play at big festivals. The discrepancy between words and actions is enormous, and the values and policies, which are decided in the industry concerning sexism and equality, are all nice words on blank papers.”

It is safe to say that the time where a promise of a better situation was enough lies far behind us. With 1993 women putting their name under a statement like this, you know something is structurally wrong in this industry. Women in all industries deserve a sense of safety and comfort at work, instead of having to be careful or on edge, because part of their male colleagues are not able to handle their position of power. A logical first step would be to actually create a balance of power. Swedish musician and philosopher Alexander Bard unintentionally describes the exact problem in the following tweet.

Although his point seems to be that the likes of Zara Larsson should be thankful for what men do ‘for her’ and she should keep her pretty mouth shut (and I am not even going to discuss the fact a man in his 50s calls a 19-year-old girl a ‘bitch’ for speaking her mind), it actually underlines something else. It shows how power relations in the music industry force her to work with men in various different aspects of her career. Apart from the fact that Larsson does co-write her own music, sometimes in collaboration with other female songwriters, working with men in some departments seems inevitable. Now of course having to work with men is not necessarily an issue to begin with, but it becomes one when these men hold power over her career and then go as far as to misuse it. We all remember the Kesha case, that surely is not only about true or false allegations, but also painfully shows us how one man can stop a female artist from choosing her own artistic path and actually releasing her own music.

To create a balance of power, you first of all need more women in the male dominated spots within the industry. Of course the counter argument would be that there are no women available in certain types of jobs. There is a shocking lack of female pop producers out there for example. More and more female pop stars seem to be involved in the production of their own record, but hardly produce for others. Sure, people might argue that women can’t handle such a technical job, but I seriously doubt their vaginas will get in the way when they are in charge of the buttons in a recording studio.

The situation becomes a vicious circle when women who try to do this job are being told they can’t and are not taken seriously in a male dominated world. Therefore women need to be supported and guided and most of all told, from a young age on preferably, that they actually can do any job they want to! Gender means no limit to the type of work anyone could do within the music industry, and probably any other industry for that matter. There however is a limit to what women can achieve in an unsupportive industry that acts like it owns them.

These new developments in the #MeToo discussion make clear that just like Hollywood, the music industry needs a drastic make-over when it comes to the (lack of) balance of power. Awareness of this situation was step 1 and I believe the statement 1993 women in the Swedish music industry signed, should be more than enough to tick that one off. The next step needs to be change. Actual change this time. Support that changes the mindset in young girls and women showing them they can become a music producer if they want to. A change of mindset in the men who dominate the industry making them realize they can no longer hold women down, like they own them. To end with the words of the Swedish ladies themselves: “We will no longer be silent!”

Leave a Reply