It’s a story we’ve heard — and told — numerous times; the story of an industry largely influenced by its male occupants.
In this instance, it’s the production end of the music industry, and it’s surprisingly lacking in female voices and leadership. Case in point: the Producer of the Year title at the Grammy Awards turned 40 last year — and in that time, the top prize has never been given to a woman. In fact, only six women have even been nominated (out of over 200 nominees in all).
Those numbers are indicative of a larger problem in music production — a report from the Nashville Scene states that only five percent of all music producers are women. And it’s not for a lack of role models, either; from Sylvia Robinson and Linda Perry to Kara DioGuardi and Sonia Pottinger, women have been behind some of the most well-known, frequently played tracks and albums to come out over the past several decades.
So, what’s the problem? Why are there so few women involved in music production, and why are even fewer receiving recognition for their work?
Online music magazine The Fader reached out to several female music producers to get their take on the issue; many noted their firsthand experiences with the male-dominated nature of the industry in those interviews. “I think a lot of girls get intimidated by such a male-driven profession. The set up for ages has been female performers and male producers, and I think people simply get used to this arrangement,” music producer Asma Maroof told the magazine.
It’s a trend music producer Ebonie Smith is hoping to change — not only through her music, but through activism as well. Smith is a producer (of music and online content) for Atlantic Records with a master’s degree in music technology from New York University. And she’s been chasing her dream for years, leaving her Memphis home as a teen in order to pursue music in New York City while using babysitting money to finance her own recording studio.
When she spoke with us, Smith recalled the simultaneous frustration and inspiration she felt when entering a male-dominated music world. She’s only recently established herself as a full-time music producer — she’s been on the scene professionally since 2013 — but it’s long enough to take note of the disparity between genders behind the sound board.
“I always yearned to collaborate with other women. Initially, it was difficult to find other women who produced. I was kind of isolated for a time,” she says, adding that the missing female influence is detrimental to not only musicians, but to the music itself. “Music is one of the most important exports from the United States. Our music is one of the ways we communicate who we are to the world. Having more women in the mix helps ensure that the conversation is balanced and a true reflection of the diversity in American culture.”
Listen to some of Smith’s music here, and continue reading below.
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That’s why Smith started Gender Amplified, a movement that aims to “celebrate women in music production, raise their visibility and develop a pipeline for girls and young women to get involved behind the scenes as music producers.”
Founded in 2007, Gender Amplified began as an academic conference initiated by Smith as her senior thesis project at Barnard College. Since then, it has grown into a festival that offers attendees workshops, discussions and live performances. Through this effort, she hopes to not only impact women in the music world today, but also, tomorrow’s female producers.
In fact, “reaching out to younger generations is one of the primary tenets of Gender Amplified,” she says, adding that “[t]he idea is simple: each one teach one. Established women in the field have a responsibility to help younger women producers and artists.” When Maroof spoke to The Fader, she agreed — when asked how to affect change, she replied, “[s]imply encouragement. From friends, family, supporters, etc. That is what helped me.”
Smith also noted the role technology is playing in changing how girls and women approach making music. “I notice that younger girls enjoy creating on mobile devices like iPads and iPhones,” she says. “Their approaches are also influenced by the popular music of today, like electronic dance music.”
But she ultimately focused on the idea that “[e]ducation is central to having more women in the field.”
Proper training programs, quality studio internships and mentor relationships are necessary for women to acquire the skills to be effective producers. “It’s not enough to have women in the studio,” Smith says. “They need to know what they’re doing when they get there.”