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How Music Streaming Algorithms Hinder Female Artists
It's always a special moment when a festival lineup you've been anticipating is finally announced, yet so often it's tinged when your see it and have to ask: Wait, where are all the women? We've known that live music events don't book enough women for some time now, so why hasn't the gender gap shifted more?
As Tshepo Mokoena recently highlighted in her Noisey op-ed, music streaming platforms are partly at fault as not only do their popular playlists favor male artists, research shows their algorithms do as well, consequently promoting a continued gender imbalance. As men continue to be more heavily promoted to listeners and receive more streams, many festivals, especially those run by the streaming companies, will continue to keep booking more men. Algorithms are not going to help the music industry have better gender equality until the humans lead the way.
As streaming continues to shift music consumption, Spotify continues to play a major role in how music listeners, especially younger ones (55% users are between ages 18-34), discover new music and artists. Mokoena highlights the sparsity of women on some of Spotify's most popular playlists, including RapCaviar, often seen as a list of who's hot in hip-hop in the U.S., where only 10.8 percent of artists featured from May 2016 to December 2017 were female. While female rappers may historically be a minority, Lil' Kim and Missy Elliott have paved the way for next generation of rappers like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B to set new records and break the mold for what a rapper looks and sounds like. There are, of course, plenty of other talented female rappers currently making waves, like Northern California's Saweetie and London's Stefflon Don, yet looking at playlists like RapCaviar, you wouldn't know that. At the time this was written Cardi B and Minaj are the only females on the playlist.
As Mokoena points out, Spotify's algorithms may partially be to blame for the continued unequal representation of female artists in music, yet so are people. She points to Liz Pelly's experiment for Baffler, where she set up a test Spotify account and listened only to popular playlists, including RapCaviar and others (like Today's Top Hits and New Music Friday, which also featured more male artists) to see what music the service would suggest for her, which were more male-heavy playlists. As Spotify explained, they choose music experts and cultural ambassadors to curate many of their playlists. As people continue to making gender-skewed playlists, algorithms will follow their lead. In Mokoena's words; "That's not just a coincidence – algorithms reflect the culture in which they're developed."
Inevitably, Spotify charts and data from other steaming services and social networks play into which artists get booked at festivals, which are slowly starting to address gender inequality. Earlier this year 100 music festivals and conferences globally pledged to fight the gender gap by creating a 50/50 gender balance on their lineups by 2022 with the UK-based Keychange initiative. This is a step in the right direction, especially given Pitchfork's 2017 findings that showed that of 23 music festival lineups in 2017, including their own Pitchfork Music Festival, only 14 percent of acts booked were female.
At this year's Coachella Beyoncé made history as the first ever black female to headline the popular festival since its inception 19 years ago, a baffling fact. Queen Bey was actually slated to headline in 2017, yet dropped out due to her pregnancy and was replaced by Lady Gaga, who was the first solo female headliner at the event in 10 years, since Bjork in 2007. According to Paper, the festival increased its female artist presence from 25 percent of performers in 2017 to 33 in 2018, the year many dubbed as "Beychella."
Mokoena looks at the lineups for two upcoming music festivals she deems important to UK music and compares them: Spotify's Who We Be Live in London, a grime and rap focused event inspired by the streaming service's playlist of the same name that serves as somewhat of a UK version of RapCaviar and not surprisingly has a male-heavy lineup, and Annie Mac's AMP Lost & Found in Malta, an electronic music focused event whose lineup features a more impressive offering of female artists.
Mac is an important figure in dance music being an influential DJ who has hosted popular BBC Radio 1 shows since 2004 that have helped put many younger DJs and producers on the map. She is personally making sure that her festival reflects the true diversity of the electronic genre. Mac clearly understands her role as an influential women in dance music and took it seriously when booking talent for the festival.
"There's so much brilliant female talent in electronic music at the moment that it's a no-brainer to be able to make as much of an equal gender split as possible with a dance music festival, she told Noisey. "I'm so excited to see all these brilliant new girls that we've booked play, like CC:DISCO!, DEBONAIR, Emerald and then obviously the more established DJs like Shanti Celeste and SAOIRSE up to Honey Dijon and Peggy Gou. It's a joy to be able to put it all that talent in one place."
Electronic music is another heavily male-dominated genre, so it is important to have women like her who are aware of the challenges of being a female in the industry and able to use their influence to shine a light on other talented women in their field and expose more music fans to a more diverse artist offering. Lost and Found's 2019 lineup, which includes Mac and another female DJ, The Black Madonna, as a headliner is not a 50/50 gender split, but is one of the more impressive, diverse offerings for any electronic music festivals of late and is a big step in the right direction
All in all, if how we consume music is still being shaped by underlying cultural biases and what other people are listening to via streaming algorithms, then we as human beings have to create an environment that advocates for women in music and celebrates and promotes them as artists, just as we have always done for men.