Why are the BRITs so male?

by Rhian Jones

The fact that Mabel is the only British female nominated in the four main non-gendered categories for this year’s BRIT Awards has, understandably, caused quite a stir. It’s not our fault, say The BRITs, who choose a long-list of nominees based on Top 40 sales criteria before the voting academy whittle down a shortlist. The voting academy is refreshed each year and made up of figures from media, labels, producers and retail. For 2020, the BRITs says that the male/female split of those figures is 51%/49% and BAME representation is 24.5% (that hasn’t changed much over the last few years). So choices don’t appear to be down to a lack of diversity in those who are choosing them.

The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis suggests that the lack of female talent recognised this year is a record label problem: “one that involves the British music industry’s ability or otherwise to sign and develop female artists, to turn them into lasting success stories,” he said. NME editor Charlotte Gunn blames a “systemic problem” in the wider music industry that the BRITs has a responsibility to address.

Capitol co-President Nick Raphael, however, points to years gone by when women, like Florence and the Machine, Emeli Sandé, Adele and Duffy, ruled the BRITs and the charts. Today’s climate, where the ‘everyman male pop stars‘ like Ed Sheeran, George Ezra and Lewis Capaldi are the biggest-selling acts, and the BRIT nominees are overwhelmingly male as a result, is simply sign of a cyclical trend, he tells me. “It’s a cycle that happens. When Adele first came out, Duffy, Amy and Florence, there was a thing of girls smashing it out the park. At that point, there was definitely a feeling that more girls were being signed than boys. We are now in a new thing where we’ve got the Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith, George Ezra and Lewis Capaldi effect.” Is there an unconscious bias as a result of that? “Probably, yes,” Raphael answers. “Males are doing well, so perhaps at media and radio it’s easier to programme [that kind of music]. Maybe that’s the case. But if someone as unbelievable as Adele, Amy or Duffy sent in an amazing demo, had a great manager and was a really great artist, everyone would be fighting to [sign them].”

It’s a convincing argument, but does it hold up to scrutiny? Let’s have a look at the stats*. Yes, there have been years gone by when female artists have indeed won and been nominated for many BRIT Awards. In fact, in 2010 and 2019, there were almost as many female nominees as males in the Best Album, Best Group, Best Single and Best New Artist categories (44% and 48%, respectively). Unfortunately, that balance isn’t representative of a wider trend. From 2011 to 2020, female acts represented 28% of nominees in those four categories and men took a 72% share. From 2001 to 2010, that split was a weirdly similar 29%/71%. So over the last twenty years, there has been not one year where women outnumbered men in those main categories. Men have outnumbered women every single year, and sometimes hugely so.

While we don’t know what the gender disparity is in the long-list of nominees, which isn’t published, Mark Savage at the BBC offered a snapshot of what that might have looked over the last three years. In the Best Male category for 2020, the voting academy had three times as many names to choose from as they did in the Best Female category. In 2019 there were nearly four times as many and in 2018 there was exactly one female for every four males. Which does suggest that there is, indeed, a lot more men having Top 40 chart success than women. That’s confirmed by the fact that BBC research found that three times as many male as female pop stars appeared on 2018’s biggest hit singles. The gender gap has grown over the past decade, with thirteen of the most popular 100 songs of 2018 credited only to female acts, down from 35 in 2008.

Is that because there’s a lack of investment (and/or expertise) at label level for female talent, or there’s a gender disparity in those pursuing a career in music? Is it because labels are investing (and properly developing), but women just aren’t breaking through at a similar level to men because of some sort of unconscious (or conscious) bias at gatekeeper and/or audience level? Well, all of the above could be true. While UMG UK tell me that of all their new acts signed last year, 47% were female, analysis of the public-facing rosters of UK record labels by former BASCA CEO Vick Bain found that just under 20% of current signings (those being actively promoted) are female. So there’s one issue. We also know there’s a lack of female leadership at senior level in the music industry, which has the potential to impact the kind of acts being signed and developed. The idea being, we all work best with what we’re most familiar with.

In an interview for MBUK, Hannah Neaves, who has worked at Universal and Warner and now heads up artist development at Tap, which manages Lana Del Rey, Dua Lipa and Ellie Goulding, offered some thoughts about the specific challenges that come with breaking female talent. She pointed to fierce competition due to a “busy market for female pop” (true when competing on a global level with US superstars), faceless streaming platforms, a sexist attitude from music fans/gatekeepers, and the expense required to launch female acts. “It’s a really busy market for female pop, it always has been, and I think there is definitely a disconnect between playlisting and DSPs and the actual artist themselves and the song. It’s a pretty faceless platform and you need to stand out if you are on a playlist, but you don’t want to stand out to such an extent that someone skips your track because you don’t fit in, so it’s hitting that fine line of a great song with a unique voice but still sounding like everything else that’s around it.” Neaves continues: “People don’t believe in female artists as quickly and it’s much easier to prove a male artist’s credibility, I think that’s just how pop fans are, and you need a few tracks before you really get up and running, like you do with any artist. Also, pop girls are a bit more expensive because you need hair and make up and styling, there’s a lot of investment, and a pop show is expensive to put on. You also need features and to be dropped on other people’s tracks because that’s the way that people break these days.”

Another source, who has worked in the music industry for over 10 years on multiple high profile artist campaigns and within a major label system, further confirms Neaves’ point about investment, and suggests there’s also a lack of patience for input from female artists when it comes to their own creative development. “Over the years, the amount of times a place I’ve worked have said women are too expensive to sign as they dry the ink on another white, male, singer/songwriter, is nuts. Women are “too expensive” and the second a woman disagrees on creative, they sideline them as a difficult woman. Labels scared of spending will seldom sign a woman but especially not a band.” The band point can be clearly seen — in the last 20 years of the BRITs, female groups have represented just 13% of nominees in the Best Group category.

Raphael categorically denies that there’s any sort of reluctance to sign and invest in developing female talent at record labels. “At every record label I’ve ever worked in, the key premise on which a record label signs an artist is potential to sell and talent are they any good, do they have something that’s unique and will appeal to the general public. Never once have I ever sat in a meeting across Sony, Universal, BMG, and London Records, where the sex, ethnicity or the sexuality of an artist has ever been in the discussion.” As he said earlier, it is hard to imagine someone like Adele, Amy or Florence being turned away from any label. But it’s not too difficult to imagine a woman, who doesn’t yet have a strong sense of who they are, being signed and developed by a team in which decision makers are mainly men, and being pushed into a direction that might not be true to who they are. It’s also not hard to see that the result of that, more often than not, would be failure.

It must be said that this isn’t a music industry problem — equal opportunity and representation across gender as well as ethnicity, class and many more differences that make up the human race, is, of course, a world problem. However, on a moral level, music can be a powerful agent for change, and on a business level, it just makes sense to do what it takes to represent the tastes of a diverse audience. As we’ve seen with grime in recent years, there’s a strong appetite for music that might not usually be defined as ‘mainstream taste’, and, as we’ve seen with the amount of female artists from the UK who have been phenomenally successful, there’s a big market out there for that too. Suggesting that there isn’t, which is the argument used for a lack of female voices on country radio, is a bit like saying the more male actors a film has, the better it’s likely to do at the box office. Which is ludicrous, right? On what grounds has that theory been found?

As Charlotte Gunn told the BBC, gender equality in the music industry “is a systemic problem that is going to take a long time to change. And really, from the top down, the Brits should have had people going, ‘Is this fair? Is this representative? Maybe we should check ourselves here.’” When grime wasn’t fairly represented at the BRITs, Chairman Ged Doherty wrote an open letter and pledged to change, saying that it might be time to take into account other indicators of success, like social media followings, for example. That hasn’t yet happened, although YouTube plays are now included in Official Charts Company data. In today’s age, when record sales are lower than ever and a campaign tends to centre around live dates more than anything, should a Top 40 chart placement be the main barometer of success? Might a revised criteria result in a more diverse list of nominees?

Also, is it worth taking a closer look at how female talent is developed once it’s signed to flag anything that might stop it from reaching its full potential? Isn’t it a bit strange that when one type of artist is successful, like the army of ‘ordinary boys‘, a whole load of others pop up? Is that reflective of an audience who likes much of the same, or an industry that’s trying to strike while the iron’s hot in the least imaginative way possible? Do some of the gatekeepers in media have an unconscious bias that requires constantly challenging and examining? And how much of an impact does the appearance of a female pop artist really have on the consumption of her music?

There’s clearly no quick fix, and no-one knows all the answers, but if we want lasting change, we must keep asking the questions.

  • According to my own analysis of BRIT Award nominees for Best Group, Best Album, Best Single and Best New Act. Only female fronted acts/bands were counted, not featured singers. Where a band had both male and female members, one point was given to each gender. From 2001 to 2010, the BRITs included some international acts in the aforementioned categories, which were counted in the analysis. Extra categories introduced during that period of time were also included in the analysis. Those were British Pop, Rock, Urban and Live Act.