Ah yes. The Brit Awards. That point in the UK music calendar when Britain’s brightest (and highest selling) pop artists are rewarded with a statuette of Britannia, the goddess symbol of the nation. Almost as famous as the musicians who receive the awards are the dramas that seem to happen every year. Who can forget Jarvis Cocker getting up on stage and baring his arse during Michael Jackson’s performance of ‘Earth Song’? Or Adele being cut off mid-speech by James Corden so that the Blur medley finale could go ahead on schedule? This year’s ceremony followed in the grand tradition of hiccups and fuck ups, but while everyone else is talking about Madonna toppling over or Kanye’s explicit lyrics being blanked out despite airing after the watershed, I want to talk about something much more scandalous. The distinct under-representation of women amongst the award winners and nominees.
Of the ten awards that it would be theoretically possible for a female artist to win, there were only two in which they were successful with Taylor Swift and Paloma Faith each picking up a gong. That’s not really saying much though considering that those awards were for Best International Female and Best British Female. The category of Best British Album did not have a single female nominee. In total there were sixteen nominations for fourteen female artists or groups containing a female member but only six of these were for non-female specific categories. When you look at the number of nominations solely for women of colour the results are even bleaker: only FKA Twigs, Rita Ora and Beyonce feature but none of them as winners.
The nomination process for The Brits begins with sales calculations and fact checking done by the Official Charts Company. The OCC then hands over a list of potential nominees to The Brit Awards Voting Academy, which consists of “over 1,000 music enthusiasts representing every sector of the music industry”, although it is not clear as to what proportion of these decision makers is female and/or of colour. For a handful of awards (‘Best British Breakthrough Act’ and ‘Best British Video’) the winner is decided by a public vote from a list of Academy chosen nominees. It would appear then that the decision making is done by a form of democratic process, albeit one that may have questionable diversity – perhaps a factor in the propagation of white males as the dominant group amongst the nominees.
2009-2011 were bumper years for women at The Brits and heralded great success for a flood of female talent including Adele, Florence and the Machine, Ellie Goulding and others, so the male whitewashing of recent years feels rather abrupt. I refuse to believe that in the course of a few years the quality of music created by the hard-working and determined women who work in the industry has diminished, let alone to the point at which they do not deserve recognition for it. Now, I don’t want to downplay the success and talent of Ed Sheeran and the like who are of course very deserving recipients, however there are female artists who are equally deserving who did not receive. Ellie Goulding’s singles output has been prolific since the release of her second album Halcyon in 2013 (interestingly also the 12th bestselling album of 2014), whilst FKA Twigs’ self-produced, self-written LP1 was one of the most critically acclaimed records from last year.
Admittedly, nominating artists for awards is not a straightforward business, for instance Royal Blood and Alt J were up against the top three bestselling albums in the ‘Best Album’ category despite being out sold by both Paloma Faith and Ella Henderson. Alt-J’s album didn’t even make it into the Top 40 album sales in 2014, however, both band’s offerings garnered significantly more critical acclaim. Frustratingly, it seems that the more ‘credible’ female artists like Kate Tempest aren’t selling, whilst the Ella Henderson’s of the industry sell but gain little critical attention. Clearly commercial success shouldn’t be the be all and end all to gain a Brit nomination (after all, it wasn’t for Alt-J) but it appears that when it comes to women and other ‘minority’ groups the commercial backing is vital.
This startling graphic, provided by Crack in the Road, of the Reading and Leeds line-up only shows the bands containing at least one female member. Out of nearly 100 acts there are only 9 left on the poster. You don’t have to be a radical feminist to work out that there is something wrong with that. Reading might theoretically be a rock festival but that doesn’t give it licence to be a boys only club. A lack of support for the talent of this generation of female singers, songwriters, producers and instrumentalists will have nothing but negative repercussions on the next. Where will the next Karen O’s, Rita Ora’s and Jessie J’s turn to for inspiration, or even just a spot on a festival bill?
Their absence from the festival circuit and the lists of award winners is not a freak occurrence isolated to 2015, but a signifier of the insidious marginalisation of women in the music industry that has been going as long as the industry itself. There are many key female figures from contemporary music history: Janis Joplin, Kate Bush, Siouxsie Sioux, Annie Lennox, Sinead O’ Connor and Amy Winehouse to name but a few. However, the sad thing is that what first distinguished these strong, talented and powerful women was the almost novelty value of their ability to succeed in a male dominated world. They appear as singular figures because in general terms they were, operating in the foreground of a majority male industry.
Women have a right to the opportunity to represent themselves in all corners of the music industry, not just in the areas designated to them. The image of their absence from the Reading lineup is exemplary of the lack of ‘space’ afforded to the modern day female musician. Theoretically, music is an art form that cannot discriminate; sound waves surely cannot be judged on characteristics of race, sex or gender perhaps in the way that a piece of visual art can. However, the distribution of opportunities conducive to the creation of art is often fielded based on issues of race, class and gender. As ‘Best British Female’ Paloma Faith points out, “festival bosses have a right to show diversity” and this needn’t be arbitrary; the calibre of both mainstream and indie artists in this country means that appropriately diverse booking can be made based purely on merit without necessitating the use of a quota style system. We can view The Brits through a similar lens in that value judgements need not come second to gender equality for the latter to be achieved.