Women Artists Lose Out When Algorithms Help Book Events
Two lineups this week, for Spotify's Who We Be in London and Annie Mac's Lost & Found festival, highlight how gender imbalance feeds into streaming.
Annie Mac DJing at Lost & Found 2018 (Photo by Luke Dyson via PR)
A funny thing happens when a mixed-gender group chats in a room: people, of all genders, tend to think that the women are talking more. And they tend to think that even while the opposite is true. A common citation about this phenomenon comes from a 1990 study, when researchers Anne Cutler and Donia Scott recorded a load of groups talking, then had the participants judge how much of the time women and men spoke. “It is a widely-held belief that women talk more than men; but experimental evidence has suggested that this belief is mistaken,” the researchers summarized. “It is suggested that the misestimates are due to a complex of factors that may involve sociological effects, such as attitudes to social roles and perception of power relations.” In translation: women have had to fight for a voice in the public sphere so much that their bare minimum participation is seen as Too Much.
I bring this up, because it’s just about that time for the annual rollout of the coming summer’s festival lineups and their inevitable gender imbalances. Welcome! You can almost draw a parallel between that academic idea – how one woman speaking a little, giving a bit of input, is perceived as her being on a par vocally with the men in the room – and the way women can still feel like a box-ticking afterthought at festivals. A 2017 BBC study found that all-male acts accounted for 80 percent of UK festival headliners. The same study also noted that a quarter of those top slots basically were taken by the same 20 acts – your Muses, Kasabians, Foo Fighters, Killers and so on.
But what about outside the traditional rock festival setup? This week, two events – Spotify’s Who We Be Live in London late this month, and Annie Mac’s AMP Lost & Found festival in Malta in May 2019 – shared news of some of their confirmed artists. Both present some pretty incredible talent, from UK rap, R&B and electronic music. Who We Be, after all, is the name of Spotify’s grime and rap-focused playlist. But, look closer and you also start to notice another trend emerge around gender balance, specifically when streaming plays as central a role in booking a live show, as it does for Who We Be. So while festivals are expanding beyond the ‘yes, let’s go see Kaiser Chiefs for the 18th time!!’ format, what space does that leave for women, in an industry that’s still traditionally dominated by men?
First, we’ve got to look at streams. That sounds dry, but stick with me: because as streaming services have become tastemakers, elbowing their way into the pipeline for event booking, they can affect whether a live act seems viable – and whether they’d be able to sell enough tickets. In the US, Spotify’s RapCaviar, with its more than 10.5 million followers, is often cited as a star-maker. Only, hehehe, it turns out that women feature on it very rarely. When writer David Turner looked into the numbers, for Jezebel’s The Muse earlier this year, he found that women rappers accounted for about 4 percent of artists on the playlist between May 2016 and December 2017. Women overall made up 10.8 percent of RapCaviar artists over that time period.
Who We Be, like a UK counterpart, collates the best in grime and rap. Unsurprisingly, that means it also skews heavily male. On a surface level, that’s fine. Both rap and grime are historically very male-centric genres. We should be able to celebrate black music in Britain, and how it’s having a mainstream moment, after years of being marginalised, mocked and denigrated through an association with inherent criminality. There shouldn’t be some sort of inbuilt barrier to bigging up black men in music, and their success.
But beneath that level, you hit the real issues. Because you have to ask why these genres have tended to favour cis male artists over artists of other genders. Why women historically weren’t championed to the same degree, and why that’s led to things like the term “female rapper” but not “male rapper” or the idea that only a couple of women can represent their entire gender at any given time. And when you factor in streaming, you walk smack into the algorithm. As Liz Pelly learned, when she set up a dummy Spotify account and let the service direct her listening, its algorithm tends to favour men. That’s not just a coincidence – algorithms reflect the culture in which they’re developed.
On NPR’s All Things Considered radio show, mathematician and data scientist Cathy O’Neil made this point using a hypothetical example of an engineering company, looking to hire new people, and build an automated tool for that using past data. “And the algorithm might do the right thing by excluding women if it's only told just to do what we have done historically. The problem is that when people trust things blindly and when they just apply them blindly, they don't think about cause and effect. They don't say, ‘oh, I wonder why this algorithm is excluding women?’ which would go back to the question of: ‘I wonder why women haven't been successful at our firm before?’ So in some sense, it's really not the algorithm's fault at all. It's, in a large way, the way we apply algorithms and the way we trust them that is the problem.” The end result, for Spotify, are year-end top-streamed artists lists dominated by men and a platform where male artists account for most streams overall.
And so it’s also been heartening to see Annie Mac announce the initial names booked for Lost & Found this week, with a cute and silly promotional video that “hides” the acts’ names in everyday branding. Though she’s in no way perfect, Mac has grown more vocal about sexism in the music industry (helped, obviously, by the platform she’s built on Radio 1 for more than ten years) and seems to be looking for practical ways to tackle it. Speaking to Music Week at the start of this year, she said: “There is nothing more depressing as a woman than looking at a festival lineup and seeing the first female name being on the 12th line down of 15 lines of names. What is that saying to the young women in our country? It’s wrong and I think it is a festival booker and promoter’s responsibility to make sure that they are rebalancing that."
In a sense, that’s the job she’s given herself. Her Annie Mac Presents album compilations exploded into DJ sets, live shows and then the AMP Lost & Found festival, first put on in 2015. Its 2019 lineup, though not at a full 50/50 gender split, reads as a properly mixed group, as far as cisgender people are concerned: The Black Madonna, Lady Leshurr, RAYE and Peggy Gou sit alongsideAJ Tracey, Skream, Yxng Bane and Bugzy Malone. Granted, Mac’s festival is an electronic/dance music party, rather than a strictly rap or grime event. But, as you’ll have seen from just about any headline about EDM and dance festival gender splits, women tend to be underrepresented there too.
“There’s so much brilliant female talent in electronic music at the moment,” Mac told us, in an email, “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. 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.” After shouting out Leshurr, RAYE and DJ Jamz Supernova, she went on: “it’s a joy to be able to put it all that talent in one place."
Both Who We Be (which won a Q Award for last year's inaugural event) and AMP Lost & Found are important for UK music, and for highlighting the power of historically black genres, too. So this isn’t a piece set on attacking Who We Be, or Spotify. For their part, Spotify provided the following statement: “This year's lineup of performers and DJs represents a stellar selection of hip-hop, grime and R&B artists from the UK and internationally, inspired by our Who We Be playlist. Despite our best efforts to programme a more gender-balanced show line up, some of the acts we were in discussions with unfortunately could not commit to the show date. We will continue to seek to represent diversity on the Who We Be playlist and at our events going forward." Booking complications arise, sure, but we owe young music fans a more balanced experience. I don’t buy the idea that one gender just so happens to be better, or that music ability hooks itself to sex-linked genes. It isn’t just the natural order of things that women can’t also take a slice of the money-earning pie from higher billings on festival lineups.
Instead, I get the feeling that we’re sleepwalking through the effects of old habits and norms – women navigating an industry that’s still shaking off its sexist roots – and how those norms are refracted through the supposedly objective algorithms that guide your listening on streaming services like Spotify. O’Neil put it this way, in a 2017 TED Talk: “Algorithms don’t make things fair. They repeat our past practices, our patterns. They automate the status quo. That would be great if we had a perfect world, but we don’t… Because we all have bias, it means they could be codifying sexism or any other kind of bigotry.” Women make up about a quarter of streams on several genre-based playlists, from rap to country to grime. And if our perception is, ‘hey that seems like more than enough,’ we’re living out a music-industry version of that experiment, which over-estimates how much women contribute when they speak up at all. It’s time to hear our voices as well.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.