Femme Musicians in music industry

‘I Don’t Need To Prove Myself to Anyone’

Femme Musicians Embrace Identity in a Male-Dominated Industry

By Jordan Stovka

Despite Alex Luciano being lead guitarist for pop-punk group Diet Cig—known for their energy and harshly honest music— the other half of the duo, drummer Noah Bowman, often gets asked the tough questions.

“It’s a lot of going to the guitar store and the guys talking to me and I’m like ‘I’m with her. You should ask her,’” Bowman said. “I hate that most men just go straight to the other dude. I don’t even play guitar, I can’t even have a conversation with you, why are you coming to me?”

Luciano and Bowman’s anecdote mirrors the current trend of the music industry, where women are underrepresented. Over the last six years, women made up only 22.4 percent of all artists in Billboard’s Hot 100 year-end charts, according to a study conducted by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. The same study marked 2017 as the six-year low, with women accounting for 16.8 percent of all artists in that year.

Diversity Graph
Gender comparison in the U.S. music industry according
to a study conducted by the USC Annenberg
School for Communication and Journalism.
This study did not include artists identifying as non-binary
or gender neutral. (Graphic by Jordan Stovka)

Many non-male, non-binary or female-identifying musicians agree that being the minority of the music industry places unjust themes of bad break ups and whiny melodies of self image woven into sugar-coated, delicate lyricism. As Luciano points out, the same topics can be sung by male artists without notice, bringing to surface the double standard of the music industry.

“There are so many expectations put on non-cis male musicians—especially contradicting ones—like you can’t be too bitchy but you have to be tough. It’s like you’re never enough as you are,” Luciano said.

Luciano’s experience is a microcosm of the lack of gender diversity occurring in current music.

The USC Annenberg study found that women accounted for 12 percent of songwriters, and the divide was even steeper when considering diversity on the side of music production, where women account for two percent out of the 650 producers included in the study.

Realizing that her music taste reflected this imbalance of the industry spurred senior Ava Mirzadegan to host an exclusively non-cis male radio show at the University of Maryland’s freeform station, WMUC FM. “No Boys Allowed” is three semesters strong and has resulted in a personal change that Mirzadegan is grateful for.

Listen to an episode of "No Boys Allowed" on Mixcloud.

“The fact that I didn’t listen to any female artists at the time, I’ve completely shifted what I listen to, and I’m really happy about it,” she said.

Mirzadegan affirms Luciano’s observation regarding the double standards between men and women in music. She noticed that characteristics she liked of male artists—sad songs about breakups, apathetic lyricism—oddly annoyed her when delivered by a woman.

As a singer/songstress herself, Mirzadegan describes the pressures she experienced after this revelation, discouraging her from writing songs about romantic relationships or emotions to avoid the stereotype of being labeled as melodramatic or overly sensitive.

Diversity Graph
"No Boys Allowed" DJ Ava Mirzadegan poses outside The Black Cat in DC. (Photos and gif by Jordan Stovka)

“I think it was partially because of internalized sexism. Like, ‘Oh, I’m not supposed to be too emotional of a girl,’” she explained. “I always felt like I couldn’t talk about that [heartbreak] or when I do I try to bury it so it doesn’t seem like that’s what I’m talking about. Another thing is that when I write, I think ‘Oh, that’s far too simple. I need it to be more difficult to play, I need people to respect me.’ But if I write something that sounds good, it doesn’t need to be incredibly difficult. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.”

Yvette Meyers, front-woman of the indie-rock band Sweet Peach, agrees with the insecurities surrounding simplicity, noting that iconic male rock icons played basic chord progressions yet are held at high prestige.

“Sometimes I’ll write something and I’ll think it’s too simple, and in order to make myself standout, I need to make it complex and impressive so people will think I’m a good musician and respect my talent, even though Bob Dylan would play four chords and he’s a god,” Meyers said.

One important factor to consider is that numerically there are more men than women employed in music, which could account for the lack of diversity.

Graph comparing gender breakdown in the music industry according to Data USA.
This does not include those identifying as non-binary or gender neutral.
(Graphic by Jordan Stovka)

As of 2016, females made up 56,846 of individuals in the U.S. music industry as a whole (considering not only artists, but also producers, managers, agents, etc.) compared to 88,848 men, according to datausa.io.

As a radio promoter for The Syndicate—an entertainment marketing agency based out of New Jersey—Jordan Howard notices women’s rising popularity amongst college radio charts, suggesting a shift of past trends.

“Lately in the past year or two, there have been so many great female artists that have risen to the top,” Howard said.

As of the week of April 13, Frankie Cosmos was #1 in the NACC college radio charts, backed by four other femme musicians in the Top Ten.

Using the case of Kississippi—a Philadelphia-based female singer/songwriter and favorite of Mirzadegan and Meyers—as evidence, Howard notes that the current political climate may be giving women a louder platform than ever before.

“This album is supposed to be the ultimate women empowerment album, not necessarily because of politics, but I think politics and the MeToo culture has definitely helped enlarge this genre to what it should have been this whole time,” she said.

Luciano agrees that the future is looking hopeful for herself and her fellow femme-musicians as well as women fulfilling behind-the-scenes roles in management, production or public relations.

“Women created rock and roll, and the presentation in the media and in major outlets will keep increasing. Women and femme folks will get more coverage in a way that they’ve always deserved,” Luciano said. “I feel super privileged to be making music in this time because of that, and am thankful for everyone who has come before me.”

This optimism trickles down to the local level, giving Mirzadegan and Meyers confidence for their futures in music.

Listen to what all the talk's about with our curated
all-female/non binary playlist.

“It makes me feel hopeful just because there is a more accepting and open receiving end within the music scene,” Mirzadegan said.

Meyers echoes Mirzadegan’s tone of hope, believing that because the industry has become more accepting in recent years, the opportunities she has as a trans-woman in music today are significantly more those she could have had a decade ago.

“Ten years ago, it would have been impossible for a trans-woman to be successful in the music industry, and now it’s still pretty difficult, but not completely out of the question,” Meyers said. “I think [female artists] have definitely been able to push their way to the spotlight in recent times, which is super cool. I think that will continue to happen and realize that women are making a lot of really good music.”

Feature photo: Diet Cig frontwoman Alex Luciano
performs at Rock And Roll Hotel last February.
Photo by Jordan Stovka.