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Music

You don’t need a penis to be a music producer: the women breaking barriers

It’s so rare to see a female music producer that when Jameela Jamil got a credit on James Blake’s record, many presumed it was because he was sleeping with her. How can one of the most male-dominated professions be rebalanced?

When Jameela Jamil got a music producer credit on James Blake’s latest record, internet commentators were quick to judge.

“A lot of women insisting I couldn’t possibly have actually worked on my boyfriend’s music, and that he must have just credited me to be nice,” Jamil tweeted. “I was a DJ for 8 years, and studied music for 6 years before that. You are part of the problem of why women don’t pursue producing.”

Jamil said Blake had to actually fight her to take the credit because she was “so pre-emptively sick of the internet”.

“Yeah… people assume that she couldn’t possibly have done it, because apparently you need a penis to make a record,” sighs Olga Fitzroy, executive director of the Music Producers Guild (MPG).

A producer, mixer and engineer who operates out of Sir George Martin’s AIR Studios in London, Fitzroy has recorded with the likes of Coldplay, The Streets and Sophie Ellis-Bextor. No penis required.

Music producer Olga Fitzroy in the studio. Courtesy Music Producers Guild
Olga Fitzroy in the studio. Courtesy Music Producers Guild

Yet Jamil’s comment that women don’t pursue music production as a career is based in fact. An analysis of the Top 100 UK radio airplay chart last year found a mere three per cent of tracks by British artists credited a female producer. In the US Billboard chart the proportion of female producers credited in 2020 was just two per cent. This makes music production one of the world’s the most gender-imbalanced careers.

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“Jameela’s tweet definitely rang true with me as an experience that I’ve had in the past,” says respected producer Catherine Anne Davies – who also performs as The Anchoress. “I inadvertently ended up recording the first Anchoress record as an excuse to be in the studio, really. Unfortunately, the only way people wanted me there was as an artist.”

Internal bias

Though Davies is credited as the sole producer on her latest record, The Art of Losing, it was still tough to get recognition.

“The second line in the press release was ‘written and produced by Catherine Anne Davies’ and yet still, still – and this really pissed me off – the reviews would come back praising the production… by the guy that mixed it.

“I don’t think it’s always malicious. I don’t think people go around thinking that they’re misogynistic, or that they are assuming that women can’t do certain things. But I do think we have a lot of internal bias around what roles women tend to do in the industry. And the default, even amongst other women, is to assume that you sing.”

Music producer Catherine Anne Davies
Catherine Anne Davies, The Anchoress. Photo: Jodie Cartman

Assumptions about ‘suitable’ female and male careers start early, says Fitzroy, and they affect the aspirations of young women.

“There are the whole gendered roles of play and education as kids are growing up. You see little boys being given technical toys – Lego, Meccano, those sorts of things – and girls given things that encourage them into caring roles,” she explains.

“Even when I’ve given lectures in universities and colleges, you see that reflected in the proportion of women doing music tech type courses.”

Pernicious factors at play

The prejudice against female and non-binary producers is just part of the problem, however. There are also more immediately pernicious factors at play.

When R Kelly was convicted in September of running a two-decades-long scheme to sexually abuse women and children, many wondered whether music was about to face its own #MeToo moment. The women I spoke to for this feature didn’t doubt that there were stories there to be uncovered – though few felt that the full truth was going to come out any time soon.

“There are so many things I would never talk on the record about,” says Davies, “but there is one I can tell you about.

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“I remember doing a string session at a big recording studio. All the string players were female. And all the people in the control room, apart from me, were male.

“The engineer on this session kept making really sexist comments. He was saying things like, ‘I would fuck her’ about the violin player or making comments about her breasts. And he was pressing the talkback mic, so she could hear it. Not one person in the room, myself included, did anything.”

Davies was very young at the time, but she still beats herself up for not acting – even though, when she did say something a few years later in a similar circumstance, “it did not shake down well”.

The omerta-level secrecy in the music industry may partly be explained by singer Rebecca Ferguson’s experience. Last month, she said that her life had been threatened after accusing a major record executive of sexual harassment.

Freelance fears

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is an issue and Rebecca Ferguson has done great work in highlighting it,” says Fitzroy. “I think part of the problem is the freelance nature of the industry. People might not be aware of their rights, or might be unwilling to enforce their rights because of the fact that everybody’s connected.

“You’ve got a system of patronage where people are working for really important individuals so they don’t want to rock the boat. You have also often got quite informal working environments – people working late, people working on their own.

“All those things come together to make it harder to actually do anything about sexual harassment. That’s not an excuse, that’s just where we are. We need to do a lot better.”

Safety fears may put women off working in the male-dominated space of a studio, but the irony is that a better gender balance may be part of the answer to that problem. Though Fitzroy and Davies both emphasise that fixing these issues isn’t as simple as making sure there is always more than one woman in the room, they agree that a better gender balance would create a healthier environment both behind the mixing desk and for artists.

Rebecca Ferguson performing on the X Factor Live Tour
Rebecca Ferguson performing on the X Factor Live Tour, April 2011. Photo: Fiona McKinlay

“I’m not saying that all women express their vulnerabilities and trauma in music, but often, that can be the case,” says Davies. “And obviously, you don’t really want to do that in a room full of guys.”

Fitzroy says she’s “lucky” that she’s never experienced “anything of a particularly serious nature” when it comes to sexual harassment, but her status as a freelancer did have an impact when she had a baby. Since only female freelancers are entitled to parental leave, she was forced to take time out of her career – and even when she came back, clients doubted her dedication and her commitment to put in the hours.

“I had to work really hard to combat those assumptions and get back to where I was before I had a baby,” she says. “That’s the biggest barrier I’ve faced.”

Under Fitzroy, the Music Producers Guild has been active in campaigning to make the industry a more welcoming place for women. Their board is now 60 per cent female and their membership has gone from being six per cent female in 2018 to 13 percent this year.

“She’s incredible,” says Davies of Fitzroy’s campaigning work. “She can take so much of the credit for really turning it around and making sure that it is representing a whole heap of people that have been overlooked for a long time.”

Female music producers come home to roost

Up in Scotland, one collective is taking grassroots action to move the needle. Launched in Glasgow in 2020, Hen Hoose is an all-female and non-binary production house. They’ve already provided music for the Scottish Government’s vaccine advertising campaign and have produced an album, Equaliser, which comes out in November and has already been getting radio play on 6Music.

“To my knowledge there is no other all-female production house in Britain,” says Hen Hoose founder Tamara Schlesinger. “This project has been so empowering for everyone involved.”

The members of Hen Hoose, 'Britain's only' all-female and non-binary production house
The members of Hen Hoose, ‘Britain’s only’ all-female and non-binary production house

Hen Hoose features some of Scotland’s finest songwriters and producers, including Karine Polwart, Emma Pollock, Amandah Wilkinson (Bossy Love), Beldina Odenyo Onassis (Heir Of The Cursed) and Carla J Easton. But, Schlesinger says, many of these women were still reluctant to call themselves music producers.

“One of the interesting things about most of us was that we’ve sat in these production roles for a lot of our career and yet never given ourselves that credit on any of our records,” she says.

The supportive space formed by Hen Hoose turned that around. “It was still amazing how many of us discovered that we were producers,” Schlesinger adds, “and gained that confidence to take that credit.”

A digital revolution changes the face of music production

Lockdown was not incidental to the project. With everyone forced to stay inside due to Covid-19, focus shifted to home studios – which have become more powerful and more affordable than ever in recent years. The studio gatekeepers thus removed, there has been space for a wider range of people to flourish.

“You don’t need permission from anybody anymore. And that’s a really powerful and important thing,” says fellow Hen Hoose contributor Emma Pollock.

Familiar to indie fans as a founding member of The Delgados, Pollock is a singer-songwriter and runs the record label Chemikal Underground. But back when she was a fresh-faced physics graduate, she was to be found schlepping round Glasgow’s studios asking for work experience as an engineer.

“One of them kind of suggested that I’d be better just sticking to my studies. And in the other one, I ended up getting an office job,” she recalls.

“There was definitely a bias. Then, and now, there is an expectation that it is going to be a bloke at the controls.”

Decades on, the digital revolution in music production has allowed Pollock to finally achieve her early ambition. “What is now possible, sitting in my little office at home, would only have been possible in an actual professional recording studio when I first thought of getting involved in recording. It’s taken me 25 years to get to the point where I’m actually confidently doing this.”

The progress on gender representation is real – but, as the statistics and the response to Jameela Jamil show, we have a lot of work still to do. It is vital that organisations like the MPG and Hen Hoose keep fighting to make space for women and non-binary people in music production, argues Catherine Anne Davies.

“It really matters,” she says, “not just as a kind of token gesture. It matters for the health and richness of the culture that we create as a country.”

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