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By the numbers: the story of women and the NZ Music Awards

Jessie Moss crunches the numbers on the VNZMAs and discovers some surprising – and unfortunately not so surprising – facts about gender representation in our biggest music awards. 

2017 has been a big year for women in the New Zealand music industry. There has been constant agitation at the roots, propelled by the likes of Coco Solid and her Equalise My Vocals movement; in June, Rolling Stone Australia listed Aldous Harding, Lorde and Nadia Reid in the top 40 albums of 2017 so far; and, most recently, the history-making all women finalists for the 2017 APRA Silver Scroll award, with the aforementioned trio alongside Chelsea Jade and Bic Runga.

And now the nominations for the 2017 New Zealand Music Awards are out. And keeping in step with the soaring success of many women in the industry, this year is looking promising.

Of the six nominations for Album of the Year, three are (solo) women, three of four Breakthrough Artist nominations are women, three of the six finalists for Single of the Year are women, for Best Solo Artist three of four are women and in Best Alternative, all three are women. However, for Best Group only one of five nominations include a woman.

Of course, the VNZMAs are not the be all and end all by any means. There are also the Silver Scrolls, where APRA have made active steps to balance gender representation in the organisation, and the Taite Award – which represents ‘alternative’ music (whatever that is) well, being inclusive of a broad base of musicians.

The VNZMAs, however, are an extremely good litmus test. They are the most commercial and arguably visible of all our music ceremonies and celebrations. Importantly, they are what many young musicians watch, the awards that children learning an instrument or figuring out how to work gear, are most likely to notice.

Looking back over the past decade of the VNZMAs, it is clear to see where women are thriving and where the areas for desperate improvement are. How do women succeeding in some areas, at times equally with men, yet in others, remain almost invisible, despite there being a very real presence of women in all areas of the music industry?

This investigation looks into the total number of nominations and winners over the past decade of the awards, from 2007-2016, focusing on the popular music sphere.

Overall, men made up 72% and women 28% of the total nominations. Of the 115 women-inclusive nominations, 79 were solo and 36 as part of a group.

But….

In the Album of the Year category, there have been 50 nominations, 21 of whom have been solo women or bands with women. 42% – great! There were three times as many solo women (15) as groups with female members (6). And, interestingly, 70% of the winners have been solo women or bands with women.

Breakthrough Artist statistics are similar with 40% women nominated, close to half of whom were solo artists compared to 35% solo male nominations. Again, women, and bands with women, won 70% of the time.  

Compare these Album of the Year and Breakthrough Artist awards with Best Group and a clear picture starts to emerge. Of the 33 nominations, five were groups with female members, or 15% (no solo women at all). Women are doing really well in the first two categories, and this award demonstrates the likelihood of women to strike out alone, rather than to participate as a band member.

The rates of women achieving success as singers, singer-songwriters or solo singer-producers in the awards (and elsewhere) are at times as high as 80%. For this slice of the VNZMAs, women are nominated as solo artists 69% of the time and 31% as band members.

TAMI NIELSON AT THE 2015 NEW ZEALAND MUSIC AWARDS (PHOTO: tamineilson.com)

This is demonstrated no more clearly than in the awards for Best Country and Folk Albums. Over the past decade, 53% of the nominations for Best Folk Album have been women, winning 60% of the time. Ten of the 16 female nominations have been for solo women. There have also been three years where all nominations were (or included) women.

But the Country Music Tui is where women are really shining, winning 80% of the time. Tami Neilson taking home no less than four awards for the Best Country Album in the past decade. For the Country Tui, women enter solo the vast majority of the time.

The Country Tui joins the Māori Music Award for the most equitable representation in nominations. But even though the Māori music nominations look good with 10 of the 21 nominations going to women (8 of whom were solo). Only two women, or 25%, have won in the past decade compared with six solo men or male only acts.  

All and all, things are looking good for women in the VNZMAs. When we compare this decade to those gone by, representation gets more equitable by the year. Our celebrations of women’s achievement in the popular music industry are looking healthy on the face of it at least.

But what about behind the album covers and songs? Who is side-of-stage and in the recording and filming studios? Who are the people that are arguably ‘curating’ what we are seeing and hearing? Who are the audio and visual biographers to these musicians?

Things look dramatically different when we turn to inspect the technical awards for Best Engineer and Producer, as well as the Electronic awards, Best Pacific Album and Best Hip Hop/RnB/Urban (the name of this award changing in 2017 for the fourth time). These are the areas where men continue to dominate.

Women are nominated to the hip-hop/RnB/urban categories 19% of the time, almost always solo. And to the Pacific Award 41% of the time, equally as solo and group members.

For Best Electronic Album, four of 30 nominations have been women (13%). No women have been nominated for Best Engineer this decade. We go back 14 years to 2003 for Barbara Griffin’s nomination. This is shocking. And, depressingly, there have been 30 nominations for Best Producer this decade, only 3 of whom have been women and none have won. Looking further back, Bic Runga won twice in 2003 and 2006, and Debbie Harwood was nominated back in 1998.

Bic Runga at the 2003 New Zealand Music Awards (Photo: Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

The Best Music Video (director/s) nominations for women are 11% since the award’s inception (1983) with only one woman winning the award: Niki Caro in 1990 for Straightjacket Fits’ ‘Bad Note for a Heart’. Dismal. Faye McNeil is the last woman nominated for that award back in 2011 for Ladi6’s ‘Like Water’.

The Legacy Award is also telling. Three women have been honoured since 2007 (Bic Runga, Jane Walker in Toy Love, and Shona Laing), in a total of 41 people. So, we are celebrating our trailblazing women at a rate of 7.3%. Good thing Sharon O’Neill is receiving the Legacy Award for 2017. But, given the current rise in women’s participation rates overall, expect to see this tide turn in the coming decades – seven of the 12 International Achievement awards of the past 10 years have gone to women.

What are we to make of all this? What conclusions can we draw, and where to from here?

It is clear that women participate in music solo the majority of the time and when making music in a group, are more often singers rather than instrumentalists. It is striking that the closer the musical act is to the human body, the more we see women participating – singing, playing guitar, woodwind, piano, and brass. The more removed the music is from the body, the less likely – playing drums, making beats, playing electronic instruments, production, and, of course, working a sound desk or camera. It is unsurprising that society still expects to see women’s bodies on display (often with no instruments), rather than working machines.

Despite women making huge strides in the industry over the last half-century, we are still socialising and educating our children differently. They are arriving in their teenage years, when the angsty musician emerges, with different skill-sets and levels of confidence. Boys have been tossed electronic items to dismantle, and have enjoyed a ‘take-a-risk’ kind of education. Girls have been funnelled into areas where their social capabilities have been nurtured at the same time as being socialised to be competitive against each other.

Social norms such as girls participating at much lower rates in team sports affect the chances of them joining a band in the future. Young women are less likely to broach the boy’s clubs to join bands, preferring the social security and availability of solo or duo acts. For many women who are also parents, it is understandably easier to pursue a solo career. This double standard is seen in all working industries, which men remain immune to.

So what can we do?

Give our kids a variety of instruments early on, teach them how to use basic recording technology. Enable them to run their own gear and encourage them to learn and work collaboratively, and often. I have no doubt that Māori and Pacifika involvement in whānau, community and kapahaka based music vastly improves their girls and women’s participation rates.

Give them role models to look up to. If you can see it, you can be it. Soon enough, the Legacy Award will look just as good as the Breakthrough Artist and Album/Artist of the Year awards. And so it should.

After all, all bodies can make music. There is no physical difference when a man or a woman pick up an instrument. If it’s not physical it must be social, right? This we can change.


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