Watershed moment for women in music business?

Overall, women in pop music had a very good year. For some, 2023 was spectacular.

Beyoncé and Taylor Swift dominated the scene, each setting records with sold-out world tours and multimillion-dollar concert films (“Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour” and “Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé”). In late December, Swift became the first artist to hold the top four slots on Billboard’s Top Album Sales chart — and six of the top 10 slots. Her remake of “1989,” an album originally released in 2014, so far has clocked more than a billion streams in the U.S. and reached No. 1, putting her behind only the Beatles (132 weeks) for an artist with the most time atop Billboard’s album chart, at 68 weeks.

In addition, seven of the eight acts vying in three of the five major categories at the upcoming Feb. 4 Grammy Awards — Record of the Year, Album of the Year, Song of the Year — are women. Women also make up just over half of the eight of this year’s Best New Artist nominees.

All of this in an industry where male artists outnumber female artists more than three to one and have been viewed historically as more bankable.

The Gazette asked former music executive and attorney Tonya Butler whether this year marks a watershed moment in the music business. Butler is chair of the Music Business/Management Department at Berklee College of Music, which offers training to Harvard musicians enrolled in the two schools’ joint studies program. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Women not only lead most of the major Grammy categories, but they dominated Billboard’s year-end top song and album charts and grossed billions in a record-breaking year for concerts. Has there ever been a year like this?

I don’t recall a year quite like this with women artists at the level that they’re at. However, I would not necessarily take this as a sign of a change in the times. I’m not saying it’s a fluke year. But I am saying that we should not rest on our laurels when it comes to making sure that women are fairly represented. And yes, although they’re leading the Grammy Awards, and they’re leading the tours, and they’re leading the streaming numbers, there’s still inequity in the C-suite, there’s still inequity in the production houses, there’s still inequity in songwriting. So absolutely, women artists are winning. But there’s still so much more work to do.

A 2023 annual report from USC Annenberg found that even on hit records by women, many really struggle to find work as producers, mixers/engineers, and songwriters. Is that what you mean?

Yes, absolutely. I’m not saying that they’re not making gains in those areas, as well. But what the public sees, and what the world sees, is the artist. Very often, they see the artist making millions of dollars on tour and receiving all these accolades, and they think that times have changed. And my concern is that we’ll get comfortable and can easily revert to the way things used to be.

How inequitable has the industry been historically?

The industry has been male-dominated, and it’s been very difficult for women to get their voices heard. The music industry is a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the world. So, it’s been very hard for women to be treated fairly, to be treated with respect, to receive the same type of pay that male artists get. That’s the way it’s been in the past, and that’s slowly been changing.

Many women in music had great years, not just Swift and Beyoncé. Miley Cyrus, SZA (and Swift) had three of the four most popular songs of 2023 and were top 10 artists of the year, according to Billboard. Billie Eilish won an Oscar for a James Bond film theme song, “No Time to Die,” and is expected to win a second for the “Barbie” theme song, “What Was I Made For.” Two of the top three daytime tv talk shows are owned and hosted by award-winning singers Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson. What accounts for such widespread success?

I attribute the success of women to other women. Not just other women in the industry, but female consumers. Women are always finding their voice, particularly that large demographic of Gen Y and Gen Z, who are primarily streaming their music and engaging with artists. They are looking for their strength, and they’re looking for their power.

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artists nominated in 3 major Grammy categories this year are women

And they’re looking for role models, people like Beyoncé and Taylor and Megan Thee Stallion. They’re looking at them as representations of what they can be. Not only that, I attribute it to women in the industry supporting each other, hiring other women, using other women as producers and songwriters. So much of that has to do with it, as well.

The conventional wisdom for many years was that you couldn’t build a successful concert tour with women headliners because they would only appeal to women consumers, who aren’t big ticket buyers. In the mid-1990s, singer-pianist Sarah McLachlan created the all-female Lilith Fair in response to this widely held view. Could the multibillion-dollar, women-led tours in this past year shift the attitudes of managers, booking agents, tour promoters?

Oh, absolutely — and it has to. What Taylor and Beyoncé have done most definitely has changed their minds. Very often, we say something can’t be done when we’ve never seen it be done before. That just makes sense: If you’ve never seen a woman lead a tour, then you say women can’t lead tours, until a woman does. And now they can. So absolutely their minds will be changed based on the success of women like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.

“I’d like to see more women take control of their brand. That’s what Taylor and Beyoncé are, they are a brand.”

Tonya Butler.

Tonya Butler, former music executive and attorney

For a long time, talented female artists typically labored under the thumb of some male record executive or manager or husband, who called all the shots. Today, many women are making the major creative and business decisions and having success in film, TV, fashion, and beauty. That hasn’t been a thing till recently.

No, it hasn’t. But let me tell you something: In order to be in the driver’s seat, for the most part in our industry, you need to own the car. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, they own the car, they own the tour bus, they own the garage that the car is parked in. So, they can call their own shots. When you get to the point where they are, absolutely, they’re in the driver’s seat — as they should be.

I’m not saying that they are an anomaly, but they are not the norm. For many women, there still is that male manager or that male promoter or that male producer backing them and supporting them and very often making money off them and sometimes taking advantage of them. Those things still do exist. But until you own that car, you may never be in the driver’s seat. There may be other women who are calling the shots, but on a much lower level, as many more women should be. They’re just not at a status where they can exercise that level of control — not yet. Not yet.

What needs to happen for women to achieve parity?

I believe anytime there is a marginalized group, which very often women have been in our society, it’s the job of the privileged group to help elevate us. Not give us things; we don’t want charity. What we want is opportunity. Otherwise, it’s always women fighting and scraping and trying to prove themselves.

The only thing that’s going to change that is men recognizing a woman’s worth and her value and giving her the opportunity. Maybe some of those record companies, those publishing companies, those production houses should be giving women the opportunity to drive the car. Women should be also given the opportunity to own the car — driving it is just not enough.

I’d like to see more women take control of their brand. That’s what Taylor and Beyoncé are, they are a brand. But it’s tough, especially when you’re new to the industry. You have very little control and, unfortunately, very little say. You go where they tell you to go until you reach a level of success.

Much of that starts with the contracts, which is my area of specialty. Once you enter into a long-term agreement where you don’t have power, even when you do start to make money, you don’t have the ability to change your circumstances because of what the contract says.

So that is where it starts — with those initial meetings and those initial deals and those first contracts, making sure that they are fair to women. That’s something most definitely male executives can help with. You can’t take back power that you never had in the first place.

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