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Equal representation? Canada's music industry is still trying to figure that out

Last Updated May 17, 2018 at 3:00 pm PDT

American country singer Margo Price is seen in the CBC offices in Toronto on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Nashville singer Margo Price is growing impatient with the music industry's excuses over a lack of gender diversity. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

TORONTO – Nashville singer Margo Price is growing impatient with the music industry’s excuses over a lack of gender diversity.

Each year, she can easily count the scant number of female musicians at summer music festivals and the few women who hold important technical jobs. From sound engineers to lighting techies, they’re almost always guys.

“I’m surrounded by men almost 100 per cent of the time,” Price says. “It’s a very uneven playing field.”

Price wants to see many facets of the music industry change, and she hopes encouraging conversation about “inclusion riders” will help make headway. The term was made famous by actress Frances McDormand when she dropped the phrase into her Oscar acceptance speech earlier this year.

Her comments, helped by the momentum of the #MeToo movement, sent ripples through Hollywood that are making their way into the music world. The topic of inclusion riders, and broader questions about diversity, were addressed as tastemakers gathered earlier this month at Canadian Music Week in Toronto.

Inclusion riders are a stipulation inserted into contracts which, generally speaking, give actors and actresses the ability to require at least 50 per cent of their production’s cast and crew to be women or people of colour. How the concept would be introduced into concert venues and recording studios is still a work in progress.

Tangible data on representation is difficult to come by, especially in Canada’s live music scene.

Very few studies have been conducted in recent years, though a 2015 survey of 455 women by the Nordicity consulting group found that female-identifying employees represented less than a quarter of overall staff in Ontario’s music industry.

Women were primarily working in promotional and marketing roles (20 per cent) while production staff represented a smaller amount (17 per cent). The study also found that only 10 per cent of stage performers were women.

Figures like these are what drove Price to slap an “inclusion rider” sticker on her guitar before performing on Conan O’Brien’s late-night show. She acknowledges it was mostly a symbolic gesture, but she’s already taking action that would require concert venues she plays to meet certain standards.

“I’m trying to get 30 per cent female staff,” Price says of the venues and festivals she plays. “I’d like it to be 50 per cent, but you’ve got to take small steps.”

Other artists are still reckoning with the possibilities of pushing for more equal representation.

Halifax indie rock band In-Flight Safety pulled out of the nearby Rock the Hub festival last month saying the lineup consisted almost entirely of all-male and “nearly all-white” bands.

Meanwhile Leslie Feist, the singer-songwriter best known by her last name, says using her voice to encourage more diversity on music festival lineups is a relatively new idea for her.

“It’s actually the first time I’ve considered there is anything I could do about billings of a festival,” she said in a recent interview.

Feist described how grabbing a spot on a music festival often feels like winning the lottery, especially for artists just getting their start.

“There is the truth at a certain level a band is just lucky to get an opportunity to play at X-Y-Z festival,” she said.

“How to start to shift — that would be maybe in Beyonce’s hands or something.”

Resting the responsibility on the shoulders of superstars like Beyonce — or widely known artists like Feist — is the wrong approach, says University of Southern California professor Stacy Smith, co-creator of the inclusion rider concept, who spoke at a CMW forum about the stark disparity between gender representation in the music industry.

“Sure, their followings are larger, their megaphones are bigger, but we really need everyone focusing on issues of diversity and inclusion,” she says.

A study of 600 popular songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, between 2012 and 2017, found that when it comes to producers there’s 49 males for every female. Roughly 12 per cent of songwriters were female, according to data compiled by Smith’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.

The professor said she was surprised by how few women hold roles of prominence behind the scenes in the music industry, even compared to Hollywood’s underwhelming standards.

“It’s underperforming at a worse rate than film, which I wasn’t sure was possible,” Smith said in an interview.

But she’s confident that change is coming, partly because she’s witnessed the conversation about inclusion riders grow exponentially in only a few months.

“It gives the idea that (people) can leverage their own truth and power in a way they haven’t thought of before,” she said. “And that alone is a success.”

Earlier this year, U.K. talent firm PRS Foundation founded Keychange, a program designed in part to encourage commitments from music festivals to eliminate the gender imbalance. So far, at least 85 global music festivals have vowed for gender parity by 2022, including 10 Canadian events.

Some critics suggest giving festivals a five-year window to strive for gender parity isn’t aggressive enough.

Lido Pimienta, a Toronto artist whose Spanish-language album “La Papessa” won last year’s Polaris Music Prize, told a CMW panel she expects music festivals to reach beyond equal representation.

“Fifty-fifty does not work for me,” she said. “All of these festivals… if you really want to talk about equity, if you really want to make things fair, you’re really going to have to change your entire structure.”

Price says she doesn’t mind ratcheting up the pressure on music festivals in the coming years, even organizing a protest that would urge organizers to guarantee equal pay for its female performers — something she says rarely happens these days.

If festivals won’t agree, the singer says she’s willing to walk away from their gig offer.

“I’ve talked about this with other female musician friends of mine … unless this concert bill can be promised to have more equal amounts from both sides, then we’re just not going to play the festival at all,” she says.

“Whatever steps we’ve gotta take to get it done.”

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