Gender Neutral BRIT Awards or Gender Inequality?

Inclusion within the music industry has never been so important. As the highest profile music awards ceremony in the UK and what’s seen as “the most prestigious” award ceremony according to music executive Vick Bain, in 2022 the BRIT Awards introduced ‘Artist of the Year’. Previously known as two separate awards – Female Solo Artist of the Year and Male Solo Artist of the Year, this new award was introduced to create a more gender-neutral approach.

Last year we saw Adele win the Artist of the Year and 10 of the 15 awards were received by female-fronted acts, which was promising. This year women overall performed well, but the Artist of the Year nominations were a different story, with all 5 being male. Where are the women, non-binary or gender-nonconforming artists? 

The winner of the Artist of the Year 2023, Harry Styles stated: “I’m aware of my privilege up here tonight,” naming female artists that missed out on the chance to win the award this year including Mabel, Charli XCX, Florence Welch, Rina Sawayama and Becky Hill.

“I’m aware of my privilege up here tonight” – Artist of the Year 2023 winner, Harry Styles

Sam Smith came out as non-binary in 2019 and was therefore excluded from that year’s male and female categories, who would have been a strong contender with three wins and nine more nominations under their belt. Smith said: “I look forward to a time where awards shows can be reflective of the society we live in. Let’s celebrate everybody, regardless of gender, race, age, ability, sexuality and class.” Nine months on, the Brits did go on to replace the categories which was a big step in the right direction. How can we make sure that females and those who do not conform to a gender or those of gender minorities are actually acknowledged? With the way the Brits’ voting system and labels are run, we are still a very long way off.

“I look forward to a time where awards shows can be reflective of the society we live in. Let’s celebrate everybody, regardless of gender, race, age, ability, sexuality and class.” – Non-binary artist, Sam Smith

Award winners and nominations are decided by the Brit Awards voting academy which has over 1000 members, comprising of labels, publishers, managers, media, agents and previous nominees and winners. Just 17.6% of artists originally on the shortlist for this year’s Artist of the Year award were female identifying but none of them made the final nominations. A spokesperson did acknowledge that the lack of women and non-binary acts within the category was “disappointing” but did express that 2022 saw less high-profile, female-identifying artists with major releases as was also the case in 2021. 

So why were there less women on the shortlist?

In 2019, music executive and researcher Vick Bain found that 20% of artists signed to a UK major label are female-identifying however this does not justify how zero women or non-binary acts were nominated for the award. 

“It’s the stereotypes from A&Rs and record labels. It’s more problematic for women to go on tour in those early years in their career. Women at some point tend to have responsibility for looking after family and that totally scuppers touring and the ability to focus on music.

“There’s sexism and discrimination. It’s a massive problem. I co-wrote a paper last year that showed that 20% of artists signed to a UK major label are female-identifying however this does not justify how zero women or non-binary acts were nominated for the award. 66% of those respondents had experienced sexism and harassment. Some of those experiences are really quite serious. Just one incident can put a woman off and make them opt out and say ‘You know what, that industry is not for me’.

“There’s an expectation for women to look incredibly beautiful. If they’re not stunningly beautiful, it’s just so much harder.

“There are so many barriers for women in music.”

The Brits rarely reveal the gender make-up of the voting academy, however in 2017 they stated that 48% of the 1200 members were female-identifying. This may or may not be different now.

They also added that the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) which runs the Brit Awards “is already carrying out a major study to identify barriers that may inhibit more women becoming successful in music, so that there can be solutions that result in meaningful change”. Besides the point, there is still a clear gap in representation. There has merely been a change to the name of the award, but not the voting system behind it.

This just highlights how differently people are treated when it comes to gender. If we look at the UK dance music industry for example, a report by DJ and radio presenter Jaguar found that only 5% of artists were female-identifying, non-binary or transexual. Jaguar went on to explain that a large part of the issue was underrepresentation in festival line-ups and events. One quote that really hit home was the following: “You can’t be what you can’t see”. 

“You can’t be what you can’t see” – BBC Radio 1 DJ, Jaguar

The report also found that 63% of senior roles in live music were taken by those male identifying compared to 37% by female-identifying. Radio play research within the report found that just 1% of the top 200 tracks on 12 UK radio stations, which included BBC Radio 1 and Heart FM, during 2020 and 2021 featured non-binary and female artists.

On a separate note, it’s not to mention the sickening pay gap difference that lies within the creative industries. Due to covid, the gender pay gap figures in the UK music industry were disrupted but in a quick snapshot of 2021, 3 of the largest record labels Universal Music UK, Sony Music UK and Warner Music UK had a mean gender pay gap of 31%, 27.9% and 36.7% respectively, but we are headed in the right direction following on from the year before.

The statistics listed above are just making it more and more difficult for female and non-binary or gender nonconforming creatives and putting people off even trying to enter the music industry, which is so sad and should not be the case.

So what needs to be done?

There is clearly still a long way to go when it comes to inclusion within the music industry and society as a whole. More action needs to be taken by labels to be less discriminatory and sexist towards artists who do not identify as male. We must break down barriers for those that are female-identifying, non-binary or gender nonconforming to allow more voices to be heard and for these people to have a chance to be nominated for the likes of the Artist of the Year. The Brits and their voting system will need to finally adjust to the society we live in to make sure that all artists regardless of gender or anything else are finally heard and represented fairly. 

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