Sunday, 12 June 2011

Let's draw a graph

Or two graphs actually, everyone likes a good graph.
These ones were inspired by a Neil McCormick article in the Daily Telegraph discussing the domination of the pop charts by female acts. It's a fairly compelling piece.
"But," I thought, "if pop music is dominated by female acts at the moment, what about what Josh Ritter would call “the glorious bottom”?"
All the open mic nights and gigs I go to are, without fail, very heavily male dominated. Why the discrepancy?
I'll pause here and let you read the article.

Back? Good.
Well, applying my cynical hat I’d say that you have one over-riding reason for each phenomenon:
Looking at the amateur scene first (because it’s easier) I think there’s a very simple reason why there are more blokes in music – guys join bands to impress girls.
I did tell you it was simple, but think back to your days as a teenager / young adult, if you’re a bloke, be honest and tell me how much of your life was not driven by an urge from your loins?
Thought so.

Moving on to the charts, and still with my cynical hat on, it’s about marketing. Women’s magazines have women on the cover, men’s magazines have women on the cover; images of women sell. You know what the most common way for “youth” to listen to music is? YouTube. Guess what? Images also work well there.
But there are exceptions! I hear you cry. Not everyone is a goddess-like Beyonce or Nicole Scherzinger, what about Adele, for example?
Well, and this might not be particularly popular, this is where you have to ratchet up your cynicism another notch. Sure she can sing, sure she writes her own songs and sure, she’s caught the retro wave at just the right time. But loads of other people have as well, why didn’t they make it big, especially when a great many of them are equally tuneful and (there’s no nice way of saying this) easier on the eye?
Cynical hat firmly on? Brim tugged right down? Ok here goes:
Again it’s all about marketing. In the same way that you have the likes of Cosmopolitan and Marie-Claire at one end of the spectrum, with the beautiful models and the aspirational marketing, at the other end of the magazine marketing you have the TV guides and supermarket tabloids with the “real stories about real people”. The Jeremy Kyle / Jerry Springer market. It’s about marketing a figure that most people can relate to. Most of us can never really aspire to be a Rihanna, but Adele? She’s normal, honest, down to earth. That’s, we tell ourselves, who we could be if fate had blown its fickle winds a different way.

Ok, let’s take our cynical hats off for a moment before we sound like bitter and twisted old people.*
Neil McCormick presents a number of reasons why women are very much on the ascendancy in the charts, I’d like to add one more before we take another look at the bottom rung and what happens in the middle order.
The recorded music industry, by which I mean the 4 major labels and their subsidiaries, is struggling. Sure every now and then they’ll hit on something and sales will rally for a bit but any business that is actively suing its customers has got serious strategic issues.
And what happens when legacy companies get put under pressure by disruptive players? They retreat to type and known formula, so big promotional bucks go into the current best selling genre as they try and maximise their position. So what we’re seeing is an industry putting all its eggs in one basket and, stretching my metaphor, trying to get as many eggs out of the golden goose before it dies from exhaustion.

That’s my summary of the top of the market, what about the bottom?
Next time you go to a gig (and watch the supports) or an open mic night, count the number of women on stage over the evening to the number of men. I’m guessing you’ll be looking at a ratio of 1-4.
So, assuming that there is only a little truth in my testosterone fuelled theory at the top, and taking into account Mr McCormick’s comments regarding the inherent anger / violence in certain musical styles (hip hop and metal being the obvious examples) being a turn-off to women, why are there so few female acts at the bottom of the tree? And why are there so few female “bands” at any level (successful female acts mostly being “solo artists”).
Frankly I just don’t know.
It’s plainly not that women and girls aren’t interested in popular music, the sales demographics show that there’s plenty of desire to consume.
Is it that it’s easier for a bunch of young lads to get the kit and do the practice to emulate the rock / indie music that their idols play than for girls to produce the kind of output that the top female acts are putting out?
That doesn’t make sense to me. Sure you can get a guitar and amp nice and cheap but drumkits and bass amps are still expensive and practice rooms and time are difficult to arrange. Plus you have to actually find your band members. I’d say you had a bigger expense (time and money) there than you do producing an electronically-based RnB-type song.
Is it a side-effect of the whole women-aren't-into-technology thing? Although the kit and the software are more affordable than ever, you still have to be comfortable learning to set up and use your home studio (in whatever form it takes). Is this a barrier to adoption? My personal experience is that the women who I've worked with (musically) are just not interested in the technical side of things at all. They want to play/sing/drum and really couldn't give a monkeys about the kit beyond what's actually in their hands; but that's just my experience and, to quote Dr Goldacre, the plural of anecdote is not data.

So let's get some data.
Below are two graphs from the billboard top 100 singles and albums tracked (somewhat unscientifically) by the 5 categories shown in the legend. Apologies for the lack of a labelled x-axis, I am bolloxed if I can get this to work on the new version of excel.
Going from left to right takes you from the top 10 / 20 on the left to the bottom of the chart on the right. Sorry about that.


What this shows, I reckon, is that whilst female acts do have domination of the very top of the singles chart, as soon as you head further down the chart the male-domination that you see in the amateur scene comes back into play.
It's worth pointing out as well that a higher percentage of the female hits are by the same artist, Rihanna and Beyonce, for example, both having 4 singles in the top 100. There are very few male artists of groups with that kind of presence.

All of which reinforces my point that what we're seeing here is the effect of the industry backing a number of "bankers" in order to prop up their model without actually getting out and finding the new music that they purport to be supporting.

* For the record, yes, I am a bitter and twisted old person

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