There is a gender divide in the upper echelons of popular music. In the US, Taylor Swift is the first woman to top the Hot 100 in 2017, with hits by women accounting for just 14% of all top 10 hits throughout the course of the year. But this is not just a US thing; it is a global trend, with female artists in the distinct minority in streaming too. There are various contributing factors, including unintended consequences of label A&R strategy and streaming service curation techniques.
Looking at the global top tracks on Spotify, just 18% of the tracks from the top 30 streams are from solo female artists. In terms of chart positions the male dominance is even more pronounced with female artists making up 13%, or just four, of the top 30 slots.
So how did we get here? Part of the reason is that big female acts like Beyoncé, Rihanna and Katy Perry are out of cycle, but there are other factors too:
- Hip hop A+R strategy: Hip-hop has replaced EDM as the record labels’ second favoured genre (after pop). When streaming exclusives were a thing, Apple Music and Tidal were fighting it out over hip hop and urban exclusives such as Frank Ocean and Beyoncé. Meanwhile, Drake was the most streamed artist of 2016. In 2014 and 2015, labels were falling over themselves to sign EDM artists. In 2016 and 2017, hip hop and urban artists have become the sought-after commodity. EDM is a male dominated genre but hip hop is even more so. Thus of the 11 hip hop artists in the top 30 most streamed tracks on Spotify globally for the week ending 8/11/17, all of them are male. You have to go down to position 33 to find the first and only solo female hip hop artist (Cardi B) in the top 50 streamed tracks.
- Streaming algorithms: Playlists are at the heart of streaming consumption and their relevance is determined by a combination of user-data learning and human curation. As a result, a vicious circle emerges, whereby playlists end up full of the music labels are pushing, and because people tend not to skip that much when listening, the user data suggests that this is the music they want to listen to. To quote Paul Weller’s lyrics: the public wants what the public gets. With hip hop now de rigueur, it essentially self-accelerates on streaming. And with most of the big artists being male, females end up becoming side lined. It is a classic case of the law of unintended consequences.
In truth, many genres have a strong male bias. Rock, now a shadow of its former self (just two artists in the top 30 Spotify tracks are rock) is similarly male dominated. Pop and vocal music have long been the genres where female artists have done best. However, right now, the hip hop-defined picture of popular music is particularly skewed. When you get further down the tail, things even out a little. Within the top 50, female artists generate 23% of streams, and the full year numbers will be better balanced when seasonal skews, such as big female artist release cycles, are balanced out. Nonetheless, the inescapable takeaway is that the combination of label A+R strategy and streaming curation have, unintentionally, created a distorted picture of the top of the music pile.