Why Not Her? : Meeting gender disparity in the music industry front on

Founder Linda Coogan Byrne

The music industry was rocked last year when publicist and consultant Linda Coogan Byrne released the Gender Disparity Data Report focusing on the amount of Irish radio airplay for domestic artists. The report crunched the numbers to reveal a staggering disparity between the number of Irish men played on national radio compared to the number of women played on the same stations.

The report was collated by data logged on an industry system used to track artists’ airplay and royalties called Radiomonitor. The number of Irish women featuring in stations’ top 20 most played songs was shockingly low compared to their male counterparts. Tracks from home grown female talent made up a measly 5% of the top songs from 28 of the Republic’s main radio stations. Worse still, four stations — named and shamed as FM104, LM FM, WLR FM and South East Radio — did not feature a single local female voice in their top 20 most played tracks. Dermot Kennedy, Niall Horan and The Academic dominated most stations’ on-repeat playlists, with Soulé and Aimée being the only Irish women to get a look-in. The study also found that only one domestic act across all Irish radio stations’ top 20 was Black. Only RTÉ Radio 1 could boast a 50–50 gender split on airtime for local artists.

Having worked in the music business in London for years, it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic decimated the live events industry and Coogan Byrne found herself back in Ireland that the idea for the project came about. “I came home to attend a birthday party in early March and I ended up getting stuck for nearly five months sleeping on the floor in my sister’s sitting room on an air bed,” she laughs. From speaking with staff and clients throughout her career, the issue of gender imbalance in Irish music had always been on her radar. “I had free time on my hands and I lost a lot of clients (as did everybody), so I realised I may as well use it to see what we can do about the gender imbalance. The world is on its knees, everything is upside-down so I might as well take this opportunity to collate the data and see what it’s like. Every time a woman speaks up, the attempt to silence her is immediate or imminent and I just thought, what have I got to lose?”

And so the Why Not Her? campaign was born.

When she asked friend and artist Áine Tyrrell to present the data as pie charts, she was equally stunned at the findings. “We thought, this is bad, this is really fucking bad. If we push this out, people are going to immediately be like, get rid of them. It was a big decision to make,” Linda shares. “I took the leap of faith; I’m fed up of the voices of women being off the airwaves, so we put the report together and quadruple checked it. We put it out and obviously the industry was absolutely shocked.”

Unfortunately, she wasn’t wrong about the backlash. “[The project] was met with a lot of hate and discontentment. DJs thought we were attacking them and going after them — it’s got nothing to do with DJs. It wasn’t our opinion; we didn’t even know what the data was until we collated it and put it together.”

Linda recently collated a similar report focusing on the North and our stats didn’t fare much better. The campaign is still awaiting data directly from BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio Foyle who don’t upload to Radiomonitor, but the general trend is clear to see. Aside from Downtown Country (45% female) and Q Radio (50% female) who achieved near parity, other stations’ results were, in Linda’s words, “pretty abysmal”. Two of the region’s biggest broadcasters Cool FM and U105 airtime only featured 10% female domestic artists.

As nothing is ever straightforward in this part of the world, the definition of ‘domestic’ artists poses a problem. As part of the UK, the report has had to take this to mean British artists, including those from England, Scotland and Wales. Therefore, some of the top ‘domestic’ artists are Joel Corry, Ed Sheeran and Harry Styles, none of whom are from Northern Ireland. This makes the research more reflective of the UK Gender Disparity Data Report and gives a less definite picture of the gender balance between artists actually from the North. However, another study is in the works. “Especially with the BBC, we said we’d do a separate type of report looking at Irish, Northern Irish and British artists, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what that is,” Linda reveals.

Six months on from the Why Not Her? campaign’s initial findings, follow-up reports were released to monitor progress.

“In the UK and Ireland, our music landscape is quite similar when it comes to what is played on the radio, but the UK have done a 360 turnaround in the last six months from when we released their report and it’s brilliant to see that radio [stations] are totally focused on making things better and moving towards parity,” Linda explains. “Whereas in Ireland, they’re dragging their heels big time. We only have Beat FM, Spin 103, Spin Southwest and 2FM that are near parity, the rest of the stations are not doing anything. They haven’t really changed much, so there’s only 11% of female voices on heavy rotation across Irish radio as a whole and in the top 100 songs played, 85% have been the male voice from Ireland.”

Aside from just being pretty boring (no harm to Dermot Kennedy), the lack of diversity on Irish airwaves has not only social but financial impacts. It violates the Irish constitution to contravene a citizen’s right to earn a living and Linda believes keeping women’s voices off the airwaves does just that. Whilst we may see Pillow Queens performing on The Late Late Show in the US and Denise Chaila winning RTÉ Choice Music Prize for Album of the Year, this has not translated to heavy rotation on national radio. With 80% of Irish people listening to the radio every day, this has a knock-on effect on streams, ticket sales, career progression and general visibility and representation.

So what exactly is the cause of this imbalance?

“We called the whole campaign Why Not Her? because we don’t know the answer to that question,” Linda says with some frustration. “We want to keep asking the question and we will continue to ask that question, but is it unconscious bias? Because that’s what they said initially, but it can’t be unconscious bias anymore because they’re given the data and the data is facts, it’s not our opinion or point of view. Power is data. We’ve got to drive home the state of the radio industry in Ireland. Is it led by predominantly white, cis, male playlisters? Yes, it is. Is that a coincidence? Have the majority of them got back to me and said, ‘thanks Linda, we’ll try and change this’? No, they haven’t. They don’t answer to us because they don’t have to.”

The national radio licencing body Broadcasting Authority of Ireland claims to champion diversity and inclusion, but Linda says this is never enacted or followed up on. Some of the worst-offending stations in terms of gender equality (like Dublin’s FM104) have started to play more female artists, but largely in the form of Irish Women in Harmony, a star-studded group who recorded a charity cover of The Cranberries’ ‘Dreams’. Linda sees it as a step in the right direction, but remains sceptical: “Although they were brilliant and a breath of fresh air, it shouldn’t take 39 women on one song to get loads of radio time. Whilst it’s great that they did well, their song got 40 million radio impacts; Dermot Kennedy has 355 million from last summer!”

A myriad of excuses has been given for the lack of female representation in the music industry, such as suggestions that listeners really just prefer male acts and there a lack of women entering the field. Linda isn’t buying it. “Absolute tripe! You have the likes of Ruthanne with millions of streams on Spotify and 30 billion streams of songs she has written. She wrote Niall Horan’s bloody song [‘Slow Hands’] for him and he’s getting the plays!”

With so many unanswered questions hanging in the air, it makes you wonder what can be done next.

“Irish radio now has an opportunity to take this up. They have all the data to become the agency of change that goes with the currents of change in society,” Linda believes. Ireland is now a country with an ever-changing and modernising culture. The success of the equal marriage and Repeal referendums in the last five years and the increasing visibility of ethnic minority and LGBT+ communities in the Irish mainstream are testament to this. Speaking as a gay and genderqueer person, Linda thinks it’s time radio kept up. “A lot of people have said, ‘oh Linda, you have to go slow with change’ — but who are we going slow for? White men who have ruled the roost for millennia? Women, the Black community and the LGBTQIA community are ready to be treated equally and fairly. For who are we easing in gently?”

For International Women’s Day, an action plan has been uploaded to the Why Not Her? campaign website. This outlining how supporters can actively be part of the solution includes email templates for contacting local TDs. “We’re trying to enact structural change within the government system because there’s no other way to get it. It has to be constitutional to be focused on changing the actual laws on how licensing is given to radio stations because [currently] they don’t have to do anything,” Linda explains.

Another way the public can help is to actively seek out Irish women and non-binary artists. The online directory ‘We’ve Only Just Begun’ was set up last year as a catalogue of all the women currently active in Irish music circles. Linda notes a few of her current favourites: Kitt Philippa, Gemma Dunleavy, Pauline Scanlon and CMAT.

It may be a difficult topic to broach, but there is strength in numbers. “It’s just about having the conversation. People look at feminist movements and women that are trying to get equality and they just think, ‘ugh, it’s another woman’, but we’re totally saturated in the male voice. We always have been. We’re growing up reading books at school that were written by men; we turn on television and it’s predominantly the male hero; we look at newspaper pages and it’s men in sport. It just has to change. It’s a pleasure to talk to anyone who wants to listen and join the conversation.”

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Originally published at http://www.chordblossom.com on March 8, 2021.

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Kristen Sinclair

Freelance writer with bylines in The Guardian, The Verge, The Indiependent, The Thin Air, Hot Press + more. Full portfolio at kristensinclair.blogspot.com