Record labels, management companies must step up to address gender disparity in Indian indie music scene

Amit Gurbaxani

Mar 26, 2019 12:04:12 IST

I have spent the last week scoring the nominees of this year’s Radio City Freedom Awards and among the things that struck me during the process – apart from the fact that hip-hop remains Indian independent music’s most exciting genre – was how few women were up for any trophies. From the over 80 nominations across the nine music categories – they also give out awards for album art and the IndieGenius of the year – only six are for solo female artists or female-fronted acts.

This stuck out for me because this time around – the awards recognise releases between October 2017 and December 2018 – there are more finalists than ever before. In the pop category, for instance, there are as many as 15 nominees, out of which just one – Canadian-Indian singer Shweta Subram – is a woman. Regular followers of this column might feel like they read something similar a few months ago when I wrote about the underrepresentation of women at Indian and international music festivals.

I checked with the team behind the Radio City Freedom Awards about how many entries they received from female musicians. The numbers are pretty shocking. Out of 1,200 entries across all categories, only 40 were by female solo artists. That’s a little over three percent. It’s quite possible that at this years’ ceremony, not a single woman will receive an award.

Record labels, management companies must step up to address gender disparity in Indian indie music scene

Canadian-Indian singer Shweta Subram is one of the few female nominees. Screengrab from YouTube.

Thankfully, nobody is asking the country’s female independent musicians to “step up”, like the president of the Recording Academy in the United States, which organises the Grammys, did last year. The gender disparity in the Indian indie scene is widely acknowledged. The reason why there are so few female nominees is that there are so few releases by women. On average, of all the albums or EPs that are put out every year, between 10 and 15 percent are by female artists.

In the first quarter of 2019, out of the 50 releases so far, solo women account for only two (I’ve Never Been Happier To Be Lost by singer-songwriter Meera Desai and Slough by electronic music producer and vocalist Pulpy Shilpy). The total increases to five if you include acts with female vocalists (A Map of Our Mind by jazz-fusion quartet Shorthand, Future Like by alternative pop trio No Honey, and Teeth by electro-rock four-piece Mosko). And to six if we throw in the Women’s Day EP by hip-hop label Azadi Records in collaboration with She Said.So, on which three of the four tracks are by solo females.

Yet, the number of women performing seems to be increasing annually. Two popular music festivals, the NH7 Weekender in Pune and Magnetic Fields in Rajasthan, have been making a conscious effort to reduce the gender disparity in their bills. At their 2018 editions, the percentage of solo female and female-fronted acts, when including international artists, was higher than ever before: between 25 and 30 percent.

Looking at gig listings in my home city of Mumbai, the proportion of music venues hosting shows by women every week is around the same. If things are improving for women in the live music circuit, then why is their share of album/EP releases approximately half of this? As Sharan Punjabi, the co-founder of the label and artist management and event company nrtya, points out, in terms of revenue, the size of live music is greater than that of record music within the Indian independent scene, which is the reverse of how it is in our film music industry.

The lack of releases then can be attributed to economics. Most independent artists finance their own recordings with money earned from concerts as opposed to product sales and the majority of female acts, because they play relatively fewer events, take longer than their male counterparts to accumulate the requisite funds.

Then there’s the important fact that many male artists record and produce their music on their own. “A lot of guys figure out DAWs (digital audio workstations) and make each part themselves,” said Ritnika Nayan, the founder of music and entertainment company Music Gets Me High and the only woman on the Radio City Freedom Awards’ nine-person jury. “A couple of girls were talking to me about releasing their albums and they were like ‘I need to wait for this person to be free’. A lot of [female musicians] don’t know how to record at home.” This very issue led to the launch of Women In Electronic Music, a project by Magnetic Fields organisers Wild City and the British Council through which they conduct workshops in music production for female artists.

Industry folk believe that things are already improving and that it’s only a matter of time before we see an increase in the quantity of releases by women. A number of prominent artists are slated to come out with albums or EPs at some point this year, said Mae Thomas, the creator and host of the popular Indian indie music podcast Maed In India. Scheduled for release are records by singer-songwriters Aarifah Rebello, Kamakshi Khanna, Nush Lewis and Ramya Pothuri, and female-fronted band Kimochi Youkai, each of whom have performed unreleased material for Thomas’s podcast over the last four months.

Maybe it’s time not for female musicians, but for artist management companies, record labels and brands to follow the lead of festival promoters and venue programmers and “step up” by addressing the gender disparity in their industry. At nrtya, where a little over ten percent of their 200 releases until date have featured women, they “are currently in the process of actively changing” this statistic “by promoting a release from a female musician/producer once a month in order to increase the percentage to around 25 percent”.

“It will be a small step towards bridging the gap,” said Punjabi. If other likes him were to do the same, there’s a strong likelihood that next year, the Radio City Freedom Awards will be less of a sausage fest.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

Updated Date: Mar 28, 2019 15:50:11 IST

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