In November 2019, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame unveiled its list of nominees for induction in 2020. Per usual, the nominee list is a predominantly male showcase — of the 16 nominees, only three are women. Further, one of those women is Chaka Khan, who is up for nomination not as a solo artist but as part of Rufus, the group with which she initially found fame.
Yet her solo career has far eclipsed the popularity of Rufus, a Chicago-based funk ensemble that disbanded in 1983. An active musician since 1970, Khan has sold approximately 70 million records and won 10 Grammy awards. So why isn’t she already in the Rock Hall, or at least up for nomination as a solo artist?
Additionally, why are significantly more men honored for their musical merit and influence than women? It’s a question that journalists are asking in greater frequency. In March, just before the 2019 induction ceremony, Longreads did the math and determined that only 7.7 percent of Rock Hall inductees are women.
While the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction process is notoriously subjective, its treatment of female artists is indicative of a larger systematic problem. From Khan to Ella Fitzgerald, Lauryn Hill, Adele, Courtney Love, and beyond, female musicians have long revolutionized the field of music. Thus, in choosing to ignore the contributions of female musicians, the Rock Hall is essentially perpetuating the pervasive misogyny that’s unfortunately rampant in the music industry as a whole.
How Women Have Changed the Music Industry
It’s not all bad news when it comes to those groundbreaking and innovative female musicians that have helped to shape the modern musical landscape. Khan, for instance, is much more than simply an award-winning performer: over the decades, the R&B icon has also served as a role model for younger artists, most notably Whitney Houston.
Houston, also on the 2020 Rock Hall nomination ballot, released her cover of Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” in 1993. At the time, she already had a No. 1 single on the Billboard charts, “I Will Always Love You,” yet that didn’t stop “I’m Every Woman” from getting significant airplay. It became an international hit as well, breaking into the top 10 in a number of foreign countries, including Canada, Ireland, and the Netherlands.
But before Khan and Houston exploded onto the global music scene, Ella Fitzgerald was climbing the charts and snapping up Grammys. The so-called “First Lady of Song” received 14 Grammy statuettes in her lifetime, the first at the ceremony’s inaugural event in 1958. Fitzgerald was also the first African-American woman to perform during a Superbowl halftime show. The historic event firmly established Fitzgerald as both a leader and a trendsetter.
And the music industry can do with all the female leaders it can get, especially behind the scenes. According to Forbes, women only make up 21.7 percent of artists, 12.3 percent of songwriters, and 2.1 percent of producers across every genre. This is despite the fact that about 47 percent of the total U.S. labor force is female. Similar to the field of engineering, where only 14 percent of industry professionals are women, the female disparity within the music industry could be connected to a lack of emphasis on leadership skills during childhood.
Challenges and Benefits of Female-Centric Leadership
Generally speaking, women in the music industry are regaled to the sidelines rather than a position of leadership. In addition, certain instruments are low-key considered off-limits to females, including drum kits and the bass. Yet there are of course women who defy conventional gender roles and light up the stage, in some cases even screaming into the microphone. Courtney Love, Adele, and Australian-born punk rocker Brody Dalle come to mind.
Those strong women are among the music industry’s female leaders, a group that’s more important than ever in today’s complex music landscape both on and off the stage. Specifically, Bradley University reports that women-led corporations are statistically more valuable than those without female leadership. And it’s easy to see how female music icons have evolved across generations where sales numbers are concerned.
Ella Fitzgerald may never have dreamed that her influence would eventually spawn female musicians who would go on to sell hundreds of millions of albums. Among the top 20 best-selling musical artists of all time, in fact, there are more than a handful of women, including Whitney Houston, Rihanna, and Taylor Swift.
Female Musicians, Social Media, and Promotion
Leadership skills can also mean that you know how to make technology work to your advantage. For instance, the internet has drastically altered the music landscape, with both positive and negative results. You can even record a professional track in the comfort of your own home. What’s more, you can then share that track with your friends, family, and followers on social media with minimal effort.
Social media can be a powerful tool for advertising, communicating and connecting with fans, and procuring feedback on new music. Some female artists have even used the internet and social media to springboard their music careers. Tahliah Debrett Barnett, commonly known as FKA Twigs, used the Bandcamp platform to release her breakout album, “EP1,” in 2012. By the next year, she was signed to a major label.
Despite the myriad female artists who have fueled trends and brought excitement to the music industry throughout the years, there’s still plenty of work to do. By encouraging more young women to take on leadership roles, the music industry may become safer and more open to women. We can start by doing better in the realm of honoring iconic female musicians, such as Khan, Houston, and Fitzgerald, none of whom have been inducted into the prestigious Rock Hall.
Magnolia Potter is a muggle from the Pacific Northwest who writes from time to time and covers a variety of topics. When Magnolia’s not writing, you can find her curled up with a good book.