Boys' music club? Why this year's Juno nominees include so few women

For the second year in a row, female musicians are decrying the lack of women among this year's Juno nominees. But experts say the problem goes deeper than that: more women need to be encouraged to pursue education and careers in the technical and leadership positions in the music industry.

Reasons range from popularity of musical genres that favour men, to lack of women behind the consoles

A girl in the boys' world: 20-year-old singer Alessia Cara, seen here performing at the Jingle Ball in Los Angeles in December, is the highest-nominated woman at the 2017 Juno Awards with four nods in major categories. (Chris Pizzello/The Associated Press)

According to some of Canada's female artists, the country that gave the world Alanis, Shania and Céline is putting the ladies in the corner, not the spotlight, during this weekend's glittering Juno Awards festivities in Ottawa. 

Earlier this week, musician Alysha Brilla added her voice to a chorus of women who've been decrying the lack of female nominees among this year's Juno roster. Tegan and Sara wrote an open letter about it back in February. The twins' complaint came on the heels of a similar allegation by musician Amy Millan last year, who started a #Junossomale hash tag, inspired by the #Oscarssowhite campaign. 

Just looking at the numbers, their point of view is difficult to dispute: Of the 218 nomination slots at this year's Junos, only 46 are occupied by women (those include bands with even one female member, or female featured artists). And that situation is reflected across the Canadian musical landscape. 

Sarah McLachlan comments on #JunosSoMale discussion


4 years ago
McLachlan speaks about the progress women have made in the music industry and the work still to be done 2:09

Non-profit organization Women in Music released a report in 2015 that discovered that women make just over 70 cents for every dollar earned by a man in the Canadian music industry. Most women working in the industry were younger than 40, and occupied more junior ranks.

"As we suspected, there were pay discrepancies, there were achievement discrepancies, lack of opportunity." said Samantha Slattery, founder of Women in Music, in a phone interview with CBC News.

But that still only goes some way towards explaining this year's dearth of women at the Junos. Some of the reasons behind the discrepancy seem to be trends, determined more by popular genres of the day and the buyers' tastes, while others are more attributable to persistent, systemic problems that have plagued the music industry for decades.

The big categories: of genders and genres

The biggest categories are perhaps the easiest to account for when it comes to the current boys' club ruling the Junos. Awards like Album of the Year or Artist of the Year are largely determined by sales, where only the top-selling albums have a chance of making the cut. In the last few years, with the notable exception of Alessia Cara (a four-time nominee this year), these categories have been dominated by Canadian men: Drake, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Shawn Mendes. 

These artists owe part of their success to the general popularity of hip-hop and teen pop genres over the last few years, genres that, at least in Canada, tend to be dominated by men. 

"There are natural cycles and rhythms that happen. Right now, it's skewing somewhat to the male side, just as the females dominated 20 or so years ago," says Kim Cooke, owner of an independent label and a recording studio, who has been involved with CARAS (Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Junos) for years.

Sarah McLachlan, who has nine Junos and 26 nominations, defined the sound of female singer-songwriters 20 years ago and founded the influential Lillith Fair tour. This year, she's being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. (CBC)

About two decades ago, in the heyday of the singer-songwriter, Canadian male stars couldn't get anywhere near the popularity, or the Juno dominance, of Sarah McLachlan or Alanis Morissette.  These women, like the international superstars Cé​line Dion and Shania Twain, or Canadian treasures Anne Murray and Jann Arden, are some of the top Juno winners of all time. So perhaps a change in what styles of music are popular, could bring the ladies out on top once again. 

Women behind the console

Much of this year's criticism of the Junos focused on the so-called technical awards — prizes that may not mean much to the casual music fan, but hold a lot of prestige in the music industry. The awards for Engineer and Producer of the Year have zero female nominees this year. A woman has won Producer of the Year only four times in the 45 years of the prize.

For music industry veteran Cooke, the situation is a reflection of what he sees in his Revolution Recording studio every day, rather than the systematic collusion of the Junos to exclude women.

"For reasons that I'm not absolutely clear, females don't cleave to the engineering and producing professions in nearly the same numbers as males do," said Cooke in an interview with CBC News. 

"In nearly six years of Revolution's existence, we've had exactly two female intern applications."

Cooke's comments parallel the response of Allan Reid, the current president of CARAS, who said that out of 118 submissions for Producer of the Year, only nine were women.

But John Harris, the founder and president of the Harris Institute in Toronto, one of the top music production schools in the country, says that accepting status quo is not the right response. 

"There are things that you can do about that. For example, in the early years at the Harris Institute, I purposely went out and found as many female technical instructors as I could to break down the stereotype and motivate women to get into those roles."

Egalitarian future

Harris sees reasons to be cautiously optimistic about a more egalitarian music industry in the future. Just 15 years ago, the Harris Institute audio production program had between zero and five per cent female enrolment. Now, says Harris, it's between 15 and 20 per cent.

"I do know the number of females in our audio production program is increasing almost every year," says Harris.  "And that, I'm quite sure, will be represented down the road in a higher number of women being nominated for Junos."

Singer-songwriter Grimes, seen here watching the Polaris Awards in the fall of 2016, criticized the Junos for under-representing women. She produces her own music and directs her own music videos, and is nominated for three Junos this year. (Chris Young/CP)

Samantha Slattery of Women in Music agrees. She says it's crucial for young women entering the industry to see women as producers, managers and label owners, to "see that it's possible" for them to excel in these leadership roles.

She thinks that seeing women in these positions will provide a boost to the female artists as well, "even just to equip female musicians so that they know their way, how to run a studio, so that when they're there, they have more autonomy over their creative expression."

Until that day comes, women looking for inspiration at this year's Junos will have to take heart from the quality, if not the quantity, of female nominees. Alessia Cara has four nods in all the major categories, while iconic artists who changed the game for women around the world, Sarah McLachlan and Buffy Sainte-Marie, are receiving special honours.


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