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« The Music Industry: Wagons, DeLoreans and Love | Main | Fighting Piracy Without Alienating Your Fans »

What digital distribution means for (especially) female artists

As a fan, I’ve been excited for the rise of digital distribution and for the direct interaction of artists and listeners because it means I’m more likely to hear great music that I like. It means that I get to decide what I want to listen to, rather than having a slew of A&R folks and radio programmers make the decisions for me.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about how record labels are not only gatekeepers for the music itself, but also for the visual image of artists.

I get it. Artists are performers, and looks matter.

But it’s pretty clear when you look at Top 40 artists that the standards for successful female artists and successful male artists are not the same. Music industry executives are predominantly male, and their professional tastes are, frankly, boring. So female artists have to be conventionally attractive, but male artists can look like Nickelback—middling-attractive guys (whose videos are then stuffed full of women in bikinis).

Deviate from these norms, and you face opposition. Roadrunner tried to get Amanda Palmer to re-edit her “Leeds United” video; because it contained a shot of her exposed belly that didn’t conform to the taut, airbrushed Britney-Beyonce-Lady Gaga standards. (She and her fans rebelled, and ultimately won. If you haven’t seen the video, go watch it. Amanda Palmer is undeniably hot, whatever her former label thinks.)

How many awesome female artists are there that didn’t get signed or supported because they didn’t fit the narrow visual criteria of the guy on the other side of the desk? Janet Weiss, of Sleater-Kinney, talks about how photographers wanted the band to look playful and sweet, and to dress them up like they were dolls. She says, “We wanted to look like the Stones, to be cool, to be tough, to be heroes. Why don’t women get to be heroes?”

I want female artists to be heroes. Or anything else they want to be. And I’m delighted that it might finally happen.

This post is adapted from one at zed equals zee, a music, technology and culture blog. Debbie Chachra is a music fan, academic, and geek (not necessarily in that order). She also writes the zed equals zee companion Tumblr, and you can follow her on Twitter.

Reader Comments (8)

This is CrowfeatheR

Well, Country music may be the worst offender when it comes to this double standard. Ever hear of a fat, average looking female country singer? Neither have I. As for Roadrunner wanting to cut the belly out, they were probably just trying to protect her from flamers online and grocery store checkout lane women's magazine covers "worst celebrity bodies" type "shock" exposes. Roadrunner specializes in metal, metal fans don't care how ugly you are and apparently neither do Amada Palmers, not that she is anywhere near metal, which is probably why she isn't with Roadrunner any more. I'm guessing they wanted some operating capitol for oh, say, Rob Zombie a guy with a 15 year track record, instead of a ukulele artist who plays Radiohead covers. Rob Zombie. Almost as ugly as me.

In the end this isn't the music business, no one gives a shit how good you can play and what your songs are like. This is the ENTERTAINMENT business and your appearance is part of your package. You don't have to be good looking, it helps sure, but it is better to look interesting. Why wouldn't a chubby chick get a deal from a major? Because it shows a lack of commitment to offer the best possible package to the consumers. Ok, you're chubby they tell you to loose a few and you bitch about it? Now, not only do you show a lack of commitment to your package you've copped an attitude of entitlement along with it. Who wants to throw a few million at an uncommitted performer with an attitude. Not, I and not a label with an IQ over a head of lettuce.


August 11 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

Um, CrowfeatheR, understanding the situation doesn't mean you have to agree it's the right situation.

Just because there are sexist wankers determining what a female artist should look like and, yeh, you have to work with them, (in the same way you'll never get rid of all the psychos in the armed forces, or all the mean minded parking attendants), you don't have to agree with them.

It's unfair, as long as male artists aren't subjected to a pack count or have their skin tight leathers checked for rolled socks before every gig.

That's all. Just say it, you'll feel great. Unfair. Won't change much but every little bit helps.

August 11 | Registered CommenterTim London

I agree with both sides, the labels want to make sure they are making a good investment to someone who is committed, and I agree there is a double standard especially in some genres, like country. I'm fine with every woman being an example of health and excellence for the next, if they all were as fit as Jamie Eason I'd be fine with it. I'm not throwing stones out of a glass house either, I'm a natural bodybuilder of 20 years, so I'm all for industry fitness standards. As an entertainer there are expectations to be met, so one of my points is don't act all entitled to fame and fortune with your fat ass. That being said the best selling female performer of 2009 was.......

Susan Boyle.

~ CrowfeatheR

August 12 | Unregistered CommenterCrowfeatheR

CrowfeatheR, Tim - thank you both for your comments.

Tim, the rolled-socks comment made me laugh out loud. What a great analogy.

CrowfeatheR, I agree with you that artists need to have a complete package that resonates with fans, and looks (or rather, a visual aesthetic) plays a big part in that. And, as you say, record labels are putting their money on the line by backing the artist. But that also means that they are likely to err on the side of being conservative--which means that female artists (much more so than men) must be conventionally attractive.

And Susan Boyle, therefore, is an excellent example of how this approach can fail. Do you really think she'd ever have gotten a record contract if she showed up at a label? And yet millions of people heard her sing and bought her record. I think that pretty clearly shows that the music-buying public is a lot more open than record companies typically give them credit for.

August 12 | Unregistered Commenterdebcha

I don't see this changing anytime soon in HipHop. Although I think in HipHop there is a slight more degree of acceptance of various looks for girls on the underground which THANKFULLY has a consumer base; it's almost worse because we're expected to look like video vixens, even porn stars. This leads to all sorts of bodily mutilation.

I'm a female underground rapper. And by most I'm considered pretty. When I'm in shape (when I feel like it, I yo yo) I certainly fit the mold of having a vixen figure. But I hate being objectified. In definitely dress down, don't exercise as much and almost sabotage my look to avoid being classified and led down a road I don't want to travel. It's happened in my past where someone just takes a look (doesn't even listen to my music) and says they'll make something of me... then want me to do this sex talk music and book me modeling sessions with trashy publications. I just don't want to be known for that. The game is not close to fair. One's only hope seems DIY.

August 16 | Unregistered CommenterBRIX

Hey, BRIX, thanks for your comment.

"The game is not close to fair. One's only hope seems DIY."

Yeah, that's pretty much the impression that I've gotten as a fan. But I'm excited about artists like you who keep pushing to be true to themselves, rather than to fit into a mold. Thanks, and good luck!

August 18 | Registered CommenterDebbie Chachra

Seems there are two issues here: level of fitness and type of look/attire.

On the first, gotta agree with CrowfeatheR - not only does it make good business sense in terms of being a measure of commitment and professionalism - but let's face it - sex sells and every company is in business for profit.

And besides, what the hell is WRONG with woman being extremely fit - doesn't that act as an inspiration for other woman to be HEALTHY?? And frankly, being in great shape is IMPORTANT for a performing artist - tours knock the hell out those who aren' don't see Mick and company with beer bellies!

So for me the really significant issue the music biz influencing/forcing female artists into sex symbol attire/looks.

I think the best of both worlds would be - to use the example in the post - a group of female artists looking cool and tough like the Stones, if they want - with strong and sexy bodies THAT would set the most heroic example for woman - be yourself...and get that ass in shape!

August 20 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

Just to be clear on the last point, the same standard should be applied to male artists.

Especially in hip hop, far too many guys are seriously overweight and were it not for the oversized clothing- look (small wonder it's popular), it would be painfully obvious how many of those coming on so tough are fat slobs who can barely get out of their own way.

Which is their choice, but then because artists ARE role models, whether they like it or not, it sets a terrible example for young males, especially - and we are at near epidemic levels of overweight and obese children and adults here in the US.

August 20 | Unregistered CommenterDg.

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