What Smirnoff Equaliser Means for Music

Last month Smirnoff teamed up with Spotify to create a web app, Equaliser, that determines the gender balance of your music taste. This tool analyses your Spotify profile and tallies the male and female artists to give you a score. It also provides a feature where you can balance the value based on the music you listen to. Audio Ordeal looks deeper into the issues highlighted to see if there are some identifiable roots.

(This article is meant to be exploratory and tries to weigh consideration to many different factors. It is in no way attempting to find a single solution or point which we may all agree on, instead, it aims to highlight areas which music makers, promoters, and listeners should be aware of to allow a future of opportunity for everyone.)

Equaliser demonstrates one of the major issues in the music industry where female artists can be under-represented and have a harder time getting started. This is reflected in Spotify's top tracks and albums of 2017...and pretty much every other list out there.

The above image is the result of my own personal Spotify account and the results are quite surprising. With the slogan "test your gender bias", for many, the results may be a bit unsettling. Are we unknowingly contributing to the problem as listeners?

The playlist included below shows what setting the equaliser to 90% women does for my playlist:

One feature which I really wish Smirnoff could have included is a chart of the results distribution. This would be significantly more impactful than providing everyone with just their own result. In total balance, you would expect a bell curve at 50% with some people still at the extremes of each end like below.

What I imagine the true case to be, however, is an asymmetrical bell curve skewed to the male side. The question that must be asked: why is this the case? Are music promoters inherently sexist? Is it harder for female musicians to get a foothold in the industry? Are fewer women interested in becoming musicians in the first place? Or does the general public simply have a preference for listening to male artists?

There are a lot of online discussions related to the gender differences in music. Popstars for example often conjure the image of glamorous female singers, whereas more aggressive genres such as rap, rock, and harder electronic styles almost always have the assumption that they are male fronted.

The image above is the top male and female artists by streams in 2017. While all can be considered pop musicians, there is a definite difference in what I would call musical freedom for the artist. With the likes of Ed Sheeran, Kendrick Lamar, and Eminem for example, they are very well known for their artistic freedom and direct input into the music they release. 

You could argue that the same could not be said for the majority of women in that list, with broad opinions of their music being "overproduced" and "commercial", at least to a greater degree. Compare the level of input seen in studio videos with Eminem or Ed Sheeran's creative processes. Having said that, there are artists on both sides which this criticism can fall on. So this can't be the only cause.

The issue can be seen all the way at the other end too. One thing that has plagued me about this website is the audience stats. Audio Ordeal is predominantly aimed at beginner to intermediate producers and DJs learning about electronic music. The stats are damning:

Does this suggest that fewer women are getting involved in the first place? Does it (I really hope not) mean that the music production websites are predominantly tailored to male audiences?

Perhaps it is the case that there is an innocently natural majority of budding male musicians and producers, the real worry then becomes an issue with marketing. If large websites notice this trend, they may invest more in promoting to male demographics for a better return of investment on site traffic, while cutting off all potential female viewers, which only makes the gap wider.

This would then enable male producers to have easier access to more resources allowing them an extra boost in their skills and therefore the likelihood of getting their music signed. Riding off this point, I pledge that all of Audio Ordeal's promotions will target interests-based demographics only, to ensure this site doesn't contribute to fueling the issue.

A really good site to check out is Women's Audio Mission, dedicated to furthering the careers of women in sound production industries, it runs the only professional recording studio in the world run entirely by women. You can join as a Member or Ally (if identifying as male) with access to networking with thousands of people who also support the cause.

One statistic which I'm going to quickly brush over is the top-earning musicians of last year. This is quite a crude statistic and many factors come into play (earnings aren't just from music sales, but also other business deals and sponsorships which confound many other stats beyond the scope of this article's analysis). In 2017, five out of the top twenty-five were women, but this changes massively year to year. In 2016 four out of the top five were women.

Be wary of anyone solely using these statistics because they fluctuate yearly and make no difference to the struggles of the up-and-coming musicians who may be detrimented, regardless of what the top earners make.

Based on Dutch Spotify Charts, there is plenty of evidence
to show there is a divide.

Narrowing down on the genres within electronic music, we can see that the more melodic songs and styles tend to categorise into pop music much easier. Compare melodic and progressive club tracks with lyrics throughout to much more technical and rhythmic genres and you will see there is a large difference in audience demographics.

recent study, though by no means conclusive, offers weight to the hypothesis that women are superior at cognition and recognition of melodies. This certainly conforms to other studies and analysis that demonstrate women prefer pop music to their male counterparts.

We know a lot of the mainstream artists started producing in different styles, before moving on to pop, could this be one of the main reasons for the imbalance? Is an initial interest in pop music a setback? Perhaps trying to break through in the most competitive genres is harder than it is to break through into something more niche. Taylor Swift is a good example here, starting in country music before becoming one of the biggest names in pop once she got famous.

If this is the case (or more likely, one of the many factors) then promoters and labels should be especially conscious of providing equal opportunities for all artists to grow. There has been a positive shift in certain sectors of the industry, Mixmag and several large international festivals have pledged to feature a 50/50 gender balance on covers and lineups.

A really interesting trend that has come about in the past couple of decades is the producer of a song retains the main credits while the singer remains a featured artist. This is the case with big-name DJs such as Calvin Harris. 

One thing which has caused surprise for many users is that even if they listen to mostly female vocalists, this trend means the song counts as being male-produced if the producer is male. This doesn't necessarily discredit the results for modern electronic styles, but it does seem to suggest that there are far fewer female producers than male ones, even if there are many female singers who feature on tracks.

Looking at rap music, we can see another side. Rap and hip-hop came out of typically deprived areas. The emergence of gangster rap and its transition to the mainstream held plenty of anti-system, violent, misogynistic, and drug-related tropes.

NWA were pioneers of Gangsta Rap and
gained notoriety for their 
lyrical content.

Perhaps in very culturally rooted genres such as this, it is near impossible to stray too far from the roots, for fear of isolating the committed fans. We see modern injustices like this in every aspect of life, plagued by the attitudes of the past, even if those same attitudes are less prevalent today.

So far this article has stepped around mentioning sexism, the elephant in the room, the confounding factor that could skew any aforementioned point. The path to becoming a successful musician is a long one, with many human interactions. Throw sexism into the mix, even on just a few of the steps to success, and you can see why female musicians may miss this one small opportunity here, or get discouraged from going for something there.

This study from East Tennessee State University looks at some female musicians in rock and documents their struggles. It also, in parts, acts as a guide for female musicians looking to navigate these hurdles themselves from people who have themselves experienced it.

So did the app work?

The app manages to lay the blame solely on the listener, in part due to its slogan, something which I struggle to see is fair.  I would go as far as to say that the average listener should remain faultless. Consumption and enjoyment of art in all its forms is a very personal thing and so the music and marketing industries should take the burden to ensure equal access to music created by any gender/demographic.

Most listeners on Spotify will follow the auto-generated and most popular playlists, many of these are based on current trends and so for the average listener, their taste is directly influenced by the industry.

In addition, Spotify isn't the only metric to look at. Before you can blame the listener, you must also consider the gender balance of the gigs they go to, the Youtube music videos they watch, and the albums they purchase. This then relies on the assumption that there is an equal availability of both male and female music to choose from. If it is twice as hard to find music from one gender, then you would imagine that would reflect a lower percentage score on this app, even if someone is giving equal judgement.

Does the balance playlist feature offer any real difference? My thoughts are that it doesn't. Looking back up to my personal recommended playlist, you will see Blondie and Pat Benatar, while many others report that Nicki Minaj is frequently suggested. There is little point directing users to older/already famous bands and musicians, these aren't the people who need the help to overcome the issue.


A lot of people are also complaining that the female suggestions are out of place for the rest of their music taste - sometimes being from wildly different genres. I expected to see artists such as, Flava D, Grimes, Ms Dynamite, Alison Wonderland, and Mija, the latter being the only one appearing in the list.

While it does a good job of highlighting the issue, it offers little in the form of a solution, perhaps expectedly for something which is primarily a promotional tool. The thing is, it doesn't need to solve the issue itself, the burden does not rely on one advertising campaign.

If you are a DJ reading this, you have a very strong power to introduce new people to new music. Likewise, if you are a club promoter or label talent acquisition, no matter how small, you can do your part to make sure everyone has an equal start.

List of Additional Considerations/Disclaimers

None of these following points are to validate/invalidate the data, only to show the limitations of conclusions which can be drawn from it.
  • Smirnoff's Equaliser only looks at Spotify, it can only highlight the issue within Spotify and does not, in itself allow you to extend conclusions outwards without more information.
  • Due to the Equaliser only looking at the male and female divide, this article hasn't covered another topic of non-binary musicians and their hurdles. This is another area to avoid ignoring.
  • Due to laws, only people over the local drinking age may use the app so it does not account for underage listener stats.
  • The application is a joint promotional effort of both Smirnoff and Spotify.
  • The results aren't adjusted to the number of male/female artists on Spotify. If there are more male artists overall then it will typically be reflected (I have contacted Spotify for data on this).
  • This article has been written as an analysis piece. Points and reflections are made with available data to form a critical overview. There may be points where you disagree, but every effort has been made to ensure accuracy and fairness.
I must thank everyone who has helped me write this article. While nothing short of a book would adequately cover the topic, I have tried to feature every suggestion, though for brevity, haven't been able to delve as deep as I wanted.

If you notice any mistakes/inaccuracies in this piece, email [email protected] and they shall be investigated swiftly.

Print Friendly and PDF