Why no woman has ever been awarded the Grammy for producer of the year, non-classical — and what female producers face behind the boards.
Eight years ago, when Alex Hope was 16 and first interested in music production, she Googled images of “female producers.” “I only came across Linda Perry,” recalls Hope, who has gone on to produce Troye Sivan and Tove Lo, among others. “We just learn early on that it’s a man’s job to be at the mixing desk.”
Nowhere has that notion been reinforced more than in the Grammy category for producer of the year, non-classical. Since the trophy was first handed out in 1975, no woman has taken home the golden gramophone. Just a handful of women — including Janet Jackson, Paula Cole, Sheryl Crow, Lauryn Hill, and Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin from Prince‘s band The Revolution — have been nominated for producing their own music. Only one nominated female producer was not also the recording artist: The Matrix’s Lauren Christy in 2004. (The situation is less bleak for producer of the year, classical: Three women have won in that category, including quadruple-winner Judith Sherman. Imogen Heap and Trina Shoemaker have earned Grammys for best engineered album, non-classical.)
Why does record production remain the ultimate boys club of the music industry? There are myriad reasons, including a lack of role models. “I just don’t think there are that many women interested,” says songwriter-producer Perry, who, along with Missy Elliott, has been arguably the most successful female producer in pop and R&B, having worked with such hitmakers as P!nk, Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Courtney Love and James Blunt. “Where are they if there are?”
Ebony Oshunrinde, aka WondaGurl, a 22-year-old producer who has created beats for JAY-Z, Rihanna, Lil Uzi Vert, Drake and Kanye West, is one rising star who has been busy in the studio. Like producer Trakgirl (Luke James, Omarion), WondaGurl was spending time with computer programming and beats machines in middle school. By the time she began working with artists, “I knew what I was doing and how to make a good song,” says WondaGurl.
Former M.I.A. drummer Kiran Gandhi, aka Madam Gandhi, meanwhile, is working to push other female producers into the spotlight. In October, she released a remixed version of her Voices EP with each track produced by a woman of color. Last summer, Sister, a collective started by Swedish producer Toxe, released Sister:Volume One, featuring 20 tracks helmed by women and nonbinary producers.
But when women first start to produce, some say that uncomfortable moments can arise.
“There have definitely been times you’ll [suggest] an idea and the artist will pass over it and the guy in the room will say the same idea and they’ll say, ‘I love it,’ and you’re like, ‘Oh, my Lord,’ ” says Hope. “You can’t really show any signs of not knowing what you’re doing. You are at the helm.”
“Sometimes people are like, ‘Why is this girl in the room?’ ” says WondaGurl. “Earlier, I would never talk; I’d just play the beat. I wouldn’t give direction much, because they wouldn’t take it. Now they take it seriously.”
Catherine Marks, who has produced Manchester Orchestra and Wolf Alice, says the initial leap from engineer to producer was “a difficult and unexpected transition … When I first started out I always thought, ‘Ooh, I can’t wait to be in that role.’ And the more I learned and the more I began to understand the studio dynamics and the responsibilities that come with that role, I was like, ‘Maybe I’m pretty happy where I am.’ “
Many female producers say they were mentored by men. Marks studied with noted British producers Alan Moulder and Flood, Hope has worked with Bleachers‘ Jack Antonoff, and pioneering engineer-producer Sylvia Massy, best-known for producing Tool‘s breakthrough album, Undertow, in 1993, took notes from Rick Rubin. Perry praises Interscope co-founder/Apple executive Jimmy Iovine and former Warner Bros. CEO Tom Whalley as being particularly supportive, and after her rock band 4 Non Blondes ended, Perry also learned the ropes from producer Bill Bottrell. “He sat me down in front of the console,” she recalls. “I had asked those questions before and people were hush-hush. They didn’t want to give up their secrets.”
Whalley, now Concord Music’s chief label executive, says the omission of female producers has never been by design. “I don’t think myself or any other A&R person I know would say, ‘We don’t want to use this person because they’re female,’ ” he says. “I just know there’s always value to having unique, talented people making records.”
While many male and female executives have been supportive, several female producers expressed dismay that more female artists don’t seek out female producers. “It’s interesting that a lot of female artists have this feminist message and they’ll make their record with all men. It seems kind of hypocritical,” says Hope. “This [woman] will get up to accept an award and be surrounded by straight, white, middle-aged men.”
Massy thinks it is hard for women to balance the rigors of having children with the studio’s isolating 14-hour days, so they choose a different path. “The risk in losing the ability to have a family is too great. They’ll find better things to do. I know it’s an unpopular position, but I’ve always felt that,” says Massy. “I think there will be [women] like me that have decided, ‘I can do without a family because the young musicians I work with have been a substitute for family.'”
Others posit that the general lack of encouragement for young women to enter the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — bleeds into the gender gap in music production as well.
“[Fewer] females go to audio engineering schools,” says one major-label A&R executive, who has never worked with an artist that’s requested a female producer. Perry suggests any women interested in production should offer to produce a track for free, like she did with Stone Fox. “We cannot wait for people to find us,” she says. Marks agrees: “We need to promote the women who are kicking ass so the next generation feels like it’s something they could do too.”