“Issues Affecting Women in the Professional Music Scene”

The Beat on the Street

Volume CIV, No. 3March, 2004

What are the biggest issues affecting women in the professional music scene? Below is a sampling of responses from both women and men.


I think that most of the issues for women are the same as for men — only magnified. If business is going well then everyone works more; if it is going poorly then women may be the last to be hired (although not always). Visibility is an issue depending on what instrument you play. If you are one of only a few women who play your particular instrument, then you will stand out…and that can be both a blessing and a curse. It almost always subjects you to greater scrutiny — which can also be both a blessing and a curse. I also think that if issues like looks and age play a part in men being hired, they play even more of a part in women being hired.

–Martha Hyde

I think one of the biggest issues facing professional women music directors is the perception of whether a woman is capable of heading up a musical team in a high-profile show: “Is she strong enough to lead an associate and assistant conductor, and collaborate with the arranger, choreographer and director?” Women are more often associates on Broadway, and I think they can be great support team members. But it’s not the norm to see a woman as the “man in charge.”

I would like to add that, in my opinion, assisting is a great learning experience, and valuable at any point of a career. There are many musical directors I would be honored to assist, because you learn so much from being a part of an artist’s process.

Wendy Cavett
The writer is music director of the Las Vegas company of “Mamma Mia.”

I would think the biggest issue (perhaps for freelancers) would be having children, and not having it held against you. A woman can be a mother as well as a working musician. She may want to work even more after having kids, what with financial needs, as well as the need to feel like herself and not just “the mom.” The life of a musician is difficult and the schedule is demanding. How does one juggle responsibilities to family, house, home, art and self? This is difficult for any working mother, and particularly for a working musician mom.

–Reva Youngstein

The biggest issues affecting women in music come from within — our own insecurity. As a bandleader, I have noticed this in other women that I hire and it’s difficult to work with.

–Libby Richman

I think the challenges facing women are the same that are facing men — a struggling economy which is unfriendly toward the arts, and the music industry’s continued shift away from live music. I’ve been fortunate to work over 20 years on Broadway and if there were a few occasions when I felt snubbed or like an outsider because I was an unusual creature — a female woodwind doubler before there were a lot of us — I also had just as many good breaks come my way. I think it’s all about the industry now, and boys and girls are in it together.

–Lisa Johnson

I think that age discrimination is a big issue for women.

–Nancy Brennand

In my 20 years of earning a living in the music business, I haven’t encountered any gender-specific issues.

–Stephanie Cummins

I have been a commercial composer/arranger in the jingle and television businesses for more than 30 years. I’ve had a very good career and managed to get through the challenge of disproving that “girls can’t write” and the assumption that women in charge must be “bitches,” and a few other unpleasant assumptions. So, I’m glad to say that, from my personal experience, that kind of thinking is over and done with. I am pleased to see women who are composers and arrangers going on to have very good careers, some even winning Oscars and Emmys. I feel like their grandmother, but I like that, so it’s O.K.

The one lingering challenge I see remaining is for women to be acknowledged as fully-capable business people. Even after 30 years of running my own successful businesses (three music houses and one music development company), I find that the notion still persists that talented women are just creatives who are so “brilliant” that they don’t understand business. It is a way of diminishing a woman’s full professional worth to assume that she does not understand business, which is not rocket science, after all.

I encourage young women who write to be mindful of any agreements they sign, particularly work-for-hire agreements; to be aware of all the ways money is earned from any piece of music they write: fees, session payments, residuals and all forms of royalties; and to balance carefully any tradeoffs they may be asked to make in fees by thinking optimistically and imaginatively about the future uses of their music.

I have had the personal experience of music I wrote originally as a jingle become a TV theme, the show’s underscore theme, a movie theme, a soundtrack, a VHS and DVD release, a video game release, and now, a cell phone ringtone — all released worldwide. Fortunately, I kept my royalties and always filed union agreements for myself and those musicians and singers who performed for me.

So, no matter what is believed about a woman’s business aptitude, I have protected myself first by being a signatory to every production code, and by following the trends in music and technology that inform my business choices.

–Anne Bryant

1. Networking. Women often don’t have the luxuries of free time or expendable cash. The ability to hang out in the scene and network requires both time and money. More often than not, work comes to those who are in the loop or in the right place at the right time. Men seem to get out more in a strategic way.

2. Lack of community. Competition is a strange beast and there are lots of women out there trying to make a living.

3. Image in the media. The media portrays a distorted view of the successful female musician. It seems to have little to do with music. I think this affects women in the professional music scene in a profound way because it holds up a freakish standard for success.

–Emily Duff

Where are the women on the gigs? I’ve only had the chance to gig with a handful. I think we need to encourage more girls to play instruments. I’ve noticed that many parents think their boys are more interested in learning to play because they’re more aggressive about getting on the instruments, but I think girls want to play just as much; they’re just a little more inhibited about showing enthusiasm, or they need an extra push to get their self-esteem in gear. Some girls have been taught to “be nice” so long, they’re scared to hit a drum or tackle an ax! In the case where there’s competition for an instrument in a classroom, often the boys get more of a chance to play because they can fight for it. All this leads to other problems like people assuming “girls can’t play,” and so we don’t get hired as much, either.

–Sali Oguri

What are the biggest issues affecting women in the professional music scene? Creepy men in the music industry. Trying to decipher between which men are honestly being helpful and nice, and which are just trying to sleep with you. I feel like I can’t trust anybody.

–Stephanie Long

The issues affecting women in music are, pretty much, the same as the issues affecting men: quality and quantity of work that’s reported and filed with Local 802 so that as workers we are guaranteed health benefits and pension when the time arises. As a woman in music I have been very selective and have tried to mostly work for decent club date leaders who file every job and pay me fairly. Granted, the work isn’t as plentiful as it was at one time, but I feel if we as players insist on the leaders doing the right thing, music becomes a more solid, viable, full-time occupation.

–Madeline Kole

Throughout my 25-year career in the music business I have been asked this question hundreds of times and my response is usually in the form of this question: what are the biggest issues facing any musician?

I have spent most of my life trying to fit in and not to make a big deal about being a female trumpeter, first on the road with Harry James, then in Las Vegas, then back home in L.A. where I was fortunate enough to work for Nelson Riddle, Peter Matz and many other fine leaders. In New York I have had the opportunity to sub on a few Broadway shows and the guys have been terrific. The bottom line is not an issue of sex at all. It is this: can I play or not?

The only rub came in the early days of my career when I was allowed opportunities for which I wasn’t ready, because of a contractor or leader’s curiosity. I know now that I was in some situations that were above my head, but doesn’t that happen to every young player? In those cases I was lucky enough to be hired as a “token” and most of the time I was a good enough player to be accepted as a musician — no more, no less.

I have been treated fairly and with great respect by “the guys” and I have never felt discriminated against. A healthy male-female relationship on the bandstand can even be fun. Why should we be looking for “issues” just because we are of different sexes?

Making an issue of discrimination only makes it worse by calling attention to it. If my young female students express concern about this I tell them that, as a woman, the best way to avoid making your presence anything more than commonplace is to do the best job possible, don’t make waves, and do your best to fit in. Interestingly enough, I tell my young male students the same thing!

Why can’t we all just be musicians and, as human beings, appreciate the differences in our sexes without making it a professional issue?

I currently perform a show (which I also wrote) called “Trumpet Blues, The Life and Music of Harry James.” I play all of Harry’s solos, I get to play with some of the finest musicians in the world, and I get endless attention because I am a woman. What could possibly be better than that?

–Louise Baranger

We believe the issues for women in the music business are:

1. Receiving equal pay for equal work

2. Being projected as sex objects

3. Exploitation by promoters and club owners.

–Ladybird Sunshine Robins & Jimmy “Preacher” Robins


Probably the biggest issue for female musicians is that everybody notices that they’re women (for good or bad). People say, “that woman (or ‘girl’) trombonist” rather than simply trombonist.

–Scott Robinson

The biggest issue affecting women is that most men still think it’s a boys’ club.

–Elijah B. Torn

Not being a woman, I can answer that question based only on what I see and on what female musicians tell me. Traditionally, music is a male-dominated profession. Females generally are accepted as vocalists, and less — but increasingly — as instrumentalists. Traditionally, females are often judged first on their appearance and afterwards on their ability. Again, this is improving slowly as general attitudes improve. Traditionally, certain instruments are more acceptable for females to play. However, increasingly they are excelling and appearing on them all. This is encouraging. Otherwise, females face the same difficulties as males face:

1. Acquiring musical skills in an educational system that discourages careers in the arts;

2. Finding employment in a retracting arts industry;

3. Reducing rampant CD piracy and infringement of mechanical copyright;

4. Reversing displacement of live music by technological substitutes;

5. Balancing demands on one’s time for musical practice/study and simultaneously the business management of one’s musical career.

While females have an uphill climb in certain areas, all musicians face more common challenges than perhaps is evident at first glance.

Therefore, while we as union members address the differences that divide us, it is my opinion that we need to support one another in our common struggle for dignity and decency in an arts-hostile environment.

What goes around comes around, and by helping another musician regardless of gender, race and age we are improving the situation for us all. I firmly believe this.

–Armen Donelian

One issue that comes to mind has to do with female vocalists. The large majority, at least in the club date field, are very limited as far as experience is concerned. The young ones, in particular, seem to show up with a very limited repertoire and very limited musical experience or vocal training. Many of them are strictly about looks and some offices put two or three of them up front and each one is able to sing a couple of contemporary songs throughout the whole night. God forbid if they’re required to sing a standard Gershwin or Cole Porter tune: most of them can’t handle this type of material

–Rodrigo Saenz

The biggest issue for women in the music industry? Girl singer jokes.

–Steve Cohen

Even in the 21st century, women with something to say and something great to offer are not acceptable commercially unless they “sex it up” or look like a supermodel. I’m not sure the media moguls allow women into the high-profile scene purely on talent.

–Jon Berger

The biggest problem of women in the profession is that they have a hard time getting heard and getting hired. I think that most of them are very professional, astute and businesslike. Most men don’t like that and don’t give them a chance.

–Donald Chan

I don’t consider this a subject to even bring forward. All women should be accepted, just like all males, in any scene, be it music or not. Period.

–Oscar Serrano

Based on my experiences, I would say the biggest issues affecting women in the professional music scene concern a lack of equal opportunity. Every single pit I’ve played in was predominantly male (and white for that matter).

–Paul Molloy

The biggest issue for women in the jazz part of the professional music scene is penetrating the “Old Boys Club.” I have heard this many times from very capable women musicians I know personally. I saw it myself when I was living in Hamburg and playing with members of the NDR Radio Big Band. There was not one woman member of the NDR band and there were women musicians right there, such as guitarist Sandra Hempel, who could have done the job very well. I expect to see this change slowly and I predict it will become less of an issue as time goes on. Don’t lose the spirit, ladies!

–Jon Hammond