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Spotify’s Dawn Ostroff on Gender Imbalance in Music and Future Plans for India

‘We will continue to localize,’ says the streaming giant’s Chief Content Officer

Nirmika Singh Feb 27, 2020

"We must be loud and not ashamed to shed a light on the imbalance in the music industry," says Dawn Ostroff. Photo: Courtesy of Spotify

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At this pre-Grammy gathering at LA’s cult hotel Chateau Marmont, the writing was on the wall:

Less than one percent of charted songs were written by women only.

Only 12 percent of songwriters on the charts are women.

Only two percent of producers on the charts are women.

25 percent of women say they’re often the only woman in the recording studio.

39 percent of female songwriters and producers say they’ve been sexualized at work.

Since 2012, only eight female producers of color have made it on the charts.

These facts, displayed on wall plaques and as tabletop pieces at the event, came from the recent report released by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which examined the representation of women across 800 popular songs from 2013 to 2020. The study, the third of its kind since 2018, is led by Dr. Stacy L. Smith with Dr. Katherine Pieper, Hannah Clark, Ariana Case and Marc Choueiti in collaboration with Spotify. It has been an annual reminder of the ground reality in music production — that it is a space dominated by male artists. 

The facts were laid out all over the room

At this ‘Women in Music’ gathering in L.A., women from across the industry showed up – there were producers, researchers, journalists, critics and business leaders, with Spotify’s Chief Content Officer Dawn Ostroff and Dr. Smith taking to the stage. While the former pledged Spotify’s support for another year of research, Dr. Smith shared that the situation might still be bleak in absolute terms but it was slowly improving: there were more women on the charts and more songwriters in studio now than before. It was a great show of strength just ahead of the Grammys, which in the past few years had drawn flak for being non-inclusive when it came to gender and ethnicity. “We must be loud and not ashamed to shed a light on the imbalance in the music industry,” Ostroff said later in an email interview, while also discussing her plans for India where the streaming platform completes one year of service this month. Excerpts:

The 2020 Grammys celebrated women artists in all their glory and witnessed some historic wins too. What were the biggest moments for you personally from the awards?

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The highlight of this year’s Grammy week was seeing all eight of the Best New Artist nominees share the stage at Spotify’s Best New Artist Party. From Billie Eilish to Lizzo and Rosalia, there’s this incredible energy and diversity of voices to this new generation. For the Grammy night itself, I was thrilled to see Billie Eilish receive such remarkable recognition, and I admired the support that she expressed for her fellow artists and their support of her. We’ve long supported Billie — from the early days of her career, and it was special to see the industry recognize her talent. But overall, in what was an often difficult week for the music industry and Los Angeles as a whole, seeing the community come together as one was incredibly heartening.

Given the sheer volume of music and talent across the board, what makes a breakout artist today — what are the ingredients of a successful artist in the age of streaming?

An authentic approach to their art, a definitive uniqueness to their style, and a clear and committed vision to who they are as artists.

Your thoughts on how streaming can enable and fuel creativity — what are the biggest challenges and responsibilities for platforms?

At Spotify, we have the unique ability to help an artist connect with their first listener, and then support them with the tools and reach they need to find their 100 millionth fan; combine that with our platform’s ability to cross borders and make the varied world of music accessible to all. You can look at the growth of an artist like Lizzo, or even a genre like reggaeton becoming a global sensation, and knowing that Spotify played a significant part in that growth, speaks to the power of global streaming.

As an inspiring role model to women professionals globally, what do you feel is the need of the hour for women in the music business — what’s lacking, how can women in positions of power contribute towards a real change?

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We must be loud and not ashamed to shed a light on the imbalance in the music industry. It is our responsibility to support and bring other women along in their careers, young and old, to mentor them and help shape them into leaders within the community.

India is a unique market for streaming platforms for many reasons — firstly there’s a lot of players on the circuit and secondly the country displays an almost paradoxical behaviour in that it boasts one of the world’s largest smartphone-equipped youth populations with the cheapest data rates but old-school listening habits still remain. And then there’s Bollywood with its own business peculiarities. What’s Spotify’s plan for India in 2020 — what are the things we can look forward to?

Even before Spotify launched in India, we realized how unique the market is in terms of consumption, and the kind of music that users enjoy. In one year, we’ve steadily increased the consumption time on Spotify in India, and we are above the industry standard when it comes to local users paying for audio streaming. This is just the beginning. In 2020, we will continue to localize through relevant product features, content curation, and discoverability of non-film music and podcasts that resonate with our local users. Ultimately, we want to enable India’s audio industry to reach the world.

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