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What Happens Next? Women, Inclusivity and the UK Music Industry

For Women’s History Month, singer-songwriter Bishi Bhattachaya talks us through how the pandemic has exposed major issues of inequality within the music industry, and calls for concrete action and investment.

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By Bishi Bhattachaya Published: 30 March 2021 | 2:50 PM Updated: 28 April 2021 | 4:32 PM

In July 2019, I curated and hosted a panel for the MU to open up the discourse around South Asian women in the UK music scene called “The Mahadevi Sessions”. This event was devised to support the development process of my forthcoming album “Let My Country Awake,” part inspired by the “Good Immigrant” Collection of essays.

I had naively assumed that there was as much of a hot-bed of discussion in the music industry. With a stellar panel including Ms Mohammed, Nabihah Iqbal, Nadia from The Tuts and media support from gal-dem, the event drew a modest yet influential audience. All the panelists gave excellent contributions and insights into their personal experiences, but on the whole, it was clear that we were in difficult and unexplored territory.

In hindsight, we were six-months away from a global pandemic, which was about to ravage the world and alter the course of history as we know it.

Inequality has been exposed in all areas of the sector

The global pandemic has exposed major issues within the music industry. In stark contrast to a complete lack of any mention during government briefings, there have been reports of freelancers in the live sector being left to use food banks, investigations by the DCMS select committee into music streaming, and we have only just begun grappling with the reality of the consequences of Brexit regarding restrictions on touring musicians.

All of these issues combined proved 2020 into 2021 to be one of the most hostile years on record for professional musicians. Inequality has been exposed in all areas of the sector as well as throughout all areas of society as a whole.

With the rise of movements such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate, race and inclusivity have never been a more prescient topic.

Since we've spent most of the past year in lockdown, there's been an explosion of online panels, talks, discussions, and social media buzzing with much needed conversations around the lack of inclusivity and visibility. Increasingly I have found myself at the centre of many such events.

The conversation around the lack of inclusivity in the music industry, has never had this amount of space and time before. Just as the UK lockdown is being gradually eased, I wonder what the lasting effects will be? What practical measures are being taken? Who is making promises for change and who will ensure that promises are being acted on?

Examples of talent and mastery being recognised are exceptions to the rule

As an artist and founder, who is 90% of the time the only South Asian Woman in any recording studio, performance, lineup, club, or tour bus, there seems to be little data on who we are, where we are and what sectors we work in, in order to assess the kind of trajectory we are able to achieve. I acknowledge the same is true for middle eastern, south east asian and east asian contemporaries and other minorities.

There have been a handful of high profile career appointments of women in colour in the music industry, such as Nadia Khan being appointed the chair of AIM, pop-sensation Rina Sawayama being allowed to be enter for the Brit Nominations, and composer Errollyn Wallen arranging a radical version of 'Jerusalem' for the Proms.

2020 has also been a key year for the likes of Arlo Parks, Celeste and Joy Crookes breaking through to mainstream recognition, and Yola growing from strength to strength in the USA. All of these examples are important, no less for the recognition of their talent and mastery, but these examples are the exceptions to the rule.

With initiatives like 'Power Up' at the PRS foundation, I acknowledge a shift in mindset. However, this does leave Asian and other ethnic minority groups out in the cold.

The system is not built to support women of colour

Last week, The F-List for music, in conjunction with the MU, hosted a round table panel with myself, Estee Blu, Cilla Raie and Camille Maalawy. We are from a range of different ethnic backgrounds and unanimously shared these convictions, that women of colour in the music industry:

1. Are mostly self funded or run their own labels

2. Are seen as 'risks,' by the mainstream industry at large

3. Make careers happen on their own terms and are not in the slightest bit bitter about it

4. Darker skinned black women are routinely discriminated against unfairly in comparison to lighter skinned artists. I urge you to listen to black women in music.

Nobody on this panel wanted to take away from the hard work of our peers and respected colleagues or to discredit the incredible relationships we do have. Nobody on this panel had a victim complex. In fact, we are very proud of what we have achieved.

There is significant data around careers for women in music waning sharply after the age of 30, this curve is even more pronounced for women of colour. The system is not built to support us. The journey is VERY different to our caucasian contemporaries and we ask that you acknowledge the issues at large.

Concrete action and investment, not performative allyship, is needed

In order to erase bias, the most practical steps that curators, bookers, promoters, publishers, agents and managers can take are to start to review lineups, artist rosters and client bases and ask themselves how they could be more inclusive in their representation? If they feel that including women of colour is a 'risk,' they need to ask themselves why do they think this is acceptable in 2021?

It cannot be the responsibility of a handful of non-profit trade bodies and publicly funded broadcasters to be doing all the heavy lifting around the issues of race and inclusivity.

The UK cannot ride on the success of the USA's far more progressive attitudes to inclusivity, as reflected in the diversity of their pop megastars, and act like things are fine here. I believe that positive change is happening, slowly and surely.

As these conversations grow in prominence, we don't need performative allyship, we need concrete action and investment. Women of colour want to focus on making interesting music, creating groundbreaking careers and living our best lives. We want to be seen as equals. I don't think it's a big ask. Can you tell me, what comes next?

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Thanks to

Bishi Bhattachaya

Singer, electronic rock-sitarist, composer, and producer, BISHI was born in London of Bengali heritage. BISHI has written and released two albums and five EP's on her own label Gryphon Records to critical acclaim. Her most recent single 'Don't Shoot The Messenger,' was produced by Tony Visconti. Bishi works across disciplines and her collaborations & commissions have included The London Symphony Orchestra, The Kronos Quartet, Yoko Ono’s Meltdown, Sean Ono Lennon, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Norris, The Science Gallery (UK), and an ASVOFF fashion film award with, designer Manish Arora. BISHI is the founder of WITCiH: The Women in Technology Creative Industries Hub, elevating the voices of Womxn in Tech. A passionate advocate for inclusivity in the music industry, BISHI has been a broadcaster on BBC Radio 4 and is currently an ambassador for the Featured Artists Coalition and for Imogen Heap's Creative Passports. Bishi is on the board of directors for The F-List.

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