Last week my colleague Jennifer Levesque reported on musician and rock documentarian Tanya Pearson’s efforts to challenge Wikipedia edits. While trying to revise entries on the free encyclopedia, Pearson discovered that many edits and entries weren’t getting past male editors due to thin (often false) claims of “poor sourcing.” This effectively has marginalized independent female, trans, and nonbinary musicians from having control of their own narratives on the site, and in some cases, having an entry at all.
Pearson held a roundtable discussion in Northampton to discuss her findings and ways to confront Wikipedia’s gender bias in music.
What is especially disconcerting to me is that Wikipedia was designed as the alternative to a monopolized internet full of glaring sexism and inequality. It is the largest website (in terms of metrics) that is a non-profit and doesn’t rely on ad-revenue for support, which backs up Pearson’s point that the people who edit Wikipedia are just plain sexist.
Pearson told Levesque that “The root of the problem goes way beyond the surface — rock history is rooted in sexism and this includes rock media and scholarship.” But it also goes into the technological realm, as well. In 2017, all art, music, and culture is filtered through online platforms — like Spotify, Amazon, YouTube, and Facebook — that are 1.) answerable to shareholders, first and foremost, and 2.) have huge gender and race inequities embedded into their company culture, codes, and content. (For example, only 17 percent of engineers at Facebook are female. Or: One study showed that fewer than 15 percent of Wikipedia entries are written by women, though men and women use the site equally.)
Where mainstream rock journalism and dominant culture has always been blighted by misogyny, racism, and other forms of discrimination, there was a time before it was required to have a social media presence, an album on Spotify, or a Wikipedia page (for that matter) in order to be recognized. Today, all media and music is filtered through sites that have a financial incentive to boost musicians that are popular — like Katy Perry or Coldplay. Despite the rhetorical promise of independent artists breaking through the noise on social media or Spotify, this isn’t how it works.
As independent journalist and DIY booker Liz Pelly reported in an depth piece called “The Secret Lives of Playlists” for Watt, “major [labels] own their own playlisting companies servicing Spotify, and these major-owned playlists have prominent placement within the platform.” Independent artists — particularly those who are women, trans, and nonbinary — often can’t compete with algorithms and advertisers that control the platforms. Whether or not there are backroom deals between major labels and platforms, the economics of scale still skew towards pop stars. For instance, despite the fact that YouTube is a treasure trove of weird, unpopular art and media, a study showed that 10 percent of most-played videos make up 80 percent of total plays on the website.
While these websites may be acting with their economic or social interests at the forefront, for better or worse these are the institutions that also serve artists and the public. It is no surprise that these are the same companies that were happy to promulgate fake news that may have tipped the election or boost scam drug recovery centers to addicts and their families.
Pearson’s work helps to reveal just how deep these problems really are, as these platforms are deciding what music is valuable and who should be heard. While Senate hearings grapple with “fake news” in a democratic society, we must also confront how these same institutions are failing musicians who have historically been cast out of mainstream publications, institutions, and free online encyclopedias.
Will Meyer writes the Advocate’s bimonthly Basemental column, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @willinabucket.