There may not be a conscious bias, but the stats are 'stark'
From Dermot Kennedy to Fontaines DC, Irish artists have conquered the world across recent years. But where are the break-out female stars? A new analysis of airplay on Irish radio has revealed a shocking disparity between the support given to male and female singers and musicians.
Women accounted for just 7.3pc of the top 20 most played Irish artists across 28 music-oriented radio stations in the past year.
Only RTÉ One achieved a 50-50 balance between male and female artists.
Four stations - FM 104, LM FM, WLR FM and South East Radio - had no female artists whatsoever in their Irish top 20.
The top five Irish songs played on FM104 in Dublin, for instance, were by Dermot Kennedy (who featured twice), Wild Youth, The Script and Niall Horan. And just two female artists - Róisín Murphy and Soulé - appeared on the 20 most played Irish songs on RTÉ 2FM. It is a far cry from when Sinéad O'Connor and Dolores O'Riordan of the Cranberries were putting Irish music on the map internationally.
"It's mind-blowing," says Linda Coogan Byrne, the music consultant and publicist who, together with musician Áine Tyrrell, compiled the Gender Disparity Report by analysing data from the Radiomonitor airplay service from June 2019 and June 2020.
"In every industry there is obviously gender disparity. Women are constantly striving for equality. But I did not think it would be as stark. It was very surreal."
She stresses she doesn't wish to take away from the success of male artists. The question that must be answered is why their female equivalents do not receive the same opportunities to showcase their talents.
"I love Dermot Kennedy's music, I love Wild Youth," she says. "I love what Hozier stands for. I love that he's an activist. This is nothing against male artists.
"Why aren't their female artists [being showcased] - that's the question."
She adds that female artists are often reluctant to speak out. "There has been a fear factor of women, in general, raising their voices, as if they get allocated a few plays, then they should be happy with that. And if they speak up they are seen to be too opinionated and 'whingey'. So yes many prefer to remain quiet. For fear of repercussions."
"I've had my own struggles with playlistings," says Ruth-Anne Cunningham, the Dublin singer, producer and songwriter who, as RuthAnne, has penned hits for Niall Horan among others. Ironically the material she has composed for Horan has been playlisted - while her own songs have not.
She hopes the situation has started to change and points to the success of the Irish Women in Harmony cover of The Cranberries' 'Dreams'.
The project was the brainchild of Cunningham, who arranged for artists such as Imelda May, Caroline Corr and Una Healy to pay tribute to the 1992 hit, with proceeds raised going to Safe Ireland, which provides support for women and children experiencing domestic violence and abuse.
The track, which she produced, has been playlisted across the country.
"They have chosen to playlist this because they love it," says Cunningham. "This song may be the beginning."
Female artists do receive support from individual DJs and frequently feature in shows dedicated to new Irish music. The problem arises with daytime playlists which, even in this age of streaming, are crucial in bringing musicians to prominence, says Cunningham: "All the female artists I have spoken to say, 'I can't get on the playlists'. That is where the struggle is for us. What is the criteria for playlisting? How can we get on there and get the song championed?"
She doesn't believe there is an intentional campaign to keep women down. "Do I think that DJs are going, 'she's a woman - I'm not going to play it?' No. It may be an unconscious bias that is systemic…
"This is not an 'FU' to Irish radio. It's more, 'Can we have a look at this objectively?' There may be an unconscious problem here."
Lack of support at home makes it harder for Irish female artists to break through globally, she says.
"The English really take pride in breaking their own," she says. "They would choose their own to headline a festival over a bigger [Irish artist]. Sometimes over here in Ireland I go, 'Are you going with what is more famous?'
"You've got to champion some of your own and be proud. Some of the radio DJs on air have said lovely things about my music and been so supportive. There has been frustration in stations. It [gender disparity] has been talked about. It's being bubbling up."
"This is definitely not a new problem - it has been going on a long time," says Laetitia Deering, a presenter with Dublin Digital Radio. The data, she says, showed "little to no care is taken by these commercial radio stations to address an imbalance that stretches far beyond the airwaves".
"I'm not sure if it's a bias, though of course to some degree this exists, so much as it is an unwillingness to make an effort," says Deering. "I think it's more that a historical bias has created a total complacency and ignorance on the part of people who have the power to correct these things.
"I think there are also still narratives pushed about giving the impression that there is only so much space for everyone - and it just so happens that more men occupy that space, which is just totally false."
"Why is RTÉ One the only station that has total equality? I rang them and they told me it's a conscious decision," says Linda Coogan Byrne.
"'We meet every week, we sit down as a team, we have to make sure there's not a disparity here. We have to make sure there's a balance. It's that simple."
An RTÉ spokesperson said: "We are always aware of gender representation. We have read the slides generated from Radiomonitor and are reviewing the time period and the data. 2FM supports artists from all communities; however, some genres of music may not suit the music policy of the station. Therefore, as we consider the time period in question, we will be examining other factors such as genre."