Visible Women

Why this Grammy-nominated songwriter wants to get more women into the music industry

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Moya Crockett
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Woman of the Week is Stylist’s weekly celebration of women making a difference to society. Grammy-nominated songwriter Carla Marie Williams has written for everyone from Girls Aloud to Beyoncé. Now, she wants to get more women into songwriting. 

Adele. Beyoncé. Rihanna. Taylor Swift. Nicki Minaj. Some of the world’s biggest pop stars are women, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the music industry isn’t dominated by men. In the US, less than a quarter of the 600 most popular songs of the last five years were performed by women, according to recent research by the University of Southern California, and just 12% were penned by female songwriters. The same study found that men make up more than 90% – 90%! – of all Grammy nominees since 2012.

Things aren’t much better in the UK, where more than three-quarters of mainstream music festivals taking place in 2018 don’t have a single female-fronted act on their line-up. The average gender pay gap at the country’s major labels is over 30%, while women make up just 6% of members of the Music Producers Guild (MPG). And according to PRS for Music – the UK body that looks after copyright for songwriters, composers and music publishers – just 17% of professional songwriters are women.

It’s against this rather disheartening backdrop that Carla Marie Williams is striving to get more women into the music industry – specifically, to nurture the talents and boost the profiles of female songwriters. The London-born, Grammy-nominated lyricist and composer recently helped launch the #GetHeard campaign, an initiative with PRS for Music to address the gender gap in songwriting. In late June, over 200 aspiring women songwriters gathered at a #GetHeard event in London to share their music with some of the music industry’s most influential figures, and to hear Williams and other prominent women share their insights into the business.

Williams describes #GetHeard as “a way to bring the industry to the girls and to the movement” – the movement, of course, being the rising sense that gender inequality in the music industry needs to be addressed. It’s important to Williams that the campaign doesn’t just pay lip service to the idea of female empowerment, but actually serves a practical purpose, connecting songwriters with people they need to know.

“We want to create producers or writers or artists,” she says. Now the campaign has been launched, she hopes to “gain more support from industry people and sponsors; people that actually believe this can be done and who want to support women. And I mean genuinely support women – not just do ad campaigns that look great.”

Carla Marie Williams (centre, with Naughty Boy) at the #GetHeard event in London in June 

When it comes to the music industry, Williams knows what she’s talking about. She spent the first chapter of her career at Xenomania, the music production and songwriting team once described by the BBC as “Britain’s top hit factory”. Partly as a result of her time there, her catalogue of songwriting credits reads like the track list for a 21st century pop compilation album: she’s written for everyone from Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue to The Saturdays and Craig David, and is responsible for some of Girls Aloud’s biggest bangers. (If you ever got drunk and sang Can’t Speak French at a karaoke bar in the late Noughties, you’ve got Williams to thank.)

Although she’d been writing poetry since she was at school, and spent some time in a short-lived girl band in her teens, it was getting her foot in the door at Xenomania that Williams classes as her big break. During her time there, she achieved 6 UK top 10s, an Ivor Novello nomination, and a Brit Award nod for her contribution to the Girls Aloud track The Promise. But in 2014, she decided to strike out on her own.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she admits. “I didn’t have a team, I didn’t have management; I was just by myself. I had to sit down and really think about what I was going to do next.” 

What she ended up doing next was setting up a studio in her house and launching her own songwriting collective, New Crowd, which allowed her to branch out into A&R, scouting and mentoring roles as well as writing. “I just started inviting people over and having fun again.” For most people, having fun with our friends doesn’t lead to writing two songs for Beyoncé – but for Williams, that’s exactly what happened. She had been writing with her friend Shahid Khan, aka Naughty Boy, and the result was the platinum-certified Runnin’ (Lose It All), which Beyoncé provided guest vocals for in 2015.

As a result of her work on Runnin’, Williams was then asked to write a track for Lemonade, the album that cemented Beyoncé’s status as a cultural icon who could sing about politics, race and feminism just as fluently as love, heartbreak and partying. That song was the earth-shaking Freedom, in which Beyoncé sings: “I break chains all by myself / Won’t let my freedom rot in hell”.

“Being a black woman, and with feminism being so close to my heart, it really resonated with me that someone like her would want to speak on these issues really loudly, and [her music] not just be about a turn-up or a dance or a party,” Williams says. 

A month before the release of Lemonade, Williams launched the not-for-profit organisation Girls I Rate, which aims to push for gender equality in the creative industries and create internships, jobs and work experience for girls and women. Before setting up Girls I Rate, Williams had been feeling “battered” by her attempts to move into artist management post-Xenomania, an experience she believes was heavily influenced by the fact she was a woman trying to make it in an extremely male-dominated business.

“I was left out of meetings, decisions were made around me, and I was made out to be the difficult crazy one,” she says. “I just felt I didn’t know enough women on my side of the industry. I was going through a lot of things where I felt marginalised and I didn’t feel like my voice was being heard, so I wanted to create a movement where my voice and other women’s voices could be heard.”

Along with her work with Girls I Rate, Williams hopes the #GetHeard campaign will create real opportunities for women in music. She’d like the event held in June with PRS for Music to become an annual networking occasion for aspiring female songwriters, one that helps women and girls get signed to labels, publicists and management.

She also wants to help educate young female songwriters about how to make money from their music. “A lot of this new wave of kids know how to put things on the internet, but they don’t understand the business,” she observes. And she wants to encourage women songwriters to be resilient.

“I’m trying to teach these new girls to stick in there, because these things take time,” she says. “When I left school, it took me years before I actually got a proper deal. The music industry is still a boys’ club – so we need to keep knocking on those doors and refuse to give up.”

The Woman of the Week series is part of Stylist’s Visible Women campaign, dedicated to raising the profiles of brilliant women past and present. See more Visible Women stories here.

Images: Courtesy of Carla Marie Williams