"I think people are starting to see that women are equally able to compete..." - hmv.com talks to Hear Her Voice curator Lisa Power
In an environment where a growing proportion of music consumption is driven by singles and the instant gratification of streaming, National Album Day has become an increasingly important fixture in the musical calendar, keeping alive the romantic ideals of the album as both a viable format and an artform in itself.
This year's National Album Day held particular significance for another reason too, focussing specifically on albums by women and highlighting their achievements in music against the backdrop of a growing discussion around eqality between the sexes, both in the music industry and beyond.
As part of the National Album Day celebrations this year a new compilation has been assembled by A&R consultant Lisa Power, who recently launched a new blog aimed at promoting and celebrating classic albums by female artists alongside her work on catalogue reissues for Universal Music.
The resulting compilation, Hear Her Voice, is available on vinyl exclusively at hmv and contains a collection of songs hand-picked from a list of classic albums by women, from veterans like Dusty Springfield and Sandie Shaw to emerging female talents such as British singer-songwrietr Celeste and Norwegian songstress Sigrid.
With the new compilation in stores now, we spoke to Lisa about her role in putting the album together, why she's encouraged by some of the progress being made by women in the music industry, and why we still have plenty of work to do if we're going to see equal representation for women on festival line-ups, on radio playlists and on the vinyl racks...
How did you first get involved with the Hear Her Voice album?
“I have been an A&R consultant for UMC, Universal’s catalogue label, for over five years now and I work on various catalogue releases that way, but about a year ago I set up a blog called Reissues by Women, which was a sort of lockdown project. I realised that I was listening to very little music by women, partly because of the projects that I was working on and that being the default, partly because my husband is a big jazz fan. I hesitate to say that he was monopolising the stereo, but he is very fond of listening time and I suddenly realised that there was a lot of maleness and a lot of masculinity in my listening.
“I had a bit of a soapbox thing pre-lockdown about women in music and under-representation, so I thought: ‘Well, why don’t I have my own listening project where I seek out the reissues by women each week, listen to them and write about them?’ Because if this is of interest to me then it might be of interest to other people. So I started that about a year ago and I had been talking about it amongst colleagues at UMC, and so when they came to start up the Hear Her Voice project earlier this year, my name was thrown into the pot as someone who would be interested and aligned with the vision, I suppose.”
Between your catalogue work and the blog, are there any particular female artists you’ve discovered and gotten to love through doing that?
“I mean, there are so many to mention I don’t feel like I could pick just one, because it’d feel like a disservice. Every week there’s between 5 and 20 things that I might be featuring, and all of it is just really good. I know that’s a woolly answer, but what I have found is that there are certain periods in my life where I noticed that I was just completely unaware of things and I was like: ‘Why have I not heard this?’ But it ties in with the times I was having children, and I was completely off the radar. Between 2010 and 2011, and then again around 2013, I knew nothing of the music that came out in those periods!”
How did you go about selecting tracks that would feature on the album?
“As part of Hear Her Voice the idea was to do some kind of a product and National Album Day was all about women this year, so that seemed like a really good fit. The idea was that a lot of albums would be celebrated and we would look at Universal’s UK catalogue and the artists within that as our starting point.
“We looked at some of the perennial sellers like Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, Portishead’s Dummy, albums by Florence and the Machine and Dusty Springfield, then we also looked at albums that were specifically being reissued this year, or as part of National Album Day, or that were just generally ‘having a moment’, like Gabrielle’s Rise, Corinne Bailey-Rae’s self-titled album, Kirsty MacColl’s Tropical Brainstorm and Marianne Faithful’s Broken English.
“And then we also looked at some of the more recent successes like Mabel, Sigrid and particularly Celeste, who was the first British woman in five years to have a UK No.1 album this year. So that was how we approached the project and then it was about selecting a key track from each by way of a showcase, really, and linking back to the album.”
Did you have any specific criteria for which tracks you’d select from those albums?
“In terms of the tracks we generally went with the ‘biggest’ track on each album, either the biggest single or a cult track from. So that meant that once you get to the album, the next bit sort of writes itself. With Corinne Bailey Rae, for example, ‘Put Your Records On’ was the obvious choice, but it was also about the sentiment of that particular song, which is so lovely. In a lot of cases we picked the title track, but generally we went for the obvious choices because we wanted to connect with as many people as possible. So it wasn’t about deep cuts in this instance, it was very much about ‘look at this amazing collection of women’."
Is it something the artists themselves supported too?
“We were genuinely overwhelmed by the amount of positive responses from the artists we approached, and how quickly those responses came in. Normally with these things you have to leave about eight weeks, but almost half of the responses came back within the first eight hours, it was phenomenal. Within 48 hours we really had a huge number of responses and that made us feel like we were doing something that people felt was important and necessary.”
What was your own route into the music industry?
“My own route started in 1999 when I moved to London, I’d come out of a film & TV degree in Dublin and had worked in the film industry for about a year. My husband is from Belfast, I didn’t want to live in Belfast and he didn’t want to live in Dublin, so London became the compromise.
"I signed up with a recruitment agency and on day one they called me up and said ‘would you like to go and work at Abbey Road Studios? So I covered the reception desk at Abbey Road, which was amazing, and I did a few other bits and then they rang me up and asked if I’d like to go and work at Paul McCartney’s office. And it was literally just that, they needed someone to help out. So I temped there for about six months and then they offered me a full-time job. I make it sound easy, I worked bloody hard while I was there, to make myself useful! But yeah, it was as random as that, a lucky break."
There are plenty of great female artists around, although that isn’t always well represented at festivals and things like that, but how well do you think women are represented in other parts of the music industry?
“I think it’s across the board, to be honest. As part of my blog I looked at the Record Store Day list of releases this year and counted. It was sort of inspired by the likes of Book More Women and The F List, who look at festivals, Women in Control, and the Why Not Her? initiative in Ireland that looks at radio play. I thought it would be interesting to see if their figures also applied to release schedules, and they do. Broadly speaking, you’re talking 20% women to 80% men in pretty much everybody’s findings."
We should probably look more closely at that when we do our Vinyl Week next year…
“I did have a look at your Centenary Editions this year, and you were actually above 20%, I think it was 25%. So something of a pat on the back there, but it’s systemic.”
Seems there's more work to be done on our side too, then… although we should say that a proportion of the exclusive vinyl titles we feature are put forward by the record labels themselves.
“There’s work to be done on everyone’s side. So even me as an A&R, there’s work to be done by me in terms of the projects that I’m putting forward for release, the projects I choose to work on and where I choose to spend my time. And that’s something that I’m evolving, it used to be 100% male because I’d be asked to work on this or that, and I’d say ‘well, yeah.’ But I’m now probably about 50/50 in terms of what I do. And you’re correct, it’s based on who submits what and it goes right back, because the labels are submitting to ERA (Entertainment Retailers Association) and the Record Store Day organisers, but prior to that it’s the people submitting the ideas to the labels.
“So we all, right from the very inception of these things, have a responsibility to count and to look at what we’re doing, to make sure that it's a bit more balanced. Sometimes that takes a bit of time, but I think there is an increasing receptiveness from everybody to get behind it."
In your experience, is it a similar story on the creative side, with producers, engineers?
“I wouldn’t necessarily be able to comment too much on the production side, but what I will say is that I don’t think I am currently working with any women at all, other than those in charge of managing studios. I’m not working with any female mastering engineers or cutting engineers, for example. There are some, and I’m actually making it my business to to seek them out, but the default is largely male.”
Do you think things are starting to improve? There are some bands / artists starting to commit to only playing festivals with a 50/50 split on the line-up, are you seeing enough of that?
“Well, there’s never going to be enough until we’re 50/50, and we’re not there yet. But I do see changes, I see people responding to things like the F-List and coming out and saying ‘that’s not OK’. Did it stop some of the big festivals who were called out on it last year from selling their tickets? No. So if they’re not so inclined to be interested in balance, there’s not necessarily a financial incentive or penalty for them and I think that’s part of the problem.
"But I do notice it, and I’m heartened by some of the other things you’re seeing at the moment. I mean, Lana Del Ray has the biggest selling vinyl album in the UK this year. Adele may smash it, but that’s another woman. Olivia Rodrigo has the biggest-selling cassette in the UK this year. So I think people are starting to see that women are equally able to compete."
What other things would you like to see change?
“There are so many instances where you’re listening to somebody on a podcast or something like that and if a woman is with a band it’s assumed that she’s an assistant or a PA, rather than, say, a manager. There are systemic biases that go back decades.
“And then there’s the gender pay gap information that was published recently, and I think that would suggest that in any of the big companies in any part of the industry, the balance isn’t what it should be, financially.”
What do you think the rest of us can do in the industry do to improve things?
“I think, fundamentality, count. Wherever there’s an opportunity for balance, in any area, count. I went into a record store the other day – it wasn’t a branch of hmv, although I do frequent hmv – and they had a wall of ‘essential records’. And again, it was 80% men. It’s like, ‘where are all the women?’ And you start going ‘Well, if you count Kim Deal in Pixies then OK that’s another.’ But you’re really looking for it, you know? And I think Kim Deal is brilliant by the way, and of course she makes a valid contribution, but still, she’s not the frontwoman of the band.
“To see the pictures and stories that were coming out from hmv all weekend of National Album Day with the racks and racks of releases by women was fantastic. And yeah, make sure that stuff is prominent in your stores and make sure it’s balanced.”
Hear Her Voice is available in stores now -you can also find it on CD and hmv exclusive vinyl here in our online store.