NZ music’s #MeToo moment is a wake-up call for educators: Prepare graduates to challenge and change the industry

NZ music’s #MeToo moment is a wake-up call for educators: Prepare graduates to challenge and change the industry
New Zealand artist Lorde is one of several signatories to an open letter to industry leaders about stopping sexual abuse and discrimination. Source: Claudio Cruz

Recent accusations of harassment and coercion by leading figures in Aotearoa New Zealand’s music industry were shocking, but not surprising. Last year, we released the Amplify Aotearoa report that revealed serious issues with gender diversity in the local music industry. Two main findings emerged:

  • more than 70% of women reported experiencing gender discrimination, disadvantage and bias
  • nearly half of women reported they had felt unsafe in places where music is made and/or performed.

While there are excellent initiatives encouraging inclusive and diverse cultures in music, women face a range of systemic barriers in the industry, including under-representation, earning less, receiving less airplay, winning fewer awards, and widespread harassment. These issues are experienced disproportionately by women of colour and gender-diverse people. The recent revelations of abusive behaviour in the industry remind us that, beyond its career-limiting potential, discrimination involves a significant emotional cost to victims. This was a major motivation for our Amplify Aotearoa research.

Empowering the next generation

As curriculum developers and university educators in a music degree, we felt obligated to better understand the industry our students were entering. In the process, the project identified even more obligations. It is not enough for the tertiary sector to “call out” the problems the music industry is facing. Rather, we must also reckon with the role music education should play in breaking down obstacles and empowering the next generation of Aotearoa’s music makers to lead cultural change.

In recent years, many tertiary music providers have shifted their focus toward producing “real world” outcomes for their graduates. Music degrees have evolved with the goal of equipping students with proficiency across a variety of industry contexts. Work-integrated and project-based learning is prioritised, seeking to develop skills for career success and employability. Such training aims to produce music graduates who are positioned to meet the demands of the industry, equipped with “realistic attitudes and intentions about their pending careers”.

Changing what and how we teach

What, then, should a “realistic” attitude entail, given the industry’s well-documented history of marginalisation, exploitation and harassment of women and gender-diverse people? Training students for the reality of working in an industry in which they can expect to be targets of mistreatment risks complacency towards existing cycles of discrimination.

Encouraging students to develop “realistic” career intentions should mean empowering them not just to understand existing industry practices, but to have the tools to change them. Part of the answer lies in what and how we teach. Critical theories that underpin our understanding of issues such as race, gender and sexuality allow us to engage with the ways music carries and constructs meaning in our society. In doing so, they provide us with the tools to understand the lived experiences of music industry workers. But such approaches are at risk within the tertiary sector internationally. In Australia, staff and funding cuts have jeopardised courses that teach the critical skills essential to bring about cultural change.

Addressing the gender imbalance

Further urgent issues facing the tertiary music sector are barriers to access, and the lack of diversity in our student cohorts. Who are we training and graduating into the industry? Tertiary Education Commission TEC data show music cohorts in Aotearoa are largely populated by young Pākehā men from high-decile school backgrounds. Women make up around 40% of enrolments in university music programs and courses. Women are also under-represented as staff across the sector.

This disparity is further amplified in the industry, with women representing 24.1% of APRA-AMCOS NZ members. That the imbalance we see in the industry is evident in university recruitment figures suggests problems with pre-tertiary education too. It seems fewer women than men see music as a viable pathway for study. Educational institutions are also not immune to issues of sexual abuse and coercion, as recent allegations have shown. The tertiary sector must do more to foster diverse and inclusive cohorts and curriculums, and hold abuses of power to account.

Change from within

For music educators, this means advocating for critical approaches to understanding music, even when this may not always align with institutional definitions of employability. It also means leading by example in setting standards for respectful and inclusive behaviour, responsibly talking with our students about the epidemic of harassment in creative fields, and addressing disparities in recruitment through a better understanding of the social and economic factors that produce inequalities in student cohorts.

As researchers and educators, our aim is to forge a fairer and more inclusive environment for people to make and share music. But this comes with the immediate obligation of addressing how the wider tertiary sector must effectively engage staff and students in what it means to be a responsible member of a music community. It is the responsibility of music education to empower students to challenge industry practices and organisations, rather than simply place students within them.