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Calls for transparency come after women account for small percentage of ECMA winners

This year’s East Coast Music Awards were unusual in many ways amid a global pandemic, but the small number of women who actually won brought up long-standing conversations around gender parity in the Atlantic music scene.

Kimberly Sinclair owns SpinCount, a Nova Scotia music promotions firm, and is a former ECMA board member. She said the percentage of women who took home awards this weekend “does not match” the actual industry she works with every day.

The ECMAs aired a pre-taped main show on CBC Saturday night where they handed out some awards, while many were also announced as part of a pre-awards show on Friday.

In total, the music winners were dominated by men, with only four of the 27 categories — 14.8 per cent — going to women, or bands with women in them.

That included Laura Roy (R&B/soul recording), Eastern Owl (Indigenous artist), Nancy Hynes (Inspirational recording, with Ian Foster), and Natalie MacMaster (roots/traditional).

Eastern Owl is, from left, Jenelle Duval, Jaime O’Leary, Joanna Barker, Stacey Howse, Natasha Blackwood, Rebecca Sharr, and Danielle Benoit. (Jennie Williams )

Sinclair also noted the nominees overall skewed heavily toward men, with some awards like album of the year, as well as best country, group, rock, and folk recordings, having only one woman, or groups with women, nominated out of five.

On the industry side, two categories, producer and studio engineer of the year, didn’t have women nominated at all.

“I don’t know why it came out this way,” Sinclair said.

“As a music industry as a whole, not just the ECMAs, I think [on] the East Coast we need to have … bigger conversations on how we can make space for women. Because clearly the space is not there currently.”

Promoter calls for ‘sunshine policy’

The results bring up many unanswered questions for Sinclair around which artists put their names in for each category, how the nominees are chosen, and by whom. 

According to the ECMA website, nominees are chosen by a pool of more than 200 jury members consisting of “qualified regional, national, and international industry professionals.”

Sinclair said she’d like to see the ECMA’s adopt a “sunshine policy” where everything is in the open, including who is in the jury pool.

“In 2020, how did we get to this point where the percentage is so dominated by the male industry that it’s not even correct?”

It’s only with that transparency that the problem will become clear, Sinclair said. At issue is whether women are being passed over in the jury process or aren’t putting their names forward in the first place.

Unclear how many women up for nominations

If that’s the case, Sinclair said it could be that not enough women have professional teams behind them, or maybe they still don’t feel comfortable in the industry, or feel the ECMA’s aren’t “for them.”

Sinclair added she’s sure the winners deserved their awards and it’s not a case of arguing female nominees were better. But, if the numbers are one woman against four men, “statistically it’s not going to work out … and that’s the problem.”

She said it’s also “ridiculous” to argue that maybe there simply weren’t other women in the industry who made music good enough to be nominated.

Fellow Islander and member of The East Pointers, Tim Chaisson, said seeing such a low percentage of female music winners “definitely shocks me.”

Their group took home two ECMAs this year for songwriter of the year and contemporary roots recording for their album Yours to Break.

But he said it is obvious the results should be more balanced given how many talented artists of all different backgrounds, genders and cultures work in the region.

“I’m so happy that people are like voicing those concerns,” Chaisson said. “It definitely needs to be a huge conversation right now and it just needs to keep going.”

Tim Chaisson, P.E.I. musician and member of The East Pointers, said such a low number of female ECMA winners in 2020 was a shock. (Canadian Beats/Facebook)

Internationally, projects like Keychange are calling on music organizations, venues, labels and around the world to sign a pledge committing to reach gender balance by 2022.

Canada had 21 entries signed onto the pledge as of Sunday, with two from the Atlantic region — the Halifax Pop Explosion and Nova Scotia Music Week.

In 2018, Truro’s Rock the Hub caught backlash after announcing an all-male lineup that caused bands like In Flight Safety to drop out. They eventually added one female act to the roster.

It’s examples like that, and the 2020 ECMA results, that Sinclair says show the Atlantic industry as a whole has to take specific and concrete steps to better reflect the people in it.

“We have more talent here on the East Coast than most people have in their entire country,” Sinclair said.

“This is something that we celebrate really well. I just want to make sure everyone’s invited to the party.”

Dean Stairs, chair of ECMA’s board of directors, said in an emailed statement on Sunday, that the organization continually strives to ensure the jury process is fair and equitable.

“Every effort is made to balance each jury with regard to gender, regional representation, and industry expertise from outside the Atlantic region. This work is ongoing,” he said.

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