A year of change

Keychange founder Vanessa Reed reflects on the female talent development programme’s first year.

I started to explore the idea of a European talent development programme for female artists back in 2014 when we were evaluating our Women Make Music fund at PRS Foundation. We established this UK initiative for female composers and songwriters when the debate about music’s gender gap was mainly under the radar and people were only just beginning to talk openly about how unbalanced things were – 13% of registered songwriters and composers in the UK were female at the time.

Conversations about our experience with directors of festivals, development agencies and collecting societies across Europe and in Canada revealed a common theme: that low representation of women in music was a huge concern, but no-one seemed to be doing anything significant that would bring together artists and industry professionals from across Europe to influence widespread industry and policy change.

Keychange is the result of those conversations: an international programme that promotes and invests in talented women from across Europe who should be contributing to the music industry’s future; a collaborative network which grew its ambition to have impact not just on the sixty female artists and innovators who were selected to take part but on the success of the industry as a whole and on opportunities for future generations.

Vanessa Reed at the Keychange manifesto launch
Vanessa Reed at the Keychange manifesto launch © Francois de Ribaucourt

An important watershed moment in the first year of Keychange was the realisation that we couldn’t be credible backers of female artists and industry professionals unless we were prepared to make a statement about our own structures’ potential to accommodate a more balanced workforce in the future. That’s why our founding festival partners (led by Alex Schulz at Reeperbahn Festival) set themselves the goal of reaching a 50-50 gender balance on their stages and conference panels by 2022. This announcement was important in other ways – six of our seven founding festivals are led by men, and I’ve always believed that in a male dominated industry their buy-in and example-setting is crucial if we want to achieve tangible and lasting change.

The Keychange 50-50 pledge took off in ways we hadn’t envisaged. As we began to discuss it at industry events in Europe and North America people approached us about how they could get involved. By February, we celebrated Keychange at Canada’s High Commission in London and 45 festivals had become pledge signatories. Now, as we approach the end of the year, 150 festivals have set themselves the 50-50 goal and millions of euros worth of press coverage has been generated to raise awareness and stimulate a debate in mainstream and industry media.

So what have we learnt from this 12-month roller coaster of a project? The most positive things I’ve been struck by are the urgency for change amongst the next generation of men and women, the importance of this debate in countries with the greatest inequalities and the pace at which we’ve moved from discussing the problem to proposing practical solutions.

Our presentation of the Keychange Manifesto at European Parliament last month is just one example of a practical step that is already generating results. European Commission representatives confirmed at this event that assessment criteria for the commission’s next round of funding will incorporate gender thanks to Keychange’s influence. Representatives of membership bodies who attended the event expressed their interest in the pledge as a broader industry kitemark, which could work beyond its current focus on festivals.

Of course, at the many discussions we’ve presented over the past year we’ve also confronted resistance: “What about quality?”, “What’s in it for me?”, “It’s not possible to reach a gender balance,” and so on. Thankfully, the existence of our Keychange network of exceptional artists and innovators along with female participants from other national grass roots movements challenge these beliefs. That diverse teams and programmes will ultimately make the industry more relevant and resilient is another response we know to be true from expert analysis of other sectors. And why not be open about where we are now and where we want to be in the near future? That’s all a voluntary target implies. It increases the chance of us being able to drive change and it helps us monitor what works and what doesn’t along the way.

Keychange leaders at the manifesto launch © Francois de Ribaucourt
Keychange leaders at the manifesto launch © Francois de Ribaucourt

The question of where to go next with this crucial international movement is complicated for an EU-funded project led by a UK-based organisation. Brexit’s potential threat to European artists’ freedom of movement across borders and the importance of UK’s on going involvement in the EU’s cultural and education programmes are real concerns that we and other creative industry leaders are discussing with UK Government.

In spite of this, I’m convinced that the power of shared beliefs, peer-to-peer exchange and the collaborative nature of music-making in itself will propel Keychange and its goals through the next few years. The industry’s need for innovation, fresh perspectives, new business models and networks will make Keychange and other movements like it essential to the industry’s future sustainability. In countries like Brazil where we were presented with an Innovation Award, the political impact of Keychange is also important as opposition and resistance to authoritarian rule which supresses and undermines female power.

As for our longer term goal, this has to be about reaching a point when initiatives like Keychange aren’t needed anymore. A point in time when people, regardless of their identity, can talk about their work before their gender. I can see why “Women in music” fatigue is already apparent at some industry conferences. However, we must not lose the energy and determination that has been driving those debates at this crucial moment in the history of female empowerment and recognition. Let’s channel it instead into other pragmatic steps that will build on the unprecedented momentum for change triggered by #MeToo #TimesUp and millennial values. We finally have a chance to make the next century of music a better and more varied experience for everyone. We can’t miss this opportunity.

Vanessa Reed is CEO of PRS Foundation and the founder of Keychange.