Behind the Scenes Q&As

The song remains the same: How The Pudding used data to uncover sexism in the music industry

The Pudding, an online publication that focuses on data journalism, digs into the overlap of gender and songwriting in their article “Women are superstars on stage, but still rarely get to write songs.” Chris Dalla Riva, who writes a newsletter about music and data, discovered that very few songwriters behind hit tracks are women.

Storybench spoke to Dalla Riva about the idea behind this story, how it came to life through data visualizations and the implications it has for the music industry.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Where did the idea for this story come from?

Dalla Riva: I came up with the idea to listen to every number one hit ever on the Billboard Hot 100 starting in 1958. [My friend and I] would rate the songs.

I was just shocked that when I would filter down to female songwriters, the data would become so sparse. It was sort of jaw-dropping in a sense and eye-opening in another. This has been noted in multiple industry reports; the Annenberg Institute out of [the University of Southern California] does a yearly look at gender representation in the music industry.

[The Pudding] liked the idea, but they always go big. So, we expanded it to every top five hit on the Billboard Hot 100. Once we had this top five data set, we would see the same thing. It wasn’t just that the number one hits were a bad sample.

What [The Pudding] came up with was [to] show the whole universe and then show how much it shrinks when you look at just songwriters of a certain gender or of certain qualities. I like how interactive they make everything.

Riva combined his passions for data and music through this visualization. (Photo courtesy of Chris Dalla Riva.)

How much collaboration was there in the creation of this story?

Building the dataset, it was really just me and Matt Daniels, who runs The Pudding. It was very manual data set building. It took us a couple of months. The collaboration from there was, effectively, I’d work on the copy and Ashley Chi, a graphic designer, handled all of the visuals. Matt handled the actual code behind that to power the project.

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They have a small team, so basically their whole team went through my copy and gave edits, feedback and we sort of adjusted it from there. The copy was ostensibly me with their input. I did not design anything that was in the actual code.

Why do you think this trend of few female singer/songwriters having hit songs is important?

What we tried to put in this story is that it’s a pernicious form of sexism that goes back centuries where men try to fit women into certain roles. I believe people should have the freedom to pursue whatever career path they want. If you want to be a songwriter, there shouldn’t be all these roadblocks in the way.

It gets even more depressing if you look at what are considered more technical roles in music, like sound engineering or mastering. There’s even fewer women in those roles. There are some initiatives every year from the [The Grammy Awards] or other organizations that are like, “Everyone has to commit to working with more female songwriters or producers.” You can get hundreds of people to sign on to these pledges, and it doesn’t seem to make a difference.

Why do you think innovative publications like The Pudding are important for journalism?

Data is a scary word for a lot of people. There’s definitely a big math phobia in society. It makes things easier to understand and a bit more tactile. It makes complex topics easier to grasp and it makes it so that people can engage with topics that they otherwise might be turned off from.

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Isabel Baron

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