There is the composer who offers to mentor young women and then starts a discussion about his open marriage, the Oscar winner who exposes his penis to assistants in his studio, the jingle-writing company where executives have met at strip clubs. And even when female composers manage to dodge those career minefields, there are subtler ones, like the comments.
“I’ve been told, ‘Your music is not masculine enough,’ ” says Laura Karpman, who has composed the music for HBO’s Lovecraft Country, the Disney+ series What If? and Fox Searchlight’s Step. “What are you supposed to say to that? ‘Oh my God, did I use a flute?’ When you get old enough and have enough of a career, you can challenge them or choose to work elsewhere. But the younger people just have to smile.” Ultimately, Karpman was fired from that show — and then ended up using the “not masculine enough” music in a first-person shooter video game.
While most corners of Hollywood have begun to grapple with the lessons of the #MeToo movement, the field of composing has proved particularly slow to evolve on gender issues. The lack of a union for composers in the U.S., reliance on a largely uncredited freelance workforce and a historically male-dominated music industry culture all contribute to the problem, female composers say.
“We don’t have an HR department. We don’t have a union. Where are we supposed to go?” asks Nomi Abadi, a Grammy-nominated pianist who has composed music for features, video games, commercials and short films. “We haven’t acknowledged the #MeToo movement in composing at all. It’s as if it’s affecting the rest of Hollywood, but not us.”
In fall 2020, Abadi founded the Female Composer Safety League, a group that now has more than 200 members who network, share advice and participate in weekly meetings online. Abadi, a victim of sexual assault, describes the organization as “survivor centered”; the group has applied for 501(c)(3) status and recently agitated to get the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to respond with more urgency to female composers’ cases.
“Sexual harassment in composing is pretty widespread,” says music executive Erin Collins. “It’s men in positions of power taking advantage of women trying to get ahead. Everybody is just putting up with it because it’s good for their careers. Nobody feels comfortable coming out because it’s career-destroying.”
In an entertainment industry that has been trying to address gender gaps in high-profile areas like directing and onscreen representation, composing is the craft that may have the furthest to go to approach parity. According to researchers at USC’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, of the 1,443 composers employed on the top-grossing movies made between 2007 and 2019, just 25, or 1.7 percent, were women.
Over the years, women have tried to push the doors open, with some success. In 2016, Karpman, who co-founded the Alliance for Women Composers, became the first female governor of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ music branch, which represents both composers and songwriters. Turkish-born composer Pinar Toprak became the first woman to score a Marvel film with Captain Marvel in 2019, and Icelandic composer Hildur Gudnadóttir became just the third woman to win the Oscar for original score, for 2019’s Joker.
Though these are impressive gains in visibility for female composers, gaining access to the entry-level jobs as assistants to the overwhelming majority of male composers is tricky, many women say.
As in many freelance-based careers, securing work in composing is based on relationships. For female composers, building those relationships can require maneuvering through some complicated spaces. “You’re in studios, often in the home,” Karpman says. “It’s very hard to separate the personal from the professional. Lines get crossed. It’s a navigation even if you’re not dealing with harassment.” Absent a union or a traditional employer, “we have no workplace rules and no organized way to create codes of conduct,” she says. “It’s a flawed ecosystem.”
“You’re in a tiny, dark, soundproof room together,” says one female composer who has worked on films and video games. “It’s intimate, and you have to have a good fit with somebody, a good personal working relationship. It’s harder for men and young women to develop trusting relationships with each other right off the bat and feel safe together. I’ve also been told flat out, ‘He won’t hire a woman for this job because his wife won’t like it.’ ”
Even when they’re just networking online, female composers can have some head-scratching encounters. One male composer reached out to composer Jayla Damaris through direct message, offering to mentor her before seeing her demo reel or an example of her work. “I hadn’t mentioned anything about mentoring,” says Damaris. “Maybe I do need mentoring, but I don’t think I want it from him. He’s maybe two years older than me. I was like, ‘I’ll keep you posted when I can work for you for pay.’ ” He later sent her a shirtless picture. Damaris, a classical pianist of color with two degrees in music, also has fielded comments about her appearance that made her feel tokenized and demeaned. “They say, ‘You’re so exotic looking, why don’t you want to be in front of the camera?’ ” Damaris says. ” ‘You’d be perfect as a love interest or a prostitute.’ Well, because I’m a composer. This is what I do.”
“We’re working in an industry that has a culture that’s for men and by men,” says Catherine Nguyen, who serves on the board of the Female Composers Safety League and has worked in the music departments of Disney’s Encanto and United Artists’ Bill & Ted Face the Music and composed music for video games and short films. “Networking looks really different for women compared to how it might look to men. I was told, if you’re not willing to have a drink with someone, you’re not going to get anywhere. I’m already outnumbered [in the studio]. I don’t want to be drinking with them and unaware of things. Women can’t let ourselves go in the same way. That’s not really an option.”
In the U.K., composers belong to the Musicians’ Union, which in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal created an online portal for reporting incidents of sexual harassment. Through that portal, the organization has fielded hundreds of complaints, according to Naomi Pohl, the union’s deputy general secretary. Submissions to the Musicians’ Union portal have included allegations of online harassment, stalking, inappropriate touching and an expectation of sexual favors in exchange for work. In at least one case, complaints led to a disciplinary hearing in which a musician was stripped of his union membership. “It’s been harrowing because there’s been so many cases,” Pohl says. “The really difficult thing is when you have lots of complaints about a person who may be high profile but isn’t employed by anyone. It’s difficult to get justice when you’re dealing with groups of freelancers.”
The field of composing has not had a high-profile, Weinstein-like figure topple amid abuse allegations. In 2019, in the midst of a series of #MeToo stories that roiled the video game industry, a game designer accused a prolific game composer of rape, and a vocalist accused him of sexual harassment. No charges were filed, and the composer denied the allegations.
After the allegations, “We were expecting a wave to happen but nothing did,” says Abadi. “I don’t believe in cancel culture, but I definitely believe in consequence culture. I don’t think any one of the abusers in my field has had to face any consequences.” Though there are high-profile male composers whom female composers say are repeat offenders when it comes to sexual harassment and even assault, women did not want to go on the record about them in this story for fear of career repercussions.
A lot of the problems female composers face are rooted in the dramatic power imbalance that exists between the handful of big-name composers that studios and directors hire to oversee the project and the largely anonymous freelance workers, regardless of gender, who actually write much of the music that makes up a score. “There’s an image that a composer does everything by himself,” says Nguyen. “Actually, there’s a whole team behind them. An assistant is expected to do technical work, musical work, orchestration, but the composer decides what credits the assistants get.” Says another female composer: “I feel like we’re under a rock. We are so behind the scenes that nobody really knows about us. Unless you’re Hans Zimmer or John Williams, nobody knows who you are.” In many studios, female assistants are more likely to be given administrative work, like managing schedules, rather than creative work, some women say. “Early in my career, a peer said, ‘You’re a woman’ and gave me his trousers to fold,” says Ella Jarman-Pinto, a U.K.-based composer who hosts a podcast on composing called Beyond the Chameleon. “I didn’t really know how to respond. I folded them.”
Composers earn their money through a combination of fees paid up front for their work and residuals from the rights to their music, which are collected through the performance rights organizations BMI, ASCAP and SESAC. Particularly early in their careers, composers hoping to rise in the industry will work in a studio where they earn little to no credits and thus no royalties on the music they write. Whether and how to push back and ask for credit — something a union like the Writers Guild would help a screenwriter maneuver — is a dilemma a composer must navigate alone. Some female composers say this is an especially thorny issue for women, who experience consequences for appearing too demanding or assertive. “In order to get work, you sign away rights,” says Jarman-Pinto. “There’s this fear that if you make a fuss or you don’t sign away your rights, you might not get the work. There is often an assumption that women are more accommodating, aiming to please, wanting to get our foot in the door. There’s an assumption that if something has to give, the woman will give. And if you don’t, you’re not being helpful.”
Overwork also is an issue, with composers rushing to meet demanding deadlines. Here, too, bias can play a role. “People have made comments to me about being an Asian woman, and so the work ethic is already there,” says Nguyen, who is Vietnamese American. “It’s a positive stereotype, but it’s still a stereotype. The expectation is that I have no problem working super long hours. There is a deadline, and if you need to work 16 hours a day seven days a week to meet that deadline, you will. It’s become an unhealthy standard.”
Personality type plays a complicated role in composing, where defending your creative choices and presenting them with a sense of showmanship is a key part of the job. “They have to come across very confident,” says Collins. “With some, this creates an attitude of entitlement that ‘I got this job, I can make this happen, I can get away with it.’ ” Where there’s an expectation of a certain grandiosity from male composers, female composers can be penalized for displaying the same passion, some say. Karpman heard from her agent that she was being “too emotional” when explaining her musical choices to one TV show’s producers. “You’re just trying to defend a cue like a guy does,” she says.
Some female composers say navigating bias and harassment has sapped them of the enthusiasm that originally drew them to the field. “I had no idea walking into this industry that I was going to face the amount of general discrimination I have,” says one female composer. “It’s taken me aback every single time. I’m 31 and I’m this super jaded, depressed person, and that is not how I was when I started my career. My creativity is just gone.”
Abadi’s experiences in the industry, including her sexual assault, “changed the person I am.”
“My writing changed,” she says. “I used to have such a childlike sense in my writing. [The child in me was] the one with all the imagination. That’s the most wonderful part of being a composer. It’s taken me years to recalibrate and feel safe to get back to that place.”
Karpman, who has spent decades advocating just to get women in the door as composers, says she is now looking more at the culture they face when they get there. “For me, that’s the next horizon of advocacy,” Karpman says. “It’s got to open the floodgates, not be a trickle through a rusty old pipe.”
This story first appeared in the Dec. 8 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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