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Could the Next Viral Dance Challenge Help Narrow Music’s Gender Gap?

Research Finds TikTok Is Helping Promote Equity in the Industry

By Pablo Suarez

woman dancing with TikTok symbols and hashtags in the background

The music industry is slanted toward men, but female artists have the upper hand in the TikTok dance challenge craze—a potential tool to help them balance the scale while allowing the platform to focus on more inclusive content, a UMD study finds.

Animation by Valerie Morgan

Who knew that recording yourself doing a body roll to Doja Cat could help strike a blow for equality in the music industry? New University of Maryland research on the ongoing TikTok dance challenge trend shows it’s helping female artists get more traction for their musical work.

Robert H. Smith School of Business Ph.D. candidate Yifei Wang, decision, operations and information technology Associate Professor Jui Ramaprasad and co-author Anandasivam Gopal of Nanyang Technological University presented their findings on the phenomenon at the International Conference on Information Systems 2022, where it was named Best Paper in Track.

“You know of Taylor Swift, Beyonce and other famous female artists and vocalists who have put out so many successful records, but that’s not the whole story when it comes to the music industry,” said Wang. “It very much remains a boy’s club.”

A Spotify-funded study concluded that women represented less than one-third of all performers and only 12.5% of songwriters across the 800 most popular songs from 2012 to 2019. There’s a similar tune for Grammy award nominees between 2013 and 2020, with women accounting for only 11.7% of all nominations or a ratio of 7.5 men for every woman nominee.

The authors say factors like systematic discrimination, discounting of the abilities of female artists, unwanted stereotyping or sexualization and negative studio cultures have contributed to this disparity.

One of the largest gaps, however, pertains to the impressions female artists make on a sexist society when promoting their music or projects.

“This is recognized as the self-promotion penalty,” Wang said. “Women are viewed as more assertive and competitive compared to their male counterparts.”

Traditionally, women have turned to their label companies for promotion or social media platforms like YouTube or Instagram. These are relatively unsuccessful because more emphasis is placed on the performer’s appearance in videos rather than the music itself.

Now, TikTok, with its short-form media format, is turning that on its head. Viral videos, like the hashtag dance challenges (HDCs) for Doja Cat’s single “Say So” or Meghan Trainor’s “Made You Look,” allow female artists to lean on other social media users to indirectly boost awareness of their music.

“The combination of user-generated dance and music that characterize HDCs may serve as a music promotion modality by artists, especially women artists, to have a fair shot at increasing the visibility of their work,” Wang said. “It’s extremely cost-effective and provides women with a safer environment to promote their music work.”

Wang and the researchers gathered artist follower data from Spotify, and collaborated with a TikTok-authorized analytics company to identify if a song was associated with the challenge and whether it was initiated by a user or the artist.

The data suggests that artists with a dance challenge-related song achieve a significant daily increase in followership on Spotify compared to similar artists who do not have one.

“Women artists benefit significantly from HDCs; men benefit as well, but at a lower rate than women. The daily growth of Spotify followers increases by approximately 3% more for female artists than male artists, given an HDC-associated song,” says Ramaprasad.

Along with female artists, Wang said it’s also a win for social media platform management teams, because the viral content helps increase user engagement while building a more inclusive environment.

She intends the paper as a starting point for more research exploring the role of actionable technology-driven remedies to mitigate gender disparities, not just in the music industry, but elsewhere in society.

“People seem to be very interested in looking at this intersection of diversity, technology and techno-platform promotion mechanisms,” Wang said. “That’s inspiring my future work in finding potential remedies to help close the gender and self-promotion gaps.”



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