5 Questions to Vanessa Reed (President and CEO, New Music USA)

In August 2019, Vanessa Reed was appointed President and CEO of New Music USA following a decade at the PRS Foundation, the UK’s leading funder of new music and talent development. In 2015, Reed founded Keychange, an international career development program and advocacy organization dedicated to championing the cause of gender parity in the music industry. The Keychange Pledge, a core project of Keychange, encourages festivals, music organizations, and companies to commit to achieving gender balance in their operations by 2022. Vanessa has received a number of important awards for her work in the arts, including BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour Power List 2018, which named Reed the third most influential woman in the music industry after Beyoncé and Taylor Swift.

What were the driving forces that inspired you to create Keychange to address issues of gender equity in music?

I founded Keychange in response to the low representation of women among composers and songwriters registered with performance rights organizations in Europe. Across six European countries in 2017, 84% of their membership was male. We raised awareness of this imbalance by launching a large network and artist development program that enables women, trans, and non-binary artists to connect and hone their skills through festival showcases, training, and peer mentoring. Our commitment to social justice was backed by a strong belief that gender equity enhances the quality and relevance of the music program, and that a more inclusive music industry benefits everyone. 

The Keychange pledge for gender parity by 2022—now signed by 300+ festivals worldwide—was not part of our original plan. Like many great ideas, it evolved organically as our music-festival partners recognized the need to address their roles as gatekeepers and curators. They announced an ambitious target to balance their stages by 2022, encouraging others to follow suit. The momentum created by the #MeToo movement was an important factor here, providing the opportunity to catalyze international debate and action within an industry that was finally waking up to the fact that doing nothing is no longer an option. 

Keychange Manifesto launch at European Parliament

Keychange Manifesto launch at European Parliament

A number of prominent initiatives have been formed to close the musical gender gap. Have you found certain initiatives and practices, formal or informal, to be especially promising, and if so, how do you define and measure their success?

One of the challenges that hampers progress with gender equity is division and disagreement among those who ultimately want to achieve parallel or identical goals. That’s why I always welcome as broad a range of initiatives as possible–toward a shift that’s greater than the sum of its parts. Global music-industry campaigns might raise awareness and promote role models for the next generation. Focused initiatives like Luna Composition Lab, the Young Women Composers Camp, and many other projects New Music USA has funded give tailored support, inspiration, and emergent peer networks to individuals who deserve as much access to careers in music as those who’ve historically occupied more space. 

The most successful initiatives incorporate ideas, critique, and leadership from people who’ve experienced some of the obstacles the program tackles. They are driven by authentic partnerships, enabling growth and long-term change, and they account for intersectional identities.

Some initiatives like Mutual Mentorship for Musicians exclude men, creating safe spaces for peer support and collaboration. Others, like Keychange, involve all genders, united in a belief that gender equity benefits everyone. Both approaches are valid and needed. If men currently hold most of the power, they can’t be absent from all conversations addressing structural change. That doesn’t mean that they always need to be in the room.

Luna Composition Lab Fellows 2019-20, Olivia Bennett, KiMani Bridges, Madeline Clara Cheng, Ebunoluwa Oguntola, and Sage Shurman

Luna Composition Lab Fellows 2019-20, Olivia Bennett, KiMani Bridges, Madeline Clara Cheng, Ebunoluwa Oguntola, and Sage Shurman

What are the most notable barriers that still need to be overcome to achieve gender parity in music?

To achieve equity and inclusion, change must be tangible across every level of our community—including leadership at large non-profit and commercial music institutions, where slow progress inhibits sector-wide change. If white men continue to lead nearly all of the most-visible organizations—major record labels, orchestras, concert halls, publishing companies—alternative structures and role models become difficult to visualize. 

Significant barriers for our Keychange participants included the absence of appropriate structures for women with children in an industry with long working hours, and lack of support for freelancers. In the Diametrically Composed project we funded, composer/performer Allison Loggins-Hull confronts the notion that motherhood and career success are mutually limiting values, in ways that fatherhood and professional life are more often not.

Keychange artists stressed the ongoing pressure of sexual harassment, and the lack of transparency around equal pay. UK Government introduced compulsory reporting in 2017, revealing that major music companies’ gender pay-gap ranged from 26 -39%. Similar research regarding disparities in artist and commissioning fees remains to be seen.

Other notable barriers relate to historic, social, and cultural factors, which intensify the gender gap in some music genres. Through her El Paso Jazz Girls 2020 initiative, composer Amanda Ekery highlights the complete absence of women in the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra since its inception 30 years ago; likewise the Texas All-State jazz band brandishes a mere 2% participation by women. Amanda’s project makes a direct, practical intervention for gender equality in her hometown’s jazz community.

Perhaps the most important thing we learnt as the Keychange program evolved is that, for any aspect to move forward, we need whole-sector change. This requires generosity in the sharing of expertise, networks, and knowledge. It also demands a focus on education and early-career mentoring in parallel with bold programming, senior-level appointments, and advocacy campaigns that enable young composers, performers, and music lovers to see their future selves succeeding within our industry. 

El Paso Jazz Girls Project

El Paso Jazz Girls Project

August 18, 2020 marked the centennial anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, and in some ways, this date is a reminder of work that still needs to be done. How should organizations like New Music USA consider and address the numerous intersecting factors—gender, race, culture, education, economic status, disability, etc.—that affect representation in music?

The strong representation of women and people of color in the projects that New Music USA supports is one of the factors that influenced my decision to join the organization last year. 66% of projects we funded in 2019 predominantly featured women and 43% predominantly featured artists and practitioners of color. Significant work had been done to ensure equity and inclusion in our grantmaking process, and that was a tangible way for New Music USA to take action and lead by example. NewMusicBox, our online magazine, also provides a platform for the discussion of intersectional representation in music. Brin Solomon’s column on responsible trans casting and Chrysanthe Tan’s column on accessibility and autism are just a few examples of content we’ve published, uplifting voices that are usually left out of the conversation.

We recognize, however, that this work is just the beginning of a long-term commitment to organizational change. The social and racial inequities we’ve woken up to over the past few months and the reminder that gender parity is yet to be achieved 100 years on from the passage of the 19th Amendment demonstrate the ongoing, urgent need for deep systemic change. 

For nonprofit organizations like New Music USA, this means ensuring intersectional representation at every level of our organization—from board and staff to advisors and panelists. It means improving our collection and interpretation of data so we can better track where we are and want to be in the future. It means embedding equity and inclusion at the heart of everything we do. And it requires constant work, humility, and open engagement.

As a funder, it’s our responsibility to influence change and direct resources to groups and individuals who, in certain spheres of our community, have been overlooked. That’s why we launched our Amplifying Voices program in January 2020 with support from the Sphinx Organization in Detroit to stimulate more commissions and performances of orchestral music by Black and Latinx composers. We’re extending this program thanks to the Sorel Organization to involve more BIPOC women composers, given the multiple forms of discrimination they face. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the musical landscape, presenting tremendous unprecedented challenges for artists and organizations alike. Yet, the drive to create and share art persists. Do you have any advice and words of encouragement for the musical community?

Over the past six months, I’ve been impressed and inspired by the sheer volume, quality, and range of online performances and discussions created by the new music community. The number of people tuning in, despite digital fatigue, suggests that the creation of new music and the sharing of work has never been more important. It also paves the way for a live–digital hybrid model that could ultimately expand reach and diversify resources for music organizations and independent artists. 

I’m hopeful that the challenges posed by COVID-19 and our painful reckonings on racism and class disparities create opportunities for positive change toward increased transparency, improved working conditions, and a renewed commitment to justice in all its forms. 

New Music USA, for example, will be asking the organizations that apply for our grants to share the terms of their artist contracts and equity and inclusion policies. We will also be changing the focus of our Project Grants program this year in response to our community’s evolving needs, and the altered landscape we all face. There’s no turning back to where we were six months ago. Let’s instead use this moment to redesign our world for future generations, and to acknowledge the role of music—and all of its diverse creators and practitioners—as essential contributors to a vibrant, healthy, and just society.

Follow Vanessa on @iamvanessareed and read here for reflections on her first year at New Music USA.


UNEVEN MEASURES is a series dedicated to amplifying today’s women, trans, and nonbinary artists on the centennial anniversary of the 19th Amendment leading up to the 2020 presidential election. This series is made possible through a generous grant from The Elizabeth & Michel Sorel Charitable Organization Inc. to the American Composers Forum and their partnership with I CARE IF YOU LISTEN. The Sorel Organization is committed to supporting gender equity in music and addressing systemic inequities by providing greater visibility for women musicians from underrepresented communities.