Music Fest Feminists Strike Back

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This may be the year that sexist music festival organizers have finally met their match.

Societal impatience over the sexism and male-dominated lineups of major music festivals has been building for some time, but 2015 may well be described as the year society’s pent-up rage finally burst.

Promoters who found themselves on the defensive this year for the sexist imbalance of their festival acts were not only guilty of perpetuating the endemic sexism of the music industry, but they can also be condemned for not having had the simple good sense to see it coming.

From the early months of 2015, a wave of long overdue criticism against the sexism prevailing in music festivals swept the festival circuit. From Vice to The Guardian, critics and bloggers compared key festival lineups and found them damnably wanting, overwhelmingly tilted in favour of male-fronted and – dominated stages. ("Glastonbury, Reading or Creamfields: which 2015 festival has the fewest female artists?", by Jenny Stevens and Ami Sedghi, 23 June 2015)

True to our social media-hewn, infographic-driven age a viral trend emerged: comparing festival posters in their original form with ones where the male artists and bands were removed. The gaping blanks demonstrated the scale of the problem with a visceral and gut-wrenching simplicity.

And Canada was no different.

Already last summer, a sharp and succinct blog entry by Holly Gordon on CBC Music highlighted the statistical imbalance in male to female performers on major Canadian festival lineups in 2014, from Montreal’s Osheaga (22 percent bands with at least one female member, and only two all-female bands compared to 49 all-male) to the British Columbia Squamish Valley Festival (30 percent bands with at least one female member) to the real radicals like NXNE and Halifax Pop Explosion (36 percent each). ("Dear Canadian music festivals: show us the women", by Holly Gordon, CBC Music, 30 July 2014)

Canadian critics also joined in with the trend of photo-shopping out male acts from festival posters. Some of the results are even more depressing than those from the US and UK. ("Here's what Canadian festival posters look like with the all-male acts removed", by Mark Teo, AUX TV, 26 March 2015, and "Posters of Canadian Music Festivals with Only Female Performers are Shocking", by Lisa Lagace, Notable, 1 April 2015)

Taking Action

The scale of the problem was rendered even more glaring when it was called out at the 5 September Harbourage Festival in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador. The festival, in its second year, brought a crowd of thousands to the St. John’s waterfront to listen to a lineup that was starkly lacking in female performers.

It wasn’t the only one. Earlier in the summer, a commentary by CBC reporter Andrew Sampson criticized the province’s entire line-up of major music festivals for their lack of women. His article is particularly remarkable for the assortment of defences offered by male concert organizers and promoters. They range from attributing the lack of women to “just a coincidence”, to not being “especially noteworthy”, to the ubiquitous claim that “the gender of those playing isn’t a consideration.” ("Where are the women musicians in this summer's music festivals?", by Andrew Sampson, CBC News, 15 June 2015)


The dismal state of affairs – and the Harbourage Festival in particular – provoked a uniquely creative reaction, however. It sparked the formation of a local feminist collective calling itself Smashing the Patriarchy: An Action Team (SPAAT). The group, whose Facebook page had hundreds of members within days, promptly organized a counter-concert in response, called Herbourage, showcasing women performers and bands.

Herbourage – and the endemic sexism of local music festivals – drew considerable media attention, as well as defensive platitudes from the men who organized Harbourage.

“We certainly didn’t seek out male musicians in particular,” Harbourage founder and organizer Lorne Loder told St. John’s newspaper The Telegram. “It would be sexist and ridiculous to choose performers based on gender… I would love to see more female performers, but this certainly doesn’t start with the promoter.”

But as Emma Garland wrote in her erudite June 2015 commentary criticising sexist music festivals: “Hey Festival Bookers, it is Your Responsibility to Promote Diversity, Actually!”

Comments like Loder’s are deeply frustrating only partly because they smack of someone trying to shirk responsibility for their poorly thought out actions. They’re frustrating also because they reveal such a shallow grasp of the scale of the problem.

The fact is, the gender imbalance at festivals stretches beyond merely the performers. Failure to tackle systemic problems with sexual harassment at festivals, or to train or hire adequate security to deal with such problems (including, significantly, security staff that are not just male) creates an environment that’s much less conducive for all genders to attend festivals. Sexist beer company promotions contribute to an atmosphere of objectification and harassment as well. Marketing equitable music festivals extends to more than just gender diversity on stage, and the problems tend to only exacerbate each other. ("Sexual Harassment at Concerts and Festivals", Compose Yourself)

The fierce determination of Toronto’s NXNE organizers this summer to resist calls for misogynistic rapper Action Bronson to get the boot from that festival’s main stage reflects profoundly how divorced music promoters seem to be from the more equality-minded attitudes and expectations of the music-loving public. Bronson finally got the boot, but it took tens of thousands of signatures to make it happen. ("When Do Misogynistic Lyrics Become Hate Speech?", by Hans Rollman, PopMatters, 21 July 2015)

Furthermore, promoters do have a special responsibility to promote women performers, since promoters have a uniquely important opportunity to combat the cycles of sexism that remain endemic in the industry. In a country where women are more prone to experience precarious and part-time work, not to mention what is by some measures a worsening gender pay gap, it becomes more challenging for women performers to afford the spare time it takes not only to jam and record, but to promote their own musical careers to the same extent as male performers do. Lack of anything approaching a reasonable childcare system in this country adds to the problem, and creates particular barriers when it comes to touring. How many festivals/promoters provide childcare support, or extra financial incentives for artists who are single mothers?

The extra promotion and revenue that festival gigs can provide to women artists can play a significant role in countering the endemic sexism of the music industry. Of course the problems won’t be solved by promoters alone. But for a promoter to respond with a pitiable “it’s not my fault” is to ignore their significant role in the entire systemic problem, and to shirk their responsibility to push for change.

There’s another problem with the argument that festival organizers are not the ones to blame, and that’s the argument that they are the ones to blame. Already in 2013, Forrest Wickman was writing in to criticize Coachella’s organizers for the minuscule ten percent of female-fronted acts they booked that year, and made no bones about who was to blame: “The idea… is that festivals simply reflect disparities within the music industry, which is supposedly dominated by male acts generally. The problem with this line of argument is that it relies on assumptions that simply aren’t true, and have long been outdated. In fact, the festivals are the ones fucking it up, while women practically dominate the music Americans listen to and enjoy.” ("The Real Reason Summer Festivals Have So Few Women", by Forrest Wickman, 20 April 2013)

The same argument is put succinctly by Garland: “…it’s not just boring, it’s short sighted. Our festival line-up’s are becoming increasingly distanced from our pop culture, where women are considered some of the most innovative voices in punk, hip-hop, dance, and art as a whole.”

Neither writer argues that women have broken through all the sexist barriers ingrained in the music industry, but they observe that in fact other measures – for example, pop charts, and radio airplay – do much better than music festivals when it comes to representing female performers. These other measures remain far from adequate or equitable, but the point is that music festivals are the ones even more guilty of dragging their heels by comparison.

So again, we return to the complicity and responsibility of the festival organizers and promoters. In the wake of growing rejection of sexist festival lineups, there’s an added outcome for promoters to consider. Bands that do play sexist and male-dominated festivals risk having their own reputations impacted. Witness the male-dominated Harbourage, which has become the talk of the town not for putting on a good show, but for having been organized in such an inequitable and thoughtless fashion.

The more festivals that are called out for failing to change their ways, the less likely bands are going to want to be associated with them. It’s about time, too, for bands to start speaking up on the issue, and for the men who do get asked to play to make clear to the promoters that they’re not okay with bills that leave everyone else out.

The Herbourage counter-festival, feminist music-art collectives like SPAAT, the photo-shopped info-graphics, and the wave of social media criticism all reflect creative and long overdue rejections of music festivals that have failed to keep up with the equity expectations of our era. When promoters who fail to acknowledge their own responsibility and complicity in this process are finally hounded out of the business, it won’t be too soon.

There’s hardly a better way to close than with Emma Garland, whose powerful commentary deserves the last word:

We need festivals who are willing to break this cycle, not consistently wash their hands of a self-perpetuating problem, hailing themselves as tastemakers when it suits and shirking off their responsibilities as such when it doesn’t. By acknowledging yet still pandering to music industry sexism, festivals will remain a significant part of the larger problem, not, as they'd like you to believe, a result of it.
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