More Like BROchella: Coachella's Got A Female Performer Problem

Photo: Via @coachella.
Even if you didn't make it out to Indio, California this year to attend Coachella, you're probably aware of its existence. Celebrities in special festival outfits likely dominated your Instagram feed this weekend. Music lovers are now able to stream the musical performances, possibly begging the question of why anyone would trek all the way out to the desert and pay $375 for a general admission ticket — which doesn't even include the cost of camping or a shuttle to and from the actual festival grounds. There's another, bigger problem brewing at Coachella, though. There's an alarming disparity in the ratio of male to female performers — and it's only increasing as the years go by. 

BuzzFeed first investigated the gender imbalance in Coachella acts in 2013. "Since its inception in 1999, the average of female-driven acts at Coachella represents about 16% of the total bill, and throughout the festival’s history on the whole, there has never been a year with more than a 25% female lineup," the site found. 

The 2015 lineup fits right into that average. "Out of nearly 160 artists, only 26 at Coachella are female-fronted acts — about 16%," Patrick Ryan wrote in USA Today. When the lineup was announced in January, Dee Lockett remarked on Slate that "the Coachella festival is still a boys' club." The site created a version of the iconic poster (usually so packed with text it's hard to decipher) that removed all male-fronted acts, and the result was startling, with just a few names floating in the night sky. Slate also points out that since the festival began in 1999, "Only two female-fronted acts have ever been given top billing at the festival: Björk (in 2002 and 2007) and Portishead (in 2008)."

Coachella's gender problem is indicative of a larger issue with all music festivals, which also have an extremely imbalanced ratio of male to female acts. There isn't one specific reason behind this, but rather a larger confluence of circumstances that stem from performers, organizers, and even festival attendees. 

On one hand, it could be tied to the alternative subcultures these festivals were designed to celebrate. "Formed out of the male-dominated music scenes of jam music (in the case of Bonnaroo), late-’90s indie rock (Coachella), and early ’90s alternative and grunge (Lollapalooza), these festivals tend to celebrate diversity while dismissing the most popular pop acts — the ones who tend to dominate the charts and who tend so often to be female — as frivolous or corporate," wrote Forrest Wickman in Slate.

One might argue that Coachella has certainly evolved into a more mainstream event, but that doesn't mean they're a fit for someone like Taylor Swift. Joe Levy, Billboard's editor-in-chief, told USA Today that Coachella's organizers might not be able to afford "the kind of wildly entertaining spectacles the biggest women in touring put on." Swift would be able to make more money doing a stadium tour, added Alex Young from Consequence of Sound.

There's also a gender problem in the performer festival experience. Sarah Barthel of Phantogram told USA Today that, "You always respect the women you see on tour and the girls you meet, because they're usually just as dirty as you and you kind of have to think like a guy." The festival experience can be gritty and "not very glamorous," but that shouldn't stop festival organizers from offering performance slots to female acts. "The bands that make it to the festival-level are hungrier artists," USA Today pointed out. This hunger doesn't discriminate by gender. 

Festival organizers are conscious of the problem. In 2013, Coachella founder Paul Tollett told the San Diego-Union Tribune that, "In general, we like diversity when we're putting a festival together." Still, the 16% ratio hasn't budged in two years, so the industry may need to place the onus on a larger swath of influencers and organizers.

"If you have more women talent bookers, you're going to have more women playing festivals," BBC DJ and presenter Annie Mac told The Los Angeles Times.  She added that the solution isn't to implement quotas, but to hire "more female talent buyers and media executives, [who] could offer a change of perspective on how a fest comes together."

Change can also start with grassroots movements from fans. Festival organizers keep track of attendance and social media mentions. The mocking hashtag "#brochella" highlights the gendered experience many people think Coachella has become. "It's still a man's world," wrote Tom Mann on music site Faster Louder in a post titled "What Festival Lineups in 2015 Tell Us About the Future of Music." 

An Eventbrite study of music festival discussion on social media found that the majority of mentions came from women. If you want to see more female acts on future festival lineups, add your voice. Tell organizers who you want to see on the bill. 

This could also be an opportunity for new music festivals to spring up. Lollapalooza, Sasquatch, Bonnaroo, and Coachella were founded to celebrate alternative subcultures, and now that those subcultures and festivals have become more mainstream, it's time for new celebrations of other subcultures. Katie Presley, a writer for Bitch Media and NPR Music nailed it here: "There's that perfect Toni Morrison quote: 'If the book that you want to read doesn't exist, you must write it.' If you're not seeing the bands you want to see represented onstage, start your own festival!" 
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