“Thank you Coachella for allowing me to be the first Black woman to headline. Ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?” Beyoncé told the crowd at the end of her instantly iconic set during the first weekend of Coachella in April 2018. Bey’s boundary-breaking, record-making, internet-shattering performance, and her callout at the end, drew attention to a larger problem. It’s 2018, and she was not only the first Black woman headliner but just the third woman to headline the festival since it started in 1999. That’s where we’re at with gender representation at the highest-grossing music festival in the world. You know, the one that dominates your Instagram timeline for two weekends every April, making you (and millions of other people) regret your life choices if you don’t make your way to Indio, CA.
Festivals are a lucrative game. In 2017, Coachella made $114 million in profit for parent company Goldenvoice and AEG — growing sevenfold since 2007 when it expanded to two weekends. One of the company’s other festivals, Desert Trip, holds the record of most profitable festival in history, raking in $160 million in 2016. They have expanded their portfolio of festivals since the launch of Coachella and now also present Stagecoach, Firefly, FYF, Hangout Music Festival, Splash House, Tyler the Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw Carnival, Panorama, and Arroyo Seco Weekend. Lollapalooza’s parent company C3 have found the festival to be lucrative enough that they expanded it into Brazil, Paris, Berlin, Chile, and Argentina as well as presenting Austin City Limits, In Bloom, Voodoo Music + Arts, and more. Bonnaroo’s parent company, Superfly, are also behind Outside Lands and are launching a new festival called Grandoozy this fall in Denver, CO, after an inaugural go at launching Lost Lake in Phoenix, AZ, last year. And those are just the biggest firms who make the most money in the music festival game, all of which charge attendees hundreds of dollars (or thousands if you go for the VIP and experience upgrades) for a ticket.
We all agreed that if we're looking at multiple artists for the same slot, all other things being equal, we're going to go with a woman, a minority, or an artist who is unexpected.
Alec Jhangiani, Fortress Festival
What we can learn from Beyoncé’s Coachella set (which follows Lady Gaga's 2017 performance, and Björk’s double headlining sets in 2002 and 2007) is that there is an appetite for woman (and diverse) performers at festivals. The lineups, which were originally centred on predominantly male rock acts, have evolved to suit the desires of an audience who prefer to see pop and hip-hop acts. But their lineups don’t reflect it. Lollapalooza has Camila Cabello, the woman who broke a billion streams on Spotify and was one of the few women to dominate pop radio airplay in 2017, on the fifth line of their list of performers and has zero female headliners this year. Neither does Bonnaroo. Neither does Sasquatch. Neither does Firefly. Neither does Boston Calling. Neither does Hangout. Neither does Ultra. Neither does Stagecoach. Neither does In Bloom. Neither does BottleRock. Neither does Warped Tour. And so on, and so on...
Festivals want the freedom to book lineups for their specific audiences without restrictive regulations. Musicians don’t want to be booked to meet a quota — no one wants to be on the stage just because they’re female. But when the statistics show us that bookings up and down the lineup at festivals are so lopsided in favour of men, it is clear the founders and bookers have to take a look at what that is — and take action to fix it. Whether that means giving women a bigger role in decision-making when it comes to booking festivals, asking booking agents to consider representation in their negotiations (and fight harder for their female clients), or checking their implicit bias.
Or, as Fortress Festival founder Alec Jhangiani says: “If you do have a very lopsided lineup, which many variables can affect, I think it does show some sort of bias if that is what keeps coming out year after year after year.”
With Beyoncé serving as the sole woman headliner among the biggest music festivals in 2018, a trio of smaller, but influential, festivals are making more headway when it comes to featuring female acts. And that makes sense, given that 51% of the festival-going audience are female.
FYF Fest in Los Angeles (July 21 and 22) will carry on under the auspices of a woman booker, Jenn Yacoubian, this season after founder Sean Carlson was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women in November (Carlson denies some of the allegations and admits to others, calling his behaviour "inexcusable"). Goldenvoice has worked in partnership with FYF since 2014, and after cutting ties with Carlson before the accusations became public, bought out Carlson’s stake in the festival in February. Now that FYF is fully under their control, with Carlson out of the picture, they’ve made a strong statement by announcing a female booker along with dual woman headliners (Florence + the Machine and Janet Jackson) and a lineup that is close to 50% women and mixed-gender groups, with a nearly even split between the two and one gender-nonconforming act, Lawrence Rothman.
Should a festival caught up in a #MeToo scandal look to rehab its image? That wasn’t the plan for FYF, and Yacoubian says the heavy female tally on the lineup doesn’t signal a rebranding or change. “Having a large female representation on the bill is unquestionably important to us, but was not the mission in our bookings,” Yacoubian tells Refinery29. “We wanted to put forward the best lineup possible this year, and we truly believe we accomplished that with two incredibly strong and iconic female headliners and a multitude of other wonderful artists.” Yacoubian promises “we’ll always be inclusive,” but prefers to stay away from a “rigid formula.”
Coming off of a festival season where women were so overshadowed by men, another festival felt it was imperative to incorporate inclusivity into their bookings. Ramtin Nikzad and Jhangiani, founders of Fortress Festival in Fort Worth, TX (April 28 and 29), made diversifying their lineup a priority and ended up with a bill that is close to 50% female and mixed-gender groups. “There was a conversation we had early on in the booking process where we all agreed that if we're looking at multiple artists for the same slot, all other things being equal, we're going to go with a woman, a minority, or an artist who is unexpected and not already widely included in all the festival lineups,” Jhangiani tells Refinery29.
While Fortress Festival’s overall numbers are good for gender parity, the bulk of non-male acts on their lineup are further down the bill. “We looked at three female headliners during the booking process, too,” Nikzad explains, citing logistics as the reason they ultimately ended up with two male headliners this year. “It’s just not as clean-cut of a process to determine your breakdown from the beginning.” Jhangiani adds that the order of the lineup is “oftentimes, if not almost always, dictated by the artist’s booking agency, especially when you're booking several offers from the same agency.” Booking agents are dictating quite a lot of the “who goes above whom” conversations and have as big a role to play in making the lineup as diverse as the festival-going audiences. Part of their negotiations on behalf of artists includes where their name goes on the poster announcing a festival’s lineup. It begs the question, is St. Vincent or Camila Cabello’s booking agent pushing for her as hard as they’re pushing for the men they represent?
L.A. Pride (June 9 and 10) is a festival with a strong female presence also featuring two women as headliners. In addition, their headliners, Tove Lo and Kehlani, consider themselves bisexual, putting a spotlight on an underrepresented area of the LGBTQ+ community. While sexuality wasn’t a litmus test for the bookings, it was an excellent bonus for their brand. L.A. Pride President Chris Classen acknowledged that Pride events have long been associated with a white male version of LGBTQ+, and that their goal is to reflect the diversity in the real world and in the LGBTQ+ community.
“When it came down to choosing our talent, we wanted to make sure first and foremost that it was reflective of the community,” L.A. Pride marketing lead Shayne Thomas tells Refinery29. “Once we started digging, it became clear that there was a beautiful story unfolding based on the sheer number of women that we booked into our big top spots who represent various aspects of the LGBTQ spectrum as well as different diversity groups that are reflective of our community and Los Angeles.” And, Thomas continues, the Pride audience has no problem embracing strong women; they love their divas.
L.A. Pride’s full lineup hasn’t been announced, but Classen and the festival programming lead, Gregory Alexander, also revealed that they have embraced and planned to shine a light on trans performers this year as well.
Like FYF, the people behind Fortress and L.A. Pride want to book the best festival that people in the area will buy tickets to attend. Everyone Refinery29 spoke to rejected the notion that having woman headliners or a 50% female lineup might dissuade ticket buyers, or that audiences connect better with male performers. At the same time, none of them supported the idea of a mandatory gender parity rule like that recently established by several festivals in Europe. Reaching gender parity at festivals is an idea that, in theory, everyone is on board with. Coachella drastically increased its acts up and down the bill with women in 2018, after years of being dinged in the media over the issue. At the very least, festivals are moving in the right direction by upping the number of women playing, unlike the music industry itself, where in 2017 women saw a sharp drop in their representation in popular music, songwriting, and production — when the numbers were already staggeringly imbalanced.
Festivals are moving in the right direction, thanks to pressure exerted by their audiences and the media. But they will face an uphill climb to gender parity if the larger music industry doesn’t continue to create careers for more women in music who can headline a festival — and what most women want is to see themselves reflected on the stage and in the lineup. Specifically, in the largest, marquee-billing font atop the lineup poster. But Coachella can’t book what doesn’t exist, no matter how many women they might nurture on the lower tiers of their lineup.
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