The recent two-weekend Coachella music festival in Indio, California, effectively marked the beginning of music festival season. More than serving as a platform for music’s trendsetters, music festivals are cultural experiences unto themselves, where celebrities pop up among the regular attendees and fashion trends are on exhibit. In many ways, their influence has permeated beyond the festival grounds.
And though their popularity has fluctuated of late, they consistently attract huge audiences — Nielsen Music reported in 2018 that 52 percent of Americans attend live music events annually, with 44 percent of that total attending music festivals, despite sometimes prohibitively high ticket costs.
But events like Coachella, Glastonbury, and Lollapalooza are more than just weekend-long celebrations of the biggest names in music — they also help define who those biggest names are in the first place. In their most basic state, they’re an encapsulation of what music is right now.
When a festival’s lineup is announced, its promotional poster of performers revealed, its impact on music at large becomes that much more apparent. Lineup posters are a visual presentation of who matters in music right now; if Coachella places Childish Gambino in the topmost spot and renders his name in a bigger font size, you know you better pay attention to him and his performance.
But to many female industry vets and fans, the presentation of a festival lineup is more than a catalog of who to listen to. It’s a resounding reminder of one of music’s biggest problems: a continued lack of gender equity on festival billings and elsewhere.
The industry’s most in-demand and popular performers right now are women — Ariana Grande has dominated the Billboard charts in 2019. Beyoncé has signed a $60 million Netflix deal that will see her put out two more specials in addition to her recently released concert film Homecoming. Billie Eilish is a teenage phenomenon. Yet not only is it rare to see a female artist in the headlining spot on a poster, it’s rare to see any but the most well-established female artists perform at a festival the first place; a 2018 survey by Pitchfork found that women make up only 19 percent of the average lineup.
The disparity has not gone unnoticed by festivalgoers — of which about half are women, according to Nielsen. Now, some of those women are making large-scale efforts to challenge the homogeneous picture painted by music festivals. The goal of these activists and organizations: make that picture a lot more diverse.
Musical festivals’ diversity problem is easy to see — just look at the posters
Placement on a music festival’s poster matters just as much as inclusion on the poster at all: The announcement of who’s headlining the biggest stops on the festival circuit essentially doubles as a guide to who’s who in music at that moment. Stereogum’s Tom Breihan has analyzed how Coachella in particular advertises its lineup on an annual basis since 2017, when he explained the significance of the festival poster image as something of a sacred text:
So even if you’re not going, you’ll get a pretty good idea of who’s dominating the festival rotation this year. And finally — and maybe most importantly — the festival’s poster spells out, in brutal font-size relief, the pecking order of music in general. You might not know where your favorite acts stand in the world at large until you see that act’s name spelled out on the Coachella poster.
A poster’s visual impact is unique to festivals in the discussion of music’s gender problem, said Jess Partridge, a project manager for the international diversity-in-music initiative Keychange.
“There are very few other areas of the industry with a poster and so many names on it, so many bands or acts together,” she told me. “With a label, with a publisher, so many [other] areas of the industry, you don’t have it so blatantly obvious. And festivals are some of the first exposure to music, live music, that younger people have, not just listening to a record.”
Among the current efforts to highlight and combat that disparity is the Twitter account Book More Women, which aims to call attention to the hierarchies festivals create as a result of how they organize their acts, and how diverse those acts are (or aren’t).
The Book More Women Twitter feed is devoted to editing music festival posters to include only musicians who do not identify as male, and then calculating what percentage of the total lineup they represent.
“The first festival that caught my eye when it comes to imbalance was Firefly 2018,” whose lineup was 20 percent women or nonbinary musicians, the owner of the Book More Women account (who asked not to be identified by name) told me. That was just over a year ago, in March 2018. “I got in some arguments on Twitter about it and after that, I started quickly editing lineups to send to my sister just to say, Oh, my god, look how bad this one is. It didn’t take much to realize how prevalent this issue is.”
She continued: “When Lollapalooza 2018 (21 percent) came out, I was seeing those same edited lineups everywhere, and I thought maybe it would open some eyes if they could see all the festivals edited in the same way in one place.”
The social media conversation around Lollapalooza 2018 — kick-started when Media Matters’ Parker Molloy shared a GIF that dramatically emphasized the lack of diversity in its lineup that year, with only 38 female artists out of 183 total — garnered wider media attention. Not only were fewer than a quarter of the acts women or nonbinary, but none of those acts were billed as headliners. That was in keeping with previous iterations of Lollapalooza; the Chicago festival has had similarly skewed lineups since its inception in 1991. But when Molloy’s GIF made the disparity more visual than ever before, it prompted critics to slam it and other unequal festivals, calling their lineups an oversight endemic of the industry.
a female artist doesn't appear on the #Lollapalooza lineup until the fourth line, and Camila Cabello, who has a No. 1 album and song this year, is on THE FIFTH LINE. @ParkerMolloy removed the male acts to illustrate this "dude-heavy" foolery (her GIF: https://t.co/lFXkqGc9nG) pic.twitter.com/6qTCS0Fef4— Brian A. Hernandez (@BAHjournalist) March 21, 2018
“I was still as shocked as other Twitter users when I scanned Lolla’s 2018 lineup to discover that no women were listed until the fourth row. FOURTH,” wrote Sarah Jasmine Montgomery of Complex in March 2018, inspired by the viral image. “How the Chicago-based festival decided to put St. Vincent, who has released five studio albums since 2007, after Lil Uzi Vert and Khalid, who put out their debut albums in 2017, beats me.”
The Book More Women Twitter feed has since expanded on the idea behind Molloy’s GIF, making use of the visuals released by festivals to provide clear-cut examples of both inclusive festival lineups ...
... and terribly non-inclusive ones.
Some of these examples are especially distressing, and none of them should be condoned, regardless of a festival’s location, size, or reach. However, bigger festivals with widespread name recognition — your Coachellas, your Bonnaroos — arguably have the ability to effect the most change.
Lots of women are putting in the work to fix the festival landscape. But it’s up to those in power across the music industry to really solve the problem.
Festivals that can promise an appearance by a massive star like Beyoncé or Kanye West alongside scores of in-demand acts like Solange, Childish Gambino, Vampire Weekend, and the Killers are the ones that wield the most power in the live event space, and with that power comes the chance to portray a more inclusive image of not just festivals, but also the entire music industry. But they rarely do as, Pitchfork explained last year in an excellent analytical breakdown of the gender imbalance in the festival sphere:
The events that can afford to take the biggest risks — the ones that sell out or come close before their lineups are even announced — often don’t. While some mid-size festivals develop their own unique character, many more emulate the industry leaders or are operated by shared promoters, creating regional mini-Coachellas that carry over or amplify systemic biases. For a brighter festival future — as measured by gender balance, genre diversity, or just plain variety of acts — the deep changes will have to happen from the top down.
And the outlook at the top is grim. Book More Women’s figures only reflect the inequitable state of the music industry overall; a 2018 study from University of Southern California’s Annenberg Institute showed that of artists whose songs landed on the Billboard Hot 100 end of year charts between 2012 and 2017, only 22.4 percent were women. Meanwhile, 12.3 percent of the songwriters behind those songs and 2 percent of producers were women.
“You can only create diversity onstage or on the screen if there is diversity behind the stage and behind the screen as well,” Andreea Magdalina of SheSaid.so, an international organization that advocates for women in music, told me. “If you have a bunch of men in the boardroom deciding who gets booked for what, of course they’re not going to be mindful of representation diversity and inclusion.”
Keychange’s Partridge echoed this sentiment. “It’s really important for everyone to recognize we have a responsibility — we all have a responsibility — to make sure this is an inclusive industry. ... It’s down to us each individually to look at our fields of information and see who we work with, who we hire, and really examine if we are being equal in these things.”
Both SheSaid.so and Keychange were founded to support female musicians. SheSaid.so offers professional mentoring and networking events for women in the music industry; Keychange encourages international festival promoters to sign its pledge to have a 50-50 gender split between male and female musicians by the year 2022. Today, Keychange has more than 165 festivals on board to work toward gender parity — more than three times the number it had when it launched just one year ago, in February 2018.
Many of the festivals that have already signed the organization’s pledge are smaller, with less star power than more internationally renowned events. But Huston Powell of C3 Presents, a major force among music promoters that handles booking for Lollapalooza, among other festivals, says he’s certainly paying attention to these advocacy efforts — but he’s also quick to note that the issues they’re trying to correct go far beyond the festival circuit.
“I think we absolutely pay attention [to equity and inclusion campaigns] and we absolutely respect what they’re trying to do,” he told me. “I think that we have dived in and said, look, how can the music business in general, and how can we at our shows, make sure that there’s a level playing field? One of the issues that doesn’t get talked about enough is what can we do to make sure that the music industry is as inviting to women as it is to men?”
Powell identified the biggest challenge as the gender breakdown in the music industry overall. “The difficult part of the equation is, what is the gender makeup of the inventory that we’re choosing from?” he said. “It’s more male than female. That’s already an inherent advantage for men. ... How do we [make that equal]? How do we make sure that women feel welcome to the music business and have opportunities to start bands and grow?”
There’s still more work to be done — but there’s cause for celebration too
But it’s not all bad news, as Book More Women points out. For one, Primavera Sound — a gigantic, influential festival held annually in Barcelona — made headlines last winter for calling its diverse 2019 lineup “the new normal.” More than 50 percent of the lineup is composed of women, according to the festival’s organizers, with a lineup topped by Janelle Monáe, Solange, and Cardi B, right next to Nas, Interpol, and James Blake.
“If half of our audience is female, why shouldn’t half of our line up be so too?” reads the Primavera Sound lineup announcement, released in December. “Why can’t there be equality in schedules, styles and stages? It has not been easy to fight against the inertia that has been passed down for so many years, but after all, if the future is female, what’s the point in waiting? We are starting here, accelerating our change to build a line up that shouldn’t be the exception, which we want to make the norm.”
And what of Lollapalooza’s lineup for 2019, after it dominated so much festival dialogue in 2018? Earlier this month, the festival dropped its poster, with Ariana Grande at the very top, marking the first time Lollapalooza has ever been headlined by a woman.
“Seeing Ariana Grande listed first on Lolla’s 2019 lineup is a good sign,” says Book More Women. “To me, that says they were willing to spend the money they needed to in order to get the big-name female headliner that they have been missing.”
Powell said that Lollapalooza is working to diversify its lineup from the bottom up, too, because festivals are often hugely important for up-and-coming bands that don’t normally have the following to support big tours, and thus rely on festivals for exposure.
“We’re trying to pay more attention to bands with women particularly on the small level,” he said. “Ariana Grande doesn’t need a lot of favors from us — her career is skyrocketing. But if I go down the line and find some smaller acts, some smaller DJs, smaller hip-hop acts with women, let’s give them a chance.” Hence the planned 2019 Lollapalooza appearances of bands like the cult Chicago college kid fave Beach Bunny; the Korean American lo-fi hip-hop beatsmaker Yaeji; and R&B artist Tayla Parx, who has already made a name for herself behind the scenes as the songwriter for some gigantic singles — including Grande’s “7 Rings.”
Still, Book More Women’s visual assessment of the festival’s 2019 lineup suggests that Lollapalooza’s improvement is ultimately a small one:
But steps forward are steps forward, and they tend to go further when they’re made by industry heavyweights. Building a lineup is about more than booking the most inventive or exciting performers; it’s also about presenting an image of the music industry of the moment. And music festivals have the unique opportunity to encourage and normalize a much more inclusive version of that image.
“To me, the greatest lineups have diversity in terms of gender, race, orientation, genre, and more,” says Book More Women. “It is important to see gender diversity from the top to the bottom of a lineup, and throughout the days and among the different stages during the festival.”