On August 16, 1969, an estimated 400,000 people flooded a farm in Bethel, New York, for the original rock music festival: Woodstock. That massive crowd saw 32 legendary acts perform over the course of a weekend, 10 of which featured women.
Fifty years on, a great deal has changed — but not gender representation at music festivals.
Today, women and nonbinary performers make up, on average, a third of the performers showcased at music festivals throughout the world, according to research effort Book More Women. And female headliners are even more rare — this year, singer Ariana Grande became only the fourth woman ever to headline internationally renowned Indio, California-based festival Coachella in its two-decade history.
The stats are strikingly low for festivals in the U.S.. Keychange, a movement coordinated by talent development organization PRS Foundation, found that in 2018, 76 percent of performers at American festivals were men, and 12 percent of acts were male-female acts. That means just 14 percent of all U.S. festival acts last year were women-only — and the vast majority featured no women at all.
From a cultural perspective, this matters, as festivals have become an influential part of the music industry, and are widely popular with fans. Nielsen Music reports that, in 2018, just over half of Americans attended live events, with 44 percent of those fans going specifically to festivals. And the research firm says those numbers are on the rise.
What’s particularly confounding is that women have proven themselves to be hit- and money-makers in the music world — so excluding women acts, from an economic perspective, seems like a losing proposition for festival organizers. Singers Madonna and Rihanna have both sold more than 250 million records worldwide, with the likes of performers Whitney Houston, Taylor Swift and Celine Dion not far behind them. Ticket sales for their live shows have also flown off digital shelves. And Beyonce — in addition to being a best-selling artist and uber-popular touring act — proved that women can even be game-changers at music festivals with her historic 2018 Coachella performance.
[Related: Getting More Women Into the Music Industry]
Yet music festivals continue to lag behind when it comes to representation. Attempts have been made to turn the tide in the past — for example, musician Sarah McLachlan launched short-lived Lilith Fair festival in the late 1990s. The event was successful, in terms of ticket sales (though some did criticize it as a “white-chicks folk fest”). McLachlan recalls wanting to offer an alternative to other festivals, which were “just full of men.” She adds in reflection, “[T]here’s all this amazing music being made by women right now. So why is that not being represented?”
It’s a question organizers, industry insiders and fans are still trying to answer.
Zeroing in on the Parity Problem
Maxie Gedge is the project manager at PRS Foundation, the U.K. organization behind Keychange. As part of the effort to improve representation, she and her team are actively encouraging festivals and more to sign a gender parity pledge. So far, over 250 organizations have done so, and she estimates that a third of those operations have already realized their respective inclusion goals.
One of those is Sound City, a Liverpool-based festival launched in 2008 that has featured female-fronted acts like Florence and the Machine and Christine and the Queens in the past. It’s a popular event — this past May, Sound City put on a show for over 10,000 music fans. Managing director Becky Ayres says it’s “essential” that the music line-ups those attendees see are diverse. “It’s about making opportunities equal for everyone regardless of their gender, race, age, class or sexuality.”
Abbey Carbonneau, the force behind Book More Women, agrees. She began looking into the parity problem in detail after the Firefly festival in Dover, Delaware, announced its 2018 lineup in January of that year. The lack of women on its roster of performers “was immediately apparent to me,” she recalls.
To draw attention to the issue, Carbonneau began editing each music festival’s poster into a GIF (here’s an example) that removed the names of acts featuring only men. Her hope was to illustrate — literally — a problem that people both in and outside of the industry denied even existed. “It’s a lot easier to get a point across, at times, by using images,” says Carbonneau, who shares the GIFs on social media in the hopes that they “might help change some minds or open some eyes.”
Fixing a Leaky Music Pipeline
Beyond festivals, women are woefully under-represented in the broader music industry, according to Keychange — as industry employees (30 percent), songwriters (16 percent) and label owners (15 percent). Worse, just 2 percent of music producers on the top 600 selling songs of 2018 were women.
The result is an opportunity gap that’s making it harder for women and nonbinary performers to break through to festival stages. “There are so many talented female artists, but often the male artists are more visible, simply because the industry has been male-dominated for a long time,” Ayres says. “It’s about looking at why women aren’t getting to the higher levels and addressing it from the [bottom] up through education, getting more women into industry roles and ensuring that female artists are coming through.”
One way to drive change, Carbonneau thinks, is to encourage girls’ interest in music from a young age. But she also calls upon larger festivals to take the leap and give more opportunities to emerging female and nonbinary artists. “These are festivals that can afford to take a risk, and I’d like to see those leaders take a bigger role in fixing this,” she says.
Ayres agrees that festival organizers have a responsibility to improve representation for women and nonbinary musicians. “Festivals are powerful, as they’re attended by millions of people, so the have a huge part to play in positively influencing people’s views,” she says. (We have reached out to representatives at Coachella and Lollapalooza in Chicago for comment.)
In the meantime, some are choosing to start or make waves at their own festivals. For example, the HearHer Festival — organized in collaboration with the PRS Foundation — will boast an all-female line-up when it goes up in October. And the Newport Folk Festival made headlines earlier this year with its star-studded all-female headlining collaboration featuring Dolly Parton. In addition, celebrities like singer Halsey are using their platforms to speak out.
But these ripples aren’t enough for those, like Gedge, who are looking for a sea change. “Discrimination is wrong – music isn’t gendered and you shouldn’t be at an advantage or disadvantage because of your gender when working in music,” she says. “[A]nd while talent is everywhere, opportunity isn’t. Creatively, that’s a tragedy.”