How The Media Failed Key Western Fest’s All Woman Lineup

Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan perform at Key Western Fest 2024

In 2024, the 2nd Annual Key Western Fest in Key West, Florida did something quite remarkable. In an environment where the country music industry continues to struggle booking women at festivals in equal share to their male counterparts, Key Western Fest booked a festival entirely of women.

The festival was founded in 2023 to answer the resurgent interest in ’90s country music, of which women played a major role. In fact, the ’90s were the last time in country music when women got near equal representation on radio, and at festivals and other events.

“We certainly didn’t set out for year two of Key Western Fest to be an all woman festival,” says festival owner and promoter Kyle Carter. “But as what happens in many instances, you start with a wish list, and then you start to get availability, which leads you to the potentials we could have. As we pared down that initial list, what popped out to me was the availability of women at a high level that fit the bill. It was this incredible ‘ah-ha!’ moment of ‘Look at all these women.'”

Key Western Fest’s headliners included Wynonna Judd, Lee Ann Womack, Tanya Tucker, and Jo Dee Messina. The festival also included other ’90s country legends such as Pam Tillis, Lorrie Morgan, Deana Carter, and Suzy Boggus. To fill out the lineup, they also booked some new women of country such as Nikki Lane, Mickey Guyton, and Brit Taylor.

“We’re fully cognizant that we need to have diversity in a lineup,” Kyle Carter says. “But if it’s not there, it’s not there. But in the late ’80s into the late ’90s, there were these dominant women, and that came out on the spreadsheet. I thought this might be our only opportunity in this space and time to do an all-female lineup. And this wasn’t a gimmick. This was truly high level talent that just happened to be all women. These were hitmakers. These were Country Music Hall of Famers. These are CMA and Grammy winners, and multi-Platinum album performers.”

The festival may have booked all women, but they made an active effort to not make that curation point the center of attention. “I didn’t want to lead the day that these are women. What I wanted to lead the day was the level of these artists,” Kyle Carter says. Agent Shannon Casey at the talent agency Wasserman represented about 11 of the performers on the lineup, and like Kyle Carter, also saw this as an opportunity to showcase world-class talent that happens to be women.

Kyle Carter also dealt with multiple male representatives from booking agencies. “I didn’t exactly get anybody standing on their chair, and wanting to champion it. Except for Shannon Casey, nobody was thrilled about that concept.”

But what could have ultimately been a triumphant event in the festival calendar for country music women turned out to be a near disaster not just for Key Western Fest, but the entire OhWook! Productions organization behind the festival, which also hosts the Texas/Red Dirt-oriented Mile 0 Fest the week before, and the throwback rock-oriented RokIsland Fest the week before that in January. Despite the big names on the Key Western Fest lineup, tickets for the festival only sold at about 20% of the capacity of Key West’s Truman Waterfront Amphitheater.

The venue can handle about 4,000 people, though Oh Wook! limits attendance to about 3,700 for their events to make room for vendor experiences and to make sure patrons aren’t overcrowded. The company’s Mile 0 Fest has sold out on multiple years, and the inaugural Key Western Fest in 2023 that had a mix of men and women on the lineup sold to about a 65% capacity, according to Kyle Carter.

“Most shows need to be near capacity to be profitable and sustainable,” Kyle Carter explains, and says he doesn’t even budget for turnout to be anything less than 50%, because before Key Western Fest 2024, they had never promoted an event with lower than 50% turnout.

What was the cause for such a demonstrably low turnout? The answer that many in the public will state is that “women don’t sell tickets.” But Kyle Carter feels there is another culprit.

“When we released this lineup, I thought it was an incredible lineup of talent, I thought it was unique that we were featuring all these women,” he explains. “As a promoter, we get it all the time, ‘Women, women, women. Hire more women. Get more diversity,’ which we had by adding Mickey Guyton to the lineup. So I thought this would get picked up at a very high level from some large outlets. I didn’t see why it wouldn’t. It’s extremely unique.”

Mickey Guyton at Key Western Fest 2024

But that’s not what happened when the lineup for Key Western Fest was announced. Though a small smattering of outlets covered the initial announcement, Townsquare Media outlets like Taste of Country and The Boot, Penske Media outlets like Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Variety, and other outlets that you would think would cover such a unique lineup of all women such as NPR and CMT, and even smaller outlets such as No Depression, The Bluegrass Situation, Holler, and others did not run stories on the Key Western Fest lineup. It went curiously ignored for any festival, let alone one with all women.

“Every month I thought, ‘Okay, this is it, we’ll start getting steam’ because we’re being asked all the time to book more women, and there’s articles about it all the time, and there’s media stories all the time about fairness and equality. All those people that talked about it for years and years now, I never got a call. I never got a single phone call,” Kyle Carter confirms.

Even the social media influencers who commonly post about the issues surrounding women in country music and advocate for equal billing at festivals were curiously silent on Key Western Fest 2024, not even posting or retweeting about it online.

“Big media dropped the ball completely,” Kyle Carter says. “They went off and went silent, and didn’t do anything about this after how many years of talking about this? After many years to taking the easy path and saying, ‘Promoters should do this.’ Well, promoters need the help of media outlets, and we didn’t get anything.”

Perhaps it’s easy to make the media the scapegoat for the low turnout of Key Western Fest 2024, but Kyle Carter says his organization went above and beyond to promote the festival themselves as well.

“We have a publicist. We have a media and marketing director, along with myself, beating the streets trying to get this in front of some large outlets to say, ‘We’ve got something special here.’ Tell me that lineup is not news. But I didn’t build this lineup and then sit back and say, ‘Okay media, do your job.’ We actually spent three times the amount of money on advertising than we did the other shows. The other shows sold 3-4 times what Key Western Fest sold. So we did our part. My shock in the media not picking it up is in everything that I’ve read over the years, and how ‘This needs to happen.’ Now, it happens, and nothing gets picked up.”

What did happen was a festival full of great talent and top notch performances highlighting much of the country music that made ’90s country a high water mark for country women. This is what Saving Country Music observed over the five days of Key Western Fest 2024. And the people who did make the effort to come down to Key West appeared to have a great time.

It is deserving even now of being spread like, ‘Boy, did we miss the boat here.’ Talk to the people that were on the island that came from all over the United States,” Kyle Carter says.

Wynonna Judd performing at Key Western Fest 2024

The next question is, why didn’t the media cover the only country music festival in recent memory that had an all woman lineup?

After talking to numerous sources throughout the industry, there are a few theories.

The first is that the lack of media coverage for Key Western Fest 2024 confirms a media bias against covering women. Though the media loves to run stories about the issues facing women in country, when it comes to actually doing the ground level work of supporting women at the up-and-coming stages of their careers, or offering continuing coverage for country legends, or coverage of an all-woman event like Key Western Fest 2024, writers and editors know there won’t be as high of an interest in the stories compared to ones involving male performers, and shy away from them.

Others are concerned that now that much of the narrative about diversity in country music has shifted in large part to Black and Brown performers, and LGBT performers, the “women in country music” issue is seen as secondary, passé, or even unimportant, putting the women of country in an even more precarious spot than they were before when the media was focused on the issue.

Some of the most cynical takes are that some of the high profile individuals in country music media who commonly raise the lack of representation for women have perverse incentives to keep the issue alive as opposed to making fundamental efforts to resolve it since it’s how they’ve branded themselves. Some leaders in the effort to increase the representation of women only seem to want to push their solutions as opposed to working hand in hand with others to address the representation of women in a more holistic manner.

Another theory is that since Key Western Fest didn’t make a big issue out of only booking women, perhaps it was regarded as a hollow gesture, or not a compelling enough of a story line to cover. Key Western Fest actively decided to not make the lineup political. But this is not how much of the public reacted to the lineup when it was finally presented to them.

The Instagram account Book More Women did post the lineup for Key Western Fest, but not until January 29th, or the day before the festival was scheduled to start. When the lineup was finally presented to the public and the people who it would most appeal to, the reception was positive. The festival was also given specific credit for not making a big deal about booking all women.

“Is it me, or are they doing this without drawing attention to the fact that EVERY SINGLE act on this bill is a woman artist?” award-winning songwriter Mary Gauthier commented on Book More Women’s Instagram post. “The matter of fact approach to billing all women and calling it “Key Western Fest” is … amazing.”

Book More Women replied to Gauthier, “YES! I thought it was awesome, none of their own press referred to the fact at all, just referring to their ‘superstar’ lineup.”

Producer/DJ Ertha Harris also praised the approach saying, “I love that there is no mention of this being an all female lineup, because it shouldn’t matter.”

This is how the Key Western Festival lineup should have been received the whole time. However, it was not being presented to the public until right before the festival commenced. Rolling Stone also finally ran an article on Key Western Fest on January 29th, but again, it was the day before the festival, and too late to affect the turnout.

Lee Ann Womack at Key Western Fest 2024

The media may have not talked about or even noticed the Key Western Fest lineup, but the industry most certainly did, along with the event’s low ticket sales. Despite the positive reception for the event itself by attendees, it’s very likely the 2024 Key Western Fest will act like a Waterloo moment for the “Book More Women” movement, verifying the prior notions of booking agents, promoters, and others throughout the industry that not just an all-woman lineup cannot fly, but that women just don’t sell tickets in general, fair or not.

Key Western Fest should have been the moment the journalists, activists, academics, performers, and others agitating for more representation for country women came together to prove the proof of concept that women can carry a lineup. Instead, it’s likely to have the opposite effect.

“When they say, ‘They’ll learn. This will teach them.’ That’s not true. We know how to run our business, and something like this is not going to make us change our mind about putting great talent on a stage,” says Kyle Carter of Key Western Fest. “The artists were incredible, the fans were incredible, the weather was great, and it didn’t get picked up, and that’s a shame. It’s a real shame because this was an opportunity to say, ‘This can happen.’ Yes, it didn’t perform well. But when things are brand new, they don’t perform well.”

And beyond the lack of media support that helped lead to such a low turnout for Key Western Fest 2024, there continue to be economic factors behind why women are not getting booked in equal numbers to male performers that must be addressed on a more fundamental level. Many promoters want to book more women, but basic availability continues to be an issue.

“You need to field enough big artists where you can sell the show and sustain. It can’t be 15 women that happen to play music that are in a band that don’t sell tickets,”
Kyle Carter explains. “That’s not a sustainable model. There’s not enough large artist or even mid-sized women that are selling enough tickets. You can blame that on radio, or you can blame that on the agencies, but I’m just telling you what the facts are. We do work with new talent, but new talent doesn’t drive sales. You need an established band to sell tickets. You’re going to depend on 80% of your tickets sales to come from your headliners and direct support.”

Another issue that’s commonly presented when criticizing the representation of women on festival lineups is that the public thinks that all promoters are created equal, and have deep pockets to pay women more if they wanted to.

“People think it’s big companies that run these festivals. Certainly there’s the LiveNations and AEGs out there. But we have four full-time employees. We’re not a big company, and most mid-sized producers are not. And most of my team is women,” says Kyle Carter.

Despite the low attendance for Key Western Fest 2024, those who were attendance, and the performers who played will attest that it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. It feels like one of those events that in the future, people will look back upon and be awed by the talent assembled and brag about being there, especially since it may never happen again.

The lesson of the 2024 Key Western Fest is that talk is not enough. If the women of country music are going to win equal representation at festivals, it’s going to take action beyond social media posts calling out the lack of representation of certain festivals. It’s going to take material support for the festivals that are prioritizing women. It’s going to take talking about those festivals a priority, as opposed to focusing solely on the megafestivals that draw more eyeballs.

“When men say behind-the-scenes is, ‘I told you women don’t sell tickets,’ our attendance at Key Western Fest props that up. But I still think that idea is bullshit,” Kyle Carter says. “I think this didn’t get carried like it should have. And had it been carried like it should have, we could have gone back and said, ‘I told you women can sell tickets.’ But that didn’t happen.”

© 2023 Saving Country Music