The Complex Issue of Achieving Gender Parity in Live Music

“Just book more women! Why is this so hard?”

This is often the simplified answer to the complex question of how to deal with the lack of equilibrium between the sexes being represented on the lineups of music festivals and other events throughout the music world. Though the problem may be more pronounced in certain genres such as country music, or in certain countries such as the United States, it is a dilemma that crosses into all genres and passes over international borders. And in the aftermath of #metoo movement and a general evaluation of gender parity throughout society, the issue has been raised to the forefront, and is often one to boil over into argument and outright attacks in a contentious online environment, making the need for context and conversation more important than ever to bring parties together in an attempt to resolve inherent imbalances that nearly everyone agrees are persistent, and a problem.

On February 26th, 45 music festivals from around the globe announced they were banding together and making a pledge to achieve 50/50 gender balance in their festival lineups and panel discussions by 2020. Led by PRS Foundation’s “Keychange” initiative, it includes pledges from A2IM Indie Week, BreakOut West in Canada, and the Liverpool International Music Festival in England.

“An initiative like Keychange provides clear goals and measures for festivals who are already committed to presenting audiences with more diverse line-ups,” says Emma Zillmann a U.K. promoter who is part of the effort. “By giving discrimination an ultimatum, we’re ensuring that equality will eventually be the norm.”

Though 45 festivals sounds like a lot, with the amount of live music events throughout North America and Europe alone, and with many of the festivals that signed up for the initiative either already on board with achieving gender parity or already serving 50/50 lineups, it just scratches the surface of the issue. What it does offer is one template—a pledge system—that could help create new tools for the industry and promoters to tackle the issue, and put pressure on others to consider a more gender balanced approach to lineup building.

Another initiative that was developed by Candace Shaw of Canadian Women Working in Music is a Festival Report Card System, where the lineups of festivals are evaluated based of the number of women performers, and then graded for their achievement. The system gives festivals an ‘A’ for 45%-50% women participation, a ‘B’ for 35%-44% participation, ‘C’ for 25%-34% participation, ‘D’ for 15%-24% participation, and ‘F’ for 0%-14% participation.

Women-fronted bands are counted in the positive, as are any band that has a woman prominently placed in the lineup, including male/female duos, trios, or groups, or if a woman is otherwise featured in the group more prominently than a backup singer or side player (lead guitarist, for example). Their 2017 study found that 30 out of the 89 festivals analyzed across Canada in 2017 achieved an ‘A’ score.

Though the study only considered Canadian events, the report card system created by Canadian Women Working in Music can be duplicated and utilized for any region, country, genre, or scene of music. Also, by using a grading system, it gives tools to a music scene, festival organizers, and the industry to create incentives and benchmarks.

“We want to keep it positive,” Candace Shaw explained at Folk Alliance International on Saturday, February 17th, where she spoke about the effort to a “Women in Music” panel hosted by Erin Benjamin of Music Canada Live. Though 50/50 representation of women is still the goal, festivals can use the system to chart improvement, and those events with positive scores can then use this achievement as a marketing tool to fans, musicians, localities, and to possibly lobby for public and private financial funding by proving their commitment to the effort to achieve gender equality.

“Though there are flaws in this method, we think it’s accurate enough to shine a light on the representation of women on festivals stages across the country,” says Canadian Women Working in Music. But the approach is not without issues and controversy.

Some of the festivals that were marked with disappointing or failing grades in the 2017 poll faced bad press and public critcism for their lack of diversity, and some even faced the possibility of losing public funding for their event, even though flaws were found on how some grades were tabulated. Some festival’s grades came from 1st announcement lineups as opposed to the full lineups. Some bands that feature women in a prominent role were not properly accounted for initially. Though the study organizers worked to rectify these matters once they were alerted to them, with the fervency and sometimes outright anger some have over this issue, it can create a difficult or embarrassing scenario for festivals that otherwise have put effort out to ensure there is ample representation of women on their lineups.

The Winnipeg Folk Festival, for example, initially received a ‘D’ grade via the Festival Report Card system, which resulted in negative press for the fest. However according to the festival itself, they should have been graded a ‘B’ (this was later noted on the report card).

“We believe that every musician should be respected no matter how close they are to the microphone at the front of the stage,” said the Winnipeg Folk Festival. “We do not agree with discounting the talent or commitment of an artist based on what instrument they play. Gender inequity is an industry problem and at the Winnipeg Folk Fest, we support female artists by not only giving them a stage to perform on at the festival, but by supporting their music careers right from the start through our Stingray Young Performers Program and year-round as part of our Hear All Year concert series.”

This illustrates how sometimes the totality of an organization’s awareness or commitment to the issue may not be represented in one specific event. Smaller events, and programs for young adults and up-and-comers may show a greater dedication. Also, grey areas can persist on just what can be counted as a woman performer. Another question is if a festival or organization should receive credit for its staff, Board of Directors, or other personnel being women. Though not performers, these professionals are still being employed and/or represented in the music business. For example the Winnipeg Folk Festival currently has 18 members on its staff and board, and 14 are women, including its current executive director.

The concern the Winnipeg Folk Festival voiced illustrates how the challenges to achieving gender diversity are often much more difficult than advocacy groups, angry artists, or upset fans may give credit for when counting sheer numbers, or when activists go on troll campaigns online against events with low representation of women. While some are pushing for an idealistic standard, certain harsh realities of the music world—many of which are out of the control of festival and event organizers—may make getting to that ideal 50/50 split difficult or impossible.

In certain genres and locales, there just aren’t enough women either willing to perform, or that are appropriate for certain events to achieve the 50/50 gender mark. In certain circumstances, you could create further adversity for women performers by drowning them in a sea of mediocre talent solely booked to achieve a certain gender plateau. You could inadvertently make women compete against each other for a finite amount of patrons who have limited interest in unknown acts. Or you could put a performer in an inappropriate situation (a solo songwriter on a big stage, or a punk band in a listening room, for example) simply to achieve a gender goal, which may hurt the performer’s standing and misrepresent their music as opposed to making an opportunity from a festival or event slot.

Americana artist Bonnie Bishop, who often speaks out about the issues facing women in music, pointed out this reality after the news of the PRS Foundation’s “Keychange” initiative for 50/50 representation of women pledges was announced.

“I appreciate the gesture,” Bishop said on Twitter. “But festivals promising to make bills equal-gender doesn’t really solve any problems…especially if they book a bunch of chicks that aren’t great just to even out the score b/w male vs. female acts. Our industry is already oversaturated with mediocrity.”

Saving Country Music interviewed Bonnie Bishop in May of 2016 where she talked extensively about some of the underlying reasons why women find it difficult to get booked in the Texas music scene where she first emerged, and how trying to adapt herself to certain live events and festivals ended up hurting her artistic integrity.

“I was one of the few females in Texas that was lucky enough to play the major festivals,” Bonnie said. “I played Willie’s 4th of July Picnic, I did Larry Joe’s show out in Stephenville (Texas). I was very fortunate, but I had to be very persistent, and I adapted my sound and my songwriting to the scene that I was in because that was how I made my living. It was a disservice to my artistry because I was trying to fit in with what other people expected or needed me to be in order to play shows and make a living.”

As Bonnie Bishop expresses, certain festivals are just not right for certain performers, and it would be a reduction of an artist to ask them to adapt to a festival simply because they are looking to achieve a certain percentage of gender representation. Perhaps in these cases the festivals could book other, more appropriate female acts, but in certain subgenres such as Texas music, there just aren’t that many performers that have been developed to the headliner level to help achieve gender parity. Part of the reason for this is the lack of development for women in general in the Texas country scene, and in country music overall. Women often have difficulty finding management and booking representation, which are problems that fall beneath the greater gender parity issue, and are not necessarily the sole responsibility of festival and event promoters to bear the guilt of. Promoters are simply trying to book lineups that appeal to patron’s expectations, and going too far outside the appeal of a fan base is often not fair to the fan, the promoter, or the artist.

This doesn’t exonerate responsibility from promoters to help lend to the appeal and support for women artists by finding creative ways to incorporate more women into lineups to help give them the long-term support they need to hopefully reverse the trend of gender inequality on the demand side. Side stages, songwriting rounds, collaborations with more popular artists on bigger stages, and other such avenues can be great ways to introduce certain artists to crowds, and cultivate an appeal for future performances. And where women are appropriate to play main stages and headliners slots, they must be bestowed those opportunities instead of being systemically overlooked, which is too often the case.

Another challenge often not discussed in the gender parity issue is that certain women simply just don’t want to play certain events seen as “Man Fests,” where the crowds are though to be too rowdy, or not receptive to women artists. As activist journalists, advocates, fans, and artists themselves go after certain festivals and promoters for too few women on their lineups, often promoters behind-the-scenes are frustrated they cannot find enough women to play their events and achieve their own gender goals. The dilemma is often especially difficult in headliner slots. The idea that certain festivals are bad for women performers ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, where women are turning down bids from festivals who are actively looking to book more women.

In May of 2016, Saving Country Music took a deep dive into the lack of women in the Texas/Red Dirt music scene. Oklahoma-based artist Samantha Crain questioned the lack of women on the lineup for the Medicine Stone Festival, annually sponsored by the the band The Turnpike Troubadours, and artist Jason Boland. The festival only had one woman booked out of 29 total artists in 2016. Even by the most conservative of expectations, the criticism was warranted. However the issue was one the festival organizers had identified themselves, and attempted to rectify to no avail. Ryan Engleman, the guitarist for the Turnpike Troubadours said in response, “Just FYI – we tried to get 6 different female artists to this festival. Jamie [Lin Wilson] was the only one that worked out.”

Another Oklahoma event called Green Country Jam coming up in May announced a 2018 lineup with no women on it at all. When fans questioned the decision on Facebook, the festival responded, “We asked a few. They don’t like playing festivals.”

After the incident with the Medicine Stone Festival in 2016, Saving Country Music regularly began to reach out to festivals in the region with a lack of women performers with specific suggestions of artist who would be appropriate to their event. Often promoters would respond that they were aware of the issue and wanted to rectify it, but were regularly turned down by the women they looked to book (including ones Saving Country Music suggested), often with the women or their representatives citing the concern that the festival would not be appropriate for their music.

Because there is a shortage of headliner-level women in Texas and Red Dirt music to begin with, often promoters will reach out to women in the Americana or classic country realm to to see if they’re willing to play. Seeing these events as less than ideal, sometimes these women will only commit at a financial premium, meaning a fee well above their industry box score, or the amount they historically make off of box office sales in a given market. Other women, actively trying to close the gap between what they make and what their festival headlining male counterparts make, will insist on getting paid the same as larger-drawing headliners.

Though this stance might be admirable in regards addressing the pay gap issue between men and women, it also commonly prices out cash strapped independent festival promoters restricted by tight budgets tied to artist’s box scores. Meanwhile major corporate festivals such as Stagecoach in California, or Bonnaroo in Tennessee can pay the enhanced asking prices by these women due to much larger budgets, and are even sometimes afforded discounts by women performers because these more diverse festivals are seen as advantageous to play as opposed to “Man Fests.”

Asking independent promoters to achieve a hard and fast goal of a percentage of women can put tremendous pressure on a segment of the music industry already reeling from soaring talent costs, swelling competition, increased regulations, mounting safety concerns, and a myriad of other issues that often make it a difficult yearly decision to even keep going. The independent festival space is being encroached upon by LiveNation and the multitude of regional promotional companies it has recently purchased a 51% stake in. LiveNation is purposely trying to shade independent promoters out of the festival business completely.

Making it even more difficult for independent promoters facing a gender imbalance is the method in which advocates for the issue label their festivals and organization as “sexist,” “discriminatory,” “misogynist,” or “wanting to keep music male” without understanding the complexities of the issue, or doing cursory explorations into just how much effort an organization has made to secure women performers. Often—as was the case with the Winnipeg Folk Festival and others—the promoters and /or booking agents are women themselves.

By attempting to publicly shame these festivals and institutions and hoping the public does not give their patronage to them, activists are helping to undercut a very fundamentally important part of the independent music ecosystem, which is independently-owned festivals willing to book local, regional, and up-and-coming acts to cultivate music talent for the future. Too few female acts on a festival lineup is better than no festival at all where both men and women lose the opportunity to hone their craft, and find new fans.

The default for many activists on this issues appears to be to assume that these festivals are not booking women due to discrimination. This is what the 50/50 Keychange initiative implies when they say they’re “giving discrimination an ultimatum.” Though discrimination against women may very well be the cause in certain circumstances, this is an especially pointed accusation to level at a festival or organization based on nothing more than a percentage of women on a lineup. Sometimes the festival just needs to be made aware of the issue to focus on improvement in future seasons. However when the issue is initially broached in a combative manner via social media trolling and public shaming, the opportunity for a pragmatic or positive dialog with the promoter on the issue is often lost.

Sponsors also play a big role in the issue, especially beer sponsors. “From 2002 to 2008, I was pretty much touring exclusively in Texas,” says Bonnie Bishop. “The biggest response I got trying to book shows was, ‘Chicks don’t sell beer’ … A lot of artists, not just female artist, but folk artists or artists writing music that isn’t about everybody getting drunk and hooking up and are trying to communicate something, they die in that environment.” This is also one of the reasons certain festivals can’t just book large segments of undercard solo women singer/songwriters to satiate the desire for gender parity and expect it to be successful for the festival or the artists.

Beers sponsors, outdoor outfitters, full size truck manufacturers, and other 3rd party commercial entities are often vital underwriters to live events and festivals, and often insist on talent that will cross market well with their products. Not just promoters, but corporate sponsors need to be put under pressure to support women, or asked to take responsibility for the gender diversity of the live music events they underwrite. Perhaps they could be approached to help with the issue. Festivals could also seek out sponsors who appeal more to women.

Festivals that do take a more active role booking women performers are often happy with the results, both in positive reception, and in ticket sales. The idea that crowds want to see less women is often a misnomer that unfairly weighs on the minds of promoters as they book out their lineups. But the dirty, underlying truth to the lack of women on festival lineups is that supply and demand does factor into the equation, especially in certain regions or genres.

For example the Tumbleweed Festival just south of Kansas City in June conducted a poll to see who patrons wanted the festival to book. Out of the top 50 names, only two were solo women. And those two solo women also happened to be two of the solo women who had played the festival the year before. Out of the eventual 35 performers for the 2018 lineup, Tumbleweed ended up booking four solo women. Though this is obviously very low as a percentage, it was more than what their fans were asking for taking into consideration the results of the poll. That is why for certain events or genres, there may need to be a sliding scale, and a deeper focus on improvement annually as opposed to an immediate insistence on the 50/50 ideal.

Yes, there are most certainly promoters in music that either purposely work to exclude women from their lineups, or just don’t care about putting forth the effort to see a more gender diverse music environment. And in those cases, perhaps more aggressive stances by advocates of the issue are justified. But in certain cases, promoters may be making a bigger commitment to the gender parity cause than can be calculated as a straightforward male vs. female percentage. It’s often the patrons, or the gender makeup of the musicians in a given scene that is lending to the imbalance of men and women performers, and the promoters are sometimes the entities most looking to eat into that issue by booking women they believe in, regardless of their name recognition or popularity.

Promoters can play a unique role in helping to foster the discovery process, and build appeal in certain performers, but only if an audience is receptive in the first place because the booking is appropriate. Ultimately, putting on a festival or event is a business, and promoters must serve what they believe the public wants. Increasing the amount of women on festival lineups will not be achieved just by putting pressure on festivals. Radio, streaming playlists, music websites, and other media is where the first groundswell of appeal for an artist can be fostered, ultimately resulting in more name recognition for a performer, and more requests by promoters to book them. That is why a more holistic and pragmatic approach to the gender parity issue must be taken into consideration across the music industry, as opposed to just focusing on the percentage of women on festival lineups.

Percentages can still be very useful tools in gauging the need for awareness, and gauging improvement in events. Pledges can also be a good way to ensure commitment to the cause. But so can dialogue with promoters broached in a positive manner, as well as lists of women performers curated by music professionals to give promoters ideas and avenues to find the right talent. Perhaps with grading systems like the one created by Canadian Women Working in Music, the amount of verified bids made to women performers could also be tabulated to take a more equitable gauge of a festival’s efforts. There also has to be a responsibility by women performers themselves, especially headliners, to perhaps be willing to infiltrate the “Man Fests” to help break down the misconceptions of women artists and foster a greater appeal for gender diverse music.

But attacking festival owners for participating in “discrimination” without verifying the efforts they’ve made to book more diverse lineups, trolling promoters and online name-calling to attempt to shame festivals into compliance, and only focusing on numbers as opposed to a more global understanding to the challenges an individual promoter may face in their particular sphere of the music realm is needed to foster a more holistic approach to a complex problem.

The music industry as a whole must help foster more appeal in the music of women. Once this happens, the issue of a lack of women representation at festivals and events will begin to help fix itself.