“Just book more women! Why is this so hard?”
This is the question many women artists and their fans ask when the lineups of certain festivals in country music and beyond are released, and there is a clear imbalance between the amount of male and female performers, or in certain circumstances, no women performers at all, or none presented as headliners.
This was also the question Saving Country Music posted in an extensive, 50-paragraph article posted on the subject entitled The Complex Issue of Achieving Gender Parity in Live Music on March 3rd. Complied from many conversations with promoters, artists, individuals in the music industry looking to achieve more equality for women performers, and information taken from industry panel discussions on the subject, the article presented many solutions and ideas for how to bridge the gap between men and women at music festivals, including the importance of reaching out to festivals with gender imbalance with suggestions of performers who could easily fit in their lineups, festival grading platforms that can encourage and reward improvements on gender imbalance, and pledge systems that can create accountability from festival promoters.
Of course all of these initiatives are voluntary on the part of the festivals and promoters, but are important discussion points on how to tackle a problem that is much more complex than simply expecting festivals to book more women due exclusively to public pressure, especially if that pressure is coming from individuals who do not reside in a festival’s patronage to begin with.
But one important point that was perhaps glossed over from the discussion—and one that has come sharper into focus due to recent public shaming and attacks on certain festivals and venues—is the role that certain women performers and their booking agents are playing in the problem by refusing to perform at festivals that have an existing gender disparity.
This shouldn’t be taken as harsh criticism of these performers or their booking agents for refusing to play certain festivals, or blaming them for the issue of gender disparity. Every artist and their management has the right to choose the events they believe are best for them. However it does illustrate the complexity of achieving gender parity for certain festivals, especially if festivals actively seeing to book more women performers are in a genre or subgenre where women performers are in short supply and being refused by the few women acts that do exist, especially if they’re being refused because the event has been labeled as a “sausagefest” or a “man fest” by the artist or the industry.
Certain women and their representatives simply just don’t want to play certain events where the crowds are thought 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 poor venues for women performers ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, eventually affecting the undercard of openers as well as promoters try to curate a festival on chemistry, but few or no women headliners are willing to play.
In May of 2016, Saving Country Music took a deep dive into the issue of 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 the lineup 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 that exhibited 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.
When Saving Country Music published the previously-mentioned article “The Complex Issue of Achieving Gender Parity in Live Music” on March 3rd, even more festival promoters reached out, agreeing that they have experienced difficulty booking women artists, not just from some getting turned down, but from being asked exorbitant fees to book them, sometimes at two and three multipliers of their market value.
Seeing these events as less than ideal, sometimes women will only commit to playing so called “sausagefests” at a financial premium. 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, even if their confirmed market draw is much lower.
This is what independent country Margo Price has been insisting on, as well as making threats of insisting on an inclusion rider at events she plays, meaning if a certain percentage of the other performers are not female, she won’t perform.
Though this stance might be admirable in regards addressing the pay gap issue between men and women in music, it also commonly prices out cash strapped independent festival promoters restricted by tight budgets that are tied to an artist’s box score, i.e. the amount of money an artist has proven they can make in a certain media market, verified by companies such as Billboard and Pollstar who catalog such data for promoters and the industry. 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 “sausagefests.”
Independent promoters are already being squeezed by 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. Artists are guaranteed payment by festivals before a booking is finalized, but festivals are guaranteed nothing. If a lineup fails to garner public support and not enough tickets are sold, or other unforeseen circumstances take place beyond their control, the promoters are the ones that incur the injury.
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 the promoters of an events are women themselves, or have women on their staff.
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. 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.
As has been established before, certain genres such as Texas Music simply don’t have enough women performers to achieve ideal women representation—a more global issue that must be addressed throughout the scene as opposed to just singling out specific festivals. 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, as is the possibility of crafting a solution to the problem.
As one local promoter told Saving Country Music after being publicly shamed multiple times for a lack of women on their lineup, and after making an improvement from previous years in their representation of women, “Maybe next year we won’t book any women at all.” Where once a level of cooperation on the issue existed, now there is a feeling of acrimony. Instead of breeding understand, the trolling of promoters is building walls. In certain instances verified by Saving Country Music, specific women artists have trolled festivals and venues for not booking enough women, when those very same women or their representatives have turned down or refused bids from the very same promoters they’re trolling.
“I’m about 100% sure half the female artists don’t know anything about what the agent is doing,” one festival promoter told Saving Country Music. “This year we will roll out our line up and at this point only have one regional female act. It’s gonna look bad and we feel bad but the industry is making it this way!”
Due to the combative nature of the trolls on Twitter, promoters struggling to book women no longer want to speak on the matter publicly, fearing further retribution, or potentially damning future bookings of women from either the performers themselves or their agents. However Saving Country Music was able to verify through communications with certain festival promoters and corroborating box score data from Billboard and Pollstar that aggressive bids are being made to multiple women performers by festivals specifically being targeted by trolls, and they have been repeatedly turned down.
Meanwhile certain independent festivals are being targeted by trolls—including some that do have women on their lineups and/or that have shown improvement over previous lineups—while other festivals, including more mainstream festivals that have no women on the lineups at all, are not being trolled, speaking to what appear to be personal grudges with particular festivals as opposed to a pragmatic approach to solving a complex problem industry wide.
To mitigate or resolve the gender disparity at festivals, it is going to take a holistic approach that includes dialogue and outreach to promoters. Festival promoters should not be absolved of all blame for exacerbating the gender discrepancy we’ve seen grow in the last few years. They are on the front lines of the problem, and in an unique position to help solve it. But booking agents and some women performers also have to take responsibility as well, especially headliner-level acts being willing to play festivals actively looking to book more women to help integrate “sausagefests.” Otherwise trolls—well intentioned or not—are simply drawing battle lines that neither side will want to cross, compounding the problem.