Women are vastly underrepresented in festival lineups. What's being done to close the gap

Piet Levy
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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Janelle Monae is among the most exciting artists playing Summerfest this year, but only about 25 percent of the festival's headliners are women or mixed-gender acts.

Summerfest, the world’s largest music festival, is also the most diverse, featuring practically every shade of rock and pop you can imagine, along with country, hip-hop EDM, blues, jazz, folk, salsa, reggae and much, much more.

But one thing the festival doesn’t have: a gender-balanced lineup.

Of the 205 headliners playing the 51st Summerfest in Milwaukee this year, only about 25 percent are women or are a mixed-gender act.

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This isn't a Summerfest-specific problem in the slightest. A large gender gap exists at practically every music festival in the world and has always existed. You can also see the disparity among the shows booked at the Milwaukee  area's largest music venues this year. No female-fronted acts or mixed-gender groups were booked to headline Alpine Valley Music Theatre in East Troy or Miller Park. Of the 15 shows announced so far for the new Milwaukee Bucks arena opening late this summer, only four feature female performers, and only two of them are headliners. 

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A 2016 Huffington Post analysis of 10 major music festivals showed male-only acts made up more than half of each event's lineup, from 66 percent at Outside Lands to 94 percent at EDM bash Electric Zoo. At the same time, 51 percent of fest-goers were women.

This year, Rock USA in Oshkosh July 12 to 14 has only two bands with women in the group, out of 36 acts. Lollapalooza in Chicago received some backlash for having no female headliners and no women listed on the lineup poster until the fourth line.

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In April, Coachella, the highest-profile music festival in the world, featured its first black female headliner, Beyoncé, in its nearly 20-year history. And in January, Halsey — who headlines Summerfest's American Family Insurance Amphitheater June 29 — criticized the Firefly Festival's male-heavy lineup on Twitter.

"This is nothing new. If anything, this is probably the best it's ever been and that’s what's so alarming," said Shirley Manson, frontwoman for Madison-born alternative rock band Garbage and an outspoken activist.

"It's part and parcel of a patriarchal system," Manson continued. "There's not much that can be done about the past, but we can rewrite our future."

In the wake of #MeToo and Time's Up movements, more attention is being paid to the gender imbalance on festival lineups and more actions are taking place in the industry. 

But as big as the festival representation issue is, it's only a small part of a vast music industry rife with inequity.

"I've been operating in this business for 35 years and there are a lot of patterns," Manson said. "The history of music has predominantly been written by men, and the heroes predominately are male. It perpetuates that somehow male artists are more important and reverential than their female counterparts."

Garbage singer Shirley Manson is one of the ambassadors for Keychange, an initiative urging festivals to have an equal gender balance in their lineups by 2022. More than 100 festivals have signed the Keychange pledge.

Throughout the music industry, women largely dwindle in number compared to their male peers, and generally don't receive as much recognition.

A University of Southern California report in January revealed that between 2013 and 2018, 90.7 percent of Grammy nominees were men. 

The study also looked at the gender makeup of artists, producers and songwriters behind 600 popular songs from 2012 to 2017.

About 83.2 percent of the top pop songs in 2017 were from male artists and about 91.3 percent of musicians performing in bands behind the hit songs that were analyzed were men.

About 87.7 percent of credited songwriters for popular 2017 songs examined in the study were men, a similar percentage to the breakdown in 2012, and 98 percent of the producers behind the most popular songs were men. 

That illustrates that the imbalance issue has to be addressed downstream, said Scott Leslie, co-president of Madison-based concert promoter FPC Live, including programs for children. We're seeing that in Milwaukee through a nonprofit like Girls Rock Milwaukee and annual events like Riverwest FemFest that spotlight female and feminine-identifying artists of all ages.

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"What does the industry need to do? It starts at the beginning," Leslie said. "Who are the A&R reps and radio teams at labels? Are they putting enough resources into female-driven talent?"

When it comes to filling their lineups, festival talent buyers look at all the acts available in their market during their time frame, within their price range, that past data suggests will help sell tickets, said Brian Appel, co-founder of Crashline, the production company behind Boston Calling and Eaux Claires.

"When you have 11 days, you need to put offers on for everybody out there, and we do make offers to every artist that could work, male and female," said Bob Babisch, Summerfest's longtime vice president of entertainment.  

"It becomes a math game at some point," said Don Smiley, CEO of Summerfest's parent company, Milwaukee World Festival Inc. "We’re obviously aware of the conversation that is taking place. If there is a deficiency somehow institutionally, we can only work to do our part and I believe we have done that. I also believe that you can always get better." 

While women may make up only about a quarter of Summerfest's headliners, several of the festival's most exciting acts are female this year, including pop star Kesha, R&B dynamo Janelle Monae, buzz band Soccer Mommy, local soul rocker Abby Jeanne and 11-time Grammy Award winner Bonnie Raitt. 

Derek Liebhauser, the head of Neenah-based promoter Hypervibe, which puts on Rock USA, said when it came to booking female artists for this year's event, those available were "few and far between."

"You want to walk this line of finding female talent to put up there, but the talent has to be there. If they're not touring or out of your price range, sometimes it's out of promoters hands," Liebhauser said.

Liebhauser noted it is each promoter's responsibility to give female up-and-coming artists a shot. He did that for Rock USA's sister festival Country USA, which featured Carly Pearce, Ashley McBryde, Lauren Alaina, plus headliner Maren Morris, in June.

Country USA in Oshkosh had several female artists, including headliner Maren Morris, in June, but struggled to find female-fronted bands available in the market and in its price range for sister festival Rock USA this month, said festival organizer Derek Liebhauser.

Manson also suggests artists should do what Halsey did about Firefly and speak up about lack of representation at festivals.

"If you are headlining a festival or a really successful musician, you do have power," Manson said. "If more and more musicians say, 'Where is the representation of color? Where is the representation of gender,' we can slowly make a change."

Major players in the industry are initiating change in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Following the USC study and Recording Academy President Neil Portnow's highly criticized remarks at a Grammys news conference that women need to "step up" to advance in the industry, the academy has created a new task force focused on diversity and inclusion. On Wednesday, Portnow announced the Grammys would expand the number of nominations in the record, song and album of the year and best new artist categories from five to eight, beginning with the 2019 awards.

Live Nation, the world's largest live music promotion company, launched the Women Nation Fund in May to provide capital for female entrepreneurs producing festivals, concerts and events.

And Manson is among the ambassadors for Keychange, an initiative by music charity PRS Foundation in the United Kingdom that is urging music festivals to strive for an equal gender balance for their lineups by 2022. More than 100 festivals around the world have signed the Keychange pledge so far.

"If men and women can both be more conscious in breaking the spell of patriarchy, we can move forward," Summerfest headliner MILCK told the Journal Sentinel. She is one of about 50 female or mixed-gender headliners playing the music festival this year.

"The good news is that we are at a time where people are trying harder to think outside their own mental confines," Summerfest headliner MILCK (birth name Connie Lim) told the Journal Sentinel. "If men and women can both be more conscious in breaking the spell of patriarchy, we can move forward."

Thanks to initiatives and greater demand, the industry is headed in the right direction, Appel said.

"You will see more and more female-fronted acts at festivals in the next few years, because the comments and uproar won't stop, and nor should they."

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