Sarah McLachlan
Sarah McLachlan

Pop Festivals No Longer A Man's Man's World

When Sarah McLachlan and her team at Nettwerk Records launched the Lilith Fair tours in 1997 and 1998, they were heralded as long-overdue breakthroughs for female musicians. For the first time, McLachlan opened opportunity for the gender to perform outside the male-dominated framework the music business was built round, and the overwhelming audience response proved it could be a viable new model.

However, an attempt to revive Lilith Fair in 2010 was a disaster, and since then the gender gap at major international music festivals has only increased in tandem with the proliferation of new festivals in general. In a piece published on Sept. 30th, Pop Matters’ Canadian columnist Hans Rollman made a case that 2015 may mark the tipping point of gender disparity at music festivals, given the amount of media coverage the issue has garnered over the past two years. His conclusion was that, based purely on numbers comparing the recent amount of male vs. female artists at Canadian festivals such as Osheaga, North By North East and Halifax Pop Explosion, it’s difficult for organizers to convincingly claim they are doing enough for female artists.

So what has been the response? When this issue first made headlines in 2014, as longstanding British festivals Glastonbury, Leeds and Reading were taken to task for presenting dude-dominated line-ups, male and female festival bookers alike stated their jobs are not to implement gender quotas, and that, like other aspects of the music business, things often go in cycles.

Natasha Haddad, organizer of The Latitude Festival, told The Telegraph last year she believed then that there were fewer women able to headline festivals, but, “in terms of bringing on new female, credible pop artists, such as Lorde and Jessie Ware, we’re very much on track. The future holds a lot of promise.”

John Mac, booker for Reading and Leeds, expanded on Haddad’s point by saying, “If you look at aspiring musicians in the past, particularly in the rock, indie and dance worlds, there were more boys than girls trying to make a go of it and therefore more breaking through. Things need to, and I believe are, changing. Often the most interesting artists at Reading and Leeds are female.”

Mac’s final sentiment is echoed by John Kastner, who in 2013 became Canadian Music Week’s Festival Programmer after serving in the same capacity for many years with NXNE. He tells FYI, “I agree, there needs to be a larger female presence in music and on festival stages. I mean, guys wearing their hats on backwards and their pants hanging off their asses, who needs it? I think we are seeing more and more female artists, and it cannot come soon enough.”

One festival that has not been cited in this argument is POP Montreal, and Creative Director Dan Seligman says it’s simply because, in terms of talent evaluation, gender has never played a role. “We try to book female artists because we love female artists,” he tells FYI. “We have a staff that is largely female and we do a good job of booking female talent in terms of international headliners and local artists.”

POP Montreal Sponsorship Coordinator, Olivia Diamond, who also assists with booking, adds, “I’d say there’s no challenge putting women on the bill for my showcases. Sometimes you have to put a little more thought into it or dig a little deeper to make the numbers even, but there’s no lack of female talent in the music business and it’s certainly no more difficult to draw audiences for shows with women headliners.”

Diamond further noted that other POP Montreal showcases are handled by Tessa Smith and Demi Begin of local labels Fixture Records and Push & Shove, respectively, who both strive for parity in their line-ups.

So, with the question as to why female artists are being excluded from major music festivals now firmly in the public consciousness, it’s almost certain that the 2016 festival circuit will look a lot different that what was offered in 2015. And if it isn’t, it appears that bookers will not be able to make any more excuses.

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