The Imbalanced Relationship Between Music Festivals and Women Performers


Rebecca Lauffenburger
Staff Writer

With the onset of Coachella just last month, festival season is officially upon us. From the disastrous Beach Goth 2016, which received enormous backlash in response to over-capacity festival grounds and overly aggressive security, to the absolutely hilarious mess that was Fyre Festival, music festivals are incessantly making headlines.

The appeal of music festivals has grown far beyond getting the chance to watch music legends perform at exorbitant prices; with food vendors, trendy fashion, and the possibility of a celebrity sighting or two, the festival circuit offers something for everyone. In fact, about the only thing you can’t find at music festivals nowadays is diversity amongst artists.

Across the board, female artists are not even close to being represented proportionately, a fact which has not escaped the scrutiny of media outlets, critics, and festival attendees. Last month, Pitchfork published an in-depth breakdown of festival line-ups throughout the U.S, which revealed an alarming disparity in the proportion of male and female headliners.

In an attempt to systematically determine which amongst them is most guilty of homogeneity, Rob Mitchum and Diego Garcia-Olano devised a point system for “grading” festivals based on the number of times an act made an appearance, the popularity of the festival they appeared in,  and whether or not the act in question was a headliner. Data was collected on 23 major festivals and organized into graphs showing which ones were becoming more or less unique. The analysis took into account both the overlap between the same acts performing in various festivals and gender distribution.

The results were less than Earth-shattering, but they are nonetheless telling of a steady downward trend in the diversity amongst the country’s favorite music scenes.

Of the 23 festivals featured in the Pitchfork report, Jazzfest, Pickathon, and Karoondinha were the most unique, with scores ranging from about 0.77 to 0.57, while Boston Calling came in last place with a score of roughly 0.25.

Each festival’s 2017 lineup was then compared to their 2016 lineup. The results seemed rather inconclusive, with each festival weighing in at about the same score. The prize for the most substantial increase in uniqueness went to Jazzfest, which scored a 0.65 in 2016 and a 0.77 in 2017.

Things got a bit more interesting when Bonnaroo, Coachella, and Lollapalooza were compared in terms of the percentage of shared acts among them. The graph, which documents lineup trends since 2005, shows a steady incline in percentages for all three festivals — Lollapalooza being the least original of the three, reaching over 40 percent shared acts in their lineups between 2007-2009.

Here’s where it really gets scary: the last two data charts reveal that the average percentage of male artists in festival line-ups this year is as high as 74 percent, leaving only 26 percent for female and mixed-gender outfits.

This is not just a U.S. phenomenon either. The Guardian has written extensively about the lack of female representation in U.K. festivals, citing even more disheartening statistics, with male artists occupying up to 96 percent of festival bills.

When confronted about the lack of gender diversity in Download Festival, booker Andy Copping asserted that the female audience attending his festival prefers “watching bands more than being in them,” and that “they just haven’t felt inspired enough to pick up a guitar or be the singer of a rock band.” The assumption that women simply have no artistic inclinations is an unfortunate example of the kind of misconceptions that have continually pushed women out of musical spheres by insisting that that they want to be kept out. It’s a vicious cycle of misrepresentation, confusing effect with cause by perpetuating the idea that talented female musicians do not exist because they are not nearly as visible as their male counterparts.

Some may be tempted to dismiss the lack of a female presence in music festivals as being inconsequential, but I would argue that music festivals are in essence the “face” of the music industry, and the lack of female artists in lineups is evidence of a blaring, persistent problem within its framework.

It’s no secret that commercialism has taken over nearly ever corner of the music world, and festivals are no exception. The country’s most popular festivals sell us all on the promise of an “experience of a lifetime,” and they’re doing a great job of it. Sponsored Snapchat stories, Instagram posts, and ubiquitous coverage from every news outlet have all aided in playing off a universal human fear of “missing out”.

Commercialism drives the festival circuit, so it should come as no shock that the acts being booked are indicative of the real money-makers in the industry. Men and women have always occupied separate spaces in music, but to see this so blatantly reflected in today’s culture is extremely troubling. Festivals are increasingly moving away from music for the sake of music toward whatever will draw the widest crowd. The fact that female musicians are largely excluded from the festival scene communicates a strong message. Women are not valued in the festival circuit because they are not seen as capable of achieving broad appeal.

Other explanations for this disparity have been offered up. Among them are scheduling conflicts, an inability to afford top female performers, or that there simply aren’t enough female artists out there. Structural sexism is no doubt a complex issue with many contributing factors, but to me most these “explanations” are little more than excuses. Considering these trends are true across the board, I find it difficult to give festival bookers the benefit of the doubt.

This year, Beyoncé (who was replaced with Lady Gaga due to unforeseen circumstances) broke Coachella’s 10-year-long streak of male-dominated headliners. Coachella is one of the country’s most highly publicized events, and I find it hard to believe that it has struggled to find a female artist willing to headline. I find it even more unlikely that Coachella could not afford to host them. This is only one example, but it is nonetheless a telling one.

In conclusion, if you couldn’t make it to Coachella last month, don’t worry; you’re bound to find the same atmosphere, drugs, and musicians at nearly every major festival this year. Just don’t expect to find a variety of female artists.