Pledging Gender-Balanced Festival Lineups Is Like Putting a Band-Aid on a Bullet Wound

Structural inequities run deeper than the names published on a festival poster.

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Pledging Gender-Balanced Festival Lineups Is Like Putting a Band-Aid on a Bullet Wound

On Monday, 45 international music festivals publicly pledged to book gender-balanced lineups by the year 2022. The pledge was spearheaded by the UK’s PRS Foundation, whose new initiative, Keychange, aims to mitigate the music industry’s longstanding gender inequality problem by getting more women onto the lineups of music festivals and conferences. It’s a noble goal: Glance at a festival poster from anywhere in the world and you’re likely to see far more men than women, a phenomenon easily visualized by removing all the male acts from any Coachella poster. While Coachella doesn’t appear on the list of festivals promising gender-balanced bookings (the pledgers are mostly European, with only two American events among them), the gesture has the potential to influence other festivals with notoriously lopsided lineups. It is also, at best, a superficial response to the deeply entrenched problem of misogyny in the music industry: a Band-Aid on a bullet wound.

Soon after the press release about Keychange’s pledge went public, music journalists took umbrage with its framing—namely, the idea that it would take until 2022 for these festivals to find enough women artists to populate their balanced lineups. It’s as if women who make music were an as-yet-unperfected technology. “Why in the world should this take four years?” tweeted music critic Judy Berman. The proposed timeline baffles. With no reason given for the delay, Keychange’s promise of gender equality in four years’ time suggests that booking women is an undue burden on festivals, an unnatural process that can only be completed with years of concerted effort.

So long as major festivals are profit-seeking enterprises controlled by men, the goal of gender balance on their stages will align more neatly with “lean-in” feminism than holistic equality.

Keychange’s goal of “achieving or maintaining a 50/50 gender balance” across participating festivals also comes loaded with a troubling presumption: that artists can be either men or women, and nothing else. The formulation leaves no room for the many non-binary and gender non-conforming artists active in contemporary music, among them festival favorites like Shamir and Sam Smith. Where does an artist like Ezra Furman, who identifies as a “feminine-representing bisexual male,” fall on Keychange’s gender split? Or a producer like Sophie, who for many years was assumed to be a man and identifies herself, simply, as Sophie? These artists (and many others) make rich, challenging music about their position outside the binary. To group them under “women” or “men” — or to clumsily expand the first category to “women, trans, and non-binary artists,” as Moogfest did late last year — flattens their experience and the art they make from it.

Shortly after Moogfest announced its men-free 2018 lineup without notifying its artists, Caroline Polachek, formerly of the band Chairlift, pulled out of the event. “Gender is not a genre,” she tweeted. “I don’t need a sympathy pedestal, esp from a male curator.” While Moogfest later issued a statement clarifying that it is curated by a “diverse group of people that work together as a team,” Polachek’s tweets addressed structural inequities that run deeper than the names published on a festival poster. Keychange’s pledge only promises gender equality among festival artists; it doesn’t seek to remedy inequality in curation, sound engineering, or other forms of labor that make music festivals possible. Unlike the Swedish musical group The Knife, who sought to work with as many women as possible behind the scenes of their 2013 live tour, Keychange aims to change the face of live music, not its heart.

In a 2014 essay about gender imbalances in media and publishing, Jennifer Pan wrote about the limitations of counting marginalized people’s bylines at major publications. “While such statistics provide sobering reminders of the lack of diversity in the industry … they tend to transform media inequality from a structural problem to an individual one by focusing disproportionate attention on outlets’ hiring and commissioning decisions,” she wrote. “Counting bylines … at best only scratches the surface of the gendered power imbalance within the media. At worst, it advances a literary version of what Sarah Jaffe has called ‘trickle-down feminism,’ or a liberal interpretation of equality that concerns itself with the smashing of the glass ceiling for a privileged few rather than seeking to redress the exploitative labor practices that affect far more women.”

A similar critique can be applied to Keychange’s vision of gender equality. By putting the onus on festivals to book more women, the initiative overlooks the structural factors that lead men to be perceived as more viable festival participants in the first place. From music media and licensing firms to record labels and PR agencies, men overwhelmingly hold power over the machinations that might vault an artist from a local favorite to a major festival contender. Every gate that stands between a hometown open mic and a Lollapalooza slot is more likely than not to be controlled by a man who may not be inclined to bestow power upon a woman or non-binary artist.

So long as major festivals are profit-seeking enterprises controlled by men, the goal of gender balance on their stages will align more neatly with “lean-in” feminism than holistic equality. Already, there are festivals striving for the latter. FORM Arcosanti, a yearly festival curated by the band Hundred Waters, recently announced a 2018 lineup dominated by women. Nowhere in its marketing did it claim to be furthering the goal of gender equality or celebrating artists who aren’t men. The lineup, which also boasts artists outside the binary, speaks for itself. Men are a minority, and there is no mission statement justifying that fact — a powerful, subtle gesture.

While it’s heartening, in some ways, to see so many festivals pledge to book fewer men, I’d rather see festival administrators interrogate their own complicity in the music industry’s deep-seated sexism. I’d like more transparency in festivals’ booking processes, and I’d like fewer men to helm those processes. I’d like the abusers and harassers who bar marginalized people from positions of power in the industry to be rooted out. I’d like the billion-dollar conglomerates that own festivals to establish grants for young women and non-binary artists so they can commit to making music even if they don’t have access to generational wealth or disposable income. There is a lot I’d like to see. Booking more women is a start. It just doesn’t go deep enough.