The gender imbalance in music festival line-ups persists this year, despite the noise in promoters ears getting louder. Kirsten Johnstone asks why this is still an issue.
There’s an Instagram account called lineupswithoutmales dedicated to photoshopping bands with no female members out of festival posters in NZ and Australia. Too many are bare. Why is there still such an imbalance? When around 22 percent of registered songwriters identify as female, why is this not reflected on our festival stages?
The Rhythm and Alps stage this year only had seven women appear on it, out of 40 acts. Northern Bass made a real effort to get more women on stage, and reached about 23 percent. While summer festival Bay Dreams had headliners Cardi B and Tash Sultana, only 10 percent of their line-up weren’t men. At Raglan’s upcoming Soundsplash festival, only 10 percent of their bands have a female member. Kapiti’s Coastella has a grand total of four women among 44 musicians - 9 percent, though to be fair, there's only 10 acts and four are fronted by women, so I'll give them 40 percent. Nest Fest in Hawkes Bay tomorrow has one act with women in it - 10 percent. I could be leaving out a backing singer here and there, but it’s a pretty dire state of affairs.
Mark Wright has been orchestrating hugely successful NZ Music festival Homegrown since 2008. The one-day event that takes over Wellington Waterfront has five genre specific stages from rock to reggae, and draws a crowd of 20,000.
This year, of 43 acts, only four are fronted by women. A further two acts have female instrumentalists in them. There may be one or two backup singers, and I’m guessing Jess B will bring some of her crew on stage, many of whom are female. There will be around 120 men on stage at Homegrown, and if I’m being generous, only 10 other performers who identify as women. That’s around the 8 percent mark.
Why so low? I asked Mark Wright. There are many pop acts who would fit the format - I mention names like Robinson, Theia, Bene, and October to him. He says that he tried to book a couple of them, but they couldn’t do it. He was looking at Bene, but “it just didn’t quite fit”.
Ladi6 was close to signing up this year, but something else came up. He wouldn’t book The Beths, because they’re too indie, and while they gave that genre a good run, it didn’t pull the crowds.
I mention other acts that are playing festivals this summer - Valkyrie, Villette, Bailey Wiley, Arma Del Amor. They’re on his radar, and yet, male bands, some of whom have a fraction of the social media following and Spotify plays that the above acts have, get booked instead.
“I book acts based on merit, based on creating a line-up that I think will kick arse. I don’t care whether you’re pink, blue, green, female, male, I’m just trying to put together the best line-up I can.”
It’s not the first time he’s given an answer to this tune, he’s been asked the question by pesky journalists for years.
There are a lot of young women in his audience - maybe even half. Does he feel a responsibility to them to put inspiring women on his stage? Maybe there’s not enough female musicians right now, but could Homegrown be part of the solution to that? Is simply giving female musicians visibility a good starting point?
I point out that 22 percent of APRA’s registered songwriters in NZ are female, and challenge him to set that as a target for next year.
He aligns his line-up closely with what his commercial radio partners are playing, so the issue lies with programmers in that area too.
The only female act on the electronic stage at Homegrown this year is Aroha and Tali - that’s DJ Aroha Harawira and MC Tali. They’ve played the festival a number of times over the years, both together and separately.
Harawira is booked through an agent, and never knows who else will be on a bill until it’s publicly announced, and is clearly disappointed with the Homegrown line-up.
“Some promoters - and I’m not pointing fingers - they have, in the past, been lazy…”
She’s heartened to see a few of her promoter friends putting out calls on social media to find out about up and coming female DJs they might not know about.
“I’m seeing so many festivals actually putting a lot of effort into a more gender balanced line-up.”
She played NYE festival Northern Bass last year and says the research they have put into choosing acts is obvious, with several up-and-coming female DJ acts on the bill.
“It really does change the energy backstage. And the more women the audience sees [on stage] the more women it brings to the audience at these events.”
Aroha says she often has young female aspiring DJs tell her that she’s been their inspiration - the reason that they’re giving it a go.
She almost gave it up at one stage, because she felt unsafe. She was groped by men in her audience too many times, and was paid insufficiently.
“I’ve always been able to stick up for myself, but in those situations, where it happens so quickly, I didn’t know how to respond, and I’d freak out.”
Instead of quitting, she got an agent, upped her fees, and put a clause in her contract stating that there must be one security guard around the stage when she plays.
“No amount of money is worth someone assaulting me.”
Based in Melbourne now (working for music software company Ableton), Harawira sees a sea change in Australian festival line-ups, helped in part by rock trio Camp Cope’s campaign to call festivals out on man-heavy line-ups and make them safer spaces.
Ironically, the band’s name has got bigger and bigger on festival posters. One of their summer gigs this year is Laneway, the Australian founded festival that hits Auckland on 28 January.
For the NZ Laneway show, the line-up is 45 percent female - a record, for a taste-making festival that has always tried to get a good balance of gender, ethnicity and genre.
“I’d still like to think we can do better,” says Danny Rogers, the co-founder and director of St Jerome’s Laneway.
He cites availability of artists as a limiting factor to getting a more equal spread of gender, but also says that the high cost of putting on festivals mean that you can’t take too many risks with the line-up. He says that Laneway doesn’t usually break even until days before the shows.
“You need acts who, ultimately, can help move some tickets.”
He says that filling a quota just isn’t a practical step to take when it comes to programming decisions.
“If you’re trying to deliver something just to tick a box, it can be, in my opinion, a little bit cynical. We do note if it’s leaning more in a male direction, like in Australia this year, but it was just down to availability. Whereas in New Zealand this year, it’s the strongest mix we’ve ever had.”
Their headliner’s this year include UK pop band Florence And The Machine, Courtney Barnett, R+B newcomer Jorja Smith, and the aforementioned Camp Cope. The festival also has some female acts who are just starting out, like Auckland electro-pop duo Imugi, and Bene. So they do take some risks.
And it’s an investment that pays off. Danny says that often they program acts on their way up who then return years later as headliners. It’s Laneway’s good spotting of future stars that consistently makes it a festival with renewed energy and audience.
“It’s what we can do for the future, and that’s what I’m really excited and passionate about.”
Laneway are getting involved with organisations like Girls Rock, a worldwide organisation that mentors young women (including transgender, intersex and non-binary youth) to write songs and play instruments.
“Anyone that’s missing this conversation, is really culturally switched off,” says Danny.
He’s already in the process of looking at next year’s line-up, and a particular female artist who could headline the shows. But he also says that Laneway have to compete with other festivals, to offer the best deal to that artist, and that often they're already contractually bound, to not play any other festivals within a certain time limit and location.
Putting indigenous voices on the Laneway stage is also important to Rogers, and he says it’s another area they’re investing in for the future.
European organisation, Keychange, encourages festivals to make a pledge to make their line-ups 50/50 by 2022. So far only one New Zealand festival has signed up - Going Global Music Summit, an event run by Independent Music NZ which showcases the best new talent to a team of overseas music industry movers and shakers.
A big part of the music industry seems to be taking the task of getting more women into all parts of the sector. Some festivals, like Laneway, Splore, and WOMAD consistently do a great job of getting a diverse array of acts. But some festivals are letting the side down time and time again.
“All of us [women] who are in this industry, doing this work, should be asking these questions,” says Aroha. “You know, maybe it’s not this year that you thought ‘oh wow, I really should have had more women’ but what about next year?”
The antidote to Homegrown has just been announced - Milk & Honey Festival. It’s a three-city, four-venue festival on International Women’s day in March that will see the likes of Tami Neilson, Bic Runga, Ria Hall, Julia Deans and Nadia Reid take the stage together. Other venues in Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch showcase younger acts alongside ones that have been around a while.
It was reading a festival booker's response to the call for gender equality that put the fire in Lani Purkis' belly to create this event.
"He said, 'If you've got an issue with me booking men, book your own festival.' I was like, okay then, I will."
Lani (who is the bassist for Elemeno P) teamed up with promoter and manager Teresa Patterson, who had been thinking about doing the same thing.
The pair wanted to create a festival where young women and girls had people they could identify with and look up to, and where women were very clearly visible in all parts of the event.
“Maybe the actual issue is that women aren't booking the bands. So of course men are going to listen to men, you naturally listen to voices that sound like your own - I listen to so many women when I listen to music."
Having booked a festival herself now, she sees the limitation on availability - her own band can't play anywhere from Taupō down within six weeks of playing Homegrown. CubaDuba and Newtown Festival have sewn up a lot of Wellington-based acts in March, meaning that nailing down the Wellington line-up for Milk & Honey has been difficult. There are more acts still to be announced.
"We want to show that women can sell tickets to festivals. Having women on your line-up isn't a hindrance. If we can prove that 'look, we've done it with all women' then, you can too."