This year, Ariana Grande proclaimed that God is a woman. Cardi B topped the charts with the Latin-inspired banger “I Like It.” Beyoncé strode onto the main stage at Coachella, to the applause of thousands of fans.
In many ways, women are the heart and soul of popular music. Yet they are conspicuously absent from the lineups of many popular music festivals.
Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, Sasquatch, Firefly, Boston Calling and BottleRock Napa Valley all lack a single female headliner.
“It’s just common sense that there should be a balance,” said Zack Friendly, co-founder of music festival All Things Go.
Since the revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s persistent harassment of women in October 2017, brave individuals have repeatedly come forward to expose other injustices related to gender — including lack of representation or sexual misconduct — in Hollywood, politics and corporations.
Less talked about however is the shockingly persistent gender gap in the music industry, with award shows and critics often overlooking female musicians, composers, and producers.
In 2017, 74 percent of bands performing at the largest U.S. music festivals were all-male, while only 14 percent were all-female and the remaining 12 percent were mixed-gender groups, according to Pitchfork Magazine.
Some music festivals lack even a courtesy nod to gender parity.
Bunbury, a music festival held in Cincinnati with a focus on indie rock and a 2016 three-day attendance of over 60,000 people features no female artists in any of the bands comprising its top 11 acts in the festival’s 2018 lineup.
These male-dominated lineups persist despite the fact that female musicians are topping charts and breaking records across the United States.
This April, fearless rap sensation Cardi B had thirteen songs simultaneously in the Billboard Hot 100, achieving the most songs charting by a single female artist in Billboard history.
Pop mogul Beyoncé’s “The Formation World Tour” concert series was attended by over 2 million fans.
Female artists are undeniably popular, yet they continue to be underrepresented at music festivals.
Part of the problem is that women are largely pigeonholed as singers, rather than as producers or instrumentalists, leading to a lack of females in creative instrumental positions.
According to a study by Stacy Smith, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, female instrumentalists are sorely lacking from popular music.
The study analyzed the proportion of female and male artists in popular music from 2012 to 2017, and found that although women were more likely to write or perform in the pop songs than men, women are rarely found in duos or groups and comprise only 2 percent of producers.
“Of 600 popular songs on the Billboard Hot 100 year end charts from 2012 to 2017, women comprised just 22.4% of artists and 12.3% of songwriters,” Smith wrote. “2017 represented a 6‐year low for female artists—an unexpected result in a year when women forcibly took hold of the cultural conversation.”
One factor for this gender disparity in the music industry may be that female musicians are often discouraged from pursuing traditionally male instruments that are the backbone of popular music.
Hanna Chan (COL ’19), a singer who recently released an EP under the name “.hanna.” and who performs with all-female a capella group GraceNotes and Georgetown Cabaret, a rock and pop cover group, explained how gendered instruments contribute to the dearth of female instrumentalists in popular music.
“Who is encouraged to play drum set, drums, horns, bass, and any kind of more funky jazzy instruments, electric guitar versus acoustic? It’s usually boys. Girls are encouraged to do more classical things like piano, violin and singing,” Chan said in an interview with The Hoya. “Girls especially feel that it’s harder for them to execute a vision because they haven’t been encouraged when they grew up to have the technical skills.”
Betty Repacholi, a research associate in the University of Washington’s Center for Mind, Brain and Learning, pointed to subtle gender biases from peers and parents as a significant influence on children’s choice of music instruments in an interview with ABC News.
For example, a mother may not think about gender bias when she gives her daughter a violin instead of a drum set. But these decisions are reflective of the way our gender stereotypes are passed down to children.
Because women face these gendered pressures from birth, Chan’s experience has been that women are held to a different vocal standard than men since their singing is unaccompanied by instruments.
“A boy that can hold a melody is regarded highly, whereas girls are expected to have such a unique tone and be able to do lots of runs to be regarded as good enough, even for a cappella,” Chan said. “I think girls can get really torn down on those tiny details because they don’t play bass or electric guitar.”
Pushing for Parity
While the societal pressures and challenges for female musicians are deep-rooted and pernicious, companies like Damned Damsels are making a difference. According to the organization’s website, Damned Damsels hosts “pop up shows, roundtable discussions and panels as well as a user generated blog” to connect and support women in the music industry.
Prominent female artists, like singer-songwriter and producer Maggie Rogers, best known for her indie hit single “Alaska,” are also using their platform to promote gender equity in music, by speaking out on social media and partnering with music festivals for inclusive lineups.
As part of her work highlighting gender inequalities and limited female representation throughout the music industry, Rogers, along with indie pop singer Lizzy Plapinger, stage name LPX, is curating the lineup for the All Things Go Fall Classic music festival, scheduled for Oct. 6 to Oct. 7, 2018 at Union Market in Washington, D.C.
One day of the festival’s lineup is dedicated solely to female and gender non-binary artists, including Billie Eilish, Jessie Reyez and Ravyn Lenae, as well as Rogers and LPX.
All Things Go was founded as a music blog in 2006, before its founders, including Adrian Maseda (SFS ’09), editor-in-chief of All Things Go, and Zack Friendly, began to expand into the live music sphere.
“We did quarterly nights at the 9:30 Club, we would do showcases every year at CMJ, South by Southwest, and a number of other events,” Friendly said. “We actually launched the fall classic festival in 2014 so we’re currently in the fifth year of our festivals, and we’ve basically just seen steady growth every year.”
The founders said their partnership with Rogers and Plapinger came from conversations about representation in festival lineups — especially at the top of the ticket.
“They’ve been talking about the lack of representation of female artists, specifically at the top of festival lineups, for a long time,” Friendly said in an interview with The Hoya. “So when they came to us and said, ‘We’d like to curate the lineup with you,’ it was a no brainer.”
Festival curators have the power to promote equity and uplift female musicians through their selection of lineups. Just as women have been the main enforcers of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, it is ultimately women themselves who are their own most potent advocates foequality within the music industry.
“Almost a year ago, @lpx and I dreamed of creating a more diverse music festival culture that celebrates the artistry, individuality, and vision of our peers,” Rogers wrote in a recent Instagram post. “Amplifying the voices of female and non-binary artists is the first step towards permanently changing a culture that for so long has underrepresented these essential members of the global artistic community.”
Along with Rogers and Plapinger, the Women’s March, a women-led organization with a mission of providing intersectional education and fighting systematic oppression, is partnering with All Things Go for its Power to the Polls initiative.
The organization, which helped plan and publicize the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, seeks to aid citizens registering to vote through grassroots activism like rallies and phone banking.
Although the 2017 Women’s March was originally envisioned largely as a rebuke to President Donald Trump for statements that were perceived as misogynistic and harmful to women, the festival’s founders maintain that their goals in partnering with the Women’s March are universal and not political.
“We’re not trying to get involved in policy statements or being the radical progressive festival,” Friendly said. “We’re trying to bring people into a place that’s fun and exciting and let them know that they have an opportunity to shape policy in America by registering to vote. We don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican; we just want you to come and register to vote.”
Amplifying Female Voices
In addition to the all-female Saturday lineup and registration initiative, All Things Go will be hosting two discussion panels, called Classic Conversations, on Friday, Oct. 5, at the Eaton Hotel from 5 p.m to 8 p.m.
The panel will feature successful women in the music industry like VICE News Tonight correspondent Gaby Wilson and Columbia Records A&R Jessica Strassman. A second panel features female entrepreneurs from a variety of fields, including Women’s March Co-President Tamika Mallory and restaurant owner Rose Previte of Maydan and Compass Rose.
By partnering with female musicians and the Women’s March, Maseda and Friendly hope to foster a space for female empowerment on women’s own terms.
“We wanted to make sure that we’re not setting the course, that we’re just providing an avenue for these women who own businesses and these powerful women to kinda have a platform for whatever they see fit,” Friendly said.
The choice at All Things Go to dedicate a full day to female and non-binary artists represents one strategy to lift up women in the music industry. This decision is reminiscent of recent talk from lawmakers and certain activist groups of enforcing representation quotas on company boards.
California State Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson introduced a bill this year that would mandate corporations to have at least one woman on their boards by the end of 2019. The bill has passed the California State Senate and is under consideration by the assembly.
Yet quotas for female artists merely address the symptoms of unfair societal norms rather than tackling the root causes of inequity.
Still, promoting female artists at festivals is important, and festivals like All Things Go are moving the conversation in the right direction.
“The goal is to have 50-50 representation on bills, and that’s a diversity that we want to get behind and support,” Friendly said.
By making equitable festival lineups a reality, women’s voices onstage and in the music industry are amplified, and female artists are empowered to change societal norms.
“I see [a day with an all-female lineup] as an awesome step to showcase women that have their own style and have conceptualized their own music,” Chan said. “I hope in the future at festivals that there doesn’t need to be a conversation of how imbalanced the performers are, and there are no barriers.”