Summer Music Festivals: Where are the Women?

As July 2011 marches on, I’m increasingly unsatisfied with the lack of female musicians included in the many upcoming festivals and events.  Summer is a time for monstrously populated, sweaty, and expensive music festivals; swarms of young adults and hipster twenty-somethings convene at these festivals over the shared glory of warm beer and potential sunburnt romance.  Bonnaroo, Coachella, the Warped Tour, Lollapalooza, Glastonbury, and other festivals attract international attention for their esteemed roster of artists and schedule of events.  Not only do thousands of people attend every year, but the selection of artists for each festival captivates fans for months in a frenzy of speculation and then debate.  As someone who loves feminist-identified music in addition to regular old “music,” I always find the intensely skewed gender makeup of these festivals’ lineups disappointing.  But more frustrating than the lineups themselves is the absence of dialogue from music bloggers and journalists regarding the intensely sexist nature of selected festival performers.  Does anyone even notice?

The process which bars women from the upper echelons of art, music, and entertainment production can be hard to identify on the surface.  But the absence of women from many festivals’ headlines speaks volumes to the political nature of artistic production and representation.  The historical and institutionalized silencing of women in art can be hard to address when the injustice centers on something which is missing, but once you realize that the silence exists, you see the absence everywhere.  All genres of media, arts, and entertainment reflect this sexism (and heterosexism, and racism)  – everything from publishers ignoring lesbian writers to an American cartoon canon with no female artists. It’s an inescapable reality for women involved in media production, and it’s an issue we are mobilizing to keep fighting.

The lack of female musicians in summer lineups also contributes to an increased feeling of anxiety and fear for women attending festivals.  The UK festival Latitude came under fire last year when two rapes were reported at their festival; not surprisingly, rape and other instances of violence against women are not uncommon at these festivals, in the U.S. and abroad.  Of course, the majority of rapes go unreported, so there is no real way to know how unsafe or dangerous these festivals are for women.  This is not to say that women should be afraid of attending large music festivals; rather, these fears speak to this larger culture which silences and discourages female artists at every level of production, distribution, and performance.  Female festival musicians can look forward to a completely male group of colleagues and sexist coverage of their performances in addition to a unsupportive environment for women.  Even if some select female musicians were offered a spot, could you blame them for declining the tour?

But female musicians, despite all of the sexist roadblocks, impossible image requirements, and flak from misogynistic press, still exist, and continue to play badass music.  So where can we find them, and how can we support them?  We can take a lesson from the Riot Grrrls of the early nineties for this task.  Like the Riot Grrrls, today many feminist and female-fronted musicians and bands play more locally, in smaller venues, often for free or nearly-free.  Events such as the July 14 Women Rock! Showcase in Brooklyn embody this D.I.Y., independent ethos: the event has free admission, “cheap drinks,” and “lady rockers,” with the goal of bringing people together in solidarity with this cause.  We can create safer spaces for female musicians and fans, similar to but more gender inclusive than the Michigan’s Womyn’s Festival, but the question remains: Will the majority of feminist and female musicians be confined to dingy basements, playing free shows, hoping to stumble upon enough gas money to get home?

Women musicians and their allies can use their creative power to equalize the arts.  We can work toward this goal with two strategies: acknowledging and encouraging existing female artists as well as criticizing the grave inequalities in music production and representation.  It will take a combination of these two strategies together to effect lasting change in these industries.  It will take individuals, working within bands, organizations, collectives, and larger communities, both supporting fellow musicians and speaking out against the suppression of female art to reach a point of measurable change.  We need the efforts of journalists, bloggers, and music writers in this fight too.  The more that media coverage recognizes, discusses, and encourages female musicians, the more that women will get involved with music and the arts in the first place.  Let’s turn the tables on the typical summer music discussions from “How many beers can we chug during this Eminem song?” to “Why is Beyoncé the only female headlining act at Glastonbury?”

Blog post by WAM! Intern Anna J. Weick

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