Why Music Festivals Don't Want Too Many Female Artists

The website Pixable has an article titled "We Photoshopped The All-Male Acts Out Of Music Festival Posters And The Results Are Shocking." And they didn't lie when they said it was shocking. Women make up half of those in the audiences at festivals but are seriously underrepresented on stage.

# of Male Acts
# of Female Acts
% Female Acts
Pitchfork Music Festival 2015
Lollapalooza 2014
Bonnaroo 2014
FYF Fest 2014
Skate And Surf Festival 2015
Riot Fest 2014
Coachella 2015
Reading & Leeds 2015

Male Musicians Aren't Always Skilled on their Instruments

Eddie Van Halen claimed he had to show bassist Michael Anthony how to play his instrument.

"Every note Mike ever played, I had to show him how to play. Before we'd go on tour, he'd come over with a video camera and I'd have to show him how to play all the parts."

Most online comments on articles that have covered this were dismissive. Many insist that it's nothing to do with sexism. An example is this badly worded (and possibly trolling) comment on Pixable:

"There must be no balance. Merit, talent, prowess, is what should be considered, no organizer should take Artic Monkeys out of their list for a half-assed, barely-creative, all-girls band like Paramore (they have boys in that band but I don't see them as males)."

Are male acts really more talented and deserving of a slot? Based on complaints I've heard about many musicians in indie and alt rock bands not knowing how to play their instruments properly, it's hard to say. But there's often a perception that men are better.

"It's a real shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument, it's almost a novelty," Jack White told Spin. "Like, 'Oh, isn't that cute.' It's a shame that in 2014 that's a little bit of what's going on."

Unfortunately "merit, talent, prowess" aren't always enough for women to succeed.

"Many orchestras, especially in the US, are now auditioning blind, with participants playing behind screens, and there has been an exponential increase in women being hired as a result – one study shows the likelihood of progressing beyond the preliminary round increases by 50% for women in these kinds of auditions."
-- Sexism is rife in classical music, The Guardian

Thanks partly to blind auditions the percentage of women in orchestras has increased from 5% in the 1970's to approximately 25% now.

Musical training and ability may not be enough for women to succeed in the music industry
Musical training and ability may not be enough for women to succeed in the music industry

So, why might females be underrepresented at music festivals when women are often doing equally well critically and commercially? Surely if many successful albums and singles are being released by women, that means the public is interested in female artists.

One problem may be the focus on looks for women in music. It can be hard for women who aren't conventionally attractive to get record deals even though some like Kesha, Lady Gaga, P!nk and Adele become hugely successful. Record labels will sometimes sign minimally talented but attractive women under the assumption they'll be more popular. But even women who are talented often come under heavy pressure to sell sex appeal. Many people think these women are using their looks and bodies to sell records due to a lack of talent.

Musician Butch Walker retweeted a tweet calling Kesha's success "un legit" because she's "ugly" yet people can be dismissive of women's success if they're attractive as well. Looks can work against women when they're pretty AND when they're not.
Musician Butch Walker retweeted a tweet calling Kesha's success "un legit" because she's "ugly" yet people can be dismissive of women's success if they're attractive as well. Looks can work against women when they're pretty AND when they're not.

While looks can be important for men too, it's far easier for men to make it based on their talent alone. And men also come under far less pressure to be sexually appealing. As a result, women often aren't taken as seriously as men even when they make better music. Men who get lukewarm receptions from critics may be more respected by the general public than women who fare better critically. Organizers booking acts for festivals may be reluctant to include female acts that aren't "taken seriously" fearing it will drive away aficionados of "real music."

Movies and TV shows that mainly revolve around female characters can be a turn off for men. It's possible that too many female artists at music festivals could be a turn off as well. Organizers don't have to worry about losing women by having too many male artists but the opposite is a legitimate concern. A high percentage of female acts could be bad for business. As television writer, director and producer Mike White put it:

"Women are interested in men and women, and men aren’t interested in the woman’s story. They just aren’t. There are exceptions, but by and large … I mean I do think that it’s feminizing for a guy to go see a movie with a female lead unless it’s Angelina Jolie shooting people or Zero Dark Thirty or something that feels like it’s in the male sphere. The devaluation of the traditional female roles or the traditional female approach, it starts to feel like this is what’s wrong with our country."

This concern about having "too many" women is what inspired Sarah McLachlan to start the all female festival Lilith Fair because she:

"would not cave in to concert promoters and radio stations refusing to play two female acts back-to-back."

The website Music Machinery studied gender differences in music taste. The study lists the 40 most popular artists by gender. Ten of the 40 most listened to artists among men were female accounting for 25%. For women, 19 out of 40 artists were men accounting for 47.5%. Men's preference for male artists and women's indifference is likely one reason why music festival organizers prefer to have more male acts.

Sexism in Classical Music

Surprisingly, the focus on looks has extended into classical music according to the Guardian.

Good looks have long helped to compensate for a lack of talent across the entire music industry. But the sexualised marketing of young women, particularly, in classical music has also now become normalised...Some album cover portraits for female artists could double as escort agency profile pics. Publicity for young male artists is increasingly sexualised too, but not to anything like the same degree.

The Guardian also addressed sexism in "Why are there so few women behind the music?"

Even though around 20% of the UK's contemporary classical composers are female, this is not reflected at the Proms or at any other major concert series or festival. Of all the works performed by the LSO between 1997 and 2002, 1.3% were written by women. Of those that were written in the last 50 years, 6.5% were by women.

Many people, especially conservatives, believe we live in a post-racial and post-gender society free from discrimination and prejudice, where people succeed or fail based on merit and merit alone. Any obvious racial or gender disparities get chalked up to lack of ability or interest by underrepresented groups. When it was pointed out that women represent less than 5 percent of music producers and engineers, some suggested women may be less interested in entering these fields rather than addressing the possibility that there may be barriers to entry for women.

Many studies have found that racial and gender preferences do indeed exist, such as the study on blind orchestra auditions. A Yale study determined that men and women with the same qualifications can be treated very differently.

"Science professors at American universities widely regard female undergraduates as less competent than male students with the same accomplishments and skills, a new study by researchers at Yale concluded. As a result, the report found, the professors were less likely to offer the women mentoring or a job. And even if they were willing to offer a job, the salary was lower. The bias was pervasive, the scientists said, and probably reflected subconscious cultural influences rather than overt or deliberate discrimination."
-- Bias Persists Against Women of Science, a Study Says, NY Times

And men weren't the only ones guilty of discrimination. Female professors were just as likely to discriminate.

"Female professors were just as biased against women students as their male colleagues, and biology professors just as biased as physics professors — even though more than half of biology majors are women, whereas men far outnumber women in physics."

The lower percentage of women performing at music festivals is almost certainly deliberate despite many people's desire to believe something other than sexism is the cause. Gender preferences absolutely do exist and many attendees at festivals prefer male musicians over female musicians. Organizers will take these preferences into account when booking acts, which means things aren't going to change anytime soon.

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Comments 18 comments

Lynn Savitsky profile image

Lynn Savitsky 20 months ago from New Jersey

I had no idea this was happening. How ridiculous can we get? Female musicians are just as deserving of value and spotlight as males.

spartucusjones profile image

spartucusjones 20 months ago from Parts Unknown

Very interesting article and you make many valid arguments. Your article also got me questioning on my own musical taste. Generally I always considered myself a fan of female artists. I also don't give much thought to who is performing a song. I either like it or I don't. That being said when I did a brief survey of my musical listening preferences I seem to be running in the 20-30% range for female artists. That being said I was going through past hubs of favorite musical discoveries of 2013 and 2014, and they were at 50% and 40% female respectively. So I still feel that gender isn't a big issue for me and I wouldn't have an issue attending a music festival with a high percentage of females as long as they are representative of artists or musical styles that I like.

Part of my reason for highlighting this point is that if I was to curate a music festival that reflected my personal taste there is a good chance that it would run around 20-30% female and I wouldn't of even realized it unless someone pointed it out. So in some cases it could be a conscious (or sub conscious) decision to exclude females, in other cases it could be a decision based partly on personal taste.

That being said I do feel bias and sexism is an issue in society as a whole. I also think it is helpful that you wrote an intelligent article which shed light on this important subject.

heidithorne profile image

heidithorne 20 months ago from Chicago Area

Wow, this kind of commentary in 2015. Sad. Voted up, interesting and sharing!

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 20 months ago from California Author

Lynn Savitsky,

I was very surprised too when I heard about this because they're are a lot of critically acclaimed female artists that probably never get asked to perform at all.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 20 months ago from California Author


It's an interesting point about personal taste. If a lot of festival organizers are men, they may be choosing acts they like. Based on the Music Machinery survey that finds men have a preference for male artists, it's understandable that the lineup would skew male.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 20 months ago from California Author


It is shocking and I doubt it's something that will change for a while.

spartucusjones profile image

spartucusjones 20 months ago from Parts Unknown

I agree. Part of the issue could be that not enough females are involved with the organization of festivals. Also if a certain festival seems to favor certain male dominated musical genres that could also have an impact. But it would be cool to have a festival with a well balance mix of both female and male acts getting equal billing.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 20 months ago from California Author


It is the case in record labels that most power is held by men even though many artists are women. It could be same with festival organizers.

Jess 20 months ago

In my experience girls take music lessons at higher rates than boys so it's one of those things where women have to work harder to achieve the same success as men. I wonder too if women tour at lower rates than men. If it's harder to get gigs women may tour less. And if women tour less they may be less likely to be asked to sing at festivals. It's a cycle that may be hard to break.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 20 months ago from California Author


I've seen the argument made that it may be there are more male acts touring that are available for festivals. But 28% of the acts at Pitchfork and Lollapalooza were female, so why do other festivals only have 10 or 15%? I think all of these festivals could find more female acts if they tried. I don't know if women tour at lower rates or if it's more difficult for female acts to book gigs outside of festivals.

DB 20 months ago

I think women being taken less seriously by the public is a big part of it. A lot of male alternative acts like Imagine Dragons make generic music. Yet when women make music that's generic they're labeled untalented and it's assumed they slept their way into their contracts. Men get held to much lower standards. It's much harder for women to get taken seriously which makes getting into festival line ups harder.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 20 months ago from California Author


I think that's a big part of it. Many people who go to festivals are the types of people that take music very seriously and only listen to what they consider "real music." Women have more difficulty earning respect than men do.

Au fait profile image

Au fait 19 months ago from North Texas

Sexism is rampant in science and sounds not much better in music. I've noticed a lot of women in music have to wear skimpy clothing to perform, suggesting that their voice, ability, and talent aren't sufficient to carry them along. Jennifer Lopez comes to mind.

Excellent choice of subjects. People need to know these things whether they want to know them or not.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 19 months ago from California Author

Au fait,

Women come under a lot of pressure to be attractive in the music business. Female singers get made fun of for being fat when they're in a normal weight range.

Lynn Savitsky profile image

Lynn Savitsky 19 months ago from New Jersey

That's how it is with all women, though. Actresses, singers, ordinary women...a guy can gain a potbelly and no one raises an eyebrow, but if a woman gains a slight pudge she's suddenly a land whale.

Back to the original point: Recently, my mother told me that music festivals used to be BETTER about this sort of thing. That a lot of the best folk singers in her day were female. (She's in the music business and has been to a lot of festivals and concerts.)

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 19 months ago from California Author

Lynn Savitsky,

The same thing is happening in country music right now. A lot of the country greats were female. Now female artists struggle to get played on the radio now that bro-country has taken over country radio. Critics generally agree that female country singers are making better music than their male counterparts today but it isn't translating into radio play and record sales.

Melanie 19 months ago

I don't think Ive ever seen a festival lineup with women making up more than 30 percent of the performers. Its not because there's a lack of touring female performers. The ones available don't get asked as often as they should making it harder for female musicians to make a living. It would be fascinating to see a festival with women making up 60 to 70 percent of the perfomers. Would men show up in much smaller numbers if that happened? Maybe or maybe not but I think thats what concerns organizers.

Learn Things Web profile image

Learn Things Web 19 months ago from California Author


30% or so does seem to be a maximum. I wonder if lesser known female artists tour less because they have more difficulty getting gigs.

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