Diversity in Festival Lineups: The Conveyer Belt Problem

by Tom Graham

Houghton was a festival like no other. Its 24 hour license, abundance of unique acts, and almost complete lack of phone reception made it a utopia for electronic music heads to totally immerse themselves for a few days. With an emphasis on house and techno, this year’s edition featured an eye-watering line-up, hosting a huge number of underground music’s most impressive selectors. In the months leading up to the festival, my friends and I would spot an artist that we previously hadn’t noticed on the bill, and our excitement would continue to build. It seemed like everyone was playing there. Except, they weren’t…

Once we got over the initial astonishment at the sheer volume of artists playing, a sobering realisation hit us – why are pretty much all of these artists men? Midway through the festival, my friend and I tried to recall which female DJs were playing, and struggled to get much further than 6 or 7. Closer inspection revealed that 113 of the acts were either male individuals or a group of males, and a mere 14 were female or non-binary (two more acts were mixed groups containing both male and female members), which amounts to just 8% of the total line-up. For a festival that Mixmag described as “one of the world’s most essential dance music festivals”, why did Houghton do so badly in addressing gender diversity?

Many protest that a low proportion of female artists on a lineup is only a reflection of the demographic of the scene in general. Houghton, for example, placed a strong focus on more leftfield genres, with minimal techno having arguably the strongest presence at the festival - minimal heavyweights like Ricardo Villalobos, Margaret Dygas, Nicholas Lutz, Binh and Francesco Del Garda all played at least once over the weekend. This corner of dance music could be seen as less densely populated by female DJs, making it harder to diversify a line-up when picking from a pool dominated by Eastern European and South American men.

However, this suggestion that the proportion of prominent female DJs is lower in minimal techno than in other dance music sub-genres is a poor excuse for why Houghton’s - or indeed any other festival's line-up was overwhelmingly male-dominated. Firstly, it wasn’t the case that the whole of Houghton was focused on minimal techno bookings, and so we’re left wondering why big female DJs from other sub-genres were omitted from the line-up. The festival’s strong electro presence could easily have been complemented by Volvox b2b Umfang; Lena Willikens’ weird, melodic techno would have worked perfectly alongside a Roman Flügel set. If Horse Meat Disco can play for 5 hours on the mainstage, why couldn’t Honey Dijon have done so as well? The list of notable absences goes on, and the point is that, given the female DJs that have risen to prominence in recent years, it’s not exactly slim pickings. (For a brilliant portrayal of this point, take a look at this poster from SIREN, a London-based female and non-binary DJ collective).

siren poster.jpg

More importantly, we must not just blame the music scene for not having enough female DJs to choose from and then stop there. It’s the responsibility of successful festivals to lead the way in being more progressive by taking active measures to book DJs from underrepresented groups. Whereas bigger festivals might be less inclined to take risks, instead booking more established names to ensure costs are covered, festivals like Houghton aren’t limited by the diversity of the pool it picks from in the same way – they can afford to book underrepresented and less well-known artists, giving them the perfect opportunity to tackle gender discrimination. After all, it’s Houghton’s commitment to giving space and exposure to more obscure and otherwise overlooked DJs (albeit mainly male ones) that has earned it its reputation and popularity so far.

 

The problem of gender discrimination in all festival line-ups, and indeed in most areas of life where men are massively overrepresented, is incredibly deep-rooted. A low proportion of high-profile headline slots are given to female artists. This distinct lack of role-models for younger female musicians makes the music community appear daunting and somewhat uninviting, which consequently means that they are less likely to continue DJing/producing, or even take it up in the first place. As a result, the pool of musicians continues to be predominantly filled by male artists, again resulting in an absence of female role-models and fewer female artists for promoters to pick from. So, we’re back at square one (for a compelling and insightful articulation of this point, read our interview with Objekt).

In addition to this vicious circle, patriarchal dominance in the dance music industry also manifests itself in an even uglier form – the overt sexism and misogyny from the darker corners of the scene. If you click on nearly any review of Nina Kraviz’s releases on Resident Advisor then you’ll find some argument in the comments about her worth as a DJ. She is subject to far more attacks on her legitimacy than any other DJ, with comments frequently attributing her success to her appearance:

“Funny how you can be successful as a DJ despite being technically pretty poor at mixing, if you are a hottie. How shallow we are”

“If she wasn't so good looking would she have been as successful? Probably not, there are thousands of better DJs out there playing in clubs and bars all over the world, however - fair play to her, she is using utilising her natural assets to have a cushy life and do a job she loves and earn huge fees, so good on her!”

“She is a major headliner only interested in taking a booking that would satisfy her demands as far as her fees and riders are concerned, she doesn’t come from the generation of underground techno that was built on the floors of illegal warehouses”

“Nina Kraviz is and always has been nothing but an image. Now that 90’s techno is a trend its no wonder she is exploiting the hell out of it! The techno community would be a lot better of if she didn’t exist in it!”

The last two comments are particularly revealing. She is denigrated by older, male techno fans, and is treated almost as a social climber who has overreached – a fraud who doesn’t belong in the boys’ club. These techno purists are kicking the ladder away from female artists like Kraviz, undermining the worth of their hard work and status. In preventing them from becoming role models, it worsens the cyclical pipeline issue already discussed.

Changing the out-dated attitudes of crusty old male ravers is something that is harder to do, but shifting gender ratios in line-ups is something that more can, and should be done about. Quota-based solutions are being implemented in some festivals around the world – earlier this year, the PRS Foundation’s Keychange campaign called for festivals and music industry conferences to pledge a 50/50 gender split in their line-ups by 2020. More than 100 festivals, including UK festivals like Bestival and Field Maneuvers, have committed to this initiative. Although very few of the festivals on the list are dance-music oriented (most are jazz or folk festivals), it is nonetheless a step in the right direction. Some may disagree with imposing quotas on the grounds that it runs the risk of tokenising female DJs, and that artists should be booked on the basis of talent alone. However, without making such conscious efforts to improve diversity, the scales cannot be shifted. We can’t just wait and hope that things just get better on their own - line-ups won’t improve unless more festivals take affirmative action.

If promoters can’t be trusted with making radical changes, then another solution is to take control of curatorial responsibilities. Discwoman, a New York-based collective founded by Frankie Decaiza Hutchinson, Emma Burgess-Olson (better known as Umfang) and Christine McCharen-Tran, is leading the charge against the underrepresentation of cis women, trans women and genderqueer artists. Speaking to Forbes in 2017, Hutchinson explained that “we saw that to change line-ups we would have to get more control in booking, so that’s why we went into being a booking agency”. Discwoman has been curating all-female shows since 2014, effectively allowing female DJs to infiltrate and integrate into the networks that determine line-ups. In giving more power to those making concerted efforts to improve line-up diversity, the conveyer belt that elevates female artists to headlines slots is accelerated.

The failure of many festivals to ensure a diverse line-up is nothing new - it is emblematic of the gross underrepresentation of female, trans, non-binary and non-white artists across the entire music industry. While progress is slow, it does at least seem that people are becoming more aware of the issue, taking active steps to shift the balance in favour of a more equal split. Effecting change requires a combination of holding promoters to account for their line-ups, and also taking matters into our own hands. DJs themselves should utilise their influence and refuse to play at shows/festivals where the quotas aren’t being met. If artists begin to do this, then they, along with collectives like Discwoman and SIREN, will give us hope that the next generation of artists is pushing back against techno’s diversity problems. This allows the issue to be seen as more than just inevitable, but actually unacceptable.

Words by Tom Graham

Photos by Christian Jones 

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