Clockwise from top: Kacey Musgraves, Mario Quintero Lara of Los Tucanes de Tijuana, J Balvin, Blackpink, Rosalía and Bad Bunny.
Clockwise from top: Kacey Musgraves, Mario Quintero Lara of Los Tucanes de Tijuana, J Balvin, Blackpink, Rosalía and Bad Bunny.
Getty Images, Courtesy; Photo Illustration by Josue Evilla

J Balvin, Blackpink and Drag Queens: Are Festivals More Genre Inclusive Than Ever?

During the first of her two headlining sets at Coachella in 2018, Beyoncé briefly reunited Destiny’s Child, brought out Jay-Z and J Balvin as guests and shared the stage with over 100 backup dancers in a performance dubbed “Beychella” (the term was tweeted 2.2 million times). It became the festival’s most-streamed set to date; 458,000 viewers watched simultaneously across the globe. But that wasn’t the night’s only historic feat: Beyoncé became the festival’s first black female headliner and Balvin the first reggaetón artist to perform there.

This year, the festival gave him an even better opportunity: On April 13, Balvin will become the first reggaetón artist to officially appear on its lineup -- with second-line billing, no less -- in the festival’s two-decade history. It’s one of many milestones in 2019: Coachella also booked Blackpink and Perfume, the first K-pop and J-pop girl groups, respectively, to play the festival. Latin trap superstar Bad Bunny, regional Mexican group Los Tucanes de Tijuana, flamenco-pop artist Rosalía and Chilean singer Mon Laferte round out the lineup. Balvin and Rosalía will also play Chicago’s Lollapalooza, as will Kacey Musgraves, who is the highest-ever-billed country act at New York’s Governors Ball.

Multigenre festivals, in other words, are finally representing multiple genres. Rebeca León, who manages Balvin and Rosalía, worked at Goldenvoice, the promoter behind Coachella, for 11 years. She says that “they’ve never done it like this.” More inclusive lineups are largely the result of changing listening habits in the age of playlists where genre lines are increasingly permeable. Festivalgoers “want to see Cardi B one day and Maren Morris the next,” says Creative Artists Agency music booker Lee Goforth, who focuses on festival billings. But the change is also the result of bookers waking up to the realities of an evolving market, now that streaming has revealed viable audiences for music that once was deemed too niche for a mainstream U.S. festival.

“There was a lot of stigma with reggaetón, and that’s all changing now,” says León, who also credits WME for Balvin’s mainstream success. “You’re seeing the genre push through. Now that everything is democratized, if festivals and the industry don’t [book Latin artists], it’s just foolish, it’s bad business.” Adds WME agent Ben Totis, "Latin music has never been a bigger part of the cultural zeitgeist than it is right now; It didn’t happen overnight, that’s for sure. We’ve been advocating for our clients to be represented on these festivals for years, and we hit a tipping point this year with more and more Latin artists dominating the charts and continuing to sell on the touring front. The general market is paying attention now -- the talent and influence of Latin artists has become undeniable."

Spotify’s Global Top 50 chart recently boasted five Latin acts in the top 10, and in 2018, 24 Latin songs appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 -- the most in the chart’s 60-year history. Even more valuable than streams: the demographics of the listeners behind them. That data helped convince Goforth to pitch his client Laferte to Coachella. “Now, it’s not even taking an artistic risk,” says León. “This is what people want.”

More diverse programming is also a way for festivals to differentiate themselves in a saturated market. This year, for instance, Bonnaroo will host its first Pride parade in its campgrounds. Booked in collaboration with Brooklyn nightlife venue House of Yes, the event will feature performances by several drag queens. “In the current climate, it is crucial that inclusivity and representation, especially in music, is at the forefront of our minds with everything involved in the festival experience,” says Sophie Lobl, talent buyer at C3 Presents, which under Live Nation now helps promote Bonnaroo. “If we’re not reacting accordingly, then we’re behind. We need to be all-encompassing and really work hard to make sure that we are all trying to make that a priority.”

Meanwhile, one of the longest-standing topics in the festival-lineup conversation -- gender imbalance -- is experiencing only trickles of progress, especially in comparison with the rapid shift in genre inclusivity. So far in 2019, women and nonbinary artists account for well under 50 percent of most major lineups, though more are headlining: Florence + The Machine have top billing at Governors Ball this year, while Coachella has had three consecutive women headliners: Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Ariana Grande in 2019. “Including pop acts on festivals wasn’t something that happened five years ago either,” says Goforth, adding that the market must keep evolving. “The festivals that are winning are the ones that are inclusive, diverse and represent the fan base.”

Inclusivity and diversity in live music go beyond booking marquee names. But by welcoming global acts like Balvin and Blackpink, both of which represent genres that have largely, and for too long, been absent from the festival circuit, 2019 marks a turning point. “This feels like a watershed moment,” says León. “The dam is down, the water is in. You can’t go back.”

Additional reporting by Melinda Newman.

Festivals 2019

This article originally appeared in the March 23 issue of Billboard.