Annie Mac Talks Expanding Her Festival Empire & Fighting for Gender Equality

Stephanie Sian Smith
Annie Mac

Irish-born DJ Annie Mac is quite busy. Each weeknight, she hosts and programs two hours of music with her show Future Sounds on BBC Radio 1. For five years running, she's organized and curated her popular Lost & Found music festival in Malta. This month, from March 27 to 30, she'll expand her Annie Mac Presents brand with a four-day, multi-venue music discovery and discussion event in London.

Every day, her strong presence and confident voice influences music culture and upends the institutional patriarchy, but there's one thing Annie Mac damn well won't do, and that's compromise.

“My job so much is about having conviction in terms of what I love,” Mac says. “You get a lot of outside influence, people telling you what you should like, telling you all the reasons why a band or an artist should be played or shouldn't be played. I think there has to be a point where you just know yourself and know you're good.”

When angry listeners fumed at her Radio 1 interview with U.K. rapper Dave about his honest portrayal of modern “black” life, she didn't cower in apology but stood firm in her support, condemning narrow minds that would hush daring voices. When she ties rowdy punk records together with techno tunes interstitched by jazz experiments, she starts “proper buzzing.”

Since taking up the mic on her first Radio 1 show in 2004, she's built her voice on a foundation of taste, trust and sincerity. She's never wavered in her convictions and she's never endorsed commercial brands, so when Smirnoff recently asked her to be the voice of its Equalising Music gender diversity campaign, she didn't jump the gun.

“I've always been very skeptical about working with brands, because I feel like it can look disingenuous,” she says. “I went in and I asked lots of questions about the company; what the gender balance is like there, and what the female representation is like in [parent company] Diageo.”

The deeper she dug, the more she found evidence that Smirnoff and its associates truly represent a force for equality. An avid follower of the dance music scene, she'd witnessed what the three-year Equalising Music initiative had done in its first two seasons. It had worked with her respected peers The Black Madonna and Peggy Gou, and it had given a young friend of hers real platforms and opportunities via a femme-empowering mentorship program. Plus, Smirnoff had invested “fuck tons of money in it,” and they agreed to let Mac and her team take the reigns.

As head of Equalising Music's final 12-month push, Mac challenges people in music to pledge at least one action this year to encourage gender equality in the industry. It's a simple, straight-forward ask. So far, singer-songwriter Kate Nash promised to work with a female producer, Hospital Records and Rudimental's label Major Tom promised to sign new female artists, and more. Those who join the mission can do so by sharing the hashtag #EqualisingMusic.

“It feels like the launch has been really well received,” Mac says. “We're in the process now of approaching people, saying 'what do you think you can do?' This is the real test now, to see if we can actually get a wave of people to publicly declare that they're going to do it.”

Even before Mac signed on with Smirnoff, she'd done her part by booking an almost 50 percent femme-identifying lineup at this year's Lost & Found. The beloved dance event returns to the lovely island of Malta for the UK's Bank Holiday week, May 2 to 5. It brings more than 60 artists to the decks, including Skream, Honey Dijon, Heidi, Chase & Status and Mac's Smirnoff fellows The Black Madonna and Peggy Gou.

“I don't want people to think I'm going around with a clipboard … but with Lost & Found, it really is about the best talent,” she says. “It hasn't been in any way difficult to get the lineup that we've got. In a lot of music, it's nearly normalized now – not in EDM by any stretch, not in the mainstream electronic music, but in alternative electronic music. It's just about changing the way you think a bit, being aware that there is a lot of female talent, and being aware that … there's someone there speaking for and on behalf of women, who are half of the human race.”

Full inclusive representation is only one aspect of Lost & Found. The four day and four night event spreads the music across eight stages and venues. Mac puts a lot of time and energy into every aspect of the festival, from more obvious details like lineup, day schedules and possible set-time conflicts, to more minute annoyances, like time spent in lines to how long it may take to walk from your hotel to each pool party.

“We really need to make sure that the show is unforgettable,” she says. “I see it so much with festivals where they get successful in the first year, and they just get greedy, put (out more) tickets and then immediately the essence of the festival is kind of diluted because everything's bigger and everything's harder to get to. We've kept it small, and we haven't got bigger, and I really think that's why the essence of the festival has stayed true and stayed quality.”

Mac truly encourages artists and attendees to explore the Mediterranean destination, a place she's truly fallen in love with, and the feeling is mutual. Before Mac came to town, Malta was mostly visited by white-haired holiday cruisers. Locals were fans of house and techno, but Mac's bookings introduced them to new sounds like grime. She's attracted a younger crowd and a fresh injection of tourist funds, and for that Malta honored Mac with the distinction of “Festival Tourism Ambassador.”

“It's been really satisfying seeing people book for a whole week, seeing the sights and really enjoying Malta,” she says. “I think the Tourist Board has been really happy about it. I think they just wanted to give me that so I can just keep shouting about the island and keep pushing it as the destination that it is.”

But before Mac and her team celebrate five great years with Lost & Found, she'll endeavor on a new enterprise that expands her music discovery and event brand Annie Mac Presents, or AMP, with its own four-day conference in London. More than 40 live musical acts across genres and styles will converge across 14 venues to engage in performances and discussions.

“It used to be called Annie Mac presents and now its called AMP because I want it to be able to stand on its own two feet without me,” she says. “I want people to look at it as a trusted of music brand and go to it and its socials knowing that you'll get good stuff without me in the middle going 'hi guys, listen to this.' It's gonna be a long journey but I feel like AMP London is a good start.”

Some of Mac's favorite new artists are on the bill, including Sam Fender, Suzi Wu, Koffee and more. It's a big new first for a woman who's been so triumphant through the years, and it's a welcome nervousness.

“It's the first time we've tried to do something beyond a music event, and obviously that just marries in so much with everything I do anyway which is broadcasting and talking for a living,” she continues. “I'm excited to bring that aspect of it into AMP. I'm curious and full of trepidation. I hope it goes well.”

AMP London makes its big debut Wednesday to Saturday, March 27 to 30. Tickets are on sale now, and so too are tickets to Lost & Found. Visit AMP online for details and more information about both events, and be sure to tune in to Annie Mac's Future Sounds each weeknight on BBC Radio 1 from anywhere in the world on bbc.co.uk.