Magazine Feature

Why Most Festivals Are Only Booking Female Artists Farther Down The Lineup

Kelela, Billie Eilish, Lizzo and more on creating a more inclusive culture and paving a path towards the top.

Early in January, when music festivals like New York’s Governors Ball, Delaware’s Firefly Music Festival and California’s Coachella revealed their summer lineups, Halsey was quick to call out an issue that surfaces every year. “Where the women at,” she wrote on Twitter, referring to Firefly. “This was one of my favorite festivals I’ve ever played and it’s a shame there’s not more females on the bill. It’s 2018, do better!!!”

Women are almost altogether absent from the bold-print few who sit atop the major summer-festival lineup posters -- with the exception of Beyoncé at Coachella, who was slated to headline in 2017 before she revealed her pregnancy, and Janet Jackson at New York’s Panorama. And only a handful of solo female artists and bands either comprised of women or with at least one female member -- SZA, St. Vincent, Cardi B, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and HAIM -- surfaced, alongside Halsey, near the top of the bills.

So it may come as a surprise that in 2018, the majority of those festivals actually increased the overall number of female acts on their bills -- the most notable being Coachella, which upped its solo female artists and groups with at least one female member from nearly 40 to just under 60 this summer. While headliners still skew overwhelmingly male, festivals are booking more women in the middle tier.

“It’s a conflicting feeling,” says Lucy Dacus, who will release her sophomore album, Historian, on March 2 and is booked on the Firefly bill. “Because when I hear someone say, ‘There should be more women on the lineup,’ I’m like, ‘Yeah!’ But I’m also like, ‘There are...’”

“I feel like this year, [female presence] has improved [in the industry],” adds pop-rocker Alice Merton, who will play Alabama’s Hangout Music Festival in May, as well as Firefly and Governors Ball in June. “There have been so many up-and-coming artists who are women getting bigger and bigger.”

When Hangout started, in 2010, there were only six acts with women on the lineup; Boston Calling, which originated in 2013, first included eight. This year, both have 16 (although, of course, band lineups can change). Tennessee’s Bonnaroo festival, which started in 2002 and has grown through the years, boosted the four women on its inaugural lineup to over 30 this year.

The emerging artists who dot the mid-tier lineups in 2018 inhabit a range of genres: Tash Sultana (guitar rock), Kelela (moody R&B), Lizzo (lighthearted rap), Alex Lahey (melodic rock), Jorja Smith (sultry soul), Maggie Rogers (synth-pop), Julien Baker (plaintive singer-songwriter) and Billie Eilish (alt-pop).

But the overarching problem remains: Women still aren’t being booked at the top level, despite the fact that in 2017 several female pop stars crowded the charts: Kesha, Taylor Swift, P!nk and Katy Perry debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 (as did Lorde and Lana Del Rey, who played several festivals last summer). They also recently had, are currently on or will soon be playing arenas or stadiums on their own headlining tours.

Why aren’t these women getting marquee-booking? “A lot of it just goes back to who’s available and who’s working,” says Jordan Wolowitz -- co-founder/partner of Founders Entertainment, the company behind Governors Ball, which this year booked Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Halsey toward the top, and The Meadows (a fall festival in New York’s Queens borough) -- of the booking process. He cites conflicting touring schedules as a huge factor in solidifying a lineup. “There are things that, understandably, ticket buyers and people who don’t work in the industry don’t know, [but] there’s usually a pretty pragmatic reason behind [why we book certain headliners].” (Billboard’s own Hot 100 Festival had Demi Lovato perform a headlining set in 2017 and Ariana Grande the year before that; the 2018 lineup has yet to be announced.)

It raises the question: What does factor into a headline-worthy act? Kelela puts it simply: “It’s not about who’s the best. When it comes to a women’s approach, what we’re bringing to the table is a different flavor. That flavor of intimacy or sensitivity or getting in your feelings or being -present -- other than being on one thousand million in terms of energy -- I think that has a lot to do with it.” Dacus agrees. “Headliners, no matter the genre, usually are a person or band who has an ethos.”

The internet and social media have largely helped emerging artists establish just that. “There have always been women in the music industry, really talented women -- they were just never given funding or a platform or a space,” says Lizzo. “The internet is killing all of that shit.” Sean O’Connell, festival director of Hangout, affirms the role social media plays when it comes to booking. “I certainly look at ticket sales, but that doesn’t tell the whole story,” he says. “We listen to our audience, which has actually leaned toward a female majority these last few years, and really pay attention to which artists are connecting with people” -- social metrics being the primary source of intel.

Set times aside -- mid-tier acts typically fill out afternoon slots -- there are tangible benefits to performing at these events. “[Playing a festival] is like being a stadium artist, without having to be a stadium artist,” says Lizzo of the exposure. Kelela sees each festival performance as an opportunity to not just grow her own platform but also to expand festival culture as a whole. “For me, it’s important [to play festivals] so that other black girls feel like they can have their festival moment too, and it’s not just a bro-down or a bunch of white people.”

She adds: “We’re going into the fire -- it’s an unfair playing field, [but] we’re doing it so that the next time, you can say you fucking did it and it was successful and people were feeling it and had a good time. [Then] maybe the bookers will feel different [about our placement on the lineup], and maybe we changed minds by participating.”

That drive to change is echoed by others. Eilish, for one, is set on a headlining gig one day: “I want it to be crazy and free -- that’s what all the guys at festivals can do. I’m trying to break through that barrier.” Dacus sees a steady path to these heights. “If this is the beginning of this issue not being an issue, then that’s good to acknowledge progress,” she says. “Just acknowledge the work that needs to be done.”

A version of this article originally appeared in the Feb. 3 issue of Billboard.

Festivals 2018