Author: Marco Salah El Din Tantawy
Picture Credit: Glauco Canalis
In recent years we’ve seen a lot of criticism about gender and ethnic imbalance in Western music festivals on and off the stage. With the pandemic putting a halt to most festivals, this could be the perfect time to make real changes, especially according to the principles of diversity, inclusion and representation.
In November 2020, the ongoing FACTS survey, conducted by female:pressure, the international network of female, transgender and non-binary artists in the field of electronic music, highlighted that from 2012 to 2019 the proportion of female acts rose from 9.2% to 24,6%. While this could sound like encouraging data, the truth is that there is still a lot of work to do in this direction (male acts are at 65%), considering that meanwhile, not even a massive iconic movement like #MeToo was powerful enough to trigger a deeper discussion about this issue.
Looking at this issue across different countries, it’s evident that inequality is systemic, and that structural sexism generates disparity for female identifying and non-binary artists in festivals as well as for professionals in every space of the whole music industry.
Likewise, even the debate about racial imbalance in lineups has always been underwhelming. As Marcus Barnes showed in his article, in 2019, 79% of the acts, across a list of European festivals, were white, 10% were black, while 9% were mixed race.
On May 25 2020, the tragic death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, marked a turning point in the recent history of racial inequality, injustice and police brutality.
Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, this event led many people to actively stand up against the systemic racism and white privilege that have persisted for centuries. Members of the movement have also brought their activism into the music industry, pressuring music companies to take more concrete steps, in addition to posting black squares on Instagram and campaigns like blackout Tuesday; from reviewing black artists’ contracts and hiring processes, up to donating money to black organisations.
Today, the attention about racial issues already seems to have lessened, but it’s important for the ones working in the industry to remember that the struggle for Black lives is not a seasonal trend and that more action is needed.
Particularly for music festivals this could be a great chance to make a radical change through a long-term commitment at every level: in their musical offer, in their internal teams, in the way they engage with their communities.
I was lucky enough to reach out to and speak with some artists and professionals I admire and who collaborated with the festival I work with. These chats highlight all the issues already mentioned until now, and start tracing directions for the festivals of the future, addressing organizers and promoters.
The first person I called was Nur Al Habash. I’ve known her for many years now and she played a key role in my life as she was a main figure in the music scene in Rome, launching one of the most iconic club nights, music festivals and webzines. She’s now the founder of the Italian Music Export Office, an important platform that provides funding, strategic support and promotion for Italian musicians that need to be heard outside of Italy. In 2018 she also launched the Italian chapter of shesaid.so, the global community of women and gender minorities in the music industry.
She told me how this huge imbalance in favor of men was enormously evident not only in music festivals but in the industry as a whole. Hiring more females in decision-making roles, who can contribute with a different point of view to the selection power, could be a great starting point. Talking about lineups, she highlighted how festival bookers and artistic directors try to diversify the names on bills to avoid criticism without opening a more nuanced conversation about diversity and representation. They would also turn to shesaid.so asking to recommend female artists to book just to add the “final cherry on top” or “tick the box”. This reveals how some festival bookers don’t know how or where to look for new artists, regardless of their gender or cultural background.
Charlotte Adigéry was the second name I had the pleasure to chat with. She’s a musician living in Ghent but originally her mother and father are from Martinique and Guadeloupe. Initially she told me something about what inspires her, how she’s surviving the lockdown, the story behind her brand new single and the music scene in Ghent.
Like Nur, she identified in the lack of diversity in the decision making process the biggest problem of the imbalance in lineups, and underlined the importance for her to be booked as a good artist and not as a black woman that scores well on the diversity chart.
She was clear when she said that there’s a general lack of leading figures in the real world coming from any minority, and this is an issue that goes beyond just music festivals.
We ended up talking about whitewashing in electronic music scenes. She stated how music festivals could play a key role in educating crowds about the history of black music and honoring its origins. Finally, she said the scene should be less business oriented, and focus on making festivals more accessible to both artists and crowds of non-white backgrounds.
The last person I had a conversation with was the British and Bristol-based Dj Danielle. She’s been in the industry for 12 years now, and started working at Phonica in London when she was 18. Beyond her residency on NTS, Danielle works in consultancy and A&R for Love International Festival and Origins, while part-timing at Idle Hands record shop in Bristol.
She runs Mix Nights, a DJ skills workshop made by women for women. The mission is to make djing more accessible for female and non-binary artists who feel excluded from the male dominated scene. Talking about gender and racial disparity, Danielle said that since the BLM movement the debate has been more vivid, but she’s not too hopeful we’ll see any changes soon. The problem is that big festivals and big industry are not keen to make bigger structural changes, thus preventing any impact on a wider scale, and that a lot of the support they showed during BLM was simply performative.
Talking about the future, she said that now is a prime time to book outside of the norm. Selling tickets won’t be so hard considering people’s desperate need to party.
In general, these chats all expressed a common vision about the future of festivals. Everybody agreed that diversifying the festival ecosystem by booking more people of different genders and more people of colour is the priority. Diversifying the internal teams, while ensuring safe working conditions and accountability, could be essential for reaching this goal more easily.
Also, supporting a more performance-oriented music culture and being less business-oriented is the key for a better change. Dismantling the old system to leave a better future for the next generations is possible and this time looks like a great opportunity to do it.
This article was conceived as a result of our first call for contributions that aimed to address the challenges and changes that festivals and cultural entities may face in the future. Thanks to the contributions we received, we were able to create the Future(s) of Festivals feature series, that this article is a part of. We’re open to new proposals for our next call for contributions, available here.
On the author
Marco Salah El Din Tantawy is the Head of Communications at Ortigia Sound System Festival.