Your music festival lineup should not look like this. Do better (Photo: Getty Images)

So many festivals, too many men: An urgent message for festival bookers

As yet more male-led festival lineups are announced, Shaquille Wasasala, aka halfqueen, writes an open letter to the industry.

To those whose career it is booking talent for music festivals, punters, and people who listen to music.

As a DJ and artist who exists at many intersections that directly inform my lens – booked artist and punter, DJ and booker, lesbian and woman of Black Pasifika heritage – I’m simply exhausted by the idea of having to write about disappointing festival lineups in 2020, but here I am, eyes rolling infinitely. And to clarify, one definitely does not have to be a woman/artist/POC to be critical of such issues.

In the last few months, there has been a collective shift in awareness and understanding of structural and systemic injustices, both on a national level and worldwide, via the Black liberation movement. To dismiss or not understand the connection between something as trivial as a festival lineup and the state of the world would be ridiculous. That being said, why is it, in 2020, this same topic of the lack of diversity in festival lineups has risen again?

To see this continually written about, to see festivals continually called out, to see little to no progress, is infuriating.

Earlier this week, popular New Zealand music festival Bay Dreams made its first lineup announcement for two 2021 dates, in the wake of prime minister Jacinda Ardern not guaranteeing access to international acts with the trans-Tasman border opening on hold.

Before anybody comes at me for being bitter or jealous, I’m not, and don’t care to play at a festival run by someone who’s done Blackface and has, in the past, promoted an abuser. Not my buzz, personally.

halfqueen (right) and Jess B perform at Red Bull Music Festival (Photo: kasienko)

Unsurprisingly, the poster for the January 3, 2021 event displayed eight lines of artist names, an overwhelming majority of them male and male-led, with the exception of a few women (national treasure MC Tali curiously printed in much smaller font size, and GG Magree, a cultural-appropriating Australian DJ).

Lineups like this one are stock standard and have been for years, not only in New Zealand, but also in Australia, where non-male and/or non-white and indigenous acts are often overlooked. Where is everybody else on these lineups?

Now, we all know this is objectively problematic for obvious reasons. At the risk of never being booked in New Zealand again, I’ll use my privilege as someone with a platform and both festival performer and booker experience to say this to you, festival owners, promoters, agents and bookers: get your shit together, open your eyes and ears, and do better. 

Yes, it’s surely difficult to run a business, but it is not difficult to find and book local women, Black or POC talent, nor is it hard when you do book them to schedule them at dignified set times, and treat them with the same respect you afford their male counterparts.

Beyond the fact there is a huge pool of non-male and non-white talent spanning all genres in New Zealand, the lack of diverse lineups perpetuates societal misogyny, racism and the erasure of these communities, not only on lineups but within music in general. We all know Black people spearheaded almost every musical genre and there are many Black artists in NZ – where are they on your lineup? Women make up around half of your punters, and are seen throughout your promo – where are they on your lineup?  

Instead of writing about statistics, which you can find everywhere else, and countering counter-arguments and excuses, I’m going to quickly explain how you can curate a less misogynistic and less racist lineup, and therefore a festival environment with less toxic masculinity that everybody can enjoy. While I’m aware that a huge factor in booking lies in listenership and radio plays as well as project release dates, touring and availability, which is an issue for another day, here are some useful tips and tricks to curate less of a white sausage fest both on your lineups and in your Spotify playlists:

  1. Expand your taste. You book who you listen to, but people will buy tickets to your festivals regardless of the lineup (tickets sell before lineups are even released). There is a plethora of musical talent within NZ that exists beyond your listening range. Here’s just one of many lists consisting of non-male talent based in New Zealand, compiled by Shelley Te Haara, a photographer and regular gig attendee. Increased diversity in your bookings leads to a wider audience and consumer base.
  2. If you can’t do that, hire a diverse team, instead of having a one-off diversity training day. Your team and team values are reflected in your lineup, and who you book is reflective of who you think is deserving of space, time and money. Working environments should celebrate diversity and human differences and this kind of inclusivity needs to extend beyond the stage and into the rooms of people making decisions. Change your work structure and implement inclusivity so much so it becomes second nature.
  3. Go to local shows and support local acts. Some of y’all do (looking at you Rhythm & Alps and Homegrown, albeit both lineups are constantly dominated by men too), some of y’all choose to book overseas (in spite of corona’s border control). If you as a promoter or booker don’t have your ear to the ground locally, constantly looking for new talent, you’re writing off a multitude of artists who would jump at the chance to be booked at your festivals. Be their career-forging moment. Offer them your platform.
  4. Take risks. You should know how to do that, considering events promotion is risky business. Book acts that don’t look like you, book acts that play music you don’t like, book the unconventional, book artists with little to no experience. Different festivals have different sounds, and with every sound, I could almost guarantee, would be communities of marginalised artists working and waiting for a life-changing festival set.
  5. Nobody wants to be your token booking, so book consciously. No artist wants to be reduced to a ticked box. This type of tokenism is indicative of profiting from a good look and boosting public impression, rather than actual progress. Diversity for a tick’s sake is tokenistic. What happens beyond your ticked box? How are you ensuring a community of underrepresented people get the same opportunities as their male counterparts? Booking consciously creates a more unified and inclusive space and culture.
  6. Be committed to tangible change. Change is uncomfortable and a long process. Make commitments to curating inclusive lineups and festival environments. Address the shortcomings within your workplace. Care enough to see tangible change through and advocate for peers to do the same. If you want to keep booking the same lineups, don’t hide behind excuses – say it with your chest. It is not the role of the artists to front this change in your companies. 

Now why, you may ask, after consistent successful years, despite unabated calling out formally and informally for this recurring problem, would the NZ festival circuit finally take this matter seriously? God knows. I’d only hope that the people running these huge businesses would strive to be better and do more for and by the communities that support them. 

Bay Dreams is one of many festivals at the helm of the industry. This is your lane, and a culture you have direct influence over. It shouldn’t be my job to tell you how to do your job better. If there “needs to be more done to address the imbalance” in the industry, what are you going to do? How are you addressing it? Understand your power as bookers and promoters. Understand the responsibility you have in creating spaces that are representative of your audience. Understand the work needed to be done and don’t leave it up to us – women, artists, POC, fans, people you’re deliberately leaving out – to do the work for you.

It’s not enough to make a quick social media statement to denounce sexism and racism and hurl excuses, you must be proactive in working to dismantle these systems. The festival industry and music industry at large is in a uniquely powerful position to implement and see through a cultural shift. Nothing changes if nothing changes. Do better. 

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