The Roots/Folk Festival Gender Parity Study (2019)
Women are sorely under-represented in most aspects of music, and some of the most glaring imbalance occurs on festival stages. Yet, until fairly recently, no one seemed to bat an eye at lineup inequity. This points to a normalization of bias against women. After all, when you see something repeated enough, such as 85% of performers on stage being men, it starts to feel natural to you. Because I’m examining how this normalization occurs, I decided it was important to count exactly how many females versus males stood on a stage in total. This provides us with the most realistic measurement of the status quo. The choice to approach my count this way differs from other researchers who tend to count: 1.) all male acts; 2.) all female acts; and 3.) mixed gender acts (in which the mixed-gender acts are counted as female).
Whichever approach a researcher uses, the results consistently confirm a strong underrepresentation of women musicians in live performance.
HOW AM I COUNTING THE WOMEN ONSTAGE? Because I’m focused on how unconscious we are of bias and how the normalization of imbalance occurs, my count of festival performers is based on how many men vs. women there are in total on a stage. In the best of worlds, this count would be garnered during the festival or after it has occurred using data gleaned from one’s own eyes or from live videos/pictures of the event. This approach would provide the most accurate gender breakdown, particularly in reference to one of the main contributions to the imbalance of genders—side players.
That said, we don’t exist in a perfect world. I am a team of one, and much as I’d love to, I cannot attend 30-40 festivals in one summer. Additionally, the amount of work that would be required to collect video and/or pictures of every act at every festival was more than one part-time musician and full-time book indexer could commit to. So I decided to approach the study using projected numbers of performers on stage based on the artists’ official band photos (which were provided by festival websites). If I had to estimate the margin of error in my data due to counting projected bodies on stage versus actual bodies on stage, I would estimate the results are skewed anywhere from 1 to 4% towards better gender representation than there exists in reality. Meaning, sadly, my results are likely a best-case scenario of the current status quo.
SELECTION OF FESTIVALS FOR STUDY: In the spring of 2019, I used the website MusicFestivalWizard.com to perform a search for the “top folk festivals in the U.S.” The search engine returned over 40 festivals, however, I limited the study to the 32 that I felt were at least 50% in the roots/folk genre. (Note: upon doing later data searches at MusicFestivalWizard.com, I discovered the search engine returned slightly different results at different times of the year. This is likely due to the algorithms favoring festivals that are upcoming versus those that have already occurred.)
COUNTING APPARATUS: Using the results of the MusicFestivalWizard’s search, I visited each of the festival websites, navigated to their artist lineup, and used the performer pictures to document how many projected men and women would be onstage in total.
IF ARTIST PICTURES WERE NOT PROVIDED: A small percentage of festivals did not provide artist pictures on their website. In these cases, I used both the artist’s official website and/or their Facebook page to ascertain who was included in the act. In an even smaller number of cases, members remained unclear from pictures and websites, and in these cases, I sought actual pictures or videos from the festival (after it occurred). In rare instances, a live video of the act at another venue within two months on either side of the festival date was used.
GENDER IDENTIFICATION: Generally, I let an artist’s appearance guide my documentation of their gender. If they appeared to dress and present as a woman, I counted them as a woman (and vice versa). On rare occasions, a performer’s preferred gender was not clear from their appearance. If this occurred, I investigated both their official website and their individual social media profile to see if I could determine their preferred pronoun and using my best judgment, let this instruct me as to how to document them.
SIDE PLAYERS THAT WERE COUNTED: If an act featured a person’s name followed by a band as part of the act’s official title (i.e. Jane Doe and the Anonymous), the band members were counted in the study even if they were not included in the picture on the festival’s website. (I used their Facebook page or official band page to document the band members’ genders in this case.)
SIDE PLAYERS THAT WERE NOT COUNTED: Solo artists who were listed and pictured alone on a festival website were counted alone, even if they are generally known to play with the same side persons (a la Brandi Carlile). Since these counts were happening in advance of the performance, and there was no way to know for sure who might be on stage with a solo artist, it was the most consistent way to log data between festivals. Admittedly, this skews the results of gender balance on stage as a whole slightly in favor of a more equitable ratio than probably exists, due to the fact that the accompanists who are not counted are overwhelmingly men.
NOTE ON THE BROOKLYN AMERICANA MUSIC FESTIVAL (BKAMF): The search engine at MusicFestivalWizard.com did not return this festival in its search, so even though the BKAMF fit all the other criteria to be included, it technically didn’t meet the parameters of my study. Even so, I chose to include it as an example of a festival that is excelling in its effort to present an equal balance of genders onstage. It’s interesting to note that when I remove the BKAMF numbers from the research data, the overall percentage of representation remained the same, at 81% men and 19% women.