The Canadian music industry is a diverse, varied place, but you wouldn’t know it from the endless parade of white guys with guitars wanking across the festival stages and conference panels of the nation. Over the past month, NXNE have been releasing the lineup for their Portlands festival, and the list, while appearing more racially diverse with the most recent release, is still very dude-heavy. With three women-fronted bands and one genderqueer artist out of 16 total acts released so far, I have to ask: where the fuck are the women, NorthBy?
As an organization, NXNE has all of the advantages a festival could hope for: based in the most diverse city in Canada, at the epicentre of the national music industry, and granted hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funding (not to mention mad private sponsorship dollars). With a mandate to remake themselves this year into a newer, cooler, and more dialed-in organization, they had a prime opportunity to showcase the infinite variety of the Canadian musical landscape. But they keep stumbling, and they end up looking foolish in the process.
Waking up from what must have been a long winter’s nap, they noticed (in 2016) that Toronto has a flourishing hip-hop and rap scene. NXNE President and Co-Founder Michael Hollett keeps speaking breathlessly to the press about how excited he is about it, and it’s getting a bit embarrassing. How could the President of one of Canada’s largest festivals have been unaware until recently of Toronto’s hip-hop scene?
More to the point, that scene has plenty of women—from the legendary Michie Mee to Witchbaby and beatmaker Wondagurl. They aren’t hard to find. Certainly, the inclusion of Tasha the Amazon—so far, the only Toronto-based rapper in the lineup, despite Hollett’s supposed enthusiasm—is a good thing, but with only 19% of the lineup featuring women artists, the overall vibe is still feeling pretty samesies to me.
When I talk about programming gender parity at festivals and conferences, the immediate pushback from (male) programmers is that they book based on merit, not according to a quota. When challenged, few of them will straight-up say that women aren’t as musically meritorious as men, but it’s heavily implied. They’ll complain that they can’t find enough women artists, or that they did ask some, but those women were busy.
NXNE gets hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money every year to present a sausage festival, and there comes a point when we have to ask if we’re cool with that.
They’ll claim that imposing a quota means the quality of the music, and attendance at their event, will suffer. However, plenty of festivals (from Field Trip to the CBC Music Festival) and series (The Music Gallery) and conferences (Folk Music Ontario) are moving toward gender balance in their programming, and none of them seem to be suffering.
The fact is, bookers and programmers who aren’t able to program gender parity are just bad at their jobs. There are thousands (at least) of excellent, compelling woman-fronted bands with draw in Canada alone; reach beyond our borders, and you’re choosing from tens of thousands. As a programmer, it’s your job to know what music is out there, or know who to ask, or where to go to find artists that aren’t in your mental catalogue. Programmers who lack the resources to book gender parity at festivals and conferences should step down and hand the role over to someone who can. Maybe festivals, conferences, and venues could even think about hiring more women as programmers, as that’s another area of the industry that could use a shake-up.
NXNE gets hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money every year to present a sausage festival, and there comes a point when we have to ask if we’re cool with that. Does it make sense that public funds go to feeding the already-successful mainstream artists, rather than giving a boost to those who don’t have the same opportunities as white men? If, as an organization, you aren’t interested or capable of hiring acts with women, you should not receive public money.
On the flip side, here I am, with good money in my pocket, and these festivals don’t want it. While I’m happy to pony up for a festival whose lineup has a great mix of artists, I’m unwilling to spend it on a festival that promises to provide me with hours of similar dudes making similar sounds. Bringing in a mix of artists broadens your potential audience and makes the overall experience more engaging—as musicians know, your brain starts to tune out after hearing the same sounds repeated too often.
I haven’t even touched on the dearth of racialized artists, artists of different genders and sexualities, Aboriginal artists, and other diverse perspectives and genres on stages and panels in Canada. It’s been decades since music fans stuck to one or two genres—now they’re as likely to be into k-pop and Saharan blues as they are rock or folk. Audiences are musically literate and have broad tastes; programmers need to catch up or get out of the game. It seems that a lot of the programming choices we’re seeing are stuck in the 20th century, which is no coincidence, since that’s when a lot of the people who run these events came up.
The music industry—from artists to audiences to administrators—is full of great women, and we’re sick of waiting our turn or being treated like we’re second-class. Festivals are welcome to join us in the 21st century any time they like.
Illustration by B Mroz.