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Newtown Festival recently celebrated its 21st birthday but, unlike a typical 21st, its festivities were far less trashy, and didn’t involve any yardies or tactical voms (to my knowledge). In saying this, the organisers have had 21 years of practice to get things right — and they pulled through with this year’s lineup.
Every stage at the festival featured either women bands, or acts with at least one or more women, as well as POC and LGBT+ individuals — which is imperative for a festival that strives for inclusiveness and diversity. And while this may not seem like a big deal, it is actually a huge step forward, going against the grain traditional of music festivals. It brings the entrenched and prevalent inequalities within music scenes to the surface, allowing for the recognition, discussion, and eventual eradication of these imbalances.
In an ideal world, actions of this sort by organisers would not be celebrated as progressive feats, and would rather just be the norm — but unfortunately, due to the normalised sexism within the music industry and society as a whole, they are just that. New Zealand boasts a few decent festivals every year (if you’re into binge drinking and gross bro culture — I’m looking at you Rhythm and Vines) and often after lineup releases I’m left wondering, where are all the women at? Out of the 57 acts billed for RnV, five were comprised solely of women — Kimbra, Aroha & Tali, Bailey Wiley, Anna Coddington, and Heidi. A further two acts, Kinetic and Molly + The Chromatics, had women members. The rest were made up of men. If this doesn’t irk you as much as it does me, then we have a problem.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact reason why there is such a lack of women on festival bills, when it cannot be said that there is an absence of talented women performers. Wellington, New Zealand, and the rest of the world are crawling with exceptional female, LGBTQ+, and POC performers — so why are they so grossly underrepresented at mainstream festivals? Surely it does not come down to the “what the people want” argument, because I know for certain that an angsty-young-white-males-in-alternative-bands sort of lineup is not what I and many others want. Yet year after year, this is all I see.
What’s worse is when the festivals themselves claim to promote an ‘all inclusive’ ethos, but then do not practise what they preach. When speaking to Gussie Larkin of Mermaidens and Earth Tongue at the Newtown Festival, she mentioned the overwhelming “male-ness” of alternative scenes like that of Laneway Festival. “Laneway was really unbalanced, I think there were seven females out of 60 musicians… it’s the boys’ club. I hate that shit.” And while it is undeniable that there are numerous notable and talented all-male bands that rightfully deserve the credit they garner, when this becomes the norm for seemingly ‘diverse’ festivals, it further alienates women, and suggests their presence is not essential.
A notable aspect of the 2017 Newtown Festival was the organisers’ conscious efforts to book more women. When asked about the deliberate inclusiveness of the festival, both Gussie and Emma Hall-Phillips (Aw B) spoke of one of the stage programmers, James Paul, with high praise: “I really liked how he didn’t talk about this choice as if it were a big deal or advertise it at all, because over-emphasising it makes it seem as if he’s not booking female artists based on their talent, when that in fact is the real reason. And that’s how it should always be.”
It is important to note that gender-balanced lineups are not only salient as a means of inclusiveness for female musicians, they create a far more accepting environment — one that is not just accommodating a certain type of person and their taste. Emma believes this was reflected at Newtown Festival in the array of people watching and enjoying the various sets. “You find that if you go to a show and it’s all dudes playing, the crowd is also mostly guys, whereas when you have a gender diverse, LGBT+, POC diverse line up, you see that all those communities come together and it is a way nicer space.”
A recurrent theme in terms of the treatment of women performers in music scenes is their infantilisation, as musicians and as people. A common anecdote among performers I have spoken to is how sound technicians — which are (unsurprisingly) usually men — engage with the men in bands, cater to their needs, and ignore those of the women despite the fact that they may actually be the ones in charge. Emma affirmed that this was a typical experience of women musicians at gigs, and incredibly infuriating. “It’s a very common thing to have men attempt to take charge of setting up your equipment or the likes. I’ve had guys come up to me and try teach me how to use my DJ gear, and I’m like ‘uh… this is my equipment, I know how to use it, thank you…’”
Preconceptions that women aren’t as capable, or need to be managed, are certainly not new, and highlight the sexist nature of the music industry. Men can feel that it is their obligation to ‘guide’ young female musicians, like a sort of damsel in distress situation, except with more guitars and the absence of dramatic cries for help. Emma spoke of this ambivalently, as if it was a burden she had reluctantly gotten used to but simultaneously detested: “It seems like a lot of the time, some male musicians feel as if they need to look after you, that you’re really fragile, and they feel like they have more experience than you.”
Attitudes like this further perpetuate beliefs that women are less capable as musicians, thereby positioning them as inferior, in music and more broadly. This type of inequality is not exclusive to certain genres like electronica — which has consistently had a noticeably higher proportion of male performers — but is rampant among all genres, scenes, and contexts. It is also not only an occurrence for newer musicians. Gussie and her bandmate Lily Paris-West (Mermaidens), who have been performing for around four years, have found themselves patronised and brushed off by producers and sound technicians, as if their gender inherently makes them lesser musicians. “We’ve had some sound guys go up to our drummer Abe and ask him, ‘aw what amp are you gonna use?’ but he’s always really good at emphasising that he doesn’t know since he is the drummer and then directs the sound techs to us.” Though they have had these negative experiences, both Emma and Gussie try to ignore the casual sexism and laugh about it with the hopeful belief that “those people are going to be phased out if we keep giving females the credit they deserve.”
Women in music have to constantly negotiate their place because their construction of self, and musical subjectivity, are processes heavily influenced by their gender. With regard to the likes of Gussie, and other female rock musicians, often this can involve playing on tropes like the ‘angry rock girl’ in order to make a mark. Yet this in itself can reign problematic as it pigeonholes women of rock to one sort of style — brooding, bossy, and bitchy. In reality, female rock musicians cannot and will not be typified, and it is crucial to understand that rock does not necessarily equate to anger — sensitivity and rock are not mutually exclusive. Playing in a rock band herself, Gussie has come face to face with the struggles of wanting to assert herself and her opinions dominantly, but not wanting to be characterised as just another ‘angry girl’: “Rock music is kind of aggressive, and understanding as a female you don’t have to be aggressive is important. It’s actually really powerful sometimes to engage with your softness and femininity, but then with the contrast of really dirty music.” Alternatively, the reclamation of what are considered to be demeaning terms and attributes can be agents of empowerment for the musician.
Presently, alternative music scenes in cities like Wellington, Dunedin, and Auckland are slowly but surely working towards addressing prevailing inequalities through events like Newtown Festival, A Low Hum NYE, and various other smaller festivals. While these discrepancies may not be highly visible, this does not mean they are not there, and they are not something we should turn a blind eye to — or, more fittingly, turn a deaf ear to. To musicians like Gussie and Lily, at times it can seem like there are no problems at all when you are surrounded by other supportive, accepting artists — like these inequalities are an anomaly. But they’re not. “We’re in a bubble. But sometimes it gets popped… by an old, male sound engineer”.
Much like the music itself, these efforts are at a grassroots level, but this does not make them any less significant. It communicates that simple acts towards gender equality are not unachievable nor idealistic. They are not a pipe dream. The fact that a local festival is making these advances in curating gender balanced lineups goes to show that this is not simply a matter of billing popular or talented acts, but rather an example of systemic sexism in the mainstream. In the coming years, hopefully Newtown Festival’s example will encourage organisers all around New Zealand to sort their shit out and place the interests of their audiences before their own commercial and sexist interests. I praise Newtown Fest for spearheading a change.