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Women play second fiddle at summer music festivals like Coachella

Coachella 2014: Out of 166 acts playing Indio, 16 are all-female bands or solo artists. Is it discrimination, lack of talent or just business?

April 18, 2014|By Chris Lee and Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times
  • Este Haim from the band Haim performs on stage at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
Este Haim from the band Haim performs on stage at the Coachella Valley Music… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

INDIO, Calif. — Dee Dee Penny, lead singer of the Dum Dum Girls, is no stranger to performing at giant summer musical events. At the first of the two-weekend Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival events last Friday, her retro-rock act played before thousands of ecstatic fans.

She was just one of an eclectic roster of female artists who galvanized Coachella audiences. Teenage provocateur Lorde dazzled amid a howling dust storm in her summer music festival debut. R&B diva Solange got a surprise assist from her superstar sister, Beyoncé Knowles. Alt-torch singer Lana Del Rey turned in a transfixing trip-hop set. And pop-rock sisters Haim were local conquering heroes as they celebrated the success of their 2013 debut, "Days Are Gone," which embodies the Coachella spirit by contemporizing retro sounds with hipster/hippie chic.

It's a benchmark year for Coachella. More solo female artists and all-female bands were on the lineup — 16 — than at any other time in the festival's history.

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Yet that's just a fraction of the festival's 166 acts. While the numbers do improve if one includes Coachella's 19 co-ed acts, which range from celebrator headliners Arcade Fire, dance-pop trio Chvrches and Penny's Dum Dum Girls, who recently added a male guitarist to its all-girl crew, that still leaves more than 100 male acts to dominate the bill.

"It's obnoxious when you show up somewhere and you're like, 'Cool, I'm one woman here and there are like 900 dudes,' " said Penny, who will return for Coachella's second weekend. "Of course... I don't know all of the many things that go into who gets to play. I would hope it's not as obvious as discrimination."

In an era when Top 40 radio is led by such pop ingénues as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, who similarly rule social media with more than 127 million combined Twitter followers, the independent music world stubbornly clings to its reputation as a kind of boys' club.

"Being a woman on tour, you're kind of in a man's world," said bluesy alt-rocker ZZ Ward, who returns to Coachella this weekend. "I'm proud of every woman playing this festival."

The challenge of creating a truly gender diverse lineup at Coachella — an event renowned as an egalitarian oasis of progressive politics, where artists disenfranchised by the mainstream can expect to encounter masses of open-minded listeners — remains considerable. Although the number of women on the roster is up dramatically from 2013, when only 10 female performers or all-women acts carried the bill, to date only a handful of women have headlined the festival.

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Representatives for Goldenvoice, the concert promoter responsible for Coachella, declined to be interviewed for this story. But to hear it from other programmers of North American summer music festivals, when it comes to determining the performance line-up, gender diversity often takes a back seat to other practical concerns.

"It has everything to do with who's available, who's on tour, who's released a new record, where there's a ton of buzz," said Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, which co-produces the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and Kentucky's Forecastle Festival. "If we feel we're getting too male-centric, we will try to address that situation. But it's usually last minute when we look at how this is balancing out. We go for the greatest artists available to play at any given festival."

One could correctly argue that major festivals, such as Coachella or Bonnaroo, are simply following the market's lead. The summer festival season, like much of the concert industry, is driven by male performers.

As the Coachella crowd vacates Indio on Monday, Goldenvoice will begin prepping its three-day, country-focused Stagecoach Festival. The top-billed artists include Eric Church, Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean, Hunter Hayes, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line — all men.

PHOTOS: The past headliners at Coachella

And the Electric Daisy Carnival, a multi-day explosion of dance culture that draws a cumulative attendance of more than 320,000 for its three-day festival in Las Vegas, features more than 100 DJs from the electronic music scene. Yet in recent years the number of women performers could be counted on one or two hands.

Meanwhile, only three of 2013's Top 10 money-making tours were female-fronted acts, according to Pollstar magazine.

"It's a matter of who the buzz acts are," said Gary Bongiovanni, Pollstar's editor in chief. "At Coachella, that's something they're looking at, and many of those buzz acts are fronted by women. But I don't know if they're going out of their way to book them."

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