It's been cause for concern ever since Joni Mitchell cancelled her Woodstock slot back in 1969, but dissatisfaction with the global drought of female artists at mainstream festivals finally boiled over into sheer indignation this summer. Even so, viral sharing of a mocked-up Reading and Leeds Festival line-up poster with the male artists left out—leaving a paltry ten acts with female members, including Wolf Alice and Azealia Banks—doesn't quite count as affirmative action.
"I can't pretend we're not conscious of it," explained Reading & Leeds organizer Melvin Benn of the lack of women on the bill when I interviewed him for UK music site NME earlier this year. "But we can't put a bill together based on gender; we can only put a bill together based on availability and appropriateness." Step forward then, Burger A Go Go, which is doing just that, hosting a female fronted bands only festival, which takes place in and around Santa Ana, California's Observatory venue from September 4 to 5.
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Run by the cassette tape-friendly independent label Burger Records, the event isn't advertised as a 'women's festival' and only a proper music geek would recognize its X chromosome agenda from a casual glance at the bill. Even so, it's actively pushing the envelope in world where many seem content to simply scribble rude words on it.
Alongside more well known names like Cat Power, Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna, who will be performing with her current project The Julie Ruin, and Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon, whose new band Glitterbust is playing, are a host of West Coast based garage punk acts. Other bands like La Sera, Death Valley Girls and Cherry Glazerr make up some of the 37 acts on the two-day bill, as well as solo artists Kimya Dawson and Kate Nash.
"It's more of a fun statement than a feminist statement," says Burger Records co-founder Lee Rickard. "We're not overtly political, but obviously it does reverberate. I think it makes a statement without having to make a statement; that we can easily put together a bill of this caliber. Hopefully it will make other festivals think twice."
This year's event is actually the second Burger A Go Go, following 2014's debut festival success story, with the Fullerton label bringing in headline appearances from Best Coast, Dum Dum Girls and Bleached over just one day, as well as Atlanta alt rockers the Coathangers, who return this year.
"Female presence in 'regular' festivals is pretty dismal," sighs the trio's frontwoman Julia Kugel of her reasons behind returning to Burger A Go Go. "At this point it is important to bring attention to the female artists in the music industry. Hopefully soon it won't be necessary, but it currently is. Promoters aren't confident that an all or mostly female act will bring people in. There is still the notion that we are support acts."
Even though some of the biggest artists in the world are women (see: Taylor Swift and Beyonce), female musicians still come up against the same deeply ingrained and backwards-looking notion that keeps leading female actors paid less than their male counterparts. The only recent solo female festival headliners in the UK have been artists who were bumped up the bill due to the pre-booked headliners pulling out, with Florence and the Machine stepping in for Foo Fighters this year at Glastonbury and Lily Allen for Two Door Cinema Club at Latitude in 2014.
I didn't realize I was different from [guys] until I started noticing that I was repeatedly and consistently disrespected in my soundchecks.
Yet rather than taking aim at festival bookers, Cat Power—real name Chan Marshall—blames society in general for the imbalance. "It's just a micro look at how women aren't really equal yet," says the cult singer-songwriter. Even so, Power suggests things aren't quite as bad for female artists as they were when she began playing live in 1992. "When I first started, I was [making music] because all my friends were, as therapy, but they were all guys. I didn't realize I was different from them until I started noticing that I was repeatedly and consistently disrespected in my soundchecks, in comparison with guy bands I would tour with. That was always a big pain in the ass, and it still is, but has it changed? Definitely."
Part of that, however, is down to her own change of attitude. "You know how Madonna's got that 'unapologetic bitch' slogan? I feel like 10 years ago, I started kind of turning into [that], even though it's my nature to be polite."
The way women are treated at shows and in the context of big festivals is still far from perfect. Kimya Dawson has been playing live solo and with Adam Green for the better part of two decades in anti-folk trailblazers the Moldy Peaches, as well as with Aesop Rock in rap duo The Uncluded. She calls out the rampant misogyny that can still hold sway at majority male festivals. "I was on the bill of a showcase one year at SXSW that was all dudes," she says. "I was supposed to play last and the guy before me called everyone back onstage for the 'all-star' encore before I played."
"I was standing side stage holding my guitar. I refused to go out for the bro-jam. When they were all done wanking each other off I walked out and was like, 'Um, hi?… Show's not over.' I have never felt so invisible at a show."
Positive discrimination is LA-based British musician Kate Nash's answer. "A lot of girls see guys onstage and want to be with the guy in the band instead of be the guy in the band," she explains. "You relate to your own sex in a different way. That's why at my own shows I always have female openers and an all girl band, so a girl comes out seeing a minimum of eight different women doing something that she could inspired by. There's going to be one girl in there that she relates to, hopefully."
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As well as being set to play Burger A Go Go, Nash was also part of the troubled 2010 revival of Canadian songwriter Sarah McLachlan's late 1990s touring women's festival, Lilith Fair. The revived festival was plagued with financial difficulties and a number of shows were cancelled. "In 12 years, women have changed a lot," said McLachlan to the Globe and Mail in 2011, explaining that a further revival was definitely not on the cards. "Their expectations have changed, the way they view the world has changed, and that was not taken into consideration, which I blame myself for."
Was that really the case, or is it possible that the music industry was even less accepting of a female-only festival than it was a decade prior, when the like of Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow were breaking chart records? "I was really excited to be around loads of women and tour, because I was so used to being in a male dominated environment," says Nash of the four shows she played as part of the festival. "It was a shame because a lot of artists pulled out and it didn't go as smoothly as it should have done. It was very weird."
Cat Power was also part of the 2010 Lilith revival, but looks back on the experience fondly. "When it's just chicks, it's funny how the vibe of sexuality—I don't want to say men are predators, because a lot of women are too—but that vibe, that vibration of machismo, is a lot more subdued. It feels like you can be more mischievous, somehow. Like you're having your cake and eating it too!"
Here's hoping there's plenty more cake to go around when it comes to festival season 2016.