The All-Woman Music Festival Trying to Right the Wrongs of Music Festivals

Yola Dia was chock full of women and nonbinary folks on stage, in the crowd, and behind the scenes. Will more events like it help fix the gender disparities that plague major music festivals?

by Trish Bendix
Aug 29 2019, 5:04pm

Steve Rose

"Have you ever seen the documentary 'Burden of Dreams'?" Lykke Li asks.

She's just flown to Tokyo, hours after headlining a festival she also helped organize and curate with her two business partners for the luxury liquor brand, Yola Mezcal. The reference to the 1982 Warner Herzog documentary is tongue-in-cheek, but Li is describing the struggles the festival had in getting off the ground. First, there was a name change (from Yola Fest to Yola Dia), a date change (from June to August), which meant a subtle change in the line-up (Charli XCX and Ambar Lucid had to drop out; Scottish DJ Sophie joined the already stacked schedule, including Courtney Love, Cat Power, and the titular Hot Girl of Hot Girl Summer herself, Megan Thee Stallion.

Li and fellow organizers—chef Gina Correl-Aglietti and second-generation mezcal maker Jimenez—may have struggled to get Yola Dia together in less than 10 months, but they pulled off the exact kind of festival they intended to create. Jimenez—who owns the Oaxacan-based, women-operated mezcal factory she inherited—with Li and Correl-Aglietti sought to offer a women-centric experience. It didn’t solely involve women performers, but restaurateurs, mixologists, and women-manufactured merch. Women security guards surveilled the festival grounds at Los Angeles Historic Park. And while a sizable portion of the audience was genderfluid or otherwise ambiguous, the crowd was noticeably feminine and feminist in appearance and energy. (Hunter Schafer, Hari Nef, King Princess, and Tessa Thompson were all spotted in the VIP section).

Putting all of these elements into place made things a little more difficult—for instance, Jimenez said, they had to push partners Live Nation to fulfill their request for an all-women security team. But their efforts seem to have paid off in making attendees feel safe, which is a harrowing issue for most major music festivals where sexual assault is rampant. In 2018 alone, at least seven people reported cases of sexual assault or rape at Coachella, perhaps the best known annual music festival in the country, The Desert Sun reported.

Meanwhile, women make up half of the annual festival-going crowd, but women performers still only represented 19 percent of festival line-ups last year. Very few are headliners—in 2019, Arianna Grande headlined Coachella and was Lolapalooza's first-ever top-billed woman performer after nearly three decades of festivals. Only a handful of women join her in getting the top slots at Coachella: Bjork (2007), Lady Gaga (2018), and Beyoncé (2019).

Li, Correl-Aglietti, and Jimenez curated Yola Dia based on personal friendships and artists they enjoy, but major festival bookings are primarily based on Spotify streaming numbers and social capital on platforms like YouTube and Instagram. Those numbers are generally required to be in the millions, said Terra Lopez, singer of the band Rituals of Mine and publicist for the Treefort Music Festival in Boise, Idaho.

"Numbers are everything obviously, and that's just how our industry works and it's exhausting," Lopez said. "It's just an unfortunate aspect and reality of it."

This is a problem only women are determined to fix, it seems, whether it's through efforts to highlight festivals' poor track records (such as the Book More Women initiative), or through women-focused events that cater to and employ women as a priority. While there are some women in positions of power to program and book artists for music festivals, these positions are still largely held by men, with women working underneath them. But even when women are at the helm, headlining slots are still generally given to artists with the most draw―that is, the most recognizable (such as legends like Paul McCartney, Guns N Roses or other highly-anticipated band reunions), or artists coming off of a successful album and their own headlining tour. (According to Forbes, the top four highest-paid musicians in the world are U2, Coldplay, Ed Sheerhan, and Bruno Mars, frequent festival favorites.)

There's a direct correlation between radio play, or lack thereof when it comes to women artists, especially in country radio, said Melissa Carbone, the creator and CEO of Tailgate Fest. "Any woman artist you hear on country radio, we've put an offer out to. There's just not enough of them."

So while country-pop crossovers like Taylor Swift and Kacey Musgraves are hugely successful (Musgraves is one of the most sought-after acts at this year's festival season), they're still treated like anomalies; other women artists in country receive much less development and radio play. (Carrie Underwood was the only woman to crack the Top 20 of Billboard's Top Country Artists in 2018.) A Rolling Stone story from April confirmed that women country artists are underplayed compared to their male counterparts, and it's only gotten worse over time.

Stacey Vee, who books Stagecoach, the largest country music festival owned by AEG and Goldenvoice, said she "doesn't disagree" that radio play has a hand in what keeps women from being able to have the same kind of cultural cachet men do.

"I'm taking it upon myself to help develop as many awesome women as I can," Vee said. "I have a stage out at Stagecoach called the Sirius XM Spotlight Stage where it's nothing but developing artists who maybe have their first one or two hits on country radio. I try and identify women I think are going to grow within the industry and give them an opportunity."

Still, in 2019, only four of the 15 artists on the Sirius XM Spotlight Stage were women: Rachel Wammack, Dawn Landes, Abby Anderson, and Smithfield's Jennifer Fiedler.

A similar scenario plagues all genres. A 2018 study from the Annenberg Institute found that only 22.4 percent of Billboard Hot 100 artists between the years 2012 and 2017 were women.

Radio still has a major influence on how Americans listen to music—a 2017 Nielsen Music 360 report found that 49 percent of people still discover new music largely from live AM/FM radio. The report suggests this is because of curation—they found listeners prefer a DJ make the decisions for them. Most of those DJs are (and this shouldn't surprise anyone) men. A 2019 study done by Jacobs Media Strategies found that women DJs are outnumbered 3:1

So if men are the ones in charge of making the choices to play music mostly by men, which translates into listeners hearing and them streaming mostly men on demand via another platform, festivals booking the top-streamed artists in the world will, therefore, end up booking (wait for it) mostly men. It's an industrial cycle that keeps women artists from having a chance at parity, and festivals are a critical part of finding an audience for many new or otherwise lesser-known artists.

"Sometimes you don't even get taken seriously unless you play festivals," Lopez said, adding that many times, the women, trans, nonbinary and/or people of color who have played Treefort end up getting booked at the likes of Coachella down the line. She cites Lizzo, who played at Treefort in 2017 and then Coachella in 2019, as a recent example, and said smaller, more diverse festivals are doing the developing and cultivating that bigger festivals aren't.

Yola Fest is not the first women-centric festival of its kind—its predecessors include the long-running but now-defunct Michigan Womyn's Music Festival, Lilith Fair, and Ladyfest, a post-riot grrrl resurgence of DIY feminist punk that spawned several spin-offs in cities outside of its original in Olympia, Washington.

But while Lilith Fair had corporate sponsors like Levi’s, Starbucks, and Volkswagen, Yola Dia (a smaller enterprise with a sold-out crowd of 6,500 as opposed to Lilith Fair, which averaged crowds of 15,000 per date on its first tour run) was without any noticeable brand presence outside of Yola Mezcal, handy for Lykke Li to take shots from the bottle on stage. Li, though, insists that it wasn't any kind of branding or marketing.

"We don't think like that, for us," she said. "It's the lifestyle. I drank it because I need to!"

Mezcal tends to be a pricey liquor. At $49.99 per 750ml bottle, Yola Mezcal is no exception. But the creators emphasize its quality, and where the profits go: reinvested into the women of Oaxaca who bottle the product, as well as toward supporting more women-created events like Yola Dia. In that vein, the price of a ticket for Yola Dia was around $80—$20 of which were Live Nation fees.

Mezcal-infused drinks cost at least $15, but what upset one attendee most was a vendor's full-pizza price ($72 for pepperoni; $96 for a vegan pie). "We offered a lot of discount codes and a lot of different ways to get access to the festival. But then again, wanting to make sure that the quality is there was important to us, too," Correl-Aglietti said. "So, you know, drinks were maybe a little more expensive and things like that. But the access to the actual ground was I think, really reasonable for the quality of artists that we had."

Festivals are infamously pricey—general admission to Coachella 2019 was $429. According to an Eventbrite survey, 53 percent of Millennials went to at least one music festival in the past year. Twenty-eight percent of them said they spent at least $500, and one third said they went into debt for their passes. Music festivals are big business unless a festival's organizers prioritize the message over money.

Yola Dia seems to fall into the latter: The organizers shouted out feminism and equal pay on stage, encouraging attendees to bid on the 26 women-artist-designed flags flying as part of an on-the-ground installation, each a re-imagined American or Mexican flag being auctioned off to benefit the ACLU. Mexican-American civil rights activist Dolores Huerta delivered a mid-day speech about working together in resistance efforts, asserting that the men who were in attendance must be feminist-aligned. She encouraged attendees to support their Mexican friends and to share that support widely.

Correl-Aglietti said she was nervous about Huerta being ignored or drowned out based on hearing from another activist who said she'd done a festival and had a poor experience.

"Because most people aren't there to listen to an activist speak; they're there to hear music," Correl-Aglietti said. "And that was one thing I was concerned with, with putting Dolores who's [89] years-old on the stage. It's the prime moment of festival, you know—is she going to get the respect she deserves? But I was so ecstatic because it felt like the crowd was just as much there to see her as they were to see any one of those artists."

Activism is integrated into many festivals, whether it's their raison d'etre (like Live Aid) or in conjunction with the mission (such as AfroPunk). Women-centric events are typically in that vein: Lilith Fair raised $10 million for organizations like Planned Parenthood over its original three-year run, and in its first year, Ladyfest donated all of its proceeds to charity, which has since continued to be par for the course with all other iterations. Yola Dia gave one dollar for every ticket purchased to the Downtown Women's Shelter of Los Angeles.

It's not uncommon for activism-based festivals to ask artists to donate their time or play for much less than they might typically receive, as was the case for Yola Dia. But this appears to be the unfortunate norm for festivals booking and celebrating women. (It's worth noting that Cat Power played both the first-ever Ladyfest and Yola Dia.)

"It's always political when we play," said Ladyfest founder Allison Wolfe. "Maybe an all-women festival, people would just assume make less and get paid less. But women are getting paid less anyway, so might as well just get together and work together."

Like Yola Dia, Ladyfest was created out of the annual recognition that major music festivals weren't interested in prioritizing women either on the stage or their safety off (Wolfe rattles off several instances of sexual harassment she and friends have endured from male concert-goers and security alike). Still, Vee said she doesn't see separate women-focused festivals as the answer.

"I think it takes everybody," she said. "I don't think isolating anybody is going to fix everything."

Smaller-scale, artist-focused, and activist-founded festivals offer a different experience from from the likes of Stagecoach and Coachella, though, and the founders of Yola Dia believe what they've constructed is the future. Correl-Aglietti said that, along with her business partners in Yola Mezcal, their festival is just an extension of the cross-border, inclusive, progressive feminism they already promote with their brand; how they themselves live, and how they seek to give back. The primary intention is not to move tickets and sell major sponsorship deals, but instead develop a relationship with artists, vendors, and attendees who are all on a similar wavelength of what's personally and politically important to them. Anything else, Correl-Aglietti said, is secondary.

"I think if you can walk into that field and feel what it feels like to be part of that family, and be on that high with us," Correl-Aglietti said, "then that's great marketing."

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