Around this time last year, Lizzy Plapinger was on tour as LPX — her latest solo project — and opening for the three-sister band HAIM. Having been on the road many times before, Plapinger, famous for being one half of the alternative duo MS MR, knew it was going to be a long drive; so she decided to give her good friend Maggie Rogers, the 24-year-old artist and producer whose breakout single “Alaska” shot to fame after garnering attention from Pharrell in 2016, a call.
Their phone call consisted of the usual: complaining about the fatigues of traveling (Rogers, who has headlined sold-out tours in North America and Europe, was also on the road), recounting venue drama, discussing their new favorite artists. Then, the conversation turned earnest: They were frustrated that major music festivals weren’t featuring more women headliners. How wonderful would it be, they mused aloud, to take an all-female festival on the road? To play alongside each other and the women who inspire them?
By that point, they were all too familiar with the gender imbalance apparent in live shows. There was the rock festival in Germany where, performing as MS MR, Plapinger was one of a couple of women artists out of more than 80; there were the meetings with executives who told her they “couldn’t afford” to take another woman on tour. Sexism and underrepresentation of women were nothing new to the music industry. For Rogers, they’d become so ubiquitous so as to be virtually “unrecognizable,” she would later say.
So chatting on the phone a year ago, dreaming up an all-women festival seemed to be just that: a faraway dream. The duo didn’t expect they would soon have the opportunity to make it a reality. Nor did they expect that when the time came, the event wouldn’t be about featuring only women — it would be about confronting why the industry needs an all-female festival in the first place.
The gender imbalance in music festivals — as in other realms of entertainment — is staggering. In 2016, a Huffington Post analysis found that women artists, not including mixed groups, made up only 12 percent of the acts at 10 major festivals in the United States, including Coachella, Outside Lands and Firefly, that year. Pitchfork published a similar survey of 19 fests, and tracked them between 2017 and 2018: While female representation increased, it still stood at only 19 percent at its highest.
Meanwhile, women make up 51 percent of the 32 million people who attend festivals annually. According to a YouGov survey, 30 percent of female festival attendees have experienced some form of unwanted sexual behavior at festivals in the United Kingdom. After Sweden’s largest festival, Bråvalla, received reports of four rapes and 23 sexual assaults last year, it canceled this year’s event.
Ultimately, those numbers reflect inequality across the industry at large. According to a study published in January by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, a think tank studying diversity in entertainment, female artists were responsible for only 22.4 percent of America’s top 600 songs from 2012 to 2017. Female songwriters accounted for 12.3 percent of the songs.
“We knew it was bad, but we couldn’t get over how bad it was,” Annenberg Inclusion Initiative board chair Leah Fischman says.
For female artists, the numbers are simply proof of their lived experiences. “It’s always been obvious to me that the music industry is very male-driven,” 19-year-old R&B singer Ravyn Lenae, who has been recording music since she was 15, says. Lenae says she started out “at the exact same place” as a handful of young male musicians in Chicago, but watched as they received better opportunities coming up in the business.
Festivals, though, are unique: They’re one of the most visible aspects of the industry. Not only can fans see clear gender imbalances onstage; in recent years, social media campaigns have manipulated lineup posters by stripping away the male artists to leave only the female ones. The posters, practically empty, make those disparities all the more obvious.
As Hollywood and the media undergo a momentous reckoning of their own, so too has music begun grappling with the lack of diversity so blatant on its stages. In other words, Plapinger and Rogers’s conversation a year ago wasn’t so far-fetched. Similar ones were, at the same moment, reverberating across the industry.
This was the backdrop against which the team behind All Things Go Fall Classic, a two-day music festival in Washington, D.C., that first launched in 2014, began planning this year’s event. Stephen Vallimarescu, one of the organizers, has been friends with Plapinger since college.
When Vallimarescu asked Plapinger for advice on how to make this year’s All Things Go unique, she had one suggestion: “I was really convincing him like, ‘Please just do an all-female lineup or whatever you do just make sure you’re booking enough women, because I’m just sick of seeing it,’” she recalls.
Soon enough, Vallimarescu and his fellow organizers — Will Suter, Adrian Maseda and Zack Friendly — asked her if she’d be interested in curating an all-women lineup for a day of the show. Plapinger was “stoked,” but knew she “couldn’t in faith” do it without Rogers.
On Saturday, Oct. 6, female acts handpicked by Plapinger and Rogers will perform at D.C.’s Union Market. Rogers will be headlining Saturday’s lineup, along with singer Billie Eilish; Lenae and up-and-comer Jessie Reyez are also on the bill, along with four others. The team has partnered with the Women’s March for the event, and says they’re expecting about 10,000 people to attend over the festival’s two days.
Lenae has performed at a number of festivals, but never in an all-female lineup. She thinks it’ll be “really cool” to share the stage with so many women. “I think this is an industry where you’re made to feel like there can only be one, when really there’s a spot for all of us.”
Plapinger will make her first festival appearance as LPX on Saturday, too. It’s “powerful,” she says, to be making her debut at “this festival, with an all-female lineup, that I’ve put together with my best friends.”
The final lineup, according to Plapinger, is an answer to America’s most popular festivals; she says it’s frustrating to look at events like “Bonnaroo or Lollapalooza or Coachella,” because she thinks there’s “just so much more room for female and nonbinary artists” in their lineups. It means that younger artists aren’t getting the chance to build up relationships with those festivals and grow into headliners, Plapinger explains.
Organizers from those three major festivals did not respond to requests for comment. In Huffington Post’s 2016 breakdown of festivals, Chris Sampson, executive vice president of programming for Superfly, the production company behind Bonnaroo, said organizers were “very aware” of a gender imbalance. “We want the best artists out there, at every level, male or female,” he said.
That’s the ultimate goal for Plapinger and Rogers, too: While they’re hoping to carve out a space for underrepresented artists, they wish a festival like theirs wasn’t necessary in the first place.
“And that’s what this music festival is about,” she says. “It is an all-female lineup, but the point is not that.”
All Things Go is just one of several organizations turning their attention toward equal representation this year. Along with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which plans to roll out more music industry-specific research in 2019, the PRS Foundation, an organization supporting new music and talent development in the UK, launched their initiative, Keychange, in February. So far, more than 120 festivals across several countries have pledged to create equitable lineups by 2022. Iceland Airwaves became the first to meet the 50/50 pledge in July; Sweden also held what was deemed the first women-identifying and nonbinary-only festival earlier this summer.
Vanessa Reed, chief executive of the PRS Foundation, acknowledges that “there are some people who don’t like the idea of quotas.” But, she says, the music industry needs to know where it is and where it wants to be in order to change.
It’s a rainy day when Judy Tint, a professor of music business at New York University, learns about All Things Go, but her voice lights up over the phone. She says she’s “intrigued,” because it reminds her of another moment in music history. “In my mind, it’s a sort of throwback to the Lilith Fair,” Tint says.
Indeed, Plapinger and Rogers aren’t the first women to dream up a traveling all-female festival. From 1997 to 1999, the Lilith Fair, organized by singer Sarah McLachlan and others, traveled all across the U.S. and featured popular women artists, including Jewel, Sheryl Crow and Tracy Chapman. According to Rolling Stone, Lilith brought in $16 million across its 37 North American dates in 1997 — the top-grossing festival that year — and was successful in the two following years it ran.
McLachlan decided to end the fair because she and her team wanted to “keep it as something that remained intact and beautiful for the audiences, as opposed to something that ran beyond its shelf life,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 1999. A 2010 attempt to revive the fair sputtered due to low ticket sales.
The idea behind Lilith was not so different than the conversations happening in the industry today. In an oral history of the fair published in Glamour last year, McLachlan said she and fellow organizers looked around at other festivals and thought:
A big criticism of the festival’s first iteration, though, was its lack of diversity. A 1997 Chicago Tribune article said the fair presented “only one type of strong woman.” Others called it a “white-chicks” fest. And last year, music critic Ann Powers said: “I think a new festival should be led by young women, be diverse at its core, and be more confrontational than Lilith.”
The conversation around diversity in 2018 is markedly different than it was 20 years ago. Fischman says that the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative’s research necessarily takes intersectionality into account: “It’s never just about gender, because then you’re missing, ultimately, the women of color. It’s never just about race and ethnicity. You know, it often starts at a minimum of gender, race/ethnicity, LGBTQ and people with disabilities.”
Lenae remembers the moment she first saw “the essence of a black woman portrayed accurately” in a musician: She was watching Beyoncé on TV. She says that led to her realization that performing was something she could do, too, even in such a male- and white-dominated industry.
Lenae says that her “black woman sauce,” as she calls it, is prominent in whatever she does — especially in live performances.
For Plapinger and Rogers, diversity was a big consideration when they began brainstorming artists. “It was really important that it feel multiethnic with different ages and different genres,” Plapinger says. “You want to show it all; you don’t want to pigeonhole it into one thing.”
According to Rogers, ensuring diversity was hard work. It was “insightful,” she says, to be in the position of curator instead of performer, having to navigate artists’ varying availability and a limited budget.
In the end, Plapinger and Rogers are excited to have secured the musicians — regardless of gender — that they did for the lineup.
Tint, of NYU, says that she supports the idea of an all-women festival. But as a music lover at her core, she thinks performances should ultimately go back to that: the music. “I feel like a great artist, whether or not male or female or any other gender identity — a really great artist will appeal to every gender or gender identity,” she says.
The All Things Go team doesn’t know how the demographics of the crowd on Saturday will shake out. For her part, Plapinger hopes that everyone feels welcome and represented, that “it is genuinely, at its heart, a great day of music.”
She pauses, as if to make this last part stick: “And I really, really hope that whomever people come to see, they’ll have the opportunity to see them headline festivals five, 10 years down the line — however long it takes.”