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Gender parity efforts at Canadian music festivals are stalling

There wasn’t a whole lot to celebrate on International Women’s Day yesterday when it comes to women and non-binary people in the music business.

Secret Frequency’s annual report card on gender parity at music festivals – which was released this year at the end of January – found that three fewer festivals scored an “A” grade for gender parity in 2019 compared with the previous year.

“Which is a disappointment for me because I feel like we’re at a plateau,” said Secret Frequency executive director Candace Shaw.

The report card and the global Keychange Initiative, launched in 2017 – which asks festivals to commit to a 50:50 gender balance by 2022 – initially seemed to trigger a massive effort toward gender parity at events, Candace said, in part because it made artistic directors pay attention to the issue.

“We started to see a whole lot of festival directors who probably just had never really thought about how many women or men or non-binary people they were booking [and] suddenly went, ‘Oh shit, I’m hardly booking anybody except cis men,’” she said, “so a lot of people pulled up their socks, which is great. But there are some people who don’t care obviously until public pressure makes them care, and it’s also easy to backslide.”

Candace has heard all the excuses festival directors put forth for why they can’t have equal representation for women and non-binary people, and she has a catty answer for all of them.

“There aren’t enough women in my genre.  I hear that a lot from bluegrass people and electronica people, and it’s not true,” she said. “I mean if Tottenham can get an ‘A’ anyone booking bluegrass can get an ‘A’”

And then there’s the all-the-women-were-busy excuse.

“Well call more than three people,” Candace said. “You need to have a wider stable. … that’s basically the job. You should just have a deep enough well of artists in your mind if you’re not incompetent at this job.”

Some promoters have actually told Candace that women aren’t playing at the calibre they demand for their festival, which she said is “patent nonsense.”

Another old stereotype that just won’t die is the one that says that women don’t sell tickets, she added.

“I have built a band from someone no one would pay to see to someone who sells out a 600-seat theatre… that’s literally the job is that we build an audience for a band,” she said.  

“Are you building an audience for the women in your market? in your genre?  What are you doing? Because you’re doing it for men.”

This year, Secret Frequency launched a new project aimed at increasing the representation of women and non-binary people at music festivals: a database of women and non-binary performers in multiple genres.

“I got really fed up with the ‘there’s not enough women’ argument,” Candace said.

So she posted on the organization’s web site a short list of bands and artist who are female or non-binary and invited people to comment.  People started adding more and more artist names in the comment section.

It took a while for Candace to find the time to really work on the project and ready it for launch, but she finally got it done on Feb. 24.

The 800-plus listings include artists’ genres, provinces of origin, websites and contact information and are easy to search for promoters.

“It has been a real pleasure, and it has made me incredibly proud,” Candace said of doing the work. “One of the things about women and non-binary people in music in Canada is if you’ve stuck it out, the chances that you’re not good are very small”

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1 comment

  1. avatar
    Beverly Kreller 11 March, 2020 at 16:29

    Thanks for this article Heather!
    Hey Candace, thanks so much for your dedicated work to bring awareness to, and to monitor this very important issue. I’d like to put the new SPEAK Music Be Kind Festival on your screen. It debuted this past January 17-19, 2020 at the Tranzac Club in Toronto, as the first fully gender-balanced festival, maybe even in all of Canada. (that I know of). As a music publicist, I see all of the incredibly talented women in the industry up close, and so without too much thought about it, I had no trouble at all, finding female and/or female-led groups, plus, the headliners were women! I didn’t even need your list to do it either, though I’ll definitely have a look at it for the next one! The artists were all from Toronto and surrounding areas, I didn’t even have to go farther than my own backyard. The inaugural fest was a great success, with kindness and good vibes all weekend. You can read up about it here, in a few articles on this RMC site. And please check out our website. https://www.speakmusicbekindfest.com/
    Bev Kreller (SPEAK Music PR)

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