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Music festivals in India, and globally, feature too few female musicians: Can the gender gap be fixed?

Earlier this month, at an event called Mind The Gap, I moderated a panel discussion on the underrepresentation of women at Indian music festivals where the number of female or female-fronted acts is often a single-digit figure. Take, for example, recent instalments of two of the country’s most popular multi-genre fests, the Bacardi NH7 Weekender and Vh1 Supersonic. Only eight out of over 50 performers at the flagship Pune edition of Weekender in December 2017 and only nine out of over 75 at Supersonic this February were female or fronted by a female musician.

Unfortunately, these paltry percentages are not unique to us. It’s a global issue that plagues festivals across the world at which it’s equally rare to find women’s names in bold print on the bills. While the scale might differ, it’s pretty much the same scenario in the US or Australia. What’s particularly surprising is that increasingly, women are making up the bulk of the audience at festivals, as much as 60 percent in the UK and 51 percent in the US. At Weekender, women comprise 40 percent of the audience, said panelist Surpreet Kaur, who heads the festival, which is promoted by Mumbai-based entertainment production company Only Much Louder.

Among the things we discussed at Mind The Gap was whether the scarcity of female musicians at Indian festivals was simply a reflection of the gender disparity in the country’s independent scene. Of the approximately 250 albums and EPs released by Indian indie acts last year, less than 10 percent were by female artists or female-fronted bands. Kaur said that the gender-wise break-up of the demos they receive from acts aiming to play Weekender mirrors that statistic.

In nine years, NH7 Weekender has had only two female headliners — Imogen Heap (pictured here) in 2011 and Anoushka Shankar in 2017. Image courtesy Facebook/@imogenheap

In nine years, NH7 Weekender has had only two female musicians as headliners — Imogen Heap (pictured here) in 2011 and Anoushka Shankar in 2017. Image courtesy Facebook/@imogenheap

Several reasons have been cited by festival promoters the world over for the paucity of women on their stages. These include the fact that the majority of the top female artists are pop stars that are often unavailable because they’re packing stadiums on their own. And much of their fan base, an American programmer told the Huffington Post, is too young to attend festivals. Sure, Adele headlined Glastonbury in 2016, and Beyoncé turned Coachella into Beychella earlier this year. But in both cases, it’s the two of the biggest acts on the planet playing the two of the biggest festivals on the planet. For India, as with all major international acts, there’s the question of affordability. Now that Coldplay and Justin Bieber have come and gone and One Direction is on hiatus, the pop superstar most rumoured to visit is Taylor Swift.

Then there’s the argument that many festivals were started to provide a platform for (at the time) non-mainstream genres whose followings were traditionally male, such as alternative rock, metal and to an extent EDM. Notably, the headliners at Weekender have included guitar gods such as Steve Vai, post-rock heavyweights like Mogwai and progressive rock stalwarts including Karnivool and Steven Wilson. In contrast, over its nine years of existence, it has had only two female headliners — alternative pop maverick Imogen Heap in 2011 and sitar player and composer Anoushka Shankar in 2017 — which sadly is higher than other fests in the country.

There’s no denying that female musicians are underrepresented across the board around the globe — at festivals, on the charts, on streaming platforms and even in the studio as producers. On the bright side, the music industry finally recognises that there’s a problem and seems to be addressing it. An international campaign known as Keychange has got 45 music festivals mostly in Europe to pledge to have a 50:50 ratio of men to women at festivals and conferences by 2022.

In India, the folks at Wild City, the company that organises the Magnetic Fields festival in Rajasthan has been working to redress the situation. At over 25 percent, last year’s instalment of Magnetic Fields had the highest ratio of female performers for any Indian music festival, something they “consciously aimed for”, said founder Sarah Chawla and Ruhi Batra, the co-founder of City Press, the company’s PR wing, in an email interview they answered together.

This March, in association with the British Council, Wild City held a series of workshops for women interested in working in the music industry that included sessions on production, DJing and sound engineering, in Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata and Bengaluru. In May, the company, in partnership with the Global Music Institute, invited women to apply for scholarships for the Delhi-headquartered school’s ongoing music production courses.

Slowly but surely, things are improving especially in the international electronic music scene. Over the last month, five female DJs have toured India, Eli & Fur, Madam X and Flava D from the UK, Stellar Om Source from France and Peggy Gou from South Korea. In a couple of weeks, Helena Hauff from Germany and Nina Las Vegas from Australia will stage tours. At the same, there’s a glaring lack of female producers from within the country. Ask your average indie scenester to name a female electronic music artist and they’re likely to mention either or both Mumbai-based Sandunes aka Sanaya Ardeshir or Delhi-residing Komorebi aka Tarana Marwah.

Ashu Phatak, the founder of Mumbai’s True School of Music and one of the panelists at Mind The Gap, said that the number of women currently enrolled in the music production course at his institute is three. That’s up from zero when it opened in 2013. Singer-songwriter and keyboardist Aditi Ramesh, who was also among the panelists, once told me that she formed the all-female band Ladies Compartment, because “boys don’t always share the same enthusiasm we girls have about creating, meeting and practising”.

Most Indian independent female musicians I’ve spoken with, across genres, have said that at some point in their career, they’ve been “talked down to” by a male in the industry, especially when it comes to the technical aspects of performance or production. The social conditioning that “women can’t do technology” and the hesitation to look ignorant in front of their male peers has led to fewer of them attempting to become producers, a group of women working in the indie scene told me at a round table for Elle magazine last year.

After surveying the participants at their workshops, Wild City found that the barriers women performers face while trying to embark on a career in music were “lack of confidence, sexualisation and commodification of women, families and finance, stereotypes around women and technology, little access to support and guidance [and] safety concerns.”

The one area where both men and women seem to be treated equally or equally badly, said Ramesh and co-panelist Marwah, is performance fee. Artists at the same level in their career, irrespective of gender, are likely to be paid the same amount by venues and festivals. This, we learned from American pop-rock trio Haim, is not always the case in the West. It’s another matter than few of India’s most popular indie acts are female or female-led ensembles.

However, none of the panelists were in favour of a “quota system” and all felt that festival slots should be granted on merit. On the other hand, they each believe there’s a need for promoters and programmers to be cognisant of the gender skew in their line-ups. They’re also wary of the efficacy of female-only gigs or festivals. We need to arrive at a stage where women at these events are #NormalNotNovelty, said panelist Shilpi Gupta, the head of culture marketing at Red Bull in India, referencing the name of the energy drink brand’s UK-based series of production workshops for women for which Ardeshir has conducted a session. The ultimate aim, the panel agreed, is to create a level playing field.

The discussion led to two extremely encouraging outcomes. Kaur promised that Weekender would increase the proportion of female performers to at least 25 percent and Phatak announced a scholarship for aspiring female bassists. Encouragingly, there are now some genuine attempts to bring about real change. If the women in the audience watch more women performing, they’re more likely to think that they could be up there someday. As Australian radio and TV presenter Myf Warhust told the Sydney Morning Herald, “You can be what you see. And the more women there are within the scene, hopefully that will lead to less behaviour that excludes them.”

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox


Updated Date: Jun 20, 2018 14:31 PM

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