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Gender diversity, greater representation and The Plot: Debunking myths for festival line-ups

17 November 2017 | 10:33 am | Emma Jones

The conversation about representation in live music has risen, but the message still doesn't seem to be getting through. Can we change this?

Over the past few years, the rise of the conversation surrounding gender diversity and the lack of representation of women, non-binary people, trans* people, people of colour and more marginalised groups has risen in ebbs and flows, from a dull murmur to a loud roar. It's particularly loud when festival line-ups are announced as, more often than not, despite conversations and fierce debate, the message to promoters to strive for greater diversity in their line-ups just doesn't seem to be getting through and people everywhere are left disappointed, again.

However, in recent times, it does seem that - albeit moving at a glacial pace - the message does seem to be getting heard. Just this year, UNIFIED made an announcement preceding its 2018 line-up that a greater focus on gender equality at their events has been implemented, and a greater scrutiny on line-ups by the numbers has been a focus at triple J. Across the board, there does seem to be conscious efforts made to work towards a more diverse, and equal, representation in live music. But, when these small steps are compared to reports like the 2017 report by the University of Sydney's Women, Work and Leadership Group that found that women were "chronically disadvantaged" in the music industry, or the fact that major festivals like Splendour In The GrassFalls FestivalField Day and more have or had line-ups with well over half completely male (around 70% across the board) in recent years, it can sometimes feel like these sparks might be getting lost in the overwhelming darkness, and that the original message is still falling on deaf ears. It forces those keeping an eye on this to ask the question, "Is enough being done?"

In saying that though, it's not all bad for Australian festivals, with outer-Sydney festival THE PLOT boasting an impressively diverse line-up for its 2017 instalment. As our friends at Pilerats found, THE PLOT features a line-up comprised of 40% all-male acts and 44% all-female-identifying acts, with mix-gendered acts making up the final 16%. Featuring emerging artists such as HATCHIEMISS BLANKSODETTEOKENYOMALLRAT and so many more, The Plot have seemingly hand-picked every exciting artist in Australia right now (and beyond with the inclusion of YOUNGSTA CPT) and locked them all down to come to Parramatta for the day. The best thing about this is that The Plot didn't have to look hard for these artists. It's not like they've selected a random bunch of artists we've never heard of before for the sake of representation. Every artist on the bill is readily available, creating brilliant music and making moves all over the country, from sold out shows to albums, EPs, hit singles and more. The festival booked a line-up truly based on merit, and in doing so, have managed to really debunk the common excuses such as, "We asked some acts but they weren't available," or (my pet hate), "We booked this line-up to sell tickets, it's not about sex."

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It doesn't stop there though. Not only is the line-up for The Plot stacked with a diverse range of artists, but other elements of the festival are also engaged in striving for gender diversity and equality as well. Take CATTLEYARD for example, the company that actually puts on the festival. Out of it's 11 staff members, eight of them are women. Look at the other stages at the festival - the 2150 stage will feature artists from the community initiative, ALL GIRL ELECTRONICThe Plot have even teamed up with DECKS FOR CHANGE, founded by KIRBY CLARK, for another year, which will see over 10 artists painting skateboards live on the ground, and the results being auctioned off throughout the day. A festival all about giving opportunities has really put its money where its mouth is this year, and we feel that's worth discussing.

So, to elaborate on this topic more, we spoke to All Girl Electronic's Julia MendelCattleyard's Head of Marketing Kate PiatekDecks For Change founder, Kirby Clark and artists Bec Sandridge and Airling (aka Hannah Shepherd) about The Plot, their own achievements in their respective work, and what representation means to them.

Over the past year, each interviewee has racked up a number of achievements, both personally and professionally. Airling (aka Hannah Shepherd) released her debut album and notes it's a highlight not just for the year, but for the entirety of her career as well, while Sandridge listed the independent release of her single recently, touring Europe and UK and working with Burke Reid and Oscar Dawson as major achievements and highlights. For Piatek, every day is a highlight for her as she "wakes up every day and want[s] to go to work," and Mendel notes the terrific achievements of All Girl Electronic and the artists coming through as a highlight for her, with some of these artists playing at The Plot this weekend. For Clark, the list of goals she's kicked is long and ranged from being involved in the building a skatepark in Pokhara, Nepal through Decks For Change, to booking one of her favourite skaters, Sebo Walker, on the line-up at the last Decks for Change exhibition, as well as "all time legend" Mark Foster. Not to mention, she's been invited to present a ‘Post Disposable’ pitch for the Disruptive Innovation Festival, become a board member of a global experimental knowledge lab for creative rebels and change agents called Unschools, and joined The Ridiculous Philanthropy Foundation as their Lead Designer. Clark put it best when she noted, "Shit...this year has been pretty rad actually."

From these achievements, it's evident that these women aren't in their roles for the sake of the gender. Each presents a unique skill set that's enabled them to work incredibly hard to get to where they are now, and they're all excited about their work they're doing. While doing work you love obviously comes with a lot of positives, such as meeting new people when she's not feeling socially anxious for Sandridge, or giving back to something that has given her so much like skateboarding for Clark, it also can come with some challenges too. For Shepherd, it's a double-edge sword. She told me that the connection with other people is what excites her, saying, "When I'm playing my songs and I can feel the energy that I'm giving out also being given back to me, it's a beautiful thing," but went onto admit, "Music is a powerful and moving force. This is also a challenge, because I’m a very sensitive person and I feel things quite deeply, so this can create barriers, doubts and demons in my mind," and that she comes up with "mantras and methods to block out the external white noise and focus on what I can control is important and can be challenging at times."

For Piatek, she said that, while she's drawn to working with Cattleyard because of its undying passion "to bring live music and opportunities to areas and people that traditionally miss out," she notes it can be a challenge to work in music and constantly needs to make sure she regularly talks to people outside of the music industry about non-music related things to keep a clear, unbiased head. Mendel touched on how the best thing about her role is the people, from the participants to the facilitators to the mentors, but a real challenge is keeping up with the demand the program has. "Every week we have new people wanting to join the workshops – it would be amazing to be able to expand and offer it to more people," she said. These five hard-working women each provided a realistic portrayal of their respective roles, noting that it's not always a walk in the park, but that they're still very happy to be there. Taking a look at this, and then comparing it with regularly repeated arguments that women just aren't "as good" as men and if they were, they'd see more opportunity, it further proves that these arguments just don't add up. 

On the topic of representation, each interviewee agreed that, to them, equal representation means fairness across the board and equal opportunity, regardless of race, sex, sexuality or other factors. As Sandridge said, "It means empathy and/or wanting to understand and wanting to support those who need it but don’t have it," while Mendel divulged that to her, it means "offering opportunity as well as acknowledging the unique challenges that a person from an underrepresented group might face. Fairer representation means matching opportunity with support." Clark offered up a personal perspective, saying, "It means that I’m not going to be the minority, that I’m going to feel safe and comfortable in whatever I’m doing and that I don’t have to prove I deserve to be there," and Piatek took the music industry into account. "I understand that a big part of the issue around equal representation stems from a lack of support, encouragement and confidence in the early stages of personal development and education," she said. "But with the obvious increase in female artists recently, this depicts that this culture is changing. Guitar-maker Fender, for example, has found that 50% of its new sales last year were to women."

And that's exactly it. As Mendel told me, "When we talk about the underrepresentation of women in music it’s not because of a lack of talent – a huge part of this is a lack of confidence. With All Girl Electronic for instance, we are trying to address the issue by providing a safe, non-competitive space for women, non-binary and trans* people to learn from each other. It’s crucial to invest in the support of individuals who are underrepresented as much offering opportunities to perform and be heard."

So, with everyone in agreement on what representation means, what does this all mean for the music industry, and is enough being done? Sandridge put it simply, saying, "I think there has started to be more of an effort or more of an awareness but it's just a starting point and there can always be more done. So, no." For Shepherd, she shifted the focus to the music community as a whole saying, "[W]hen there is an equality or respect imbalance in a scene or a culture, it’s obvious. It’s basically on all of us as music consumers and lovers to seek out events and gigs, to try different things and to show support by immersing yourself in the arts." According to Mendel, the issue goes beyond gender, and that "if we’re going to see a balance of genders represented in our live music scene, there needs to be a sustained effort to address the issue." As someone who doesn't work directly in music, even Clark agreed that just by looking at gig posters around her suburb, the gender imbalance was evident, but noted initiatives across the country that are putting women at the forefront from Girls To The Front at The Zoo in Brisbane to Michelle Grace Hunder's work on "Her Sound, Her Story" in Melbourne. Piatek also agreed that, although the conversation has grown louder and more people are working to the best of their ability, "the box hasn’t been ticked yet and there is still more work to be done until it becomes part of the social norm." 

So, if there is some things being done, but not quite enough, how do we change attitudes to get a greater effort for improvement? A particularly frustrating argument that comes up a lot when discussing marginalised groups' representation in music is that of a meritocracy; if they're good enough, they'll be booked. But, looking at line-ups (most of which share the same acts or repeat artists for multiple years in a row), one has to ask the question that these acts can't be "the best" on offer, and that these are all better than those in marginalised groups. Every interviewee agreed, saying the idea of being booked solely on merit might be nice in principle, but it's not being put into practice, and this needs to be challenged. "Unless everyone has the opportunity and support to show their merit then it’s not really a fair fight is it?" Piatek asked, with Shepherd adding, "When considering ability and talent, which meritocracy is seemingly based on, it’s subjective and relative." For Mendel, it's all about a conscious effort to confront existing biases, saying, "The argument of meritocracy relies on people demonstrating their merit however if talent isn’t nurtured and encouraged we’re only going to see certain people getting gigs and progressing in their careers." She also noted, "If people are committed to making positive changes, they need the courage to do this and to act." According to Sandridge, it's up to all of us to be held responsible for "acknowledging and challenging engrained sexism," thus making the argument completely void. For her, it goes all the way across the board, from bands and managers, to the radio, punters, labels, venues and so on, saying, "Acknowledgement is the first step to change and of course there needs to be an ideal but we’re just not there yet." And it's true, it isn't just the promoters that are to blame here - as Sandridge put it, "Visibility is everything," and this is what needs to change.

Clark went one step further discussing this, offering up a scientific reason why such an argument is invalid. "Let’s talk about the brain for a second," she began, before discussing a system called the limbic system. "It makes our decisions for us based on memories of our past experiences. So, if our past experiences are male dominant, our decisions are going to be swayed toward the norm of our past experiences without us even realising it." She went onto explain, "Our brains are wired to avoid anything that goes against the status-quo." 

This brings us all back to The Plot. With a line-up that is made up of 40% all-male acts 44% all-female-identifying acts, and 16% mix-gendered acts, there's obviously something that every other festival not achieving this is missing. Given the achievements of just these women we're talking about here in this article, this alone debunks the myths trotted out by promoters and the like that marginalised acts "aren't available," that they "aren't good enough," or, worse still, that they "don't sell tickets." Mendel agreed, saying those saying these things "are making no efforts to address the very real problem of gender representation in the music industry," with Sandridge added that The Plot's 2017 line-up "100%" debunks that argument. "Most of my favourite artists coming out of Australia right now are women and that’s just by chance - they’re all doing their own things, selling out their national and international headline tours and doing really exciting things creatively and politically, so I have no idea where this idea of not selling tickets has come from," she said, before adding, "It’s completely cooked."

As for Clark, it's about the stats, saying, "Let’s look at the facts. Out of the top 5 highest grossing artists of 2016, four of them are female. Four out of five, 80 percent, bloody heaps. So wtf live music scene, you’re missing out on a huge opportunity to shift the norm and be more successful than ever before, you’ve just got to do it." Piatek, who has been on ground zero for The Plot and other Cattleyard events, offered up a unique perspective, saying it's an event that is "created for breaking and emerging artists, giving them an opportunity to perform at a festival early in their careers." She went onto say, "I think that the line up being more than 50% female has a lot to do with the nature of the industry/market at the moment. Which is awesome that it is the case! Go Australia! Go music!"

So, what can people learn from The Plot to put into practice? Airling praised the festival, saying she was proud to be playing it, and noted that "Other live music organisers could learn a lot, not only from the caliber and diversity of this line up, but also from the enthusiasm and excitement that it has been met with from the public and the musicians playing." For Sandridge, it's about visibility: "Visibility attempts to normalise something which I think this lineup is doing. It proves that the quality is there...I think promoters just simply need to be more creative for other festivals and The Plot has gone and done this." Piatek believes this is a sign of the direction that Australian music is headed in, while Clark believes the importance of a line-up like this is in its efforts to creating a new "status-quo of equal or greater representation." She believes that "it creates a discussion, it helps to disprove scapegoating and it’s a bloody good time," before going onto talk about the inspiration she's drawn from it to make a bigger effort to ensure "femme identifying artists are well-represented at the Decks for Change exhibitions and events." Oh, and to change her limbic system, of course.

All in all, each interviewee is excited for the future, with fantastic prospects on the horizon for each of them. For Sandridge, her headline tour kicks off this month and there's hopes a debut album in 2018, while it's all systems go for All Girl Electronic and MendelShepherd is changing up her creative process and wants to start working on her next album, while Piatek has already started working on Groovin' the Moo 2018. As for Clark, she's off to Iraq to build a skatepark in March, so she'll be doing some fundraising before that, as well as working on getting everyone to live a Post Disposable lifestyle. "Oh and I’m currently working on landing a fakie big-spin," she said, too. 

Hopefully, as another year starts in 2018, more progress is made in the fight for greater representation across the board. Mendel is right - it does go way beyond gender, and there's so much more to do, so it's up to all of us to remain loud and consistent, and continue striving for a more diverse industry. As we can see here, it's better for all of us, and most importantly, everyone can see that is indeed possible to hold a festival with a rich and diverse line-up instead of the same, regurgitated line-ups we see all the time. Not by booking women, non-binary people, trans* people or people of colour to fit a quota, but by booking them because they're GOOD at what they do, is how change is going to be created. If you head to The Plot this weekend, you'll see exactly that.

Note: Purple Sneakers would like to acknowledge that the use of "woman" and "female" throughout this piece are inclusive of all cis females, non-binary persons and those who identify as female.


18 November, 2017

Parramatta Park, Sydney






































Image by Jacob Pedersen/ALTER EGO VISUALS for Purple Sneakers

Words by Emma Jones