Bucking national trends, 80/35 puts women at the top of the 2018 lineup
Justin Schoen, Jill Haverkamp and Amedeo Rossi remember the uncertainty of the first years of 80/35 Rodney White/The Register
When that sun sets on the first weekend of July and fans trek down Locust Street from the free stages to catch the night’s final act, they’ll see something they’ve never before seen at 80/35.
A woman headlining Des Moines’ cornerstone music festival.
For the first time in its 11-year history, a woman and mix-gendered group, respectively, lead each night of 80/35 Music Festival, which plans to return to Western Gateway Park on July 6 and 7. Pop star Kesha, electronic duo Phantogram — led by Sarah Barthel and Josh Carter — and guitar rock favorite Courtney Barnett hold the show’s top three lineup spots, bucking a trend of major American festivals lacking top-of-the-bill gender diversity.
“It’s important to always be evolving, to never settle, to always be challenging yourself, challenging the city, even,” said Des Moines Music Coalition executive director Jarin Hart. “Pushing boundaries. Pushing limits.”
In case you missed it: 80/35 Music Festival announces this summer's headlining acts
The lack of diversity in North America music festivals runs so deep that music tastemaking website Pitchfork.com ran a study in 2017 that said out of the 996 acts booked across 23 major festivals, a total 14 percent were women. Mixed-gender acts made up 12 percent and men represented 74 percent.
This summer marks the first time women see representation in both headlining slots and, with Kesha, the first time a solo female act closes a night at 80/35. St. Vincent appeared alongside David Byrne in a co-headlining set in 2013.
“They’re listening to the conversation,” said music journalist Annie Zaleski. “They're realizing, ‘Hey there’s a lot of really amazing acts and bands out there that include women and non-binary musicians or musicians who define as women.’”
Tearing down the boys' club
For the most part, major festival organizers in 2018 appear not to be listening en masse to media and musician cries for more lineup diversity. Zaleski, a freelance contributor to publications like Rolling Stone and the AV Club, penned a column for Salon calling to “tear down the music festival boys' club.” Her writing outlines that of the first 40 acts booked for Tennessee’s Bonnaroo this summer, seven are women or women-led groups.
Just last week, Cincinnati’s Bunbury Festival announced a lineup of 41 acts, listing 15 male or male-fronted acts on the bill before showcasing a woman-led group. The representation disparity comes despite Nielsen releasing a 2015 study saying 51 percent of festival-goers identify as women.
The issue isn't new. Nearly seven years ago, the Guardian published an article outlining that women were represented once (Beyoncé) out of the top 48 top slots at England's coveted Glastonbury and Reading festivals.
Why in that time haven't fans seen change? “I think part of it is just because it’s easier,” Zaleski said. “It’s easier to do something that you’ve always done then making a concerted effort to change.”
Success in Des Moines this summer could, however, set an example for the Lollapaloozas and Coachellas of the world. Earlier this week, 45 festivals from around the globe pledged to show 50/50 gender diversity in lineups by year 2022, part of a PRS Foundation initiative coined “Keychange.” Per its website, the foundation is the "UK's leading funder of new music and talent development across all genres."
“It helps there are these festivals that aren't as high profile that are booking these artists and being successful,” Zaleski said. “They are disproving the argument that we can’t book women because people don’t show up.”
Playing musical Tetris
Seeing a woman take command of one of the city’s largest stages feels empowering, said Louise Bequeaith, one-half of Des Moines-based songwriting duo Glitter Density. But it also begs the question: Why’d it take so long?
Catherine Lewin, Bequeaith’s writing partner, said “It’s definitely inspirational,” adding that “it’s also been frustrating to not see … one of the biggest festivals in Des Moines — one of the biggest music things in Des Moines — not have women represented.”
As performers, Lewin and Bequeaith said they hope to see the conversation move away from promoters booking women out of obligation. Female-fronted, after all, is not a genre.
“Hopefully it’ll take away, ‘Here’s the token female popular band,’” Bequeaith said. "And we just have a ton of cool popular bands.”
Festival promoters argue the difficulty of booking the “perfect” lineup when weighed down with budget restrictions, tour schedules, album cycles and competing venues. Zaleski notes that booking a festival is a bit like playing musical Tetris.
Organizers went into this year’s talent buying process not necessarily focused on women talent, but on finding diverse balance overall. Indie rock group Car Seat Headrest and rap duo Atmosphere round out confirmed acts.
“(We want) to showcase diversity across a board,” said Hart, who joined the music coalition in 2017. “Gender is not a genre. We’ve all been hearing that forever. (It’s about) making a conscious effort to showcase and integrate diversity into all of our programming.”
Omaha’s Maha Music Festival, which averages 8,000 paid attendees and plans to expand to two days in 2018, has yet to book a female headliner in nine years. This is not for lack of effort, executive director Lauren Martin said.
Conversations of lineup diversity, Martin said, are ever-present in Maha planning. Female and female-fronted groups comprised 55 percent of Maha's 2017 lineup.
“I thought there was going to be a female president two years ago,” Martin said. “You would love to see progress in any form. It’s not for lack of trying.”
Change in philosophy
2018 marks a change in philosophy for the downtown Des Moines event, said Amedeo Rossi, 80/35 project manager. Organizers set out in 2008 to bring acts — like Spoon and Nas and Run the Jewels and the Flaming Lips — that may not have previously considered playing Iowa’s capital city.
They, in-part, achieved that goal: Not every act has returned to Des Moines, but Run the Jewels passes through in March to support Lorde at Wells Fargo Arena, The Flaming Lips sold out Hoyt Sherman Place last fall and David Byrne returns to the Civic Center this summer.
Now, Rossi said, for the festival to sustain long-term, it needs to appeal beyond the indie rock or jam fan. 80/35 operates with a $750,000 to $800,000 budget annually, bringing about 30,000 people across two days to the pay-to-see main stage and free side stages each year.
“We can’t just be eclectic,” he said. “We need just a little bit more for somebody that’s not a hardened music fan.”
Hart echoes this sentiment (“Come one, come all,” she said). She sees the 2018 lineup as a chance to raise the bar.
“It’s the (Des Moines Music Coalition) responsibility to set that standard and open those doors for other venues throughout Iowa and the region,” she said. “We’re in a place to be able to do that and set that example.”