After a controversial festival season, in which male artists with a history of sexism still dominated line-ups, we need to talk about what we can do better
“Far from everyday life,” claims Germany’s Fusion Festival, “free of boundaries and prejudice.” It sounds good, as countercultural branding often does, but that’s not necessarily what attendees thought at this year’s edition. Fusion had booked Konstantin, co-founder of the techno label Giegling, to perform at the festival, which took place in Lärz earlier this year.
The DJ was previously criticised for the sexist, anti-feminist remarks he gave to Groove Magazine, declaring that women were getting too much help and attention in the music scene, and that they couldn’t DJ as well as men. (He subsequently apologised, calling the quotes “misleading” and a misunderstanding of his “bad sense of humour”, though other women in the techno scene have said that he has expressed these opinions to them directly before.) Though Konstantin was dropped by festivals like London’s Sunfall in the aftermath of his comments, this summer he slowly but very surely reappeared on line-ups, and was invited to curate stages at festivals such as Waking Life in Portugal. When he played Fusion, ticketholders who’d previously voiced their frustrations on both the festival’s web forum and Facebook page participated in a peaceful banner protest, while bar staff closed during his set and people booed, threw bottles, and unplugged the cables of his mixer until, finally, he left the stage.
Despite this, Konstantin is still getting booked. Recently, a group of people (of which I’m part) initiated an open letter calling on Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE) and promoters to drop him from the performances he’s scheduled to play there later this month. The letter asks us all to think about what this booking practice says about the continued tolerance of sexism in the industry. The response to the open letter has been a clean split between those who understand that sexism, in its many guises, has direct and very real repercussions on women, be it in the industry or on the dancefloor, and those (mostly male) who rally alongside Konstantin to announce that this, in fact, isn’t sexism at all.
In the wider music industry, festivals increasingly determine who gets booked, what an artist’s fee is, and who is the most visible in the scene, in turn having a big influence on the music and culture that arises out of it (I say “festivals”, but it’s the same for clubs, too). There’s a lot of power in programming, and with that naturally comes a responsibility – one I think is too often dismissed. An essential part to this is thinking about what justice would even look like. To me, it doesn’t look like the continued endorsement and platforming of artists who’ve never showed contrition for their behaviour. Without a guidebook, we have to actively think of ways to move ourselves forward. Sometimes that means talking, but when there’s little left to talk about, sometimes that means direct action, like what happened at Fusion earlier this year.
As someone who used to work as a programmer at an outwardly politically engaged club night, and now working at an experimental music festival, Rewire, I’m always questioning my own role in these situations. Here are some starting points for these conversations to bear in mind for next year’s festival season, delving into what promoters and programmers can do to ensure they’re not inadvertently making existing problems worse.
RECOGNISE YOUR RESPONSIBILITY
Often, a programmer will say that ‘it’s all about the music’, and that an artist’s past behaviour should not factor into a booking. This sort of ignorance is harmful. Programming and curating is making choices – it’s political. That doesn’t mean everything has to be capital ‘P’ political (people like to dance to DJs because it’s fun, after all), but at least do your homework and be aware of the sort of environment you might be helping to foster. Whether it’s Glasgow’s Funk D’Void selling t-shirts for the ‘Proud Boys’ (an anti-feminist, anti-Muslim frat club described by the SPLC as a hate group) on his website, Ten Walls and his homophobic rant, or Jackmaster sexually harassing staff at Love Saves the Day, booking certain artists means inadvertently endorsing their actions, ideology, and behaviour, not just their music. You’re deciding to welcome those risks into your space and revealing how much you value your audience – or, more precisely, which members of the audience you have no value for at all.
LISTEN TO CRITICISM
Promoters often respond to criticism in one of three ways: they defend their actions, they attack their critics, or they make empty promises of change. If a woman says that she was harassed during a performance, for example, she might get told that it’s not the promoters responsibility to help, or that she shouldn’t have been drinking so much, or wearing so little. Or maybe the venue says it will speak with security to ensure that this doesn’t happen again – but, inevitably, it does. In my experience, meetings and conversations are ways of letting a complaint get aired as a form of damage control, but they rarely result in meaningful action. Worse still, they’re often used as a marketing ploy for the other side to appear progressive. Actually acting on complaints means more than ‘having a word’ – it usually means dropping an artist, taking substantial time out, getting new staff, or changing your booking policy. Maybe it means getting a new designer – one who doesn’t think that flyers of naked women are the visual counterpart to a male-heavy line-up (actually, it means not having that male-heavy line-up in the first place).
STOP BEING COMPLICIT
Not being complicit means getting in the way, breaking habits, speaking out, and recognising that your inaction and silence perpetuates inequality and oppression. We know there’s an imbalance of representation, and that racism, sexism, and ableism all exist, but unless they affect you, it’s easy to sit back and just let these things go ‘unnoticed’. Jenny Wang wrote about the ‘Boys Club’, the ones who don’t face systematic discrimination, the patterns of behaviour and policies that work against individuals based on the colour of their skin, gender, or sexuality, in a Mixed Spices article earlier this year. Wang calls for people to speak up, to “ask festivals why they haven’t booked women, call your DJ friend out when you’ve seen they’ve used a misogynistic flyer, tell the person who runs your event that it’s not okay to do or say racist things, and remove problematic artists from your lineups so people like us can feel we’re actually safe at your events.” As a programmer, these should be second nature.
KNOW WHEN TO SIT IT OUT
It’s equally important to know the times when visibility needs to be handed over, when other people should be filling up your space. This doesn’t mean letting yourself off the hook, staying silent, or relying on women, PoC, or LGBTQ+ people to do most of the legwork and absolve yourself of complicity (see above) – it simply means don’t act as the figureheads for issues or communities you don’t represent. It means learning how to make space rather than take it. Think of the clubs that proudly display rainbow flags during Pride, yet don’t listen to or support the LGBTQ+ community for the rest of the year. Or the panels on ‘women in the industry’ given at festivals that are guilty of underpaying and underrepresenting these same women. Or Ballroom workshops hosted in heteronormative white spaces, or ‘African music’ nights hosted by your favourite anything-but-African DJs. The list goes on.
UNDERSTAND THAT PROGRAMMING IS JUST THE SURFACE
Greater visibility is one thing, but more women on stage doesn’t mean more women getting hired. Having a diverse line-up is not the same as paying those performers a fair fee. And booking outspoken feminist, LGBTQ+, or black artists won’t mean as much if these same communities aren’t represented or respected on your team or in your audience. Adjusting your booking and hiring policy isn’t just a way to look more politically correct – booking people with different experiences and perspectives helps keep a movement moving, and staves off creative stagnation.
There are endless ways to programme more responsibly, but what it boils down to is that it shouldn’t be about you, money, or just the music. There’s no quick fix or a real check list of ways to do it better, but it’s important to keep learning and adapting, challenging your perspective, learning to take a stand, being able to apologise (and mean it) and take accountability for the programme as a whole.