Race, Representation, and Reshaping Festival Culture

Race, Representation, and Reshaping Festival Culture

With festivals on pause, Marcus Barnes digs into just how representative dance music festivals are, and what where we should go from here.

After the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer on May 25th, huge waves of protests swept the globe. Millions of people seemed to finally wake up to the systemic racism and white privilege that have been in place for centuries, as issues of racial discrimiation and marginalization, central to the Black Lives Matter platform, were once again thrust into the spotlight. 

This awakening has been very prominent in the music industry. Black artists and pioneers who’d long been oppressed and overlooked began speaking out, and were re-centered by the media and others. A renewed discussion about the lack of representation in lineups was sparked, becoming a key talking point among many high profile Black artists and their allies. 

Two years before all of this happened, however, Anna Codrea-Rado explored the gender imbalance on festival lineups for The Guardian. Triggered in part by the #MeToo movement, festival lineups came under the microscope as awareness of the lack of female representation increased. The article indicated that there was still a lot of work to be done. Imbalance was systemic, the result of a lack of diversity from the top down. In other words, the decision-makers were mostly men. 

Thankfully, there has been a “steady rise in female acts in electronic music festivals over the past eight years,” according to the 2020 FACTS survey, which is conducted annually by female:pressure, the international network for female and female-identifying musicians and artists. “For the period from 2012 to 2019 overall, 17.3 percent of acts are female,” the study states. “For the newly collected data for festivals from 2017 to 2019, there are 20.5 percent female acts, 0.6 percent non-binary acts, 70.3 percent male acts‚ 6.6 percent mixed, and 2.0 percent unidentified acts.” 

While these numbers are encouraging, we wanted to know what a similar survey of electronic music festival lineups would look like if they were also split according to race. After all, these events hold outsized power in elevating DJs  and performers to the top of the economic and social pyramid. With the festival scene on pause and future lineups up-in-the-air, now is the time to address issues of racial imbalance.

To do so, we spoke to a cross-section of subjects, each of whom works in a different aspect of the festival industry: behind-the-scenes, bookers, volunteers, and DJs. The aim here was to explore some of the issues currently facing the industry and provide a platform for the expression of ideas and opinions regarding how positive change might be achieved.

A look at the data

As a starting point for this piece, I looked at a selection of 34 festival lineups from summer 2019, segmenting artists by gender (male, female, trans) and ethnicity (white, black, other). The festivals were then divided by region — UK, EU, and World, the latter of which encompases events in Canda, America, Vietnam, India, and Morocco  — with a final Overall selection added to illustrate the average percentages across all festivals analysed. Averages were then calculated across these categories. The focus on this side of the world was admittedly drawn from bias — I spent my formative years writing about, reviewing, and partying at festivals in the UK and Europe. But given the outsized influence, the European festival scene holds over the industry at large, the picture painted with the data I’ve uncovered likely reveals some hard truths for most regions and sectors of the global electronic music scene.  

Case in point, 82 percent of overall artists booked for mainstream dance music festivals in 2019 were male. 76 percent were white, while 14 percent were Black and 18 percent were female. Half a percent were trans, while 10 percent were neither black nor white (other).

Zooming in, male to female percentages didn’t shift much across geographical divisions. However, in the UK, Black artists made up an average of 18 percent of festival bills, while the percentage of other ethnicities increased significantly at events happening outside the EU and UK (our World category), to 25 percent. We can reasonably assume this is due to local bookings in those territories, which include India and Vietnam.

A glance at the list of festivals I selected demonstrates that some have been much better at achieving representation across race and gender in their bookings than others. In particular, those that are focused on a broader selection of genres had more diverse lineups, whether that be so-called “world music” or contemporary rap. Some British city-based festivals were highly diverse; in particular, Parklife in Manchester and Lovebox in London. Located in ethnically diverse cities, their audiences, and subsequently their lineups, are bound to be more diverse. Though it also helps that they are easy to access, and not camping-based, which I’ll explore in more detail later on. (I contacted both events for more insight into their booking policies, and representatives said neither were currently doing interviews). 

More than half of the performers at London’s Lovebox festival in 2019 were Black, which is the highest of all the festivals I looked at. We Out Here and Dimensions also had more ethnically diverse lineups, featuring 39 percent and 24 percent Black artists in 2019, respectively.

Switzerland’s Polaris also stood out, with 45 percent of its 2019 lineup dedicated to Black performers, while roughly three percent of its artists were trans. Out of 34 events, Scotland’s Fly Open Air was the only festival with a lineup of more than 4 percent trans artists. More than half of the events I looked at had none.  

Other festivals, however, were far less diverse. With more than 200 acts on the bill, one event’s lineup was 85 to 90 percent white male. For a large-scale dance music festival, this is unacceptable.

Similarly, it’s clear that many festivals are still lacking in representation with female and female-identified bookings. Some events were as low as five percent last year. Though Lost & Found, for instance, had the strongest representation at 34 percent female and female-identified bookings, followed closely by Fly Open Air with 30 percent. Even with these standouts, female and female-identified artists averaged just 18 percent of festival bookings we looked at — well below the parity that groups like Keychange hope to achieve. Clearly, despite years of activism and campaigning stretching even beyond the #MeToo movement, the dominance of white male artists at dance music festivals has, for the most part, pervaded. 

Where do we go from here?

After collecting and analyzing the data, I reached out to artists, bookers, and festival owners — people who make booking decisions and those who are affected by them. This was more difficult than I’d anticipated. We were still feeling the aftershocks of George Floyd’s death. And with the world’s attention finally focused on the Black experience, many of the Black artists I contacted were weary, sceptical, and tired of all the requests they’d received in the fallout after the Black Lives Matter protests. I understand and empathise, as my experience has been similar. It’s insensitive to expect Black people to give up more free emotional and physical labour in the name of anti-racism work when they’ve been fighting for their rights since day one. It’s tiring, and the huge catharsis sparked by George Floyd’s death and everything that followed has been exceptionally exhausting. 

Fortunately, a few were willing to speak, and without them this piece would not have been possible. So, a big thanks to you all.

As one of Detroit’s worldwide ambassadors and an unapologetically straight-talking figure, Carl Craig was one of the first artists I called. Over the course of his career Carl has taken his music into venues where, historically, it would never have been considered that a Black artist may one day perform. In April 2019 he played a sell out show at London’s Royal Albert Hall, afterwards telling me, “When they built the Royal Albert Hall, they weren’t thinking somebody like me was gonna be playing there. 

“When everything was popping about why there weren’t enough female DJs, there became a division where there were the people who jumped on board, and maybe even over-jumped on board, and the people who were pissed about it,” he says, referring to the way in which some promoters were seemingly trying to compensate for a historic lack of female representation. “What was happening then is similar to what’s happening between Black Lives Matter and ‘All Lives Matter.’ It was a stupid conversation because there wasn’t a necessity for people to jump on the bandwagon, it should have just been that inclusion all the time.” 

Carl’s been involved with music since the late eighties. He’s part of the second wave of Detroit techno innovators, and spent a prolonged period in the UK in his early twenties where he witnessed the whitewashing of jungle music. He speaks about tokenism and the ways in which people feel obligated to put women or people of colour on their lineups to meet quotas. “You say, ‘You haven’t got any Black people on your lineup’ and they say, ‘Well we’ve got Carl Cox,’ like what the fuck?! It’s like Token from South Park.” He says Time Warp is “glaringly out of step with the world view in relation to what they see as the Mannheim view,” citing his own very public calling out of the festival via Twitter. (I had an exhaustive off-the-record chat with Time Warp founder Steffen Charles, but he did not respond to questions sent to him via email).

He also mentions Dutch events Mysteryland and Awakenings. “Awakenings did an online thing recently and the only person of colour they had on there was [Loco] Dice, and it blew my mind because there’s so many Black guys that make techno in Holland!” he laughs. “You couldn’t pick at least five guys to do an Awakenings stage in a time when it’s becoming such a big deal?” Awakenings announced the 2020 timetable on June 22nd, roughly two weeks after the event shared a black square in solidarity with the BLM movement on Instagram and Twitter. While the lineup was likely booked long before this year’s protests, the online backlash was immediate. It’s unclear why Awakenings didn’t make any last-minute adjustments to the event, which was broadcast online. Awakenings provided no comment for this story.

We move on to discussing the way Black artists and genres can sometimes be segregated on their own stages, rather than share the main stage. “There’s a ghetto-ising that I think people try to do with festivals, too,” he says. “In order to show that they have representation in the Black world, they’ll do a drum & bass stage or something and put Black artists on there.” Some of the festivals analysed in the data section avoided this ghettoisation by presenting a variety of genres on their main stage, with a few giving music of Black origin (and its proponents) prominence across their lineup and stages.

It must be noted, though, that some genres attract very few Black or female artists, which can make it difficult for festival bookers. Take Bang Face for instance. The annual weekender, which usually takes place at Pontins in Southport, focuses on niche and often novelty throwback rave-style music. For whatever reason, few people of colour or women operate in that field. 

Which brings us to the topic of representation as a workable concept. What does representation actually mean? Should festivals all over the world always aim to book lineups that include black and indigenous artists of colour, even when the host country’s population is majority white? Is it a case of looking at the ethnic breakdown for each country and addressing diversity from that angle? Or do you simply aim to create, and stick to, an internal policy? Or should there be an industry-wide policy? These are questions that festival owners, bookers and promoters need to discuss and find answers to. Canvassing attendees and artists, instigating conversations and continuing to experiment and refine their approaches are important steps in making progress towards a better understanding and implementation of equality and representation.

Similarly, how do you attract people of colour to your events when many minorities come from low-income backgrounds? Or how do you cater to differences in cultural needs and expectations? Addressing these differences can play a key role in attracting more diverse crowds. Techno, for instance, has been whitewashed for so long that its Black roots have almost been forgotten. Certainly, there are less Black people on the average dance floor of most techno events than there were when the music was conceived. There’s the question of whether young Black people even care about the music. A whole generation clearly view it as “white people’s music,” so how many of those even want to reclaim it or be encouraged back to the dance floor when they’ve naturally moved on to other types of music that they identify with more than techno?

Representation matters on the dance floor just as much as it matters behind-the-scenes and in the booth. The dance floor can act as an industry pipeline, inspiring a passionate new generation of ravers to get involved as DJs, lighting specialists, sound engineers, PRs, agents, journalists, bookers, or any number of roles. DJ/producer Loraine James, who’s had releases with Hyperdub among others, puts it simply and unequivocally, “If we saw more faces like us, that would make us think, ‘Hey we have a shot at this’, you know? But if we’re just seeing white faces, it doesn’t give us much hope at all.” Diverse crowds also produce a certain kind of energy that is ineffable. And minority representation and inclusivity lies at the heart of original club culture, which sprung up in the mid- to late-eighties. And although commercialism and consumerism have heavily infiltrated our culture, the universal essence of the dance floor can still be maintained with proper cultivation and attention. 

“When I did the lineups for the first two [Detroit Electronic Music Festivals] here in Detroit, my aim was to present a global view of the music,” Carl Craig says. “It would have been very easy for me to say, ‘Ok, we’re only going to have Detroit artists,’ and it would have been a completely Black festival at that time. From my view, I knew it would not be inclusive enough to represent the music that influenced and represented techno.” He describes the “potholes” that can appear when considering bookings and, if there were only Black artists, perhaps it would echo back to a time when Black performers had to dance on stage for their food. 

Traversing historical tropes and general cultural sensitivities can be fraught. But there’s no doubt that if you’re at least genuinely trying to present a more rounded lineup, and willing to learn, you’re on the right track. This often means communicating with the communities you are trying to represent. In order to make positive change, everyone I spoke to agreed that festivals need to begin reaching out, engaging, and creating open forums for discussion while listening to what is being said. So many marginalised people feel as though they aren’t heard and their needs are not met. Putting privilege and ego aside to make space for criticism, and responding to that criticism with grace and humility, is key. 

Carl highlighted the fact that the ethnic portrayal of DJs in the media has shifted since the eighties, as media representations have become whitewashed, parallel to genres like house and techno. “I’ve been in the music business a long time now and what I understand most about it is that it’s a trend-based industry,” he says, describing his attitude to being overlooked by bookers. “Trends at festivals are based on the biggest records of the time or the biggest artists. So there’s the reality that there will be low points as well high points in every artist’s career.” 

Trends also have greater influence over some festivals more than others. “Big corporate EDM festivals are less community-focused and are driven purely by ticket sales, which are reflective of the popular (trendy) artists of the moment, says Andrea Graham, co-founder of Canada’s Bass Coast festival. “So in these types of festivals, it’s very common to see the established white male stars as the majority on the lineup.” 

“However, change has slowly been happening in the more community-focused festivals that support local talent and who believe in fostering community and art,” Andrea continues. “Women and people of colour are still the minority by far, However, as these artists are supported in the grassroots level, they will hopefully rise up to play the larger festivals.” 

As such, it’s crucial that more festivals lead by example. Bookers, managing directors, staff, DJs, performers, editors, journalists, and everyone who has the opportunity to shape public opinion can plant the seeds of change. Trends don’t always have to be driven by public consumption. Festivals can dictate trends — especially the most revered and trusted events. If a major European techno event booked, say, Steve Rachmad or Benny Rodrigues alongside their usual lineup, it’s not hard to imagine that the majority of the crowd would trust the festival enough to enjoy both DJs without question. It’s up to the decision-makers to put more faith in the crowd, perhaps by continuing to book the big headliners that will help sell most of their tickets, then utilising the rest of the lineup to make space for lesser-known or underrepresented artists. 

“If festivals can nurture a community that trusts their curation, they can book up-and-coming artists and it isn’t a risk,” Graham says. “There are so many black and/or female artists available who are talented and will deliver an excellent set. Change comes down to the festivals deciding to make it a priority.”

UK selector Sherelle broke through last year thanks in part to a killer Boiler Room set, and as we talk, she discusses the way in which marketing companies can sometimes run misguided campaigns aimed at equality and representation due to lack of awareness. She highlights Smirnoff’s Equalizer campaign, which sought to present lineups that were split 50/50 male to female. But, she says, there was a lack of intersectionality, with not enough queer Black artists or people of colour. “People assume that, as long they’ve got a woman on a lineup, they’re doing a bit towards making music a lot more equal. But people don’t think about intersectionality — ‘What does my lineup represent as a whole?’ — [which is] one of the biggest issues I see with festivals,” she says, noting that she’s a prime example of someone who “ticks many boxes.” “I don’t see enough Black gay women. I’m cisgender, but I feel that I’m quite masculine in the way I dress. Women that are booked for events generally don’t look or act anything like myself.” 

This point is echoed by Loraine James, who notes that Dweller, the festival organised by Frankie from Discwoman, has been proactive in pushing forward Black artists and, in effect, ‘reclaiming techno’. Besides that though, “I can’t name any festivals that do ‘pretty well’. There’s a big diversity problem, and has been for ages,” she says. “I kinda feel like it’s gone from one side to another in certain aspects; instead of all white men, it’s more white women. But what about POC? There’s still a diversity problem even when you just include white women.”

As she’s risen to prominence over the past few years, Sherelle has seen an uptick in her own festivals bookings. But, like Carl Craig noted, Sherelle says she’s normally one of a handful of ‘en vogue’ Black artists, and often it’s the same small pool of Black performers that are being selected to play over and over again. This was evident in my analysis, as the same few Black female DJs came up: Josey Rebelle, Carista, Ash Lauryn, and very few others. Honey Dijon of course, being another regular face of diversity. 

An often espoused reason for the lack of Black female DJs on lineups is that there’s just not enough of them. Whether it be plain ignorance or laziness, this has never been acceptable to those who are repeatedly overlooked. There are thousands of Black artists and DJs out there, and with so many publicly available resources, it’s been made even easier to discover them. FAKA from South Africa, Jimblah from Australia, Chizu Nnamdi from Glasgow, Plain Jane Francis from the US, Mim Suleiman from the UK, Rish from Kenya, and thousands more. A quick and simple Google search leads to an abundance of Black performers and creators. Claiming there are not enough of them is absolutely unacceptable.

Loraine James agrees. “It’s frustrating – there are plenty of us out there either waiting for that chance to be on a bill and be heard, or have been grinding for years and are still not appreciated at all!” she says. “I mean these ‘big’ genres, like techno and house, were created by Black people, but these massive festivals have either zero or a couple people who are Black.”

In a series of tweets posted not long after George Floyd’s death, Josey Rebelle called out those who claim there are not enough Black female DJs for them to book, also directing her frustration at promoters who said they would start to address diversity issues in their 2022 lineups (according to the Keychange Pledge). “There is not one promoter on this planet that needs until 2022 to diversify their line-ups. 2022! Driverless cars out in the streets and you just now stopped being too lazy to Google,” she wrote. 

So why do all-white lineups continue? “If you’ve grown in a world where you’re used to seeing yourself on TV, represented in magazines and films, it would be a natural thing for a promoter who’s white to not necessarily realise they have a lineup that isn’t representative,” Sherelle says. “White people haven’t really had to think about themselves in this way before. Also, a lot of music forms are created by Black communities and, as they reach popularity, they can be whitewashed,” she adds, citing jungle and rock & roll as examples.   

Marketability and unconscious bias both play another critical role in how lineups are curated. Whitewashing isn’t always necessarily a conscious process, but instead can be the product of white privilege occupying the spaces where decisions are made, which in turn influences who receives preferential treatment and who is deemed to be marketable to an imagined audience. That audience typically is envisioned to be white, so Black artists are not considered to be as marketable as their white counterparts. 

Black artists and other marginalized groups are not considered to be the norm, or representative of the mass audience. But this is a misguided way of thinking, especially when we live in such an interconnected world where, pre-Covid, people traveled all over the planet to attend festivals. Assuming that ticket buyers are white, heterosexual, and will only want to see white artists, plays into the notion that booking anyone who isn’t white would be a risk. Promoters and bookers typically aim to avoid risk in order to sell tickets and hopefully turn a profit. Financial pressure can lead to trend-based, “safe” bookings to get people through the gates, especially in today’s highly competitive festival market. But this type of thinking discounts a huge portion of society. 

“I do think it’s a load of bollocks,” Sherelle says in response to the risk excuse. “I’ve been to nights like BBZ where they did an event with Percolate and sold it out, so I don’t really understand how people can’t come out of their comfort zones and stop putting the same old DJs on lineups.” She describes the growing disparity between artists who get booked time and time again, and those who are struggling to get bookings. The gap continues to increase as lesser-known artists are overlooked and don’t get the breaks they need, and spaces where up-and-coming acts can build a following continue to disappear from our towns and cities. For instance, access to small venues where you can throw relatively risk-free events is becoming a rarity in London. “There are not enough small clubs at the moment for us to come through and try to develop a sound,” she adds. “There aren’t enough of these spaces for promoters to go and see an act and be like, ‘They’d be amazing on the big stage’.

Kitty Amor is a linchpin of the afro house underground in London. An experienced DJ and promoter, she runs the Motherland record label and party series, and has recently been consulting with SheSaidSo, providing content and navigating their influential network to showcase the Black underground scene in London. In doing so, she aims to spark collaborative ideas with the organisation’s members that will help to shape the wider narrative by creating more awareness and engagement with London’s Black underground. 

I ask her if she’s had much interest from festivals since the BLM protests began, and since joining the SheSaidSo community. “In terms of actually being approached for a lineup next year by any of the top festivals, absolutely not a single thing,” she says. “I know for a fact that there are festival programmers in the SheSaidSo network, or at least people that work alongside them. I sent out the Motherland June stream to show them what we’ve created, the music we are providing and what we’re challenging. 80 percent of those who responded were like, ‘Ah yeah, it looks good, keep it up,’ rather than saying, ‘Let’s do something.’

“I’m not saying SheSaidSo should deliver events for me,” she adds. “There’s engagement with the stream to tell me how good it is. But to take the leap of faith and speak about next year, or the years after, and actually being part of that change, no one’s said anything.” 

Kitty highlights the fact that many festivals have simply rescheduled this year’s lineups to 2021 without rethinking bookings. Since many 2020 lineups would have been booked before the protests, it’s safe to assume they wouldn’t have been much different to those I analysed in 2019. “If there’s enough room to alter your lineups, whether that’s an extra stage or making small adjustments to really show you’ve taken on board all that’s happened in 2020 and implemented that into next year’s lineups, then this is when you should be doing it,” she says. “I’m waiting to see what happens, but it’s disheartening.” 

Without a booking agent representing her, Kitty has been reaching out to promoters on her own. Every year for the last three years, from November to March, she’s contacted festivals with detailed examples of her accomplishments in London. “I would say two people out of the huge number of emails I’ve sent have responded. One is Noah Ball, and that’s how I ended playing at Soundwave. Soundcrash also got back to me, and booked me to play at Printworks,” she says. 

While Kitty would have previously accepted the lack of response, now she’s using her platform to call out promoters and events, emboldened by the movement. “If I don’t speak on it and try to advocate change with just my presence, I have a feeling that it will still be missed. You have to use your voice in order to see change,” she says, revealing that she’s planning to organise a livestream discussion with promoters and Black artists to address the issue on a public forum. 

I bring up the risk debate, which takes us to the way in which social media numbers can be used to dictate whether artists will be booked or not. It’s a source of frustration for Kitty, who feels as though it’s another barrier to entry for underrepresented artists. “I hate the fact that ‘risk’ and ‘underground’ are two words that have been lumped together for a long time,” she says. “I know for a fact, as a Black woman in this industry, forget about being a gay Black woman, I have to have numbers that either match up to my white peers or at least double them regardless of whether I’ve got the talent. Either that or I’ve played for the BBC, Kiss FM, or any other big platform. Even then it still might not happen.” 

“If it ain’t Black Coffee, ain’t no one trying to hear us,” she continues. “If you haven’t got the numbers or they don’t think you can bring the numbers, you’re not even considered. You have to sell yourself in mad ways. It’s ridiculous, because what I’m bringing is tasteful, it’s new, and if you act upon it, you should want to see yourself as the leading brand that has given this music a platform. But that term ‘risk’ is everything they think about.”

Cassandra Frey-Mills has used her time during lockdown to launch Without Exception, an organisation that brings underrepresented voices together to help guide the festival industry to a more inclusive state across all sectors. “Our intention is to put solutions directly in front of the people who can make a change. We know there’s no excuse to keep things the way they are,” she says, addressing the issue of financial pressure. “Anyone who thinks that money is the obstacle standing in their way hasn’t thought about all the research that shows that a diverse workforce leads to better financial returns. You will make better festivals, sell more tickets and make fewer gaffes. When you think about it, this offers a lifeline to survival for the festival industry.” 

Cassandra and her partner at Without Exception intend to use their privilege to elevate others, bringing people together to hopefully be the catalyst to long-lasting and positive change. With the festival industry suffering terribly during the Covid-19 crisis, she knows it won’t be easy. 

“When the festival industry was ground to a halt by the pandemic, me and a long-time colleague found ourselves once again discussing the lack of inclusivity and equality we had seen in our years working in the industry,” Cassandra says. “From the cultural appropriation you see in some of the get-ups at festivals (don’t get me started on indigenous headdresses and bindis) to how much whiter the workforce is the further you go up the ranks — and that’s leaving out how few female festival directors there are. We wanted to use lockdown to identify ways we could help tackle these issues.

“Festivals are this unique melting pot of industries,” she adds. “You’ve got the creative arts, hospitality, music, and of course the events industry. It’s relatively easy to find organisations promoting inclusivity and equality in each one of those intersecting groups, but almost none for festivals. We didn’t want to reinvent something that already existed, but when you look at just the festival industry, we’re really behind the curve.”

“Dee” is part of the team behind Decolonise Festival, an event aimed at addressing the lack of representation of Black punks. It was launched in 2017 by Stephanie Phillips, a journalist, and musician who plays guitar in Black feminist punk band Big Joanie. Dee’s experience as both a volunteer and participant at festivals goes back 14 years to when she was 16 years old. Not only is she experienced in working for a festival that celebrates representation in a niche genre, but she also speaks from the lived experience of attending festivals and working behind-the-scenes.

“Most of the festivals I’ve been to have been electronic music-based: Dimensions, Outlook, Boomtown, Electric Picnic, Melt! in Germany,” Dee says (she asked that we not use her real name). “I’ve been doing that since I was 16 and I’m 30 now, so I have seen a gradual transition in the punters,” she says. “Back then it was me and two other Black girls. People would think we were a band. It was like, ‘Why would three Black girls be at this very white festival?’ Once we realised, we’d just walk confidently past the bouncers and get in backstage. We ended hanging out with The Prodigy at Exit in 2009 by doing that.” 

At Exit, in Novi Sad, Serbia, Dee says strangers in the crowd sometimes asked to take pictures of her, which I also experienced there. While initially amusing and flattering, it can sometimes taint your festival experience when it happens one too many times. The people asking for pictures rarely try speaking to you beyond their request, making you feel like an exotic creature in a trophy photo. Things are improving, but in countries where it’s still a white majority, people of colour who are visiting have to be aware that they may encounter this kind of behaviour, which is often relatively harmless, but sadly is sometimes a lot worse. 

“It’s been nice to see crowds changing a bit now,” she continues. “But the organising of festivals is still very, very white and very, very posh. At certain festivals, all the management team are white and all the people volunteering are Black. That’s part of the reason I didn’t get on at some of the festivals I worked at. I was always asked to do menial jobs when I’ve got loads of experience.” 

Dee sees this as a reflection of the old boys network and nepotism. Wealth, race, and class are intertwined, giving power and privilege to a disproportionate section of society, some of whom launch festivals and hire their friends to come and work for them. How we change this is down to a systemic overhaul, and authentic, heartfelt efforts to be inclusive at all levels. “There needs to be a genuine effort of reaching out, and people of colour can tell when it’s performative. Engaging with people from top to bottom is a way of tackling it,” she says. “Also, being open and admitting when you’ve made mistakes, trying to look at ways that people are hiring. Not always assuming that Black and people of colour are the entertainers. Listening to what people are saying and paying attention to suggestions that would make festivals more appealing [in ways] that management might not think of.” 

As I mentioned before, city-based festivals, where you can pop in without camping overnight, seem to attract more mixed audiences and more diverse lineups, while the bigger camping events are not always as ethnically diverse as you might expect. Glastonbury is a great example of this. On so many levels the attendance is very diverse: class, age, musical affiliation. People from all over the UK attend, from pasty-white middle-class indie kids to perma-tanned northerners. But the ethnic diversity is still pretty lacking, and the reasons are both economic and cultural. 

“Festivals need to advertise the things that would make them more attractive to people of colour. It’s a bit of a generalisation, but making tickets more accessible with different tiers [would help],” she says. “My cousin, for example, would say it isn’t worth £280 to go and sit in a field all day. Value for money isn’t really pushed. The horror stories about no toilets, no showers, standing out in the rain… you could have spent that money going to Spain.” 

The camping aspect can also be a barrier to entry for some people of colour, more so than it is for white people, which lays bare the complexities of cultural differences. “Multi-date festivals aren’t as appealing to Black people,” Dee adds. “I don’t know if there’s a way of making it less scary and pushing the facilities they have, but there’s got to be a way.”

Dee also points at the difficulties some Black people can face in getting started in the music world. Again, economics play a role here, but there are also a myriad of social issues people of colour can face, like the family pressure to succeed, or the need to work twice as hard as their white counterparts. 

“A lot of [white] musicians started out with grounding or the support they needed to become what they are,” she says. “The emphasis on being an artist isn’t quite the same when you’re from a POC family because they’re worried about how you’re going to survive in the world. You can’t just think you’re going to be an artist, you’ve got to have a degree to fall back on. Even access to instruments and things like that [can be a barrier]. A lot of people of colour have a lot to deal with before they can commit to music. The reason why there’s white male dominance is because they have the resources, the time, and the support.”

In my analysis, We Out Here was one of the more representative festivals. The brainchild of Gilles Peterson and his team, it has a strong focus on global music, with a variety of performers from across Africa and the rest of the world, representing jazz, soul, hip hop, and electronic music. 

Noah Ball is one of the founders of We Out Here, with Outlook and Dimensions also on his resume. He had plenty to say about how festivals can move forward and work towards a more inclusive focus based on his depth of experience.

“When you look at crew companies, stage management teams, so often it’s a bunch of white dudes in black crew uniforms,” he says, echoing Dee’s point. “We made a really positive impact on the makeup of staffing at the festival last year, but we’ve still got some way to go. It’s an ongoing process, something you have to take on and understand that you can make positive changes, step by step, and you’re not always going to get everything right immediately. But the point is that you continue to make positive steps. Hopefully, with each year and each event, things become as well balanced and as fair a representation of the society we’re in as possible.”

Noah’s experience and personal musical tastes have given him the conscious awareness that’s essential to achieving genuine inclusivity. He loves Black music, working consistently to present it in a respectful way while using his privilege to provide a platform to genres and artists usually overlooked at other events. The scale and success of Outlook and Dimensions go some way to proving that these genres and artists have a big enough fanbase to make booking them less of a presumed “risk.” 

He also speaks about camping. “One of the barriers that we had at We Out Here was, culturally, that Black audiences don’t want to go camping,” he tells me. “It does have a stigma attached to it in some cultures, so we had to try and navigate how to remove these barriers to people attending.”

Addressing the problem has meant taking steps to collaborate with groups that are embedded in Black working-class communities, and connecting with people to figure out how to make it easier for them to attend. “We worked with a lot of music groups such as Tomorrow’s Warriors and Urban Development and a handful of others in cities across the UK,” he reveals. “Through those groups we had a number of discounted glamping options, and for young people who potentially couldn’t afford the ticket price, we worked with these groups to provide reduced-price tickets or, in some cases, gifting tickets. Transport was [also] an issue for some people, so we organised buses. We’re still trying to work out how to do it better each time, but it’s certainly worked in some way. The site is only an hour away from London, so if someone wants to come and do a day then get the last train back, they can if they want to,” he concludes.

With the Covid-19 pandemic putting a halt to festivals all over the world, and the increasing awareness around race, gender and LGTBQ+ rights within the industry and general population, this is the perfect time to hit the reset button. The pandemic has presented an opportunity for festivals to reconfigure their hierarchies and how they approach bookings in order to redress the balance that has been sorely lacking. There’s never been a time like this for festival culture. The pause on activity is unique and must be taken advantage of. Simply shifting lineups to next year cannot be the only solution. Festival promoters, bookers, agents and directors have to start taking responsibility for how they present electronic music, the origins of the culture, and the performers. By booking more diverse lineups, festivals have an opportunity to increase their target market, sell more tickets and diversify the festival ecosystem. 

Socially and culturally, there’s a great opportunity to inspire and include Black people, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and other people of colour. Likewise, the hierarchy behind the scenes in the festival industry also needs a big shake up so that better-informed decisions can be made. It can be done, but collective effort and conscious awareness are essential to making it work. If festivals are going to survive this increasingly dire situation, they’re going to have to think about widening their appeal and connecting to more communities, which means diversifying audiences.    

Electronic music is universal, it always has been. It was designed to be enjoyed by everyone. But over the years, this ethos has been eroded and superseded by a system based on western white privilege. There is no better time than now to begin formally dismantling this system, and restoring the core ideals of our culture for future generations.  

Marcus Barnes is an author, journalist, copywriter, and tastemaker with over 15 years experience in print and online. Find him on Twitter.



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