With calls for more diversity in music festivals,? is Forecastle doing enough?

May 23, 2018 at 10:16 am
Forecastle Festival
Forecastle Festival

A nationwide conversation about the lack of diversity of the artists performing at the biggest music festivals is sweeping through the circuit, which includes the one in our backyard, Forecastle. This year, the mid-July festival once again has a line-up stacked primarily with white male acts, especially toward the top of the bill. Forecastle organizers said that they are aware of the issue, but the logistics of putting together a lineup — availability, budget restrictions, etc. — can make it difficult.

“I would say that there were efforts,” said Bryan Benson, vice president of booking at AC Entertainment, which oversees Forecastle, as well as Highwater, Homecoming, Bonnaroo and Big Ears. “We’re very aware of that across the board. My No. 1 goal is to book the best talent that’s available to us for Forecastle, in terms of putting together a lineup that is true to the fest. From a curatorial fest, I do think it’s clear what we do. Louisville is unique, and we want to champion that every year. We’re certainly aware of trying to be as diverse and gender balanced as we can. We make a lot of offers to try to make it happen.”

Pitchfork crunched numbers for its recent article “Tracking the Gender Balance of This Year’s Music Festival Lineups.” Looking at the gender dynamics — the percentage of male, female and mixed-gender bands — between 20 of the nation’s top festivals, Pitchfork ranked Forecastle 17th out of 20, with Bottleneck, Firefly and Bunbury having a larger imbalance. In 2017, not a single U.S. festival had a 50/50 gender balance. This year, there are three: FYF, Pitchfork and Panorama. Forecastle is closer to 25 percent, depending on whether you count the artists not playing one of the traditional stages, but instead performing in the Party Cove. To Forecastle’s credit, the Party Cove area has a heavy representation from the Spinsters Union of Louisville, a new, local collective whose goal is to increase the visibility of female and gender nonconforming DJs. And, at the top of the bill, only two people of color — T-Pain and Vic Mensa — are in the top 20 slots.

“We’re aware of trying to be as gender balanced as possible,” Benson said. “I think it all plays into it. With Arcade Fire, that’s a good example. That certainly led us to — we need Courtney Barnett this year, we need Jenny Lewis. Just as much as it does Kurt Vile or the War on Drugs. What we’re trying to do is put together a cohesive lineup that works.”

Over the years, diversity at the top music festivals, has gotten better, but is it enough? And, in the grand scheme of the music industry, why does it matter?

Why a diverse lineup matters

Forecastle was started as a small festival in Tyler Park by JK McKnight in 2002. Every year, it’s grown, resulting in venue changes from Tyler Park, to Cherokee Park, to the Belvedere and then to its current home on the Waterfront. In 2012, The festival partnered with AC Entertainment, a company that was bought by Live Nation in 2016.

Carrie Neumayer, a veteran of the local indie scene, said she believes diverse representation at music festivals is important. She is the former curator of Louisville Outskirts Festival, which sought to foster an environment for women, gender nonconforming and trans people.

“Festivals like Forecastle have the great power to potentially amplify the music and voices of women and people of color to a wider audience,” Neumayer said. “Our city becomes a better place when we are able to hear multiple perspectives and creative expression that represents more than just one slice of the population.”

Not only is it important for audiences, but also for musicians, because they rely increasingly on live performances and not record sales to make money. Being included in big-name festivals is important to get exposure and earn money, making Forecastle a gatekeeper for up-and-coming acts.

Local emcee Sultra Mathematiks said she is perplexed why festivals have such a demographic imbalance when there are plenty of diverse artists from which to choose.

“It’s extremely important to ensure representation and giving a voice to artists who are marginalized,” she said. “It’s 2018.”

Jaison Gardner, a local activist and co-host of the “Strange Fruit” podcast on 89.3 WFPL, said this year’s lineup shows no improvement. While Gardner said he admires the employment of activism at Forecastle, he remains skeptical of the choices that the festival makes with their lineup.

“If you talk about return on investment, suburban white kids love black music,” Gardner said. “If it comes down to a bottom line, you can’t make the argument that it won’t come down to the dollars and cents of it.”

The reality of it

The festival circuit in the United States, including Forecastle, has appeared to make progress, albeit slowly. According to an article on Pitchfork, 15 of the 20 festivals, including Forecastle, have increased diversity from 2017 to 2018.

Benson said creating diverse lineups is harder than people might think.

“There are artists that we’re going to go after that have been female and/or people of color and it just didn’t work,” Benson said. “We’re fortunate that a lot of artists want to play Forecastle. We start to put together the best thing we can every year. Ultimately, regardless of gender or ethnicity, we’re just trying to bring the best, most-exciting artists to Louisville we can.” •

This story is part of the 2018 Music Issue. To read more stories from the issue, click here.