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Dear Canadian music festivals: show us the women

Holly Gordon

Last month, St. Vincent descended upon Halifax in all her guitar-shredding glory. As a city that often misses out on the bigger tours, it’s rare to have the chance to see an in-her-prime killer performer — emphasis on the her. Haligonians filled up the jazz fest tent and watched in awe as Annie Clark slayed us all.

It’s not just that I love St. Vincent (because I do), but Clark’s presence onstage was addictive. Artful. Skillful. Powerful. And I was struck by something else: how good it felt to see a woman headlining a festival mainstage. It felt so rare. So I spent (a lot of) time looking at lineups across the country to quantify the ratio of women to men on festival bills. What’s your guess? Take what you’re thinking and aim lower.

This year, 22 per cent of the acts on Montreal’s Osheaga lineup include at least one female member (that also accounts for solo females and all-female bands). Number of all-male bands? Forty-nine. Number of all-female bands? Two.

British Columbia’s Squamish Valley festival has 30 per cent of the acts on its lineup boasting at least one female member. Big Red Fest in P.E.I.: 32 per cent. NXNE’s 2014 headlining cluster, which includes its top 47 acts: 36 per cent.

Looking at stats from previous years shows some progress. Last year’s Halifax Pop Explosion headliner announcement — 49 acts — tallied 29 per cent of acts with at least one female member. This year the numbers are better: yesterday's headliner announcement has 36 per cent of its 30 acts skewing female.

I spoke with the festival’s new executive director, James Boyle, who says being more inclusive of minorities in general is continuously important to the festival, and will be a “very big topic moving into next year.” This year, for instance, HPX is partnering with the local Rebel Girl Rock Camp to present workshops by and for women in the industry.

Still, there is little evidence of a wide-scale march toward equality. Only one of Drake’s OVO Fest acts had female members last year: TLC. With 13 acts in total, that felt horrifyingly singular until I came across FredRock. The Fredericton, N.B., festival also only has one woman slated for its Aug. 22 weekend (Sass Jordan, just announced late Monday). Last year’s FredRock? The ratio was lower.

What makes this all the more frustrating is that this year has been insanely good for new music from female musicians — Sharon Van Etten, Jenny Lewis, Tanya Tagaq, Alvvays, Angel Olsen and St. Vincent have all released fantastic albums, and yet women are still under-represented on most festival bills across the country.

It shouldn’t take something like Lilith Fair or Lockeport, Nova Scotia’s Harmony Bazaar — an all-women festival — to get female feet planted firmly on stages, nor does Warped Tour’s “girls only” stage feel like an acceptable alternative. One bright spot is the previously mentioned Halifax TD Jazz Festival, which has approximately a 50/50 ratio. That number stands out in sharp relief against the veritable coast-to-coast sausage fest that is our typical festival season. Show us the women.

Full disclosure: this year's Festival counted 44 per cent of its acts as having at least one female member.

Find me on Twitter: @hollygowritely