Though there has been growing discussion around the lack of female representation in the music industry in recent years, a 2021 study by USC Annenburg’s Inclusion Initiative revealed staggering statistics about the lack of women producing and writing chart-topping songs, as well as the lack of women employed in executive roles at major record labels. Essentially, the study revealed that despite a cultural push for better female representation in mainstream music, change was only made where it was visible—on the stages, amongst the artists. (And even those changes have been slow and underwhelming.)
What’s equally as concerning as the lack of women working behind the scenes of the mainstream music industry is the lack of women working behind the scenes in the live music industry. Every great concert or music festival relies on a large network of individuals that handle everything from sound engineering to ticket fulfillment. As the backbone of these events, the working environment amongst these people sets the tone for the event at large. An exclusive atmosphere backstage means an exclusive atmosphere for both the crowd and the performers. Anecdotal evidence from just about any woman that’s worked in the live music industry for a while paints a picture of a climate where sexism and even outright misogyny is normalized, if not glamorized, and often brushed off with some variation of the excuse, “That’s showbiz, baby.”
At Roots N Blues Festival, we seek to address gender disparity within the industry in every way possible. The decision to showcase an all-women lineup at the 2021 festival served as a public statement about female artists’ ability to pull the same sized audiences and put on the same caliber of shows as their male peers. But backstage, a team led primarily by women quietly set-up, organized, and executed the festival from start to finish.
In honor of Women’s History Month, we’d like to take a moment to highlight some of those women, as well as share their thoughts on gender disparity in the industry. But first, it’s important to note that the women in leadership roles at Roots N Blues earned their titles not because of their gender, but because they worked hard for many years and gained irreplaceable expertise in their fields. For example, RNB’s Artist Relations Manager, Jessica Brown, came on to the festival as an intern during its inaugural year and over time worked her way up to her current position, which involves coordinating every aspect of the artists’ festival experience, as well as helping to manage the backstage space in general. As a full time Artist Relations Manager, Brown is used to the male-dominated world of live music events and has come to see her womanhood as an aid rather than a hindrance. “Our strengths are slightly different than men’s strengths and I think it plays very well in my backstage role,” she explains. From artists’ flights getting delayed to to stage lighting malfunctions, music festivals involve “so many moving pieces. It’s easy for it to get really stressful and kind of crazy, honestly. So I think coming into it with a bit more of a feminine energy and approach to it all is really beneficial. There’s a little bit more of a ‘How do we work this out? How do we work together to make today great?’ kind of vibe.”
This sentiment is echoed by RNB’s Ticketing Director, Erika Hammerschmidt, who manages the box office and its staff, resolves issues with patrons’ wristbands, and sells passes to last-minute buyers. “As women, if we come across [assertively], we’re labeled a mean word, or rude, or this or that. So we do have to approach how we interact with the public very differently than the male counterpart,” she says. “There is power in patience and power in quietness.”
However in other roles, an assertive approach is necessary, such as in security. Perhaps more than any other backstage role, security is a position almost unanimously associated with men. And at first this makes sense—men are generally larger and stronger than women, which is beneficial in a physical altercation. But if the ultimate goal of a security team is to keep any potential altercations from reaching a point where physical intervention is necessary, placing women on the team helps broaden its perspective and therefore its ability to mitigate conflict without physical force. And female security guards can provide insights and pick up on details that may go over their male counterparts’ heads. For example, RNB’s Head of Backstage Security, Christine Weimer, has been in her position for several years and over that time has noticed that some female artists can be weary of being left alone without security, even backstage. “[Male] artists, for some reason, will just wander wherever, they don’t even care,” says Weimer. Meanwhile, “I don’t see a lot of the [female] artists saying it directly, but a lot of the female artists’ tour managers have asked for tight security.”
Though privy to gender-based differences in artist behavior, Weimer doesn’t feel her gender affects the way she herself approaches security. She simply seeks to do the best job she can and let her work speak for itself. “Sometimes when I introduce myself as the head of back of the house security they—I don’t want to say give me a sideways glance but…you know, they look surprised. No one’s ever super doubted me, but sometimes when Brock [Christine’s husband and head of overall festival security] is around, they’ll direct a question towards him and luckily Brock will say, ‘This is my wife’s area.’ So he’s really good about it, but there have been a few people who have looked at me like, ‘Oh wait, you’re protecting us?’”
This is precisely the kind of attitude RNB is working to address. The first step to making backstage roles more inclusive of women is, quite simply, to place women in these roles. Unfortunately, this does not always mean women’s expertise and authority will be respected.
Lacie Ogden, RNB’s Command Center Director, helps coordinate the festival’s many moving parts and she is the go-to person with any questions or concerns. Like Weimer, she is in a position one may instinctually assume would be filled by a man and, also like Weimer, she often finds that, “You’ll get some people who are like, ‘Who’s in charge here?’ And it’s like, ‘Yo, right here.’ [Laughs.] And you kind of see people’s faces go, ‘Oh…okay.’ Just when there are some new faces around. One comment I got last year was, ‘I like a woman who takes charge.’ And a part of me was like that’s nice and another part of me was like that’s kind of an unnecessary comment. There shouldn’t be a difference between a man and a woman taking charge. Both should have the respect and it shouldn’t be seen as, like, ‘taking charge.’ More so, it’s just having that leadership.”
While it is frustrating that putting skilled women in positions of authority is not always enough to bring people to actually treat them with authority, we feel it is a step in the right direction.
Hammerschmidt says, “Yes, we’re trying to break the glass ceiling but it’s not gonna be all at once. We have to take little cracks at it over and over again so that hopefully one day it is completely shattered. And I think Roots N Blues is really projecting the cracks within that glass ceiling and keeps on pushing so that there are more and more.”
One way to uplift women working backstage is to ensure the men hired to work alongside them share this vision. Brown says, “I will say that the crews we work with [at Roots N Blues] and the relationships that we’ve built and the teams that we’ve been in are lovely men who support [us] and are great about what we do.”
Another way to increase gender inclusivity is by amplifying women’s perspectives. So often, the male perspective is regarded as universal, which can lead women’s experiences and needs go overlooked. At the 2021 festival, due to Covid-19 policies and increased security measures, only four individuals were granted all-access media passes to capture the festival—two men and two women. Fatimah Krgo shot video, while Rebecca Allen, a documentary photographer, took pictures. Though Allen approached covering the festival as she would any other event, she says, “I did feel the pressure in a good way and the responsibility that as the only female photographer to have more unlimited access to the fest that a little bit more was riding on my responsibility to deliver.”
For live music event organizers, elevating female employees is a two-pronged process. Simply entrusting women with the same level of responsibility as men goes a long way, but equally important is fostering a working environment that is intolerant of sexism and upholds a woman leader’s authority anytime it is challenged.
“It’s very important for women to make sure, when we are in charge and that is our place to be, that we make ourselves known and fully insert ourselves into the conversation,” says Brown. “I am in charge of the entire backstage space. So if you need to come up to me and talk to me about something—no, you can’t go to the male stage manager, nope, you can’t go to the guy who’s sitting over there. I’m the one who’s in charge and I’m the one that you need to speak to.”
Ogden adds, “Last year’s festival was fantastic. Everybody’s goal was the same in raising women up and it was a breath of fresh air. […] Everybody’s just very good at what they do and the communication is great so it just makes everything run smooth. You don’t feel like you have to be like, ‘Excuse me, let me speak up.’”
The silver lining to recent revelations about the severe underrepresentation of women in the music industry is that it has sparked a call for improvement across the board, which is only growing exponentially louder. Roots N Blues aims to be a part of this push in the right direction. As with 2021’s all-women lineup, we hope that in continuing to place women in roles traditionally associated with men we can prove that women are equally capable of maintaining a secure, efficient environment, and that an increase in their presence will contribute to a more inclusive atmosphere overall.