'You're always erased': Electronic musician tired of excuses for lack of women at festivals

Calls for more women on music festival stages are nothing new, but electronic artist Joanne Pollock is done with excuses from talent buyers who say it’s too hard to book an equal number of men and women.

Winnipeg-based electronic musician Joanne Pollock says laziness, disinterest to blame

Winnipeg-based electronic musician Joanne Pollock performs at Big Fun. She says organizers of music festivals need to work harder to book more female performers. (Steve Louie Photos)

Calls for more women on music festival stages are nothing new, but Winnipeg electronic artist Joanne Pollock is done with excuses from talent buyers who say it's too hard to book an equal number of men and women.

Last month, Pollock called out music festival director Nathan Zahn on Twitter over comments he made to Metro Winnipeg on why only about 25 per cent of his festival's performers are women.

"We couldn't just book 50 per cent women out of the gate because they don't exist. They're not there," Zahn told Metro.

Pollock calls that statement "hilariously wrong."

"I think my issue is that if you say they don't exist, instead of, 'I'm lazy and I don't want to do the work,' or 'It's my festival and I don't want to do that,' you're actually kind of erasing us," said Pollock.

"It's just offensive that he's let his inability to look outside of whatever he wants to book — he's made that out to be that there's no women."

Pollock admits the local electronic scene is small, but she said she knows as many women as men who are part of it.

Zahn disagrees.

Every year, the festival he runs — MEMETIC, or Manitoba Electronic Music Exhibition of Technology, Innovation & Creativity — surveys its volunteers and performers. Zahn said as a result, organizers are aware of about 100 to 120 artists in the city who fit the festival's bill.

"Of those that would fit our mandate, we can barely come up with 25 [women]," he said.

Their mandate is strict: artists who produce underground or non-commercial electronic music on the techno, house and deeper electronic spectrum, excluding EDM and pop.

The selection process includes a "blind listen" by three volunteers, including Zahn, who narrow the 300 to 400 applicants to about 100.

They then look at the artists' backgrounds and narrow that to about 60 artists who will be booked. About a dozen of those are from out of town, and the rest are locals.

About 25% female artists at MEMETIC

This year, between 25 and 30 per cent of the festival's performers are women. The majority are locals, but the festival also booked 12 out-of-town musicians, eight of whom were men.

"A lot of the women we'd like to book internationally, we can't afford," Zahn said. "In Winnipeg, to book 50 per cent [women] would be going against our mandate. We'd have to book bar DJs or something," he added.

About 25 per cent of the performers at this year's MEMETIC festival will be women. (Luis Cardona)

Zahn said gender parity and diversity in booking is a priority and that booking artists of diverse backgrounds is in the festival's mandate.

He said the festival is always looking for emerging female artists to book, and the festival reserves 50 per cent of the spaces in its workshops for women.

This year, the festival received 374 submissions from artists. Of those, 58 "appeared to be women based on their name, biography and photo," Zahn said.

"Our priority would be to cater to and to grow the local scene for women rather than just booking 50 per cent women and then sacrificing our mandate musically," he said.

'People have to work a bit harder'

Getting a specific figure on the number of women making electronic music in the province is difficult.

Manitoba Music executive director Sean McManus said the organization has just started to collect more detailed metrics on its members, but the numbers still won't account for artists who aren't members of the organization.

"We've been looking at this just casually. I wouldn't say we've been doing an audit or tallying up percentages each year," he said.

Manitoba Music membership skews male across all genres but, McManus said, in some genres, "people have to work a bit harder" to book female artists, the classical and electronic genres included.

The electronic genre, in particular, seems to have an issue when it comes to women.

Last year, Thump looked at the female representation at 24 different electronic festivals and the results were dismal. 

The positive, though, was that the numbers were better compared to 2014.

That same trend is happening here in Manitoba, McManus said.

"If I look at our membership in electronic music, there's a really great and healthy collection of female artists there," he said. "In terms of artists coming up on the scene right now, there's no question we're getting to that point of parity."

McManus also pointed out that MEMETIC , and some other smaller festivals, are volunteer-run.

"Booking a festival is a really difficult task," he said. "They're also looking at budgets. They're looking at schedules. They're looking at who is out on the road. They're looking at what the different implications are in terms of the artists within the genres they're working with. They're looking at who has been in the market before."

'You're always going to be a groupie'

Joanne Pollock is sick of excuses. She wants women in the industry recognized, and once they're booked, to be treated the same way as their peers.

"You're either erased or you're minimized or you're treated like you're not the musician that you are, or you're treated like a singer. Your talents are not recognized. You're always erased. You're always going to be a groupie or whatever," she said.

"Sound guys can be awful, in that at our own shows, it's like, 'Oh yeah. I'll turn on your equipment for 30 seconds and that's your soundcheck, but I'll go way out of my way for these guys that don't know what they're doing.' That's happened multiple times."

Pollock runs do-it-yourself tech workshops for women in all genres every few months.

She's brought in four women in the industry to teach their peers how to use drum machines and synthesizers, and on June 8 will host a workshop on Ableton, a music production program.

"I think everyone can be intimidated by technology sometimes, but it seems like for women, there's a block because people expect that you can't do stuff or people want to do stuff for you, which I think comes from a good place but ultimately it means you don't learn as much," she said.

"I'm hopeful some of these people are interested in electronic music."

MEMETIC will also host workshops during the festival this August. The fest's full lineup announcement is expected on Monday.