Abbey Carbonneau was staring at the lineup poster for the Firefly Music Festival back in 2018 when she noticed something that pissed her off: of the first 23 artists named on the poster of the seven-stage, three-day Delaware festival, only one was a woman.
Carbonneau, a Massachusetts native, sat down at her computer determined to call out the imbalance. With a little effort, she redacted the names of the all-male acts from the poster — and without all those young dudes, the lineup suddenly looked mostly blank. She saved the poster, opened Instagram, and shared it from a new account she called Book More Women, tagging Firefly.
“I saw a problem that is way bigger than I am, but I used what I had — social media, basic photo editing skills, and a little anger — to attempt to start a conversation about it. It felt like a tiny push of a big, complicated, frustrating rock, but maybe that’s all it takes sometimes to get things moving,” Carbonneau tells Rolling Stone.
As of 2022, Carbonneau has posted more than 400 different doctored festival posters to Book More Women, blacking out any act that does not include at least one woman or non-binary musician as a permanent member. Many of the posters have gone viral for their striking visual representation of how few of these acts are booked on festival stages. In the process, Book More Women has amassed a passionate online following, including artists like Brandi Carlile, Margo Price, and Lucius, who have praised the account for bringing attention to the issue. Carlile was even inspired to launch her own all-women festival, Girls Just Wanna Weekend, now in its fourth year.
Still, while online movements for social equity like Book More Women have gained steam, social media activism has also been criticized for breeding “slacktivism” — where support for a cause is signaled by likes and retweets but not through meaningful action. And social-media shaming to hold an individual or organization accountable has been hotly debated for its tendency to ostracize, rather than reform.
So, with the 2023 festival season approaching, what impact has Book More Women made when it comes to gender equity on stages, and has that impact gone beyond mere retweets and putting men on the defensive?
In asking music festival promoters and talent buyers to answer that question, there was context that they wanted music fans to understand off the top: Booking a festival is less like grocery shopping, and more like putting together a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.
To achieve their ideal lineup, promoters contend that a festival has to occur at a time that’s workable for the first-pick performers, particularly for headliners that are unlikely to put their entire production together for a single event in their off-season. Additionally, a festival has to have the budget to pay the performer and needs to reach an agreement with the artist on festival poster and stage placements, among other considerations.
“I think that’s the number one misconception — that you can pick whoever you want to pick,” Huston Powell, a promoter at C3 Events who books Lollapalooza as part of his role, says. “It’s a tangled web all the way through to get the lineup where you want to get it.”
Because the pool of available talent is often a “sausage fest,” bookers lament how tough it can be to find women and non-binary artists with platforms large enough to drive ticket sales, particularly in genres like electronic music.
“Unfortunately, and I don’t know why the barrier of entry is like this, but…there seems to be a bigger pool of talent of male-fronted acts than female,” says Michael Berg, who books the 20,000-capacity multi-genre Suwannee Hulaween festival in Live Oak, Florida, along with a few other mid-sized festivals.
This speaks to how music festivals are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women and non-binary representation in the industry. In fact, the industry often drives out underrepresented artists long before they make it to the festival level. According to folk singer Maya Elise, who has yet to play many festivals, misogyny, both subtle and overt, from bookers, sound engineers, and male audience members is commonplace at her gigs. “You just get him over and over again,” she says. “Some guy [who comes] up after a show like, ‘Hey, that was a lot better than I thought it was going to be.’”
At the same time, women and non-binary artists are out there in search of festival slots, and by affording them opportunities to perform, festivals can help lower the barrier of entry and improve their experience in the industry. Which is why Book More Women remains committed to highlighting booking blind spots as a way to bring diversity and inclusion to festivals. The industry is taking notice.
“It wasn’t that there was no awareness, I just don’t think we were really keeping a tally on it,” Stephanie Mezzano, a promoter with AEG and founder/director of Firefly Music Festival, says. When Mezzano first saw how few women acts were on their 2018 poster via Book More Women’s call-out, she was surprised, particularly because she says she considers Firefly to be a diverse event.
“We thought we’re obviously booking artists that fit our genre and fit our festival in our hopes that they would sell tickets, [but] I think for her to put our poster out there the way she did really made it clear that there was a lack of representation,” Mezzano says.
Powell, who says he’s long strived to make Lollapalooza’s lineup diverse, found the breakdown of the festival’s 2018 lineup on Book More Women illuminating.
“Sometimes you think you’re hitting all your diversity…goals, but you might not be,” he says. “I never really thought about what the actual end number was on a given show and I think that Book More Women was kind of a reality check.”
To stave off “slacktivism,” Book More Women’s annual public tracking of lineups has attempted to keep festivals on the hook in improving upon the previous year’s percentage — as has the public pressure that comes with sharing the posters on social media.
In 2019, when New York’s Governors Ball Festival announced its lineup, Carbonneau analyzed their poster and underlined their improvement in booking women and non-binary artists compared to the previous year. She also offered a challenge, commenting, “Better! 50% next year, @govballny?,” to which Jordan Wolowitz, the booker of the festival, replied “Deal!” Carbonneau responded with thanks and encouragement, adding that, “Whether or not you hit 50%, just knowing you are taking this into consideration is huge.”
Gov Ball declined to speak with Rolling Stone for this story, but the numbers of women and non-binary acts booked at the 2020 and 2021 festivals did improve based on Book More Women’s tally, to 42% and 40% respectively. When their numbers went down again for the 2022 lineup, Book More Women posted a multi-year progress report. This year, Lizzo headlines the first night of Gov Ball, with Haim, Aespa, Snail Mail, and new Grammy winner Kim Petras also on the bill.
“My first impression of Book More Women was ‘Finally, accountability!’” says United Talent Agency agent Mary Allen, who represents women artists like CloZee and KITTENS in electronic music, one of the most male-dominated genres. “This visual representation of the gender disparity on lineups highlights the issue in a way that we hadn’t seen before. They are providing our industry, and the public, with a tool to reference and call out gender discrepancies with just a glance.”
But Book More Women’s call-outs are less about inspiring a boycott of a festival that doesn’t have 50% representation, and more about encouraging the industry to understand the problem and improve.
“[Book More Women] doesn’t feel like a cancel campaign, they’re doing it in a way that’s like, almost joyful, [by also] posting about festivals that are doing well. It’s not punishment-focused,” says M’Gilvry Allen, a musician living in El Cerrito, California, who follows Book More Women on Instagram.
This gentler approach to accountability has been successful in reforming how some gatekeepers in the festival industry go about conducting business. In 2018, when a Book More Women analysis revealed that Suwannee Hulaween had only booked 27% women or non-binary acts, Berg, a partner and talent buyer at Collectiv Presents who produces the festival, said his first response was to “go on the defensive.”
“The thing that was frustrating to me at first about the analyzation of the percentages is like…all people see is the final result,” Berg says. “You see comments that are like, ‘Oh, they should do better,’ and it’s like, well, ‘We actually tried to do better and a bunch of people weren’t available and we had to move on to the next option.’”
Berg DM’ed Carbonneau to talk it through, which led to an ongoing and constructive conversation between the two about improving festival diversity. Those conversations led Berg to step even more into “his allyship,” as he puts it.
In 2019, Suwannee Hulaween’s percentages improved and another festival produced by Berg, Sacred Rose 2022, contained 41% women and non-binary artists. Berg also worked last year with house music artist LP Giobbi to dedicate a full day at one of Suwannee Hulaween’s stages to up-and-coming women in dance music.
In the three years that Book More Women has tracked eight of the largest multi-genre festivals in the U.S. — Lollapalooza, Firefly, BottleRock, Governors Ball, Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, Life Is Beautiful, and Austin City Limits Music Festival — the collective percentage of women and non-binary acts booked has increased from 27.1% in 2018 to 39.8% in 2022, according to a Book More Women progress report.
Firefly and Lollapalooza in particular have improved their percentage of underrepresented acts booked: Firefly, from 20% in 2018 to 43.2% in 2022, and Lollapalooza, from 20.9% in 2018 to 41.3% in 2022, according to a breakdown provided by Carbonneau.
Ahead of this year’s festival season, Rolling Stone looked at three major festival lineups, calculating the percentage of women and non-binary artists as Carbonneau does and comparing that percentage to Book More Women’s calculations of the festivals’ previous lineups. Boston Calling significantly increased its number of bookings bands including at least one woman or non-binary performer from 35% in 2022 to over 50% in 2023, and is featuring several women headliners this year, like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Alanis Morissette, and Paramore. Bonnaroo’s percentage also improved by a few points, though all three 2023 headliners, like Foo Fighters and Kendrick Lamar, are male acts. By contrast, Coachella’s percentage dropped a couple points compared to last year. (The 2023 lineup is notable however for marking the first time that none of the headliners are white artists.)
Four years since beginning her impromptu photo-editing project, Carbonneau is floored by how Book More Women has grown to have such a large impact — even as she acknowledges there is more work to be done. Per a recent post-pandemic festival report from Viberate, of the top 500 music festivals, “female and mixed acts” still only make up approximately one quarter of the 100 most booked artists — and non-binary acts weren’t even quantified.
A professional chemistry lab tech by day, Carbonneau has taken breaks from Book More Women in the last two years, but says she has every intention of keeping it going and helping to guide the industry in the right direction.
“If every festival on the planet had 50/50 [representation] next year, everything’s not going to be solved,” Carbonneau says. “I just think making more steps toward equality can never be a bad thing.”