We Make Waves festival : Challenging gender inequality in music

A festival in Berlin brings together women, trans and non-binary music professionals to support diversity in the industry.

Industry professionals at a discussion on sexism at We Make Waves festival and conference.
Industry professionals at a discussion on sexism at We Make Waves festival and conference.Foto: Naomi Larsson

American musician and activist JD Samson has often spoken openly about her anxieties of being tokenised as a woman and genderqueer artist in an unequal industry. In the keynote speech for We Make Waves, Berlin’s new festival and conference supporting women, trans and non-binary people in music, Samson sensitively articulated a fear that many minorities and women experience at some point - that of deep-rooted imposter syndrome, and the feeling that you're not good enough.

Tokenism, which fuels the feeling of self-doubt, is widespread in the music industry because it is dominated by white, cisgendered men. It’s still unusual to see more than a handful of women on a lineup, so female artists continue to be treated as a genre and many are simply overlooked. The numbers clearly expose this imbalance: in the UK, for example, 80% of headline spots in this summer's festivals taken by all-male artists; and an analysis of a country-wide gig listings site suggests more than two thirds of acts performing on a given night are made up of all-male groups.

Artist JD Samson at We Make Waves.
Artist JD Samson at We Make Waves.Foto: Naomi Larsson

From music shops to the executive positions at record labels, women, trans and non-binary people are hugely underrepresented across the world. It’s so deeply ingrained that booking agencies have been known to excuse the uniform lineups by saying that there simply aren’t as many good female artists, or that putting women at the top of the festival bills means tickets won’t sell as well.

A breeding ground for sexism

This blinkered vision means that we’re all missing out on uncovering new talent and creativity. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of alienation: if you don’t see yourself represented on stages, you don’t think it’s worth trying to get there. Worse, this underrepresentation of women, trans and non-binary people creates a breeding ground for sexism and the abuse of power.

Like others, the music industry has been forced to confront problems of sexual assault and harassment (from the recent allegations of rape against electronic music producer The Gaslamp Killer to Ethan Kath of Crystal Castles who was accused of assault by his former bandmate Alice Glass, for example).

The strength of the victims to speak out and the growing intolerance for abuse is a positive step, but the current power dynamic must change if we really want to create a safer and more equal environment for people.

Creating a movement for change

Progress comes in the form of events like We Make Waves. The three women who set up the festival - Melissa Perales, Caoimhe McAlister and Mirca Lotz - did so to address the music industry’s glaring inequality. Through panel discussions and music workshops they created a space to talk openly about challenging the male-dominated system, with the hope that it will become an international movement for change.

The lineup proved that it is possible to fill a bill with only good female, trans and non-binary musicians. These artists have been overlooked for far too long - and we certainly shouldn't rely on tokenism to showcase them anymore.