The Benefits of Diverse Festival Line-ups

First published as an OP-ED for The Music, BIGSOUND edition, September 2018

Music festival experiences have shaped who I am and I know I am not alone. Festivals inform our social lives, provide a cultural education and opportunities for artists and the music industry to earn a quid occasionally.

Festival performances in front of thousands of people are game changing for an artist. Artist managers and booking agents know that a festival spot can consolidate years of expensive, self-financed touring. Being booked by a Woodford Folk Festival, Splendour in the Grass, Bluesfest or Laneway Festival at the right time can mean bigger venues on subsequent tours. Festivals are pathways and important cogs of the music ecosystem. In future years, an artist can return to a festival with higher billing, higher guaranteed fees and provide muscle for all important ticket sales. A long-term win-win.

Angie McMahon Splendour in the Grass 2018. Photo: Ian Laidlaw

The social, cultural and economic benefits of diversity in music festival programs far outweigh ALL resistance, excuses and cop outs for making change.

In his book Australia Reimagined Hugh Mackay asks “who’s afraid of diversity?” Scrolling through @lineupswithoutmales on Instagram, it appears that too often it is the programmers of music festivals. Aside from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples (who certainly did not choose colonisation) generations of new Australians continue to live and settle here.

I understand ‘diversity’ as the entire glorious spectrum of genders, sexualities, cultural backgrounds and those less able than others physically and mentally. An array of people worthy of celebration, participation and representation. Resisting diversity and clinging to the status quo of the past is no longer an option. If anything, those that do run a risk that will no longer outweigh the benefits.

Attitudes evolve in response to new experiences” HUGH MACKAY

The culture industries are reflecting an overdue correction of society’s colonial and patriarchal power structures, norms and values. Perhaps we are at a zeitgeist moment and the music industry — like it was with the ‘great digital disruption’ — are at the forefront of inevitable social change.

Attending, and for an artist performing at, a music festival is engaging in the social life of the country. Whether it is buying a ticket or offering a performance fee, I believe it is incumbent upon festival directors in both transactions to provide an experience that is safe, respectful, inclusive and diverse. A responsibility of their very citizenship and right to play in the sandpit.

A safe festival experience must be a non-negotiable. Important work for social change in this area is being undertaken by many: the education and resources provided by the feminist collective LISTEN; the leadership of Helen Marcou and the Victorian Sexual Assault Task Force; the independent research being undertaken by Dr Bianca Fileborn at UNSW and the formation of Your Choice; an industry supported campaign to reduce incidents of violence, discrimination and sexual assault at music events.

Research has shown that festival attendance creates a sense of community by bringing groups of people together with a common purpose and emerging with a connection (Gibson & Connell, 2003). An expansive attitude to social inclusion and diversity in festival programming will catch the impending tsunami of social change. Artists’, the music industry’s and audiences’ expectations and attitudes are evolving. A homogenous, dominant experience will no longer work. Neither will, what Grayson Perry calls the “Default Man” — white, middle aged men that look like traditional power. Without men embodying meaningful change they cannot capitalise on the soft power that gender equity and cultural diversity commands.

“Making money can be one thing. Building bridges can be the other one.”


It is the cultural impact of diverse festival programming I am most passionate about. Australian voices, songs and stories are important. In a cultural landscape increasingly dominated by global playlists and the ongoing resistance of commercial radio to play new Australian artists, music festivals provide space for audiences to be exposed to our culture and songs.

Traditions of First Nations peoples recognise the importance of maintaining culture. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples encode knowledge, traditions and culture within language, art, song and dance. Storytelling and songs are powerful knowledge systems. Songs can (re)tell history, express emotions and perspectives that are different to what we have known or heard before. If festivals exclude songs created by women, people of colour and those from diverse backgrounds the knowledges within those songs are not exposed to audiences, effectively silenced. Exposure to different perspectives and stories other than the dominant culture builds tolerance and understanding — as anyone in the audience for AB Original’s set at Splendour in the Grass 2017 would attest.

Money from ticket sales, sponsorship and government funding is unequivocally the measure of a music festival’s success. However, without economically resilient artists ALL other music businesses, that depend upon on their cultural production, are not sustainable. Accepting guaranteed performance fees for music festivals contributes to an artist’s fiscal viability. Those who get these opportunities gain, or retain, the resources. If the majority of a line-up is white male artists that is where the economic power is redistributed. When artists of colour and/or women are from overseas (a positive step toward cultural diversity) be mindful that the economic power of festivals is not being redistributed to help sustain the Australian music sector.

Line-up reveals are the first ‘bump’ a festival receives in ticket sales and audience interest. Festival marketing and PR can no longer solely control their message through advertising and mainstream media. There is an imperative to cultivate audience participation from the outset and socially networked audiences are powerful and are also the ticket buyers that sustain a festival.

The first line-up not only announces the artists but also broadcasts the festivals own brand and values — their truth. Author Rohit Bhargava presented at SXSW 2018 the trend of “Truthing”. He said “as a consequence of eroding trust in media and institutions, people are engaging in a personal quest for truth based direct observation and face-to-face interaction”. The truth sells. Announce a line-up incongruent with common human values of diversity, inclusion, respect and safety you will be criticised and held to account by a networked, demanding audience.

The time is over for being self-serving, defensive and hiding behind excuses. The time IS now for ALL the power brokers who program, book, pitch and negotiate Australian artists performances. Start the process, commit to action and get serious about including a ‘diversity rider’ in your artist contracts. Prioritize the creation of line-ups that will have far reaching social and cultural impact whilst delivering those all-important ticket sales.

This is the new normal. Start yesterday.


Australia Reimagined : Towards a More Compassionate and Less Anxious Society — Hugh Mackay (2018)

Non Obvious : How to Predict Trends and Win the Future — Rohit Bhargava (2018)

Sound Tracks : Popular Music, Identity and Place — John Connell and Chris Gibson (2002)

The Descent of Man — Grayson Perry (2016)

Positive Psychology and Music: The Power of Engagement at Music Festivals

Leanne de Souza is a highly-respected veteran of the Australian music industry with 25 years’ experience working in artist management and events. Currently the Executive Director of the Association of Artist Managers (AAM) and the the Curatorial Advisor (Music) for the Museum of Brisbane she is also the co-founder of the Rock and Roll Writers Festival. Leanne works and lives on the lands of the Jagera and Turrubul peoples and pays her respect to Elders past, present and future.



music, books, conversation, alchemy, feminism, justice ; in transition to a creative life > writer ; I live on unceded Turrbul country.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Leanne de Souza

music, books, conversation, alchemy, feminism, justice ; in transition to a creative life > writer ; I live on unceded Turrbul country.