This year’s edition of the Newport Folk Festival, which ran July 26-29, was a sold-out affair per usual. Its lineup, stacked high with talented female artists, made waves in the press: Rolling Stone called it “one of its most diverse [lineups] in recent memory and the most gender-balanced ever.”
Most press attention focused on Saturday night’s headlining set, billed simply (and mysteriously) as “♀♀♀♀: The Collaboration.” True to its name, that performance turned out to be an all-female, all-star bash organized by Brandi Carlile, topped off by a special guest appearance by none other than Dolly Parton. But was this year’s festival actually its most gender-balanced ever? The answer is more complicated than yes or no, and hinges on the way diversity has been baked into the festival’s programming since it began.
Newport Folk’s only rule: “Consider everybody”
Newport Folk Festival was founded in 1959 by George Wein — who, by launching Newport Folk, arguably minted the phenomenon of the “music festival” itself. When Wein hired Sweet to curate the festival in 2008, Sweet remembers him offering some advice. “George said: ‘We’re going to give you the leash, and there’s only one set of rules. Consider everybody.’”
By that, recounts Sweet, Wein meant to consider artists irrespective of race, gender, sexuality, creed, and sometimes even genre: “Wein booked things like Mississippi John Hurt to Judy Collins to Janis Joplin,” he adds. “The lineups we book reflect exactly the way we feel, which artists we think are important,” says Sweet.
“If you look at our very first lineups, we featured artists of all different kinds, including many women,” says Sweet. (The numbers check out: Newport Folk’s inaugural lineup in 1959 featured 6 female artists out of 20 — 30%, better than many festivals in 2019.) “We’ve always been ahead of the ‘industry average,’ whatever that really means.”
“We’ve always been a safe space for artists to do what they want”
“There was this idea, which Brandi [Carlile] deserves enormous credit for, that Newport Folk has always been on the right side of history,” Sweet says. “We’ve always prided ourselves on being a safe space for artists to do what they want. And because Brandi felt that Newport has always been doing the right thing, she chose to do this collaboration at our festival to bolster the reputation we’ve always had — for those who know,” he says.
It was the festival’s first all-female collaborative set. “Our only conscious decision was to support Brandi in her vision. We didn’t make a conscious decision to make the Newport lineup gender balanced. But Brandi knew that by doing this kind of performance at Newport, it would get a lot of attention.” And so it did, particularly Dolly Parton’s surprise appearance, which not even Carlile knew was a sure thing until just before it took place.
Female headliners need “opportunity and support”
Sweet recognizes that Newport Folk Festival is in a unique position. “We can put what we believe in at any slot in the festival,” he says. But on the larger topic of gender-balanced lineups at festivals and elsewhere, Sweet sees “the tail wagging the dog.” “Promoters are in the business of making money, and their thinking goes: ‘Bands that are predominantly male-dominated sell more tickets than female headliners,’” he says. “So they shy away from booking them, which perpetuates the myth.”
This phenomenon, of course, is hardly limited to music. A recent Freakonomics podcast explores gender pay disparity in Hollywood, and explains how “belief-based discrimination” can lead to employers or evaluators (e.g., venue or festival talent buyers, in a musical context) believing incorrectly that performance disparities exist between two groups of people — men and women, for example.
Promoters not satisfied with the status quo should go one step further, Sweet says. “You can make any artist a headliner — you just need to give them the opportunity and support them.” That means taking risks, taking chances, not always taking the safe route, and booking the artists you believe in.
In the end, although Sweet believes the music press missed the complete narrative behind Carlile’s performance, he’s glad for the way it all turned out. “It resulted in positive press not just for the festival, but for women in headlining roles,” he says. “I hope it’ll make other people look at their own lineups, and think consciously about the role we all play in changing the landscape.”
Header photo of Dolly Parton and Brandi Carlile performing at Newport Folk Festival 2019 by Nina Westervelt.