Take a quick glance at music festivals, and you’ll see that most of them are about having a good time, connecting with the music, and the people around you. Music has the power to bring people together, and festivals, as public spaces, hold the potential to facilitate these intercultural interactions, shape mutual understanding, and foster tolerance. That’s what festivals are meant to be about after all, creating a sense of musical community. 

However, how does this sense of community manifest itself? Whose community are we actually talking about? And how might these relationships be gendered? 

Well, first, festivals seem to be predominantly white, middle-class, and non-disabled, whether you look at the audiences or the artists. For example, at popular festivals like Glastonbury, you’ll notice a lack of diversity in the audience with very few black or brown faces. People of colour usually avoid camping at festivals due to concerns about standing out and facing unwelcoming attitudes. Marginalised communities are trying to address this by creating initiatives and outdoor groups run by BIPOC to encourage diversity. While some big festivals try to fix this by featuring famous black artists, a new problem arises: it may hide deeper social issues. On stage, they seem to embrace diversity with famous black artists as headliners, but the audience tells a different story by continuing to be largely white, thereby, revealing a disparity in representation. Thus, while music lineups might increase in diversity, concerns arise about cultural appropriation and discomfort, especially when certain hip-hop acts are performed to majority-white audiences for instance. This might lead white audiences to feel free in abandoning decorum and participate in blackness (read: singing along and using the n-word), reflecting indifference and apathy to the very culture welcoming them in. 

This is not to say things aren’t changing. Electronic music festival stages, for instance, are seeing a gradual increase in women and non-binary performers. However, they still make up just a bit over a quarter of all artists, and most DJs are mostly white. This imbalance is more pronounced in larger festivals, where very few women and non-binary artists hold headlining positions. This lack of representation extends to influencing how festivals are run. To address this, one solution could be to have an inclusivity rider in booking contracts, a form of quota requiring at least one woman, transgender, non-binary person, or a person of colour to be part of the lineup. Implementing such riders could accelerate positive change, fostering more diversity in lineups and, consequently, in audiences, as ticket sales tend to reflect the diversity of performers. Flowing from these initiatives, new festivals are emerging that are driven by cultural production and aimed at authentic inclusion with diverse production teams and lineups. Festivals such as Camp Flog Gnaw by Tyler, the Creator, Nyansapo focusing on Afro-centric intersectionality, and events like Milkshake Festival, Treefort Music Fest, and the recent HER festival are taking a more progressive stance on diversity. This is because they involve people from minoritised groups not only in performances but also behind the scenes, demonstrating that festivals can, in fact, be inclusive.

Mirroring societal power dynamics, festivals can expose certain groups of individuals to more risks of sexual and gender-based violence, such as harassment and unwanted advances. To address this, they may engage in surveillance or security-related policies, such as hiring security guards or making some places exclusive. However, while this might make people feel safer, it could also unintentionally support the problematic behaviour it aims to prevent. For example, some festivals that tried to address safety concerns ended up excluding transgender women, leading to backlash and boycotts, like what happened with the Michigan Womyn’s Festival. More generally, for people and communities who historically have been targeted or persecuted, this might make them feel especially unsafe in a space that is designed to do the opposite. 

Finally, another aspect to think about is accessibility. For persons with disabilities (PWDs), festivals can be inaccessible in various ways, including sound, lighting, stairs, and standing-only venues. Individuals on the autism spectrum or other neurodivergent individuals also experience sensory overloads. Physical inaccessibility, especially regarding wheelchair access and inadequate focus on venue and site design features, remains a significant issue. 

Even getting tickets can be hard because accessibility tickets are often not available early in pre-sale and have to be rushed during public on-sale. PWDs also worry that festival staff might not know enough about different disabilities and how to help. That’s why having sign language interpreters at festivals, (remember WAP at Lollapalooza, 2021?) is a good move toward being more inclusive.

The call for diversity and inclusion is increasing, and it’s exciting to see festivals like Melt!, AFROPUNK, and Ladyfest (to name a few) stepping up in response to this. They’re not just bringing great music but also offering enhanced security, accessibility, and implementing anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies. As these conversations and efforts grow, the hope is that music festivals evolve into the welcoming and safe community spaces they’re meant to be for everyone to enjoy.