Breeality Bites

Treefort Proves It's Possible for Music Festivals to Be Gender Inclusive

Booking bands and musical acts with women/non-binary/genderqueer/trans folx in them seems like an abstract concept for most festival organizers. I say this because every year like clockwork, as major fest lineups are announced, there is a continually — and at this point what seems like intentionally — devastating lack of diversity when to comes to gender inclusion. (See this visual gender breakdown of last year's Governor's Ball, Lollapalooza, Bonnaroo, etc. lineups if you don't believe me.) As far as the majority of big music festivals go, there just aren't women/non-binary/genderqueer/trans folx represented. It's like we don't exist. 

But we do exist — and Treefort Music Fest in Boise has known this from the get-go. I've been traveling to the festival for four of the five years it has been around and have been consistently pleased with how many of the hundreds of acts that play are not all cis-dude outfits. In fact, of the more than two dozen sets I managed to catch over three of the five days of Treefort 2016, just two of those acts were made up of all cis-male members. One of those dude-centric acts was hometown homeboy Pictureplane, a solo performer whose decade-plus-long career as an artist has often been about creating art that is a comment on gender fluidity and identity. From Main Stage acts like YACHT, Deep Sea Diver, Chairlift, La Luz, Radiation City and Y La Bamba to smaller venue acts like All Dogs, La Misa Negra, SISTERS, Bitch'n, Sister Crayon, Woozy, The Still Tide, JAWWZZ!! and Dude York, folx across the spectrum of humanity were present and represented at Treefort. Even when I didn't particularly set out to catch a band of not-all-men, I still was able to discover countless musical acts at this inclusive festival that were new and wonderful to me. To say this is rare for a music festival is an understatement; Treefort's level of unabashed gender inclusion is virtually unheard of on the current big-festival landscape. 

So, like, what's the big deal if music at music festivals is made by women/non-binary/genderqueer/trans folx? Isn't all music created equal? Beyond the presumed gender/identity of a singer's voice, why else does it matter if the music we enjoy is made by not just cis-men? As a music fan, consumer and critic, I've always looked for art created by people often considered outside the mainstream. Even before I knew that this was the kind of music I was looking for, I was finding it. My first musical love, at the age of five, was Cyndi Lauper; as a teen, I went on to idolize Janet Jackson, Courtney Love, RuPaul, Freddie Mercury and Kim Deal. Many of these people made and make music that was/is considered mainstream — but who they were and how they presented themselves to the world was not always accepted as mainstream, and that is important.

As an adult, I sought out other people — often women — to play music with. My first functioning band, The Hot House, was all women. I co-founded Titwrench, an experimental music festival focusing on booking underrepresented musicians who are often pushed out of more "traditional" music scenes because of who they are as people. I like music made by all kinds of people — but I am especially attracted to art created by those who aren't given all the space to exist within the suffocating confines of modern music history.
What other major music festivals seem to miss but Treefort nails on the head is this representation. Treefort looks at the ever-growing landscape of festival lineups and sees what so many of us can only hope festival organizers would see: us. People who want more than just your run-of-the-mill, mostly dude, mostly rock-oriented, mostly historically recognized bands on a bill. Even festivals and package tours focusing on nostalgia or the now-ubiquitous "album in its entirety" tour (see: Korn, Pennywise, The Misfits, The Ataris, even, uh, Hawthorne Heights, for nostalgia tours of just the last twelve months) are groups of cis-men. We — the women/non-binary/genderqueer/trans folx — are seeing the artists we adore and the people like us ignored. It's not that we don't also like many of these cis-male-dominated bands in a cis-male-dominated industry; it's just that well, damn. It's 2016. It's our time. Speaking of our time, in 2017, can I get a Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Sweet Sixteenth Anniversary Tour of its 2001 self-titled EP if we're still doing this album-reminiscing shit?

But really, beyond not falling for booking on the sentimentality for a simpler time, when cis-men ruled the musical landscape, Treefort does an excellent job of focusing on the present. It's an inclusive festival that gives the needed space and stage time to hundreds of up-and-coming acts from across the world. (I am still in awe that I was able to see Tel Aviv's Tamar Aphek and The Roaring 420s from Dresden play in Boise fucking Idaho.) It's one thing to get to hear music by a wide variety of people on the Internet somewhere; it's another thing to actually be able to see these acts perform in real life. That's the point of the festivals, right? Live music is what matters. 

Holy fuck @summercannibals forever shred so hard! #treefort2016

A video posted by Bree Davies (@cocodavies) on

Seeing a band like Summer Cannibals (who I was lucky enough to catch twice at Treefort) is nothing like listening to the act's records. Being able to witness guitarist and bandleader Jessica Boudreaux play live made my heart explode. The way she plays makes me want to play music. Seeing her reminded me going to see Hole play at Mammoth Gardens when I was a teen; after witnessing a human who looked of like me play music on a stage, I knew I could do it, too. I have no doubt that of the thousands of present-day teens who have gone to a Summer Cannibals show, more than a handful were inspired to play guitar because they saw Jessica Boudreaux fucking shred. 

That's what live shows have always been about to me: empowerment.  More than just enjoying artists I love performing great music live, it's about knowing that anything is possible. Anyone can get up in front of people and make art, but sometimes it takes seeing someone else do it for you to have the courage to do it yourself. Art itself can be inclusive by nature; that's why art motivates and inspires the making of more art. Artists — especially musicians — are often asked what their influences are and who inspires them. It's the live settings of concerts and festivals that can set future rock stars in motion. When a festival like Treefort gives fans a chance to get close and get to know acts that they love or maybe don't even know they love yet, that festival becomes a part of the larger ecosystem of art. I get that money is the end goal for most festivals; they are expensive to produce, and music is, like anything, a business. But the music business without the music is nothing, and it has to start somewhere. 
Another bonus to Treefort's festival inclusivity is the atmosphere of personal safety. This isn't about beefed-up security at shows; in fact, at Treefort, I don't remember seeing more than a few security-types posted at venue entrances and milling about the main stage. I'm talking about the atmosphere in general. So often we see reports of sexual assault and physical violence occurring in plain sight at large festivals ("There's a Rape Problem at Music Festivals and Nobody Seems to Care" published by Broadly in 2015, covers some of this not-talked-about-enough topic). I'm not saying violence is ever 100 percent eliminated, but at Treefort, the fact that women/non-binary/genderqueer/trans folx are everywhere — from performers to door people to guitar techs to vendors — makes us as fans and ticket-holders feel welcome. It's hard to measure the financial returns of your concert-goers feeling safe, but it is an invaluable facet of a truly successful music festival. It makes people want to come back. 

A female friend recently posed this question on Facebook: Why do we have to make it known that an event or show or festival is "exclusively women-centered or LGBTQ-friendly" in order to be inclusive? Why can't a festival or show or event just be and that become the start of really making equity in the music mainstream? In the future, maybe we can just assume that all events are all-people friendly. Treefort is a great example of this beginning — it doesn't come out and say, "Hey! We are a music festival and we book women/non-binary/genderqueer/trans folx!" It just books them. 

It is imperative that we see ourselves in the artists we admire. Treefort, thank you for showing other music festivals that booking us matters. Every other major music fest with a diversity "problem," take note: Booking women/non-binary/genderqueer/trans folx matters. You increase your audience when you give fans a chance and a space to see people who look like them — and who mirror their experiences — make music in public. So get out there and find us and book us already. We exist. 

Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bree Davies is a multimedia journalist, artist advocate and community organizer born and raised in Denver. Rooted in the world of Do-It-Yourself arts and music, Davies co-founded Titwrench experimental music festival, is host of the local music and comedy show Sounds on 29th on CPT12 Colorado Public Television and is creator and host of the civic and social issue-focused podcast, Hello? Denver? Are You Still There? Her work is centered on a passionate advocacy for all ages, accessible, inclusive, non-commercial and autonomous DIY art spaces and music venues in Denver.
Contact: Bree Davies