For musician Tara MacLean, performing on the roster of the all-women Lilith Fair music festival in 1997 was a transformative experience.
“It was epic, especially for a new, up-and-coming singer-songwriter,” MacLean said. “It was very inspiring.”
MacLean had played at music festivals before, “but it felt like this one was a mission.”
The first Lilith Fair festival and tour closed in Vancouver 20 years ago this week. It was created and lead by Canadian icon Sarah McLachlan in response to what many called a male-dominated industry.
Feminist critics at the time noted the dearth of female musicians at the top of the lineup at festivals like Lollapalooza which, that same year, didn’t feature any women or female-led bands as headliners.
They also complained about the standard practice at many mainstream radio stations of not playing two female musicians back-to-back because, it was said, it would put off listeners.
Two decades later, some say a Lilith-like festival would still be successful and remains needed today.
Critics say female performers still face challenges their male colleagues don’t — albeit in an industry vastly changed with the shift towards online streaming.
‘We were really singing together’
For musicians like MacLean, a large part of what made Lilith a different experience was its collaborative nature.
Prior to each show, performers would gather together for a media conference and to give a cheque to a local women’s shelter. At the end of each night, they would all gather on stage together for a finale.
“It didn’t feel like we were just singing for ourselves, it felt like we were really singing together,” she said.
“Sarah [McLachlan] really lead the way on that and really created this incredible [environment] that was really nourishing for us all. It was great.”
More than a marketing trend
Arts reporters and magazines at the time often pinned the festival’s success to a sudden explosion of successful female artists. But music and pop culture critics like Andrea Warner disagree with that idea.
“It’s such a male-dominated industry, women get treated as a marketing trend,” Warner said.
Musicians like McLachlan, Tracy Chapman and Alanis Morisette came to prominence in the years leading up to Lilith. But Warner says women have long seen success in the music industry.
From jazz to punk to the riot grrrls of the ’90s, women have topped the charts in many genres.
Essayist Connie Kuhns, who produced and hosted an all-women music show on Vancouver’s co-op radio, says women in music are all too often treated as a novelty instead as the main part of the industry.
“I think that people don’t pay attention,” Kuhns said.
History of women’s festivals
Kuhns also points out that Lilith wasn’t even the first women’s music festival in North America.
“Lilith was written about over and over and over as being the very first of its kind, which is often what happens when women do anything,” Kuhns said.
All-women music festivals first began in the ’70s, according to Kuhns, including in the Kootenays in 1974 and at Simon Fraser University shortly thereafter.
The Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival ran for 40 years, until 2015.
McLachlan attempted to revive Lilith Fair festival in 2010, but many of the performances across North America were moved to smaller venues because of low ticket sales.
Still, Kuhns and Warner say that doesn’t signify there isn’t a need for a Lilith Fair today.
“We still have these conversations around ‘women in music’ … We’re still highlighting it as not the norm,” Warner said.
“I think [a women-only festival] has to be seen as that radical act that, yeah, we still need unfortunately in 2017.”
According to Women in Music Canada, women in the industry get paid 27 per cent less than the average annual salary.
Samantha Slattery, the organization’s chair and founder, says one of the biggest issues is a lack of women in important behind-the-scenes jobs such as producers, sound technicians and concert promoters — an issue the organization is trying to resolve.
But Tara MacLean, who recently revived her musical career after a nine-year pause to raise three daughters, thinks the shift towards online streaming has usurped the challenges of being a woman in the industry.
“It’s a very different world,” she said. “We used to be kings and now we’re beggars.”
However, she says there are still gender-based battles she continues to face.
“I think there’s always work for women to do,” she said.