Bye-bye harassment: Musicians take a stand for festival safety

Why We Wrote This

Harassment’s patterns are often detectible. When artists playing music festivals and their fans started to notice those patterns, they wondered: Will people listen if we try to prevent it? This year, Coachella did. 

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/File
Maria Jose Malo attends the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 12 in Indio, California. In response to reports of unwanted advances at last year’s festival, Coachella organizers have launched a new campaign against sexual harassment.

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When California-based music festival Coachella was called out last year by a reporter who experienced some two dozen unwanted advances, the rebuke sunk in. Organizers at this year’s event, which is underway, have prioritized a new approach to fight sexual harassment.

In recent years, several campaigns have sprung up to educate concertgoers, musicians, and venues on how to make shows safer for women. Founded by musicians and music fans, the campaigns include the U.K.-based Safe Gigs for Women, the Boston-based Calling All Crows, and the Chicago-based Our Music My Body. Something they have in common: They’re helmed by millennials who are tired of complacent attitudes toward what happens at shows once the lights go down.

Despite success stories like Coachella, leaders of these groups say they still face resistance from festivals and venues. This year, Calling All Crows will present its case to the annual Event Safety Alliance conference. “It’s a safety and security issue,” says executive director Kim Warnick. “Why do you have an active shooter protocol but no sexual assault protocol?”

After last year’s Coachella music festival, one story generated almost as many headlines as Beyoncé’s towering performance from atop a crane: A reporter for Teen Vogue detailed how she’d been groped 22 times. Fifty-four other women told her they’d been sexually harassed during the event in Indio, California, whose 250,000 attendance skews 54 percent female.

The annual festival, which recently kicked off the first of its two consecutive weekends, has responded by prioritizing a new campaign against sexual harassment. For thousands of female attendees – resplendent in daisy crowns, fedoras, and cat-ear headbands (a nod to headliner Ariana Grande) – it’s a welcome step.

Fortunately for Coachella’s parent company Goldenvoice, several organizations reached out to offer guidance. In recent years, several campaigns have sprung up to educate concertgoers, musicians, and venues on how to make shows safer for women. Founded by musicians and music fans, the campaigns include the U.K.-based Safe Gigs for Women, the Boston-based Calling All Crows, and the Chicago-based Our Music My Body. Something they have in common: They’re helmed by millennials who are tired of complacent attitudes toward what happens at shows once the lights go down.

“As more people share their story, less people are willing to ignore it or excuse it,” says Maggie Arthur, co-leader of Our Music My Body. “When I first told my mom about this campaign ... she was kind of surprised that we were taking the time because she was kind of like, ‘That’s been happening since forever.’ ”

First step: surveys

Most of the campaigns narrowly predate the #MeToo movement. As such, communicating their message often felt as effective as conducting a conversation next to a stack of amplifiers. In 2016, Ms. Arthur, an educator at Resilience, a rape crisis organization, partnered with Matt Walsh of Between Friends, a domestic violence agency. They begun cold-calling Chicago-area festivals to offer their expertise in crafting sexual harassment policies, educating festivalgoers about consent, and training staff in how to assist victims of assault and misconduct.

“The overwhelming response was, ‘Well, sure we could see that that’s happening, but it’s definitely not happening at our festival,’” says Ms. Arthur. Her response? “Let us just come and talk to people and see if that’s true.”

Our Music My Body launched a two-week online survey in 2017 in which 509 male, female, and LGBTQ participants anonymously reported 1,286 instances of groping, receiving unsolicited comments about their bodies, and being aggressively hit on. In Boston, a similar 2018 survey by Calling All Crows reported 1,006 incidents of harassment or assault by 686 respondents. The organizations note that the unscientific surveys may be flawed, yet they yielded powerful anecdotal evidence to present to recalcitrant music venues.

Amy Harris/Invision/AP/File
Yungblud performs with Kayzo at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on Friday, April 12, in Indio, California.

Sadie Dupuis, singer and songwriter of the popular indie rock band Speedy Ortiz, has firsthand experience of harassment in a music culture that, she says, is “built upon alcohol sales and consumption.” She was in a crowd at a festival they’d played at when a stranger started harassing her, touching her, and not taking no for an answer. Onlookers failed to intervene when the situation escalated. Her status as a festival performer allowed her to flee to a backstage area policed by security.

“That experience made me think that we as performers – we have certain privileges and certain types of access that showgoers don’t have,” says Ms. Dupuis, who cranked up her Stratocaster against sexual harassers on last year’s pop-punk #MeToo anthem “Villain.” “So that’s why we set up a hotline that people can text if they are experiencing harassment. And in such a case we’re able to get someone from the venue on board to help out, or to bring the person backstage or to bring them out of harm’s way.”

During its 2015 tour, Speedy Ortiz also handed out flyers to educate fans about bystander intervention and de-escalation tactics in cases of sexual misconduct.

That same year, music fan Tracey Wise founded Safe Gigs for Women. The catalyst was a Manic Street Preachers show during which a fan lunged out, placed both arms around her, and pulled her into him. “It’s the last song,” was his feeble excuse.

Two game-changers

At the time, such efforts were novel. But, since then, there have been two game-changing moments for anti-harassment campaigns. The first one was the emergence of the #MeToo movement in 2017. Ms. Dupuis observes that she wasn’t the only artist writing songs about sexual consent shortly before the #MeToo movement took off. There was a collective shift in thought.

“It’s the same reason that any movement comes to a head: A lot of people have nearly identical experiences and are sick of putting up with it and are sick of a culture that puts up with it,” she says.

The second game-changer arrived a year ago.

“The biggest thing that I saw have an effect in the music industry was the Teen Vogue article on Coachella last year. Hands down,” says Kim Warnick, executive director of Calling All Crows, a music nonprofit focused on social activism founded by tour manager Sybil Gallagher and Chad Stokes of the band Dispatch. “Festivals after that article came out were much more willing to work with us. Goldenvoice responded to us immediately when we reached out.”

Ahead of this year’s Coachella, Goldenvoice also consulted with Our Music My Body (which now works with festivals such as Lollapalooza). Goldenvoice hired Veline Mojarro, a workplace sexual harassment expert, to spearhead its new “every one” initiative. It also tapped Woman, a Los Angeles consulting agency run by women whose Soteria program (named after the Greek goddess of safety) was deployed at the 2018 FORM festival in Arizona.

For every such win, Ms. Warnick still faces resistance from numerous festivals and venues. This year, Calling All Crows will present its case to the annual Event Safety Alliance (ESA) conference in November. Her pitch?  

“It’s a safety and security issue,” says Ms. Warnick. “Why do you have an active shooter protocol but no sexual assault protocol?”

Steven Adelman, vice president of ESA, says the issue has hit home now that his 14-year-old daughter has started going to concerts, including those of Taylor Swift and Ms. Grande.  

“The only way you can address a real problem is by shining a light on it,” says Mr. Adelman. “We’re working to fix it well because we do want people to go to shows and feel safe and leave with fond memories, T-shirts, and plans to go back next year.”

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