A startling lack of diversity — in both the acts and, by extension, the attendees — is one cause for concern.
St. Louis loves to complain. We're also passionate about our city. Mix up this cocktail and we'll drop our customary Midwest politeness: You'll hear enthusiastic speeches about every regional issue from the opening of a new IKEA to a possible new football stadium.
There are many things that divide this town, but most complaints are dropped if the matter in question has been shown to benefit the residents. Arguments are often ended with a conciliatory, good-natured, “Whatever. If it's good for the city I guess it's fine.”
But LouFest has been met with outright ire since the annual music festival began six years ago. Seasoned festival-goers whine that it's too small. Those of us accustomed to smaller concerts whine that it's too big. And each year the lineup is met with cries of “LameFest” or “more like PooFest.” Every single year there is an avalanche of criticism for this music festival, even if it does bring in money and is “good for the city.”
Why? I'm not sure, but I have a theory. I think that we're all quick to whine about LouFest simply because of the actual name of the festival.
Most other major music festivals don't have a tight association with the cities in which they are held. For example, while we all know that while Lollapalooza is now held in Chicago, it doesn't necessarily represent Chicago. It could be held anywhere or moved to any other city without losing its identity. But with a name like LouFest, it's implied that this festival somehow represents St. Louis.
This is why we all get bitchy. That "Lou" gives us assumed ownership, and therefore a free pass for complaining rights. And when I look at the LouFest lineup, it doesn't at all represent the St. Louis that I know. So just like everyone else, I start complaining, too.
Pokey LaFarge, one of three St. Louis-based acts that performed at this year's fest.
I interviewed LouFest founder Brian Cohen and executive producer Charlie Jones a couple of years ago and they really won me over. I asked nothing but hard questions and I was impressed with their answers. To be blunt, I expected them to be annoyed at my insistence that the festival didn't include enough local acts in decent time slots. They countered my questions with a list of all of the regional considerations they'd included, like making a point of booking a couple of local bands each year and renting space to St. Louis merchants. They also stressed that they didn't have to include any local flavor at all. True. Very true. Can't argue with that.
I've been to LouFest on three different occasions to see three different bands. One time was to see Dinosaur Jr (on a side-stage at a criminally early time in the day) and the other two times were during different years to catch separate headliners. As such, I've seen with my own eyes that LouFest does lots of things right. From the very beginning the organizers were focused on recycling, encouraging people to bike to the festival and general eco-friendliness. And it's lovely see major touring bands while lounging on the grass of beautiful Forest Park instead suffering through the flooded concrete bathrooms at Riverport.
I prefer my music just a little weirder than most festivals offer, so I never really expect the LouFest lineup to thrill me. But this year, in particular, the lineup immediately struck me as relentlessly bland. As I looked over the list of performers I realized why: Women and people of color were woefully underrepresented.
So I crunched the numbers.
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I did an informal tally of the artists listed on the lineup (not including support musicians) and came up with a total of 128 performers. Of the 128, 112 are white men and only six are women. By my estimation, the LouFest lineup for 2015 was 90.6 percent white and 95.3 percent male.
Even if my calculations are off a bit here, the official numbers would still show a huge discrepancy. And if I'd included support musicians in my calculations (such as our beloved local talent — the backing band for Pokey LaFarge) the numbers for white male performers would just go even higher.
something to complain about, and I can't imagine an acceptable excuse for this remarkable lack of diversity. I know nothing about what it takes to execute an event of this size, but I do know the talk on the street. I know what gets said in the real world, and what's being said isn't nice. In the months and months of planning that it must take to put together a lineup, somebody should've noticed this offensive trend in booking. I can't call any festival that features 87.5 percent white male talent a success. Not here and certainly not now.
In a city with multiple richly diverse (and thriving) music scenes, this lack of women and people of color just doesn't make any sense. And with the “Lou” included in the LouFest name, I expect to see some mirroring of our population — and the organizers just repeatedly miss the mark.
Maybe LouFest needs some kind of image consultant to point out these overlooked and/or ignored aspects. Some pieces of LouFest's PR campaign just seem tone deaf. For example, in the weeks leading up to the fest, an electronic billboard on Highway 44 advertised multiple cheesy LouFest designs. Most were innocuous, but one of the designs seemed downright condescending to women: “LouFest: He is going, and yes, he thinks you're cute.” So (straight) women (or gay men) only go to music festivals to flirt? Can't they just like live music, too?
Yeah but maybe I don't care. Maybe I'm there to see the music?
It's bizarre that these kind of issues continue to exist in 2015, especially with an event that is so high-profile. I understand that it's a corporate-sponsored major event and that it involves contracts and a lot of moving parts, but someone needs to be accountable for overall quality control.
I cast my vote with my money this year for a better, more representative LouFest: I didn't go.
But I want LouFest to do well in the future — I'd just be happier if it did a better job of showcasing the city it claims to celebrate. Yes, lots of other festivals and smaller local events could be accused of this same issue, but LouFest is not just any weekend festival. Like it or not, LouFest is part of our face to the world.
So here's what I ask of LouFest: First of all, fix your irresponsible advertising strategy. It's not cute. Second, fix your future lineups. You can easily neutralize your white man problem by doing one very simple thing: include more locally-sourced musicians. (It's eco-friendly!) If you look to our own neighborhoods, you'll find a diverse pool of talent where women and people of color are plentiful and celebrated. Do it for us, your potential local-music-loving attendees.
Basically, LouFest, we like you because we think you are good for the city, but you need to start doing a better job of earning that “Lou,” OK?