Coachella: Plenty of bros, but where are the female headliners?

Women attend Coachella and other music festivals in huge numbers, yet that demographic is not reflected when it comes to selecting headliners.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

The Empire Polo field in Indio will be filled with women this weekend for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, but it will be a different story onstage.

Once again, Coachella has no female headliners for the shows Friday through Sunday (and for the festival’s second weekend, April 22-24). Since it emerged out of the alternative rock scene in 1999, the festival has featured more than 40 headlining acts spanning hip-hop, folk, EDM, pop, heavy metal and classic rock.

Yet only one female-centric act, Björk, has ever stepped on the main stage as a festival headliner, and that was nearly 10 years ago.


The absence of female performers — at a time when women rule the pop charts — has led some to dub the festival “brochella.”

This year’s headliners are LCD Soundsystem, Guns N’ Roses and Calvin Harris. As for the rest of the roster, fewer than a quarter of Coachella’s 167 acts are female artists or acts fronted by women. Still, that’s an improvement over last year, when they represented just 16% of the talent onstage.

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Coachella is promoted by Goldenvoice, a unit of entertainment giant AEG, and the lineup is curated by festival co-founder Paul Tollett. Both Goldenvoice and Tollett declined to comment for this story.

Some in the industry argue that there aren’t enough female artists who fit Coachella’s headliner aesthetic — edgy, nonpop acts that are big enough to pull a crowd.

However, Coachella’s early indie rock focus has expanded with the festival to include huge acts such as classic rockers AC/DC and former “Degrassi High” star turned chart-topping rapper Drake.


Their presence suggests that Coachella’s definition of the ideal headliner has widened to include male figures who top the charts, yet women with similar credentials remain absent.

“People assume that it’s a complete accident or a bunch of fat cats sitting around a table with cigars thinking how can we oppress the women,” says Andi Zeisler, a former music columnist and author of “We Were Feminists Once.” “It’s not. It’s a cumulative problem, decades and decades of stereotypes and ambient bias against women in music.”

Even setting aside mainstream pop artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, there’s no lack of female performers with a fringe aesthetic who could headline Coachella’s main stage, including Missy Elliott, Sleater-Kinney, M.I.A. and Patti Smith.

Many fans would add singer Ellie Goulding, who plays Friday near the top of the bill, to that list. Eclectic, EDM-skewing and big enough to sell out Staples Center (as she did earlier this month), she’s the ideal candidate to headline the festival.

The lack of female acts at Coachella and other fests such as Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza is at odds with who is attending. A 2015 Nielsen report found that women slightly outnumber men at music festivals (Goldenvoice doesn’t provide a breakdown of Coachella attendance by gender).

“Coachella sets the bar for other festivals, and often bands who play there will end up at other festivals around the country,” says Liz Garo, vice president of talent for Spaceland Productions, who books the Echoplex and the Regent. “They look to what Coachella is doing, and maybe that’s how it snowballs. If there aren’t a lot of women at Coachella, there aren’t a lot at other festivals.”

Bjork is the only female-centric act to have headlined the Coachella festival, and that was years ago.
(Kevin P. Casey / Los Angeles Times)

For retail fashion companies, catering to the tastes of Coachella’s women is not a risk, but a business opportunity. Many have fashion lines inspired by the festival, such as Free People’s feathered headdresses or fringe jumpsuits from the H&M Loves Coachella line.

“Coachella is marketed so explicitly to young women as this place where you can go, dress up, and it’s all about aesthetics and young cute celebrities,” says Zeisler. “There is this real chasm between how it’s marketed to women in this very superficial way and how it approaches female musicians.”

Fashion aside, Coachella has come a long way from the hand wringing of possessive indie rock fans who fretted about the festival’s tilt toward pop with Madonna’s appearance in 2006.

That year, she was relegated to the festival’s biggest dance tent — and was a hit — but last year there were no such worries when she again appeared onstage as a guest with headliner Drake, an artist whose hold on pop radio is far stronger now than hers was then.

Swift may be this year’s Madonna. She’s dating EDM’s Harris, and many think she will make a surprise appearance Sunday night. There are also reports that Kesha, who’s been embroiled in a legal battle against her producer, may drop in.

While festival organizers won’t talk about why there are so few women on the bill, Shirley Halperin of music industry trade publication Billboard says it probably boils down to concerns that booking pop stars in top slots might dent future ticket sales.

“There’s now a little bit of bro culture to the festivalgoers,” says Halperin, the publication’s news director. “I don’t know that Goulding as a headliner would appeal to those people. Though tickets sell out way before the lineup is announced, maybe when the lineup is being put together, there’s a little more thought to what the male attendees of Coachella want to see. When you’ve got Guns N’ Roses on a bill, it’s kind of hard to sell Ellie Goulding as well.”

Coachella’s love for mixing the old with the new, the blockbuster with the obscure, is part of its charm. Many believe that mix would prove even stronger with more women at the top, be it Siouxsie and the Banshees, PJ Harvey, Smith, Nicki Minaj or Lauryn Hill (with or without a reunited Fugees).

If Coachella can pull Guns N’ Roses back together, anything’s possible.

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