INDIO, Calif. — Dee Dee Penny, lead singer of the Dum Dum Girls, is no stranger to performing at giant summer-musical events. At the first of the two-weekend Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival events a couple of weeks ago, her retro-rock act played before thousands of ecstatic fans.
She was just one of an eclectic roster of female artists who galvanized Coachella audiences. Teenage provocateur Lorde dazzled amid a howling dust storm in her summer-music-festival debut. R&B diva Solange got a surprise assist from her superstar sister, Beyoncé Knowles.
Alt-torch singer Lana Del Rey turned in a transfixing trip-hop set. And pop-rock sisters Haim were local conquering heroes as they celebrated the success of their 2013 debut, “Days Are Gone,” which embodies the Coachella spirit by contemporizing retro sounds with hipster/hippie chic.
It’s a benchmark year for Coachella. More solo female artists and all-female bands were on the lineup — 16 — than at any other time in the festival’s history.
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Yet that’s just a fraction of the festival’s 166 acts. While the numbers do improve if one includes Coachella’s 19 coed acts, which range from celebrator headliners Arcade Fire, dance-pop trio Chvrches and Penny’s Dum Dum Girls, who recently added a male guitarist to its all-girl crew, that still leaves more than 100 male acts to dominate the bill.
“It’s obnoxious when you show up somewhere and you’re like, ‘Cool, I’m one woman here and there are like 900 dudes,’” said Penny, who played Coachella’s second weekend.
In an era when Top 40 radio is led by such pop ingénues as Rihanna, Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, who similarly rule social media with more than 127 million combined Twitter followers, the independent-music world stubbornly clings to its reputation as a kind of boys’ club.
“Being a woman on tour, you’re kind of in a man’s world,” said bluesy alt-rocker ZZ Ward.
The challenge of creating a truly gender diverse lineup at Coachella — an event renowned as an egalitarian oasis of progressive politics remains considerable. Although the number of women on the roster is up dramatically from 2013, when only 10 female performers or all-women acts carried the bill, to date only a handful of women have headlined the festival.
Representatives for Goldenvoice, the concert promoter responsible for Coachella, declined to be interviewed for this story. But to hear it from other programmers of North American summer music festivals, when it comes to determining the performance lineup, gender diversity often takes a back seat to other practical concerns.
“It has everything to do with who’s available, who’s on tour, who’s released a new record, where there’s a ton of buzz,” said Ashley Capps, founder of AC Entertainment, which co-produces the Bonnaroo Music & Arts Festival and Kentucky’s Forecastle Festival. “If we feel we’re getting too male-centric, we will try to address that situation. But it’s usually last minute when we look at how this is balancing out.”
One could correctly argue that major festivals, such as Coachella or Bonnaroo, are simply following the market’s lead. The summer festival season, like much of the concert industry, is driven by male performers.
As the Coachella crowd vacates Indio, Goldenvoice will begin prepping its three-day, country-focused Stagecoach Festival. The top-billed artists include Eric Church, Brantley Gilbert, Jason Aldean, Hunter Hayes, Luke Bryan and Florida Georgia Line — all men.
And the Electric Daisy Carnival, a multiday explosion of dance culture that draws a cumulative attendance of more than 320,000 for its three-day festival in Las Vegas, features more than 100 DJs from the electronic music scene. Yet in recent years the number of women performers could be counted on one or two hands. Meanwhile, only three of 2013’s Top 10 moneymaking tours were female-fronted acts, according to Pollstar magazine.
Coachella’s male / female discrepancy led the website BuzzFeed to conduct a widely circulated gender breakdown last April of every lineup since the fest’s 1999 inception. It found female-driven acts represent only about 16 percent of the total bill and concluded that “women musicians have always been severely underrepresented at Coachella.”
While a certain female archetype — young, with center-parted hair and cutoff short shorts — functions as Coachella’s ubiquitous, unofficial mascot, the festival has shown a surprising reluctance to program women as its marquee draw. Since 1999, only one, Icelandic art-pop chanteuse Bjork, has headlined, with just two other female-fronted, mixed-gender acts — Portishead and Arcade Fire — ascending the main stage for closing slots.
According to several promoters who asked not to be identified for fear of alienating concertgoers, a piece of accepted wisdom from inside the concert industry could help explain why so few female performers are booked as headliners.
“Where the girls go, the guys follow,” one promoter said. “It’s terrible stereotyping. But the people leading the charge in going to see concerts are women. And women don’t want to see other women. They tend to want to see men perform.”