Vans Warped Tour has a problem. It won’t be news to anyone who’s either attended the festival, or paid attention to its lineups over the course of the last 20 years, but the bands that populate Warped’s roster historically fall into two categories: male and white.
Women have always been involved in the punk scene, and Warped has even hosted a few of them — No Doubt, Dance Hall Crashers, Tilt, even L7. But they were always astonishingly outnumbered. In a way, this was a reflection of the times: Even in the boom years of mid-’90s alt-rock, female-fronted punk bands were still treated like novelties. In recent years that’s changed, as bands like Screaming Females, Sleigh Bells, White Lung and Shannon and the Clams have risen to prominence, making punk rock feel more expansive and less homogenized. There are women in Warped-worthy acts like Chumped, Perfect Pussy, Upset, Potty Mouth, Joanna Gruesome and Swearin’. So why isn’t Warped Tour including more female artists?
A quick glance at the bands that have been announced for Warped’s 2014 tour, which started June 11 in Anchorage, Alaska, reveals that less than 20 percent of the 120-plus acts include at least one female. Women are there — the line-up includes Mixtapes, Sleeper Agent, the Summer Set, K.Flay and Allison Weiss — but if you count the female population of the bands on an individual level, women make up only 6 percent of the tour.
Summer festivals in the general sense aren’t much better — both the Fest in Gainsville and Riot Fest Chicago hold steady around 15 percent based on the bands that have been announced at press time.
As a woman and a fan of punk rock, I’m angry and disheartened. I grew up listening to hardcore and pop-punk and I know what a boys’ club it can be. I’m used to being in the minority at shows, having to deal with guys who think they need to protect me in the mosh pit. But that was 15 years ago, and still the culture has not evolved. Part of that could be because Kevin Lyman, founder and producer of the Warped Tour, doesn’t think there’s a problem.
“There’s really not a lack of women,” he says, interrupting me before I’ve finished asking the first question. “If you’ve got 20 bands that have women in them out of 120 bands, that’s one out of six bands.”
“You think that’s OK?” I ask, surprised that he would be so comfortable with such a one-sided ratio.
“That’s absolutely OK,” he says.
But it’s not. It’s not OK for Warped or the Fest, and it’s not OK that Alternative Press, a monthly music magazine that sponsors the Warped Tour, has only put a woman on its cover five times in the last three years — and twice it was Hayley Williams from Paramore.
“If you Google-search bands in the world, the vast majority of them are male. That’s a correct assumption, right?” Lyman continues. “I don’t necessarily go search out girl bands — I always try to make sure they’re there. But they have to be good.”
“That makes it sound like girls just aren’t as good at music when you say it that way,” I say.
“Well, who’s missing?” he asks defensively. I mention Upset, the delightfully catchy pop-punk band featuring Ali Koehler of Vivian Girls and Patty Schemel of Hole. He’d never heard of them.
Warped Tour’s audience is enormous. Last year, the festival sold half a million tickets over 40 dates across the U.S. and Canada. Unlike so many other large festivals, Warped Tour travels, making it more accessible to those who aren’t lucky enough to live in a city with a burgeoning all-ages music scene. For better or worse, if you’re a young music fan in the cities Warped visits, this might be the only chance you get to experience punk rock. And as long as Warped Tour continues to boast such an insulting male-to-female artist ratio, those 500,000 fans are learning that loud music is played by dudes, and women belong in the crowd (which, according to Lyman, is 53 percent female).
In his defense, Lyman points out that unlike other festivals, Warped Tour does boast a “girls only” stage. The Shiragirl Stage, which will be present at 11 of Warped’s 44 2014 dates, has been a part of the tour on and off since 2005, and it was founded by Shira (who prefers to go by her first name only), an L.A.-based singer and performer who initially joined the Warped Tour in 2003 as part of the anti-smoking Truth campaign. The following year, Shira pitched an all-girl stage idea to Lyman and he passed. She did it anyway.
“We had seen a couple bands here and there crash the tour so we thought, ‘Let’s try it,’” says Shira. “We drove our pink RV into the venue — I had laminates from the year before and I knew some of the security guys — and we parked it across from the skate ramp. The funny thing about Warped Tour is that even though, at the time, it was, like, 1 percent women, 50 percent of the crowd were chicks, and all these girls are almost being taught that ‘Oh, you can be the groupie, but you can’t be in the band.’ But obviously, girls support other girls! Doors opened and all the girls came running, and Kevin walks by. We’re half expecting to get kicked out, and he loved it! He said, ‘Shira, it sells — you on for the rest of the tour?’”
And while Shira’s efforts are punk, both in concept and execution, the segregated stage still feels more like a Band-Aid than a solution.
“There is always the argument of ‘Why is it separate?’” says Shira. “But it’s either that or nothing. No one else is coming in and fighting for the women.”
Emily Whitehurst, who once fronted the bands Tsunami Bomb and Action Design and has toured with Warped six times between 2001 and 2008, agrees the stage is a bittersweet solution. Because she’s mostly enjoyed her time with the Warped Tour, she’s looking forward to playing a few dates on the Shiragirl Stage with her new band Survival Guide, but she does wish women would get equal treatment from the industry.
“When I was in Tsunami Bomb, I felt conflicted about [the Shiragirl] stage,” says Whitehurst. “I appreciated that they felt females should be better represented at Warped Tour, because it’s obvious. And it at least helps point out the problem while empowering girls. But it also made me feel like it was sending out a message that these ‘girl bands’ were not on the same level with ‘regular bands.’”
Lyman doesn’t seem to think women are on the same level, but his reasoning seems fueled more by opportunism than outright misogyny. He claims he has tried to work with women in the past, but they just haven’t been successful.
“You know what,” he says, audibly annoyed, “[Warped Tour's] been around 20 years for a reason. You’ve gotta read a book called WWW.Stands for World Wide Whiners. I always say if someone wants to do something better, go do it. I tried doing an all-girl tour once, a spin-off of Warped Tour, and it failed. It failed!”
But why does one failing tour 10 years ago mean that women are the problem? When an all-male tour fails, it isn’t because they were men, it’s because the ticket prices were too high, or the promoters chose the wrong cities, or the booker chose the wrong headliners. Women are held up to unrealistic standards, so a female musician has to work extra hard to prove that she’s worthy of being considered an equal. She has to have the guts to crash a festival in order to get anyone’s attention. If she fails, people like Lyman use it as evidence that women don’t belong. If she succeeds, she did a good job — for a woman.
“Now that I’m not really involved in punk rock as much, I’m finding that most shows I play have other women on the bill,” says Whitehurst. “It’s possible that there truly are less women playing in heavier bands, but it’s also possible that people who like heavier bands assume that women aren’t very good at it. I never hear it anymore, but being in Tsunami Bomb, I can’t even count how many times a dude would come up to me after a show and say ‘You guys were really good! I don’t usually like girls in bands!’”
Shira says she’s faced the same discouraging sexism, both on Warped Tour and in the music industry in general. “There’s always going to be those bands that are sexist, and you actually get more sexism from the baby bands than you do the bigger artists,” she says about her time with the Warped Tour. “You’ll see it from the younger guys. And maybe it is just a question of them being younger and more ignorant, but the younger guys will make comments. I used to play shows with my band and they’d say ‘Oh, backstage is for bands only,’ and I’d say ‘I am the band, asshole.’”
Maybe the problem is not that fewer women play in punk bands, but that the punk world has created an uninviting environment for them when they do. It’s not only unfair for female artists — it’s also doing a huge disservice to the fans.
“Girls come up to us all the time and say, ‘Thank you for doing this,’” Shira says. “I didn’t know I could be in the band. Really young girls say ‘I want to start a band now!’ That means everything to me. If we can inspire the next generation of girls then maybe we will see more and more.”