Originally published at Opine Season
I swear, I didn’t want to write about the recently announced Rock the Garden lineup. But between my recent piece on the need for local media to reflect the diversity of the community, Matt Peiken’s somewhat more direct piece on why the Current is boring, and a million other blog posts, article comments and tweets, I think we’re having an important conversation right now. RtG is just another opportunity to keep it going.
Of course, this isn’t just about Rock the Garden. It’s also about when rap shows have a dozen acts on the bill and they’re all guys, when a literary reading or spoken-word show is all-white, when any multi-act, local music-centered, pat-ourselves-on-the-back type show in the Mainroom has no artists of color, when a rally has 10 speakers who are all men, when a panel discussion addressing an issue that affects the whole community only features voices from one segment of that community, when LGBTQ-identified performers so often have to organize their own, separate events because they’re not included in “mainstream” shows… the list goes on.
And sure, as someone who organizes and promotes events, I know how much work it is. I know you don’t always get your first choices for the lineup, and that you have to balance the lineup you want with the lineup that is available with the lineup that will sell tickets.
But all of that is an acknowledgement of the reality of throwing events, not an excuse.
This isn’t a finger-shaking attack on anyone who organizes shows. This isn’t a call for quotas or tokenism. These are just a few thoughts on how putting together lineups that are more representative of your community isn’t just some abstractly “good” thing to do– it makes business sense too.
People notice, and people talk
Sure, a lot of people don’t; you could throw a show here featuring Mac Lethal, Macklemore and Mac Miller and it would sell out in five minutes. But quite a few people do pay attention to this kind of thing. And they’re the kind of people who, in the long run, have more influence on shaping scenes and building arts communities. You can make a quick buck pandering to the people who don’t care, but you can bet that other people are watching and taking note. In terms of long-term strategy, it’s going to hurt you.
Non-representative bills lead to non-representative audiences
I don’t expect promoters and event organizers to be altruistic. So I’ll put it this way– when you’re excluding people from your shows, you’re excluding dollars from your wallet. If every artist in town is competing for the money and attention of the same group of 1000 white, 20-30-something, show-going scenesters, that’s not sustainable. If your political rally is still drawing the “usual suspects” who came to similar rallies 20 years ago, that’s not sustainable. There are a ton of other markets in the Twin Cities, and putting together more diverse lineups can be the first step in reaching out to those other markets.
Non-representative bills adds to the homogenization of local art
I guess this is the big one. Art thrives around conflict, competition and collaboration. When a scene is segregated, around any lines of identity, those things don’t happen as much, and the art suffers. Audiences get comfortable. Artists get lazy.
I’m not saying that every single three-band bill at the Nomad or Entry should feature a woman and a person of color or it’s automatically sexist/racist. I’m not saying that every single rock show has to include a hip hop artist. I’m not saying that we should tokenize women or need to have a specific ratio of brown faces to white faces at every festival. All of that is ridiculous.
I’m saying that we can do better. If we strive to have an authentic relationship with our city’s scene(s), putting together representative bills (especially for “big” events like Rock the Garden, Soundset, various media institutions’ birthdays, campus kickoff events, other festivals, etc.) isn’t that difficult. It will actually happen organically. But the first step is giving a shit, and the second step is moving outside your comfort zone.
If you don’t do it, someone else will
Finally, I think it’s important to remember that while it’s good to try to hold people accountable, we don’t have to beg any promoter, artist or media outlet to do better—we can do it ourselves. The last big show I organized featured a rap act, a singer and a dance crew, and it was beautiful. Events like the Hip Hop Harambee, Take Action MN’s “Vote No2” concert, and others have been inspiring examples. Let’s learn from one another, and push one another.
Is this the biggest issue facing our community? Of course not. But the lack of diversity at big events is definitely a symptom of a larger issue facing the Twin Cities. If we care about that, it’s important to remember that change happens on multiple fronts, through multiple means, and even the smallest steps matter.