When I started puzzling over this whole Lilith Fair issue, I started reading any articles I could find on the web. Many included questions like “do we NEED Lilith Fair?” and “is Lilith Fair relevant?” And I thought of this Time magazine article that I read with great interest back in 1997 – seriously, I practically memorized the thing, especially this quote:
…not too long ago, McLachlan couldn’t buy airplay. “When my album Fumbling Towards Ecstasy came out [in 1994], a lot of radio stations said they couldn’t play me because they already had another singer-songwriter on their playlist,” McLachlan says. “In this case it was Tori Amos. That was very marginalizing because our music is completely different. They were saying, ‘Go away–we’ve added our token female this week.’”
If we once “needed” Lilith Fair and now we don’t, it must be because the landscape is more favorable to female artists. The brilliant Ann Powers, in an article I read on PopMatters.com, asserts that Lilith’s “purpose may not be so clear now, when female artists dominate the Top 40.” Which immediately made me question: DO women dominate the Top 40?
I plugged “billboard top 40″ into Google, and the page that came up as the top 40 was a list of albums. I put each of the 40 into categories – female solo, male solo, mixed (which includes mixed-gender duos, bands, and soundtracks), and male bands. (I would’ve made a female band category…but there were none). The percentages came out this way: male solo 41%; mixed 19 %; female solo 24%; male band 16% (put the male bands and male solo artists together, and they make up 57% of the top 40.)
Of course, I’d need to look at the larger trend. I picked a random week (last week). I’m sure looking at other stats might tell different stories. Journalist Shani Hilton notes some lady-highlights, including the incredible success of artists like Beyonce, Lady Gaga, and Taylor Swift. But I fear that asserting that women in music are doing just fine is a new form of dismissal. Is saying, “you don’t need Lilith Fair, you’ve got Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift” any better than, “We don’t need to play Sarah McLachlan, we’re already playing Tori Amos”?
Given how much the music industry has changed, comparing 1997 to 2010 is a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, I know. Now the idea of Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan competing for airplay seems downright laughable – you might not hear either on a pop station at all! But try to avoid Ms McLachlan at Starbucks! Impossible (not that I mind). Music is consumed in an increasingly fragmented way by ever-expanding niche audiences, and while this can be liberating for independent artists, it becomes insanely difficult for them to rise above what was described at LA’s New Music Seminar this year as “the noise floor.”
And that brings me to why something like Lilith Fair is still necessary – because it provides, as I mentioned yesterday, an avenue for discovery, especially the discovery of artists in genres that may not make it to radio (or even to Starbucks). To quote Shani Hilton again:
“This is why Lilith Fair is still relevant. Despite the fact that a few highly packaged women dominate the charts and sell out stadiums, there are dozens of genres and hundreds of female artists who will never make a single Billboard chart, despite being loved by a devoted, if small, group of fans…”
Tomorrow, a look at why, if it’s still relevant, it’s been such a supposedly troubled concert tour. Later this week, delving more into Lilith and diversity. And in the meantime, your thoughts are welcome.