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In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and as much of the music industry was blacking out its social media platforms as part of “The Show Must Be Paused,” StayAltered founder Evan Tzeng noticed BUKU Music + Art Project doing something different.
Instead of posting a black box, BUKU’s platforms announced steps it was taking to support social justice and other initiatives, including opportunities for fans to get involved in meaningful ways. Tzeng, who’d previously worked for Superfly and Danny Wimmer Presents, reached out to Winter Circle Productions’ Katelyn Scott, who is festival director for BUKU and Hangout festivals.
“I thought it was an opportunity for us to reach out to each other and talk about what’s going on, to try to do something together, because it’s going to be really hard for any of us on our own to start to create more equitable, more diverse, safer, sustainable experiences,” Tzeng says.
They reached out to Gravity Productions’ Kyle Casey and Culture Collective and Diversity in Music’s Jonathan Azu who, in turn, called CONAN’s Kierrah Matthews. They connected with others, including Shift Consulting’s Veline Mojarro and Founders Entertainment’s Jen Stiles. They began meeting weekly and, a year later, the result is the Coalition of Festivals that they will discuss during the "An Honest Look At Diversity & Inclusion In Live Entertainment" panel during Pollstar Live! Wednesday, June 16.
The Coalition of Festivals, described by the group as a “promoter-agnostic coalition of festival producers,” aims to rebuild a stronger festival industry by establishing communication channels between producers to share best practices as well as nurture partnerships with social impact groups across numerous initiatives.
“To create change, we must first be the change,” the founders say.” We begin with ourselves, as industry leaders and as human individuals.”
Gravity Productions, Fox Pocket, Old Soul Production Services, and Superfly as well as founding festivals Broccoli City, Governors Ball, Outside Lands and Hulaween have already signed on to the effort. AEG Festivals are also aligned with and committed to the group.
Social impact organizations Diversify The Stage, Diversity in Music, Shift Consulting, and Well Dunn are already confirmed partners and discussions are happening with more such groups. All festival stakeholders are invited to join the conversation and there’s interest in forming a Coalition of Talent Reps including agents, managers and press, as well as a group for vendors.
“No one person, producer, or promoter can rebuild a stronger festival industry alone,” the group says. “This is an opportunity to center community over competition, and radically reimagine our industry.”
The group considers the Coalition the beginning of the follow-through promised after the Floyd murder and its aftermath, which brought about a moment of reckoning for an industry that too often focuses on the day-to-day business of “the show must go on.” The pandemic provided a pause for reflection and an opportunity to move in another direction.
“I think we all saw the footage of George Floyd being murdered and what happened in America after that,” Tzeng says. “It was incredibly disheartening to see that kind of pain and hatred and violence and anger, real justifiable anger, rise up.” And he had something of an epiphany.
“What would it have been like had festivals actually happened in 2020? Let’s say there was no pandemic and festivals were able to go ahead. What would the festivals in May and June, all summer long in an election year, look like? These have been places for healing and have been flashpoints for emotions and the American experience, really.”
The building of a festival site and the gathering of thousands even if only for a few days represents a microcosm of social structures like cities and communities, Tzeng notes. Even sustainability and greening factor into diversity and lifting up all people are included in the Coalition’s programs.
“We realized what we had was the desire to organize communities and bring people together and that’s led to the fruition of this idea that we’re calling Coalition of Festivals,” Tzeng explains. “It’s very simple in many ways. We are reaching out to the entire industry. We’ve been inviting festival directors from all of our promoters as well as the independents and to come together and create a place for us to have really important dialog about what we can do together that we might not be able to do individually, which is to create more diverse, more inclusive, more equitable, safer and sustainable experiences.”
In conversations over the past year, the Coalition steering committee identified goals and challenges, developed program ideas and an aspirational timeline to begin implementing those programs and providing quarterly closed-door forums in which to discuss collective actions focused on promoter goals and commitments, societal inequality and instability, and climate change and natural disasters.
A major theme for the Coalition is unity. Recognizing the live entertainment industry is by nature highly competitive, a shared goal across companies is evolving festivals into more equitable, inclusive, sustainable and safe experiences not only backstage but in the offices and including talent and audiences. To that end, the Coalition is already having the necessary conversations at all levels to bring about buy-in across as many companies as possible.
“There’s so many aspects [of the industry] that will always be in competition with each other, but this can’t be one of them,” Scott says. “In order to make a truly impactful change, we have to work together and realize that this isn’t some type of trade secret. This is about cooperation and us really working together and the indies working with the larger promoters and across the board.
“So many independent contractors work at every festival. We need to provide that dialog and safe space for everybody on our site, not just the full-time employees. And that really starts with just normalizing these types of conversations and changing the whole atmosphere around it.”
The group has identified programs it hopes to implement going forward, focused on personal as well as festival growth and change education.
Program 1: Be The Change includes educational webinars on topics ranging from allyship, implicit bias, challenging microaggressions, unpacking gender binary, building a culture of consent, and undoing toxic traditional workplace habits. The training will be led by two Shift Consulting facilitators and be fully interactive. Facilitated dialogues on equitable festival cultures, festival team diversity, conflict resolution, gender and sexuality, safer spaces and healthier environments will also be available.
Program 2: Create Change expands on education and training, knowledge sharing, on the job training and networking opportunities led by trusted department heads who collaborate on “101-level” curriculum from underrepresented communities including women, people with disabilities, BIPOC & LGBTQ+ individuals, this program is a recurring education and training program for future festival leaders.
Topics for creating change include artist relations and hospitality, business administration, creative services, external operations and transportation, guest services and marketing & PR. Other topics include safety, security and health; site operations, sponsor operations, stage production, sustainability and ticketing.
“The first part of the program, Be The Change, is that we want to have that training for ourselves and our current leaders, because that’s how we’re going to have to move forward,” Stiles explains. “It’s not just about starting a new generation. There’s two parts to this. We need to accept that top tier leadership has some education to go through and some training and learning and some growing to do. And that will get us to whatever comes next. But I think that’s a big step for us, is that that’s self acknowledgment.”
If it sounds ambitious, it’s because it is. But ambition has often fallen short because of a lack of accountability. That’s also going to be baked into Coalition of Festivals as members hold each other accountable.
“We made a lot of promises as an industry over the last 12 months,” Azu says. “When the tour bus breaking down becomes the issue of the day, there’s many ways you can say ‘Let’s just focus there and keep it moving.’ So accountability is a big part of this, too. And something like this allows us to provide these partners with the tools and actions that they can easily take towards some of the promises that they’ve made.”
As the industry comes out of the pandemic era and forward into a new era of inclusion, diversity, and sustainability, the Coalition of Festivals looks forward to growth and opportunity with its social action partners within the business that have already begun to implement internships, mentorship and scholarship programs to solidify a pipeline for bringing new people and fresh ideas into the foundation of the business. More information is at CoalitionOf.org.
“I know that we’re where we all feel very lucky to be in the positions that we’re in,” Casey says.”And it’s time to give back. This is an incredible time as we come back into celebrating again with one another to do so in a way that is better for our business. And that means to diversify it, to make it more sustainable and to share opportunities that most of us have only gotten through internships or because we knew somebody there. There’s a lot of amazing talent that’s out there that just wants the opportunity. And we want to be able to provide an opportunity for that talent to rise and shine.”
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