Marketplaces, Lilith Fair, and Women Destroy Science Fiction

by Jake

When Lightspeed announced its Women Destroy Science Fiction (WDSF) special issue, the first thing that came to my mind was the Lilith Fair rock festivals in the nineties. Rock tours and radio were dominated by men, and the excuses given for this fact were so maddening that Sarah McLachlan created a festival of only female performers–Lilith Fair. It was fabulously successful and pretty much crushed existing assumptions that many had about rock music and women. It was both a celebration of great music and a fuck you to the establishment. To me the parallel was obvious to WDSF, especially in how entrenched bias against women is being blamed on market forces.

I worked for a BMG-owned record label in the early nineties, and one of our artists was the Australian band Baby Animals. The band had a lot going for them: Eddie Van Halen loved them and chose them to open for the sold out Van Halen tour of North America. They were one of the most successful debut rock bands in Australian history, winning the ARIA award and selling quadruple platinum. Their music was both catchy and powerful. They really only had one problem: Their lead singer was female.

This “female problem” was what Sarah McLachlan faced when she threw up her hands and decided to put together Lilith Fair. Yet if you talked to concert promoters and radio station music directors it wasn’t a problem or a bias at all; it was just a fact of the marketplace: Having two women on a concert bill wouldn’t sell out shows, and rock music radio listeners didn’t want to hear female singers played back-to-back.

In this fucked up perception of the marketplace, the single worst thing that could happen for a record company was to have a female-fronted band or singer release a song right when another woman had a huge hit. The “female slot” would go to the person who got there first. It really didn’t matter how great your song was, you had to wait your turn. And god forbid you had two women touring at the same time. I saw this as a record company manager in the early nineties, and I saw it as a journalist in the mid-nineties. It really wasn’t until Sarah McLachlan and a bunch of women finally had enough that perceptions would change, and it took one of the most successful festival tours of the decade to even move the needle.

The situation is just as fucked up today for women writers as it was for Sarah McLachlan and Melissa Etheridge and other women singers. Writer Patty Jansen outlines a typical scenario with an editor from Angry Robot Books that is echoed by E. Catherine Tobler writing about her experience with a Black Gate editor, and you can be sure is shared by women writers everywhere: The marketplace just doesn’t accept women. It’s Lollapalooza and rock radio all over again. Here’s Jansen:

Me: I heard you are interested in hard SF
Publisher: yeah, we are, but… *looks uneasy*
Me: … if it’s written by a woman?
Publisher: yeah, I hate to say that, but yeah, that is a problem

I mean, holy shit, replace “hard SF” with rock music, publisher with “radio music director,” and written with “sung by” and the “me” could have been Sarah McLachlan.

Okay, so Lilith Fair ushered in a short explosion of female alternative rock and rock/pop musicians, from Alanis Morrissette to Gwen Stefani. Things really did look better. The sad fact that radio and promoters slid back into their old ways in recent years is more indicative of how difficult it is to erase entrenched bias than it is a failure of women rockers. The numbers illustrate this: When women were given a shot, they sold like gangbusters. Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill alone sold 33 million copies, and you can go down the line to see platinum album after platinum album. Even one hit wonder Meredith Brooks’ album went platinum.

But the old biases die hard, so the battle continues.

And this brings me to WDSF. I have no doubt that it will be fabulously successful and most likely be one of those seminal publications that people look back on and point to as their first exposure to this author or that author. I mean, how can it not? Like Lilith Fair, when you remove the constraints of a fucked up perception of the marketplace, the pent up talent that is released draws a huge audience. We’re seeing it even now. In direct response to WDSF, Escape Pod has revised its guidelines to attract more women. Again, it is early, but I’m confident that we’ll see more anthology versions of Lilith Fair and more women using that showcase to rise to prominence.

To really kick off change sometimes you have to be like Sarah McLachlan and Christie Yant–say fuck you to the marketplace and then go throw your own damn party. And the cool thing about Lilith Fair and the cool thing about WDSF is that it turns out to be the coolest fucking party in town, and everyone–men and women–want to check it out. That’s how change happens, and while we’ll see progress ebb and flow over the years, it won’t stop.