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Gilding the Lilith Fair

[whitespace] Sarah McLachlan
Que, Sarah, Sarah: Is Lilith Fair a boost for female power in music or just another marketing ploy? Only Sarah McLachlan knows for sure.

The lineup expands a little bit beyond the mainstream at this year's festival

By Gina Arnold

UNTIL ABOUT A YEAR AGO, the name Lilith generally conjured up Frasier Crane's hard-edged, pragmatic wife on the long-running sitcom Cheers. Last year, however, the name was reunited with its more ethereal meaning, thanks to Lilith Fair, the Lollapaloozalike summer-long festival that bills itself as a "celebration of women's music."

Lilith Fair is the brainchild of Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan. She thought of it, she has said repeatedly, two years ago, when she learned that many booking agents didn't want to put two women artists together on the same bill.

McLachlan set out to prove that women artists could tour together successfully, and she has proved it in no uncertain terms. But some people still question the efficacy of lumping women together in one big mushy heading. What, they wonder, is the point?

The point is simple: It's called marketing. Just as Lollapalooza lassoed an audience of vaguely art-minded upper-class white males aged 18 to 24, just as the Vans Warped Tour goes straight for the hearts (or rather pockets) of Lollapalooza-goers' younger brothers and just as the OzzFest targets a more blue-collar male audience, Lilith Fair has set out to capture an audience that fits into a single demographic category.

All these bills are a triumph of narrowcasting: audience selection by class, race and socioeconomic status. They are the natural end product of niche marketing--and the discovery, by Lollapalooza Inc., that banding together acts of a certain mid-level stature is in fact a cost-efficient way to maximize concert receipts.

What's odd about Lilith Fair, compared to the others, is its use of what Johnnie Cochran might call "the gender card." By targeting an audience that generally avoids all-day festival concerts, Lilith Fair has cleverly tapped into a whole new source of revenue.

See, to many women, the all-day rock festival format presents an unblinking picture of menace and confusion: long lines at the bathroom, too much sun and hordes of young men in packs, crushing up against one's flesh and ogling one's tits. By promising to remove at least the last annoyance, Lilith's organizers tapped a market of brand-new concert-goers.

Last year, the tour grossed a healthy $16.4 million in ticket sales, beating out OzzFest ($13.1 million), Lollapalooza ($9.4 million) and H.O.R.D.E. ($6.4 million). It also played to an average of 16,893 people in 36 cities, and according to Gary Bongiovanni of the concert-tracking trade journal Pollstar, it looks like it will be just as successful this year. "There's nothing mimicking it, and nothing is going directly after their audience," Bongiovanni says. "Certainly OzzFest and Warped are not in competition with it."

McLachlan's ultimate idea--to create a comfortable space for women performers--is hardly a new one. The Independent Pop Underground Festival of 1991 had a "girlie night" on which only girls were allowed to play. Perhaps more relevantly, the Michigan Womyn's Festival has been putting on a five-day festival at which only women are welcome for 23 years.

In Michigan, the "women-only stricture" applies to more than just the performers. The festival uses female sound technicians, lighting technicians, roadies, stage hands and truckers. The organizers even request that the shuttle vans which carry attendees from the airport assign their women drivers to the site.

By contrast, many of the artists at Lilith Fair--Natalie Merchant, Sheryl Crow, Bonnie Raitt, et al.--use predominantly male backing bands, and the tour itself employs men for its road crew, sound and light techs and many other jobs.

Therefore, Lilith Fair's critics claim that it can hardly be called "women only"; they also say that by focusing on the group ethic of women-as-artists, it's exploiting the idea of women-as-a-minority for its own cynical (read: greedy) purposes. They have charged that there is a large measure of self-interest in McLachlan's gesture, and certainly, since putting together the tour, there is no doubt that she has increased her profile enormously. Her 1997 album, Surfacing, just went triple platinum in the U.S.

EVEN SO, the biggest gripe that Lilith's detractors have is that the festival's lineup perpetuates certain institutionalized industry biases toward women: for example, that they play pretty, unthreatening, folksy music. Last year's roster was criticized for being too white and too young and too pretty.

This year sees the inclusion of older acts--Shawn Colvin, Emmylou Harris, the Cowboy Junkies, Raitt--and many African American ones too. Missy Elliot, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Neneh Cherry and Me'Shell Ndegéocello are all main stagers, but as diverse as those acts may seem on one level, overall the type of "female" music being purveyed at Lilith is pretty darn mainstream. Where, some critics ask, are acts like the Breeders, PJ Harvey, Garbage and Björk?

For the main part, they are absent because they want to be. Lilith organizers claim to have asked "an incredibly wide range of artists," according to booking agent Marty Diamond, only to be rejected by acts like Garbage, Harvey, Patti Smith and Björk.

"But you have to be mindful of your audience," Diamond adds. "Some of the people who came to Lilith Fair last year might be willing to embrace much harder, more difficult acts, they might be open-minded and get off on it. But some might not. It comes down to putting bums in seats."

Lilith Fair may have played its hand close to its chest, but it has also played it exactly right. The tour, which starts on June 19 in Portland and reaches Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View on June 23 and 24, has already sold 426,000 tickets nationwide, and that is despite the fact that it doesn't have a blockbuster headliner, a Tori Amos, a Stevie Nicks, a Jewel or an Alanis Morissette.

Instead, Lilith Fair 1998 features an ever-shifting lineup of 23 different performers at a given stop chosen from a group of more than 100 acts. Each day, 11 bands will perform; but the roster changes in every single market. Here at Shoreline, the headliners are McLachlan, the Indigo Girls, Merchant and Badu. Sheryl Crow has just dropped off the lineup; she's being replaced by Ndegéocello.

But whether the tour's undoubted success indicates a meaningful change in attitudes toward the phenomenon of "women in rock" or if it's just a trendy marketing ploy that merely exploits women as a demographic is still debatable. Somehow, the latter possibility seems a lot more likely--in which case McLachlan may have done herself and her ilk a disservice in the long run.

Lilith Fair plays Tuesday-Wednesday (June 23-24) at 3:30pm at Shoreline Amphitheater, Mountain View. Tickets are $28/$42.50/$53. (BASS)

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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