Canadian music festival criticized for lack of support for women, diverse artists

Canadian Music Week is in full swing right now in Toronto.
Canadian Music Week is in full swing right now in Toronto.

Canadian Music Week, currently happening in Toronto, focuses on music, comedy, film, and digital media. But while there is a wide range of content, some people in the city’s music and entertainment community say the event’s conference panels — made up of primarily white men — illustrate a complete lack of diversity.

One of those conference sessions called ‘What Women Want’ was criticized by music professionals and conference attendees on Thursday. Critics said it didn’t include any female voices in a presentation that promised “deep insights” on female listeners based on a survey of 2,000 women.

Yahoo Canada News spoke to Candace Shaw, a music promoter and the executive director of the advocacy organization Canadian Women Working in Music. She thinks music conferences like Canadian Music Week (CMW) and NXNE (which will be held in Toronto in June) no longer feel reflective of the experiences she’s had over her 20+ years in the Canadian music industry.

“Women are often treated as a decorative flourish rather than serious business people or as someone who’s connection you might want to cultivate,” Shaw said of the conference experience.

‘What Women Want,’ which ran as part of the conference portion of Canadian Music Week on Thursday afternoon, was not a panel but rather a “presentation of a national survey of women who listen to contemporary radio in the United States,” publicist Damien Nelson told Yahoo Canada News.

“It was presented by two radio and research professionals who were involved in the gathering and studying of those survey results,” Nelson said. “Canadian Music Week takes the concerns about gender parity and diversity at the conference sessions very seriously.”

But according to musician Tyler Tassen, the oversimplification of what men or women are looking for from the music industry is part of the problem, along with the lack of a female perspective on the findings.

“How is a woman not the one presenting this kind of information, or at least a part of it alongside the men?,” Tassen exclaimed to Yahoo Canada News.

The problem goes beyond the panel itself, up to those who decided to include it, Tassen said. And ‘Women In Music’ wasn’t the only CMW conference session viewed as problematic by those in the industry.

A panel on touring featured four men and one woman, for example, and a discussion focused on saving live-music venues in Toronto featured six men. Other panels on streaming, digital media, and music festivals in France were also apparently all-male. And a CMW panel on podcasting featured six men, despite the fact that many of the most popular podcasts in the country are hosted by women, Shaw said.

“Changes need to be made at the top, to hopefully trickle down and actually make changes at the bottom,” Tassen said.

Musician Viktoria Belle’s Toronto band Meanwood no longer plays at the festival because of objections about its lack of payment for artists and also because she thinks it doesn’t adequately represent or consult women in the music industry.

“There is no shortage of incredible female-identifying musicians in the city of Toronto, so to organize a panel called ‘What Women Want’ and have two white guys mansplaining on our experiences, needs, and work further proves how misguided CMW has gotten,” Belle told Yahoo Canada News. “I’m pretty sure what women want is an opportunity, not a useless panel where men pat one another on the back.”

While there are conference sessions on Indigenous musicians or women in broadcasting, and many of the performers themselves are diverse, on the whole the festival lacks a concerted effort towards diverse representation, Belle said. She thinks that’s especially surprising for a city like Toronto that is very multicultural and whose two best-known exports right now are two young black man: Drake and The Weeknd.

“I’m just not interested in going to something where I’m only going to hear old white guys talk at me, and I feel like that’s CMW in a single phrase,” Shaw added.