Lilith Fair

I recently saw a portion of an interview with Taylor Swift where she explained that differences between women and men in the music industry still exist. The language used creates barriers, where a male musician’s behaviour is described as “strategic”, while the same behaviour in a woman is referred to as “calculated”. A man “reacts” while a woman can only “over-react”, Swift explained. And … it got me thinking.

Twenty-seven years ago, Sarah McLachlan was frustrated with the treatment of female musicians in the recording industry as compared to their male counterparts. Playing female musicians back-to-back on the radio was considered poor business practice and never done. Concert promoters limited how many women were booked and their reason was simply – it doesn’t sell. Sarah McLachlan knew better and took action. Lilith Fair was conceived, and McLachlan proved the industry wrong, racking up $60 million in ticket sales over the three years of Lilith Fair’s travelling music festival. The concert tour’s first year became the top-grossing of all touring festivals at $16 million.

The name Lilith Fair comes from Jewish lore of Lilith refusing to be subservient to Adam and bolting from the Garden of Eden to find adventure, according to a CNN report in 2022. It was a perfect name for McLachlan’s project. McLachlan dug in and worked tirelessly on this music festival that saw thirty-seven stops within the United States and Canada in its first year in 1997, followed by fifty-seven stops in 1998 with one hundred female solo artists and female led bands. 1999 was the fair’s final year. A revival was attempted in 2010 but it didn’t fly. Most of the women who came to those first shows now had young families, jobs, and mortgages, said McLachlan. Lilith Fair was a huge success, helping to launch the career of many young female artists.

McLachlan explained in an interview for Rolling Stone magazine saying, “If you’re not gonna have any female artists on your tours, we’re just gonna do it ourselves.” And they did. Natalie Merchant explained that she was always the only girl in the room. “Not just musicians,” she said, “but all of the tech people were male.” Lilith Fair helped change that. When McLachlan was asked why there were no men on the tour, McLachlan pointed out that it wasn’t about exclusion, it was inclusive, with men in the bands and in the crew. They were simply celebrating women. Celebrating women has nothing to do with hating men, McLachlan said in response to criticism.

Have we reached equality? No. The fight is a bit like laundry – it is never done. “Hatred against women is being unleased on social media now more than ever,” CBC Radio reported in March of 2023. We are constantly teaching our girls and young women how to keep themselves safe, the behaviours they should adopt to limit their risk, but I hear little reporting on how and what we are doing to address the behaviour of men. I live in a province that has the highest rate of domestic violence in the country. According to a report by in 2020, every six days a woman is killed by her intimate partner in this country and 2.4 million women and girls are living on low income. Women working full time earn 75 cents for every dollar a man makes. We must remember that when women thrive, so too do families and communities.

McLachlan took all the money she earned from Lilith Fair festivals and created the Sarah McLachlan Foundation providing a volunteer-based registered charity, the Sarah McLachlan School of Music, with free music education for children at risk. Music schools were established in Vancouver in 2002, and in Surrey and Edmonton in 2016, to allow children to find their voice, to discover the uplifting power of music. That’s what I call making lemonade when someone throws lemons at you. McLachlan inspired many women in attendance at those festivals, proving to them that we can do anything we put our hearts and minds to. If you’re not invited to the party, create your own.