In the rise of the upcoming Reeperbahn Festival I was asked for a piece about the Keychange initiative that the Reeperbahn Festival partnered up with last year  (amongst other big players of Europe’s festival market like Iceland Airwaves, Tallinn Music Week or Way Out West in Sweden). For those of you who do not know yet what Keychange is about: It’s about establishing gender equality on festival stages. Festivals are encouraged to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022, all trans and non-binary performers are included in the 50% of women.

I’m honest: I’ve never been too fond of ratios und quotas like these. But lately an idea like Keychange became more and more appealing to me. And, strangely enough, that had a lot to do with Nanette.

I can’t remember when I was last moved by music as much as I was by Nanette, Hannah Gadsby’s brilliant stand-up you all probably have watched by now. A piece that since it premiered on Netflix this summer created a massive buzz and rightfully established the Australian Gadsby as a rising international star of comedy. Which is ironic because Nanette is basically Gadsby struggling with comedy all together.

Gadsby chooses the medium of comedy to question comedy itself; up to the point where nothing’s funny anymore. By that, she develops an affective power that I usually associated with a perfect song, not with comedy. Nanette’s is a meta-stand-up mirroring the mechanisms of humor and how it eventually leads to auto-humiliating results.

‘Stories hold our cure’

In her program, Gadsby poses some astonishing questions. The moment I heard her reasoning about how comedy – despite its therapeutical merits – tends to conceal things, tends to reduce problems to punchlines; tends to artificially build-up and dissolve tension; that was the moment in which I asked myself: What if the shortcomings of music are quite similar?

Music is a medium of potential empowerment, I have no doubts about that. Empowerment of women, of the marginalized, of the wicked, the freaks, people of color, you name it. But what if, due to its inherent logic and form, it also subtly contributes to the marginalizing mechanisms that many artists in this field criticize, yeah, that it maybe even reproduces these mechanisms?

In the end, we’re not where we should be in terms of representation of women in music. It’s true that the biggest popstars today are female but why is the business at large still so very male? Gadsby adresses the deeply internalized self-deprication that she built her comedic image upon. I wonder if that’s something we see in music as well.

Is it sheer coincidence that up to today, #metoo had a massive impact on various parts of society, from cinema to comedy, but it’s still rather quiet in the music business? Music’s, and especially pop music’s liberal self-image seems to be so strong, that marginalizing aspects of it are easily labeled as exceptions or remnants of the past that will be overcome soon. The discourse typically boils down to: ‘Yeah, there might be stories of abusive male behavior and yeah, we still have these structural imbalances in offices and on festival stages. But look how powerful Beyoncé is!’

‘This tension? It’s yours. I’m not helping you anymore.’

I also think that music works under similar circumstances like comedy. It’s entertainment. A fair amount of people don’t want to be bothered with troubling contents while ‘enjoying’ music. They want the tension and the relief.  Because that’s how a pop song basically works, by building up and releasing tension, just like jokes.

That Nanette-moment, a moment in which the artist we came to ‘enjoy’ does not free us from our tension anymore, but instead leaves us alone with it, to deal with it, to make something out of it, that’s the moment I would like to hear and see in music more often.

I’m aware that comedy isn’t a blueprint for pop or vice versa. And yeah, this might all be pretty far-fetched. But then again why is it that all the empowering stories pop had to tell over decades didn’t shake the core of the business?

It might very well be and I hope that I’m right, that Keychange is the first step to establish a new frame. ‘Laughter is not our medicine’, Gadsby states at one point. Well, maybe neither are the escapisms and distractions of music. ‘Stories hold our cure’, she says. Well, let’s hear even more differing stories then, shall we? Let’s hear the stories of the wicked, the estranged, the troubled. Let’s not forget how to dance. But let’s also make sure to stumble over the unexpected more often.

What’s all that got to do with Keychange? Well, I personally see this initiative as a chance to get out of my own comfort zone more often. It’s not that I would be ignorant towards the fact that a 50% quota is artificially set and possibly not achievable for big commercial festivals in the nearer future. I know that.

But I do believe now, that sometimes, quotas are necessary for structural change. It shouldn’t end there, but it’s a starting point to open up, to establish new frames. It took us too long to make a change already. Humans are lazy. And humans in capitalistic societies even more.

Lydmor, one of the 2017 highlights. (Photo by Annett Bonkowski)

The point is that singular players in this field imposing quotas on themselves probably won’t make a difference. But an initiative of several players (hopefully increasing their numbers with every year) could start to make a difference. And it offers the opportunity to flank quotas with an alternative network. Keychange is not about marginalizing male bands, it’s about taking into consideration that there might be non-male acts out there you just don’t have on your radar because they lack that exact network. It’s worth the effort to take a closer look. Experiences at the Iceland Airwaves this year show, that it’s actually not that hard

It feels as if a lot of the things I pointed out are so obvious and self-explanatory, that I actually had a hard time to finish this text. So I’ll take the easy way out: I’m really looking forward to find one or another Nanette-moment on Reeperbahn Festival this year.

NBHAP presents the 2018 Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, happening from September 19 to 22. Find out more about the event’s approach towards Keychange right here.