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Lilith: On Message?

Mary J. Blige at Lilith; credit:David Bergman/Getty Images i i

hide captionMary J. Blige at one of the Lilith shows that wasn't cancelled - Minneapolis, July 18, 2010.

David Bergman/Getty Images
Mary J. Blige at Lilith; credit:David Bergman/Getty Images

Mary J. Blige at one of the Lilith shows that wasn't cancelled - Minneapolis, July 18, 2010.

David Bergman/Getty Images

The revived Lilith Fair — or simply Lilith, as it's now called — is catching heat once again. It's not the woman-centered vision that brought out the jackals in the 1990's. This time around it has more to do with the way the festival is being managed: fans are venting their frustrations over ticket prices and disappointing line-ups. Or no lineups at all — a third of the tour has been canceled. So it's no surprise that Lilith co-founder Sarah McLachlan and Terry McBride, CEO of her label and management company, are on message when it comes to promoting the festival: it's not only about music-making, they say — it's a progressive social enterprise. But their actions and some of their statements — or silences — raise questions.

Terry McBride has only one regret when he looks back at the end of the original Lilith Fair in 1999: "That our charitable initiatives ended with it ... There were so many good things that Lilith did, but we didn't take the opportunity to keep going."

Those good things included raising 10 million dollars for a variety of women's charities over three summers, accomplished through a combination of corporate sponsorships and contributions from ticket sales. A dollar per ticket was donated to local organizations in the cities along Lilith's tour route, one of the ways the festival earned its progressive, socially-conscious reputation.

When I interviewed McBride and Sarah McLachlan on June 30, Lilith's Phoenix and Nashville shows had already been canceled. Amid rumors of other dates falling through due to slow ticket sales — ten more would be canceled on July 1 — McBride was eager to address the media speculation about Phoenix and Nashville.

He said the Phoenix show was canceled over objections to Arizona's immigration law SB 1070 raised by Lilith's artists. The Nashville show was canceled to avoid competition with groups raising money for flood relief, according to McBride.

He continues to repeat these explanations to the press — but they warrant further examination.

According to Nettwerk publicist Danielle Romeo, the Phoenix show (July 8) was canceled on May 21 and the Nashville show (August 7) on June 22. Although Lilith's publicity team has been kept busy this spring — often sending out several press releases about the festival in the course of a single week — they never issued any public statement about these cancellations, leaving it entirely to local promoters, Romeo confirms. If the reasons were altruistic, wouldn't they want to trumpet them?

McBride and McLachlan only start leaving a paper trail regarding SB 1070 and flood relief through press interviews at the end of June — a month after the Phoenix show was canceled.

"We had some artists come to us and say we don't feel comfortable in Phoenix because we can't fathom the thought of a fan getting arrested at our show," McBride explained in our interview. "And when that was said to us it was like oh, my God. There was that opportunity. We can't even go there."

So if artists raised objections to SB1070, which ones were they? Romeo confirmed that one objection came from the twitter feed of Belinda Carlisle, but declined to name any others. The twitter feed "Belindaofficial," linked to "Belinda Carlisle Official" on Facebook, did in fact urge Lilith to drop the Phoenix dates. BUT it may not actually be Carlisle tweeting. It's not connected to her website — there's another official Facebook page that is. Carlisle's publicist Mehgan Prophet did not return repeated phone calls for comment.

So who said what and when did they say it?

In a June 25th article in the Toronto Globe and Mail, Norah Jones' management said that all five of her scheduled dates on the tour had been canceled. Lilith didn't confirm those cities (West Palm Beach, Tampa, Houston, Dallas, and Birmingham, Ala.) until five days later.

A lot of the negative chatter might have been circumvented if Lilith had been more forthcoming. Were they worried that negative publicity and news of cancellations would hurt sales in other cities?  Almost certainly. But the news got out anyway — through the same social media sites the festival employed to empower fans to become part of the Lilith process.

Through Facebook, fans were enlisted to choose the local women's charities that would receive the donations from ticket sales in each city. In March, some of those fans discovered a number of "life centers" — pro-life crisis pregnancy centers — on the lists and successfully protested to have them removed from online voting.

According to the Chicago Reader, which broke the story, no one at Lilith vetted any of the organizations before posting them nor had they determined a policy in advance for what kinds of organizations might be considered.

Although Lilith is continuing its old tradition of donating a dollar per ticket to local women's charities, this is a comparatively smaller portion of its own revenue than a decade ago — considering that ticket prices that now range from $10 for lawn seats to $700 for VIP tickets. With most venues ranging from 9,000 to 15,000 seats, you can do the math.

"I don't think you understand what you're doing," McBride said, a comment meant to address the media writ large. "Lilith is not about ticket sales. It's about the experience of Lilith — about artists getting together to make this world a better place. While you're so focused on the negativity, you're out there hurting a lot of people who are trying to do really good work."

If McBride was attempting to use serious social issues (flooding and immigration) to divert attention from poor ticket sales after the fact — including one that has been especially divisive in the US — then perhaps he doesn't understand what he's doing.

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