Lilith Fair at 20: The Legacy of a Tour That Put Women First

Sarah McLachlan and others on taking a stand in a male-dominated era – and why Lilith's legacy still resonates

Sarah McLachlan, Natalie Merchant, Suzanne Vega and other Lilith Fair alums look back on the legacy of their groundbreaking women-centric fest. Credit: Tim Mosenfelder/ImageDirect

Twenty years ago this month, Sarah McLachlan and a rotating cast of fellow artists embarked on the women-centric traveling fest known as Lilith Fair. While the nostalgic view of the Nineties paints it as a decade where not just female-fronted, but female-populated acts surged on the pop and rock charts, Lilith's presence bucked music-industry norms that were still, quietly but firmly, directing radio playlists and tour routing. The venture was also a smashing success, becoming the top-grossing festival of 1997.

The musicians who appeared at Lilith – including Paula Cole, Lisa Loeb, Natalie Merchant and the Indigo Girls – were used to being in the minority. "I started at Berklee College of Music, where the ratio of men to women was about 13 to one," recalls Cole. "And that was pretty much a fair indication of what it would be like going forward. ... And then we noticed that the record company [was] primarily male, and then the more success we had, I started to notice that the playlists at radio were generally male and they wouldn't place [women] back to back. I found that actually to be a hard and fast rule at radio at the time – [higher-ups] instructed their DJs not to play women back to back."

"That was a definite thing where in radio programming – there was a quota on how many female artists could be played in any one-hour set," recalls Susanna Hoffs, who played on Lilith's second stage in 1997 as a solo act and returned with the Bangles for its 2010 revival. "Even in the Eighties, with the Bangles, journalists would tend to say, 'How do you feel about the Go-Gos?' There weren't many female bands, unfortunately, at that time, but still it always struck us."

The seeds of Lilith were planted in 1996, when McLachlan played a handful of shows with all-woman-fronted bills that included Cole, Loeb and Suzanne Vega. "I was a little surprised when she asked, at first, as it's true that you almost never had two women on the bill at that point in time, and certainly not three," recalls Vega. Traveling festivals, which had grown in popularity since the early-Nineties launch of Lollapalooza, were at the time dominated by male-fronted acts; in 1996 Lollapalooza shifted its aesthetic to a harder sound by having Metallica headline, and that year the metal-forward Ozzfest debuted as well.

"We sort of became the antithesis of that," recalls McLachlan. "And I enjoyed that. I enjoyed the fact that we were doing something unique and different. It was like, 'Well, if you're not gonna have any female artists on your tours, we're just gonna do it ourselves. We're gonna go over here and we're gonna do it ourselves. It's gonna be really fun.' And it was."

"I guess it was a radical idea at the time, but I thought it was a good radical idea," recalls Merchant, who co-headlined the 1998 tour. "I remember when I started in the early Eighties, I was always the only girl in the room. Not just the musicians, but all of the tech people every time I went in the studio, record companies. As the Nineties progressed, I found that there were more and more women sound engineers and there were more women musicians – in my band, I had a female guitar player. It just felt like the Nineties was a time when there was a shift. I finally had an A&R person who was a woman. My lawyer was a woman. My publicist was a woman. I was consciously moving in that direction."

Lilith's many acts, which for the most part rotated in and out over the course of the tour, were scattered over three stages, including a Village Stage that focused on up-and-coming and local artists. Having a woman-centric (but not woman-exclusive) space bucked music-business convention in a way that surprised observers. "It wasn't about exclusion," says McLachlan. "[Men would ask], 'Why don't you have men on the tour?' And I said, 'Well, honey, we do. The bands are full of men, there's lots of males in the crew. And we're all having a good time, too.' It's not exclusionary. It's inclusive. We're just celebrating women.

"The other really awful question that we got often was, 'Why do you hate men?' And I said, 'What does celebrating women have to do with hating men? That says way more about you and your ego than anything else.' But it was a question that got asked all the time, and it wasn't about that. Our mission is great music being made by women. It's not being represented, so we're filling that gap – and we're having a great time doing it."

"What does celebrating women have to do with hating men?" –Sarah McLachlan

"I know as an artist, initially, I was hesitant to be a part of an all-women festival, because I don't like to separate myself out as a woman musician," says Lisa Loeb, who appeared on every year of Lilith's Nineties incarnation. "But then I found out who the other bands were on the bill that she was inviting, and I just wanted to be a part of [something with] those other musicians – and they happened to be women. "

While the first year skewed heavily toward folk-tinged artists who were also getting lots of pop radio airplay – McLachlan, Cole, Loeb, Jewel, Sheryl Crow – the genre scope expanded over the tour's second and third years. "We were not a 'white chick folk fest,' which was what we were labeled the first year," says McLachlan. "That was extremely frustrating – we asked all sorts of artists from all sorts of different genres, and we basically got people who said yes. I think [the rejections were] partly because they didn't know who we were, they didn't know what we were capable of. Nor did we, quite frankly. After the first year, it was much easier to get artists, because managers looked at us and would say, 'This is a great bridge. My artist can play in front of a new audience and get a whole new audience.'" In the years that followed, Lilith's main-stage roster included genre-defying musicians like Neneh Cherry and Erykah Badu, as well as R&B upstarts like Monica and Mya; then-nascent pop stars like Nelly Furtado and Christina Aguilera played the Village Stage, as did folk performers like Tegan and Sara and Lori McKennna.

Lilith's 1997 edition brought in $16 million across its 37 North American dates, and it performed well in the two years that followed. "Back then everybody was really surprised about how successful [Lilith was], and how many tickets we could actually draw," says Nettwerk Management president Dan Fraser, who organized Lilith Fair alongside McLachlan, Nettwerk Music Group CEO Terry McBride and McLachlan's then-manager Marty Diamond. "Because we outdrew all of those festivals back in '97, '98 and '99. The social side of the show was so much more forward-thinking than the angst and the aggression that was usually at the sheds – unless it was Jimmy Buffett coming through to have a party."

"The success of it was a big surprise for me, because, like I said, I didn't go into it with an agenda," says McLachlan. "It just kind of happened. I hate to use the word 'organic,' but it did feel that way. It felt that it was a natural thing that we all got to participate in something that was way bigger than ourselves. And I think it's the closest thing to church that I understand – getting to sing, to share my purpose, to live my purpose, and to connect with other people who are feeling the same way, doing a similar thing, and creating that great energy of creating positive special change. That's what music does. It connects us, it brings us closer to ourselves and to each other."

"There was word that initially an all-women tour wouldn't sell tickets," said Emily Saliers of folk duo Indigo Girls, who came up with the idea for the night-closing singalong, which would bring all the evening's performers onstage. "The legacy of Lilith is kick-ass business, powerful music, a great example for girls to see women onstage, and the marriage of music and activism. The tours were legendary, as they should be."

Lilith came to a close in 1999, and its attempted return in 2010 proved frustrating, with 10 canceled dates and performers like Kelly Clarkson dropping out. "Our intentions, in hindsight, weren't really pure," says McLachlan. "It's like, 'Oh, this would be great to do this again. I've got a new record out and it worked last time.' We didn't look at how all those women who came to the shows in the Nineties now have children and jobs and mortgages."

McLachlan still has people asking her to bring Lilith back. Her response? "Someone of this generation needs to do it, if they choose." Grassroots efforts like Ladyfest, which has outposts around the world, combine Lilith's spirit with DIY mechanics and radical politics. But a larger-scale Lilith reboot, or a festival that operates in its image, would make a statement, especially since some of the prevailing attitudes that led to Lilith being such a watershed festival still dominate music in the 2010s. In 2015, radio consultant Keith Hill sparked "Tomatogate" when he made an awkward metaphor about women getting airplay at country radio: "I've got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19 percent. Trust me, I play great female records and we've got some right now; they're just not the lettuce in our salad," he told Country Aircheck. "The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females." Two years later, despite much-lauded releases by female solo artists like Miranda Lambert and Kelsea Ballerini, the country charts still skew heavily male.

The pop charts, meanwhile, have swung back to being male-dominated after the surge in the 2010s that led to artists like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Beyoncé dominating the conversation. While the Billboard 200 album chart recently had three back-to-back female solo artists – Halsey, Katy Perry and Lorde – at its summit, the Hot 100 singles chart, which factors airplay, streaming and sales, has been a boys' club for much of the year. Right now, the only woman in its top 10 is Rihanna, who appears on DJ Khaled's massive Santana-sampling hit "Wild Thoughts"; the highest-placing female solo artist is Julia Michaels, whose hazy "Issues" is at Number 20 and has been bobbing around the lower reaches of the Top 20 for a few weeks. The way streaming habits are tallied reverberates too; Ed Sheeran and Drake's 2017 chart-topping LPs led to the Hot 100 being flooded with those collections' album cuts, but none of the female artists who hit the Number One spot earlier this summer experienced a similar streaming-occasioned bump.

This summer's crop of big tours skews heavily male, particularly on the double-bill front. While the Blondie/Garbage Rage and Rapture double bill (which features openers like sullen pop upstart Sky Ferreira and bash-happy duo Deap Vally) puts ladies first, the summer's other shed offerings (Muse/30 Seconds to Mars, Stone Sour/Korn, Incubus/Jimmy Eat World) recall the Ozzfest and Lollapalooza lineups of the mid-to-late Nineties. Club and theater tours are more balanced, with a few lady-forward bills traveling the country – chugging indie rock act Waxahatchee is touring with Boston trio Palehound, while daughter of Lilith Michelle Branch is taking Brooklynites Haerts on the road – but the overall idea of women as some sort of musical other that should be taken in regimented doses still prevails.

While it's tempting to view analyses like the above as simple score-tallying, thinking about how women are presented in the pop landscape remains a worthy exercise 20 years after Lilith made its first go-round. Back when it started, some observers took potshots at Lilith for creating a space that was focused on women; others critiqued the festival for being too focused on female-fronted acts and ignoring women who were playing instruments. Over the years, "women in rock" ideals have still largely focused on white cis-presenting singers, but female musicians, including female musicians of color as well as trans and non-binary artists, have released and been recognized for their vital music as well, from the bass-wielding funk explorer Esperanza Spalding to the thundering punk act Against Me! to the many instrumentalists who have backed up Beyoncé over the course of her career, including the 10-piece collective Suga Mama, who played with her in the late 2000s.

And Lilith Fair's legacy of supporting charities devoted to helping women, which was commemorated at a daily press conference where McLachlan would present a local nonprofit with a check representing a percentage of ticket sales, reverberates today with artists who speak up, play benefit shows and raise money for causes they believe in – including McLachlan. "I took all the money that I made from Lilith and put it into a foundation," she says. "I started a free music school for [at-risk] kids in Vancouver, which I've been running and funding for the last 16 years. That's a beautiful legacy, and it was born out of, 'What does music mean to me?' Music is about connecting and community and creating joy and creating love for music. And I get to see that every day now. We've got 1,100 kids in the program. We've opened a school up in Edmonton. We're going strong 16 years later. So that's a pretty cool legacy."

It's one that reverberates far beyond music, too. "I was at the Juno Awards," recalls McLachlan, "and this woman, she was probably close to 40, came up to me and said, 'You know, I was at Lilith, all three of them, when I was a teenager. And you guys showed me that I could do anything. And I'm now running a company. You all inspired me to understand that I could actually do anything that I wanted to do.' Lots of women would come up to me and say things like, 'You showed us that you were living your dream and you were succeeding at that, and it kind of opened up my eyes, that we could do whatever we wanted to do.'"