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Local Music Makers

Women to the Front Festival 2022

By Peggy Ratusz

Over centuries, decades and years, incrementally, gender disparities within the music industry have been changing; and sometimes for the better.

Ten years ago, I dedicated an entire feature to the statistics I found in my research, supporting that there’s big strides needed toward equity; specifically in the music business.

On the billboard’s top 40 this week (May 1, 2022), there are 12 female artists. That’s 30%. In July of 2017, billboard’s top 40 had one woman on it. It fluctuates up and down each week for sure, but the bottom line is the same. Women are still undervalued, underpaid and underrepresented in what some critics claim is the most powerful voice in the industry.

Smaller independent radio stations and smaller music venues across the country do a fair to decent job at controlling their own production schedule, in that they will play 2 female artists in a row or book 2 female fronted acts on one weekend; But the bigger venues and festivals, not so much….still.

I just now read the calendar listings on one of the most popular venues in our country, Red Rocks in Morrison Colorado. Out of 100 concerts booked between now and September, twelve of them are female fronted. Twelve…..out of 100.

One of those artists is my all-time favorite musician, Bonnie Raitt who has been making records since she was 22 years old. And yet when she received her Grammy this year for “lifetime achievement” that footage was not televised. Out of 96 recipients the Grammy’s have given out, a little over 30% have been to females. And a few of those were given posthumously. Raitt is especially grateful for hers, given that she is still working and touring at age 72.

One of the most popular music festivals in the South just happened, and out of 78 acts, 15 were female fronted and that’s a measly 19%.

Melissa McKinney is a local trailblazing musician and advocate for all things women and all things philanthropic. Along with friend Dani Cox who is a solutions-driven, get it done and get it done right champion of the ladies, the differently-abled and BIPOC, they’ve teamed up to co-produce a music festival with deep and positive significance.

I had the pleasure of talking with them about the all-local, all-female music and arts festival they will host on Sunday, June 26th from noon-8pm at New Belgium Brewing Company.

Women to the Front or WTF is a concert event “dedicated to celebrating women.” The mission is to “close the gaps that still exist by lifting women-identified artists and to inspire the next generations of empowered women.” Not only will all the acts be all-females, but the sound engineers are female and the vendors are from female owned businesses.

The meeting of the minds and hearts of these two fire-starters was serendipitous in nature with implications they gleaned more profoundly as time went on. They had each other at hello.

Dani says she was hounded and encouraged by mutual friends to seek out McKinney, knowing they would be kindred spirits. They credit their friend, Patrick, for being the conduit to their partner/friendship. Melissa and Patrick were gigging together during a time when Dani was co-writing with him. He invited Dani to meet him at one of McKinney’s local shows.

“You can feel Melissa’s spirit instantly when you meet her and she made it easy for me to want to be around her,” says Cox. After just a few minutes of conversation, Dani and Melissa were inspired by each other’s quest for finding more and different ways to uplift the community. Dani continues, “Her vision aligned with mine.”

Melissa expresses her vocation: “We can all learn from each other, even from people who aren’t as far along on their journey as we are. There’s stuff to be learned from them and I think that’s the exciting part of all of this.”

While their differences in approach and philosophies can waiver between miniscule to polar opposite, the common ground they stand on is where WTF Festival was conceived. Their exchanges and inspired action have already caused ripples that will be felt within our community for a long time to come. With this endeavor, they are quite literally, making Asheville music history. The magnitude of it is excitingly palpable while I sit in front of them in Melissa’s studio downtown.

“We’ve got to keep moving forward, this social mentality that musicians need to be paid for their artistic energy output, Dani says, while Melissa expands from this vibration: “While Dani is correct, and I agree with her wholeheartedly, at times I invest and give of my time to things I deem worthy, and my compensation is of a different value and nature.”

I’ll go out on a limb here and say that’s why they decided that this festival, the first of its kind in our area, will be free to the public. With sponsorships to pay the acts coming in at the time of our interview, the maiden voyage of the WTF Festival 2022 is positioned to be one that compensates while it indemnifies.

With over 30 acts vying for spots and slots, these two dream makers are poised to offer air time and compensation to the crux of the groups and individuals who have submitted forms of interest.

The energy this festival will surely ignite, added to the daily efforts of women and men everywhere to bridge gaps and squelch disparities throughout worldwide music channels, should prompt every one of us to attend. Our very presence there will signify that we are united and solutions-minded in this ongoing conundrum.

Melissa was confronted recently with a male caller who sought information about the festival. He wondered who she’ll get to play the instruments at the all-female local festival if men are not included in the lineup. Melissa politely retorted “Your question will be answered when you attend the festival. That’s why we’re doing this.”

Quotes from popular music icons:

Other people call me a rebel, but I feel like I’m just living my life and doing what I want to do. Sometimes people call that rebellion, especially when you’re a woman - Joan Jett

I’ve always been fascinated about how much more well-behaved we have to be than men - Jennifer Lopez

I don’t have to prove anything to anyone. I only have to follow my heart and concentrate on what I want to say to the world. I run my world - Beyonce

There’s something special about a woman who dominates in a man’s world. It takes grace, intelligence and fearlessness and the nerve to never take no for an answer – Rihanna

Peggy Ratusz is a vocal coach,

song interpreter, and songwriter.

For vocal coaching email her at


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