Q’s With Fortress Festival Founders Alec Jhangiani And Ramtin Nikzad

– Fortress Festival

One of the hot button topics surrounding music festivals this year is equal gender representation, both in the acts performing and in the faculty that puts organizes the event. 

Its no secret that the majority of acts on a typical festival lineup are male artists or male-fronted groups. It wasn’t until recently that female artists began headlining major festivals, as Lady Gaga made headlines in 2017 when she was the first female artist to headline Coachella in a decade. Still, only a few female artists have played headlining sets at major festivals, including Beyoncé, Bjork and Florence + The Machine

All the discussion prompted a group of 45 music festivals (most in Europe) to sign a pledge to have equal gender representation on lineups by 2022. 

But some festivals have already hit the mark or are close. Among them is Fortress Festival, founded by film producers-turned-promoters Alec Jhangiani and Ramtin Nikzad, which takes place April 28-29 in the Cultural District of Fort Worth, Texas. 

Fortress Festival lacks female headliners, but the lineup still consists of a near-50/50 split of female and male acts, including Courtney Barnett, Tune-Yards,

Jhangiani and Nikzad organized film festivals before they moved to the music biz, coming up with the idea for Fortress Festival in 2015 and launching it in 2017. The pair spoke to Pollstar about booking the festival and gender equality in the live music industry. 
How do you go about curating the lineup?

Giant Noise
– Alec Jhangiani

Alec Jhangiani: The lineup is dependent on so many different factors. As far as the bands that end up on the lineup, it really comes down to what myself, Ramtin and Matt, our talent buyer, thinks is interesting and what fits our budget and who’s available. 
Being in Fort Worth, we started out wanting to kind of defy expectations of what people would think of a festival in Fort Worth, which everyone obviously associates with country music. I’m not saying we turned our backs on that but something that we wanted from the start was to show people that we’re not just about one genre. We have a lot of hip-hop, interesting rock, alternative stuff and progressive music. 

What do you think of all the discussion regarding gender equality on festival lineups?
Jhangiani: To be totally honest and transparent, there isn’t a mandate or a deliberate direction on our part to be more inclusive of female acts. It’s something we are very aware of and we try to be very conscious of that potential bias within ourselves and the people we are working with and try to remove that as much as humanly possible. So that’s why what we ended up with what can appear to have more of an emphasis on female acts. We hope that that would be a norm, rather than an exception. We are conscious of it. We try to be as unbiased as possible while trying to choose the best music. 
Ramtin Nikzad: From the beginning, like Alec said, our main concern is booking the strongest lineup. That’s usually a balancing act of a number things, like getting artists that there is demand for, getting artists who can draw a crowd in this area — but then we’re looking for other things, like what genres are underrepresented and balancing that with discovery or artists you might be taking a risk on. Hopefully someone comes to the festival and see’s this band for the first time and then they walk away with a new favorite artist. 
All that is taken into consideration when you’re booking. As far as deliberately booking female acts, like Alec said there was no conscious decision to do that, but we are very aware of the lack of representation. Sometimes I think it’s maybe some deep programming of like looking at every decision with a fresh take and seeing which one is the best. 
Father John Misty and De La Soul are headlining this year, what made them attractive acts for you to book? 
Nikzad: For Father John Misty, we’re also fans and we enjoy his music, but he also seemed like a very good act for Fort Worth. He played Dallas and he did really well, so he’s got a really good following here. He played Dallas about a year ago and that show did really well and whether it’s the word of mouth or just our friends, or from what we hear online through people that interact with us on social media, or anything else. At that point we also had most of the lineup in place and it seemed like Father John Misty was such a good complement to everything else that we had in place and it seemed to make perfect sense for a Sunday lineup. 
Jhangiani: Like I mentioned before, we do have a priority on hip-hop and that’s something that’s one of the biggest genres in the world. One thing that is pretty undeniable is that Fort Worth as a market does not have access to a lot of hip-hop, so that’s definitely something that we want to make sure is a part of our lineup every year.
Last year we had Run The Jewels and we had Flying Lotus which is a little bit of that, and we had some local hip-hop acts. We’re very interested in iconic groups like that, that represent a big part of the history and the foundation of modern hip-hop and rap. It worked out with De La and they were touring in support of their last album and remain very relevant, putting on great shows around the world. They were the perfect band for our market. 
What are some of your favorite artists on the lineup? 

Giant Noise
– Ramtin Nikzad

Jhangiani: I would say Courtney Barnett for me. I never got the chance to see her live, so I’m really looking forward to that. I think that she will also be one of those bands that find to have a great response in Fort Worth. I find her to be so unique in so many ways and obviously her songwriting, which, no secret, is kind of second to none right now. I think she’s one of those singular creatives right now in music.
That maybe even more so with Tune-Yards in terms of the style of music that they’re making and how experimental it is. Tune-Yards actually has kind of an interesting connection with us as well because they just did the music for a film that one of our friends and former colleagues, “Sorry To Bother You,” which just came out of Sundance. That speaks to their versatility and their ability to innovate. 
Nikzad: For me, Rhapsody and Jay Som were both artists that were looking at that were a new discovery for us and got really excited about while booking the festival. 
Being a smaller festival, what are the challenges of booking in such a competitive time of year? 
Nikzad: Yes, like you said this is our second year so, in a way, as far as booking music, this is all we know at this point. But it does feel that way because there are so many other festivals and we are kind of right at the beginning of it, right after Coachella. And there are so many variables. You have your budget, who else is touring, who is routing through, what do all the other festivals have going on at that time. A lot of people make their decisions about how they are going to set up their tour for the entire summer season. 
All those things come into play. It is quite a process that takes several months and a lot of revisions and a lot of back and forth before you get the final lineup in place. That’s the really the challenge of it, having a vison that you can keep in place from start to finish. Even though a lot of the individual names kind of change throughout that process. 
But standing up with a final lineup that you think there is cohesion to and all the acts kind of compliment and talk to each other, I’d like to think we achieved that with this year’s lineup. 

What are your thoughts on the pledge that was signed by 45 music festivals to achieve 50/50 gender representation on lineups? 
Jhangiani: I don’t know if I have any strongly formed opinions about it. I think it’s laudable, I think the intention is admirable. I think any step that we can take towards that or any attempt to have a conversation is always a good thing. 
Everyone one of those festivals are in different markets and they have different circumstances behind them. It’s hard for me to say that one uniform approach will work for everybody, but I do think it’s sort of a step in the right direction. I think somehow it does need to be addressed but I don’t think such a thing is necessarily enforceable or something that is even applied evenly. 
I think we alluded to it a little bit earlier, but there are so many specific factors that ultimately color who is in your lineup. There’s all these things that affect who you ultimately end up with. Sometimes when you’re looking at your options there might be three male led acts and one female led acts and there’s whole process of elimination of who hasn’t played in the area, who doesn’t have a radius conflict, who fits within our budget. As you go through all those considerations there are limitations that are imposed on you. 

What needs to be done to achieve gender equality in the live industry? 
Jhangiani: I think we can take some inspiration from the film world right now with films like “Wonder Woman” and “Black Panther.” These films are demonstrating to the industry –  which is always going to be based on profit – that diversity and inclusion is profitable. That’s always going to be a huge factor, and obviously that requires someone to take the first steps and position people where they are able to succeed in that way.
I think as an industry and as a business, change is going to be in a large extent predicated by money. So it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg thing. You have the decision make that give women and minorities opportunities to succeed at a high level. It’s undeniable when they do. 
Nikzad: I would also say that it’s such a deep cultural thing that exists right now and many spheres and politics and everyday life and the job market. I think we have to be a consciousness community and society to be aware of those biases. It really is so holistic it’s hard to really look at any of this in isolation.  In every node there needs to be some kind of change.