National Women’s Music Festival

Festival producer Jane Weldon chronicles how Madison became the home to this 35-year mission.

Festival producer Jane Weldon chronicles how Madison became the home to this 35-year mission.

May 8, 1974 | First National Women’s Music Festival in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

May 20 – June 2

“This festival, long overdue in our country, has many purposes. First, it would examine and discuss problems of women in music in America and why they are so under-represented. This would involve examination of such aspects as contractual disparities in the record industry between men and women musicians, women’s involvement in the Musician’s Union, women radio announcers, the situation of women in backup music as opposed to vocal, and the psychological structures developed that would tend to deter women from the pursuit of a career in music. Secondly, the conference would provide a chance for women musicians to meet and play together, to perform for each other, to exchange songs, and to learn more about music and themselves.”

“Thus, the purpose of the event would be both to instruct and to entertain. Its emphasis would be placed on nonclassical music, since we feel in the scope of the conference we can best only cover so much. We hope to have two or three evening concerts of well-known women musicians, and many workshops, seminars, and small concerts by day. In addition, we are seeking contact with other women-run operations in music, such as women-run recording studios, with the idea of recording the concerts in mind.”

A Newsletter About Women in Music & The Music In Women Issue #2

Editor, Indy Allen
Troutedale, Oregon

As I contemplate those words and the message in that 35-year old typewritten newsletter, I am deeply moved to realize how little has changed. For many of the same reasons, the National Women’s Music Festival remains today, the first and longest-running women’s music festival in the United States. Women In the Arts, Inc., (WIA) is a non-profit 501c-3 corporation whose sole purpose is to produce the Festival. Its mission is to create opportunities and venues for women to exhibit, celebrate and share their artistic achievements.

Today, we admire many women artists who have found their way through the struggle to the top of the charts, to the headline spots at national festivals, to the places women artists only dreamt of not-so-very long ago. In the culture of women’s music, we also celebrate fully those who paved the way and those who continue to fight for airplay, record deals and stages to call their own. This is the National Women’s Music Festival.

From 1974 to 2007, the Festival (NWMF) made its home on various college campuses. After just a year at the University of Illinois (Champaign-Urbana), the Festival moved on, first, to Indiana University, Bloomington, for 20 years, before moving to Ball State in Muncie, then Kent State in Kent, Ohio, then Ohio State in Columbus, and finally to Illinois State University in Normal. Over those decades, so many artists graced the stages and the halls of NWMF with their gifts, and so many credit the Festival with being integral to their careers.

My friends and I made our first trip to the NWMF in the late 1980s, when it was on the Indiana University campus. I will never forget the opening moments, seeing the video, “One Fine Day,” for the first time. I remember the tears, the excitement, and how surreal it was to be surrounded by thousands of women who were so incredibly happy. Then, I remember a shy, young artist, who came out and sat alone on what seemed to be a massive stage. She played a single song on her guitar that brought the house down. Someone near me asked who she was, but no one around us knew… then. Just a few months later that shy, young artist hit the charts with “Fast Car.” She was Tracy Chapman, and my love affair with NWMF began that weekend in Bloomington, Indiana.

Across the decades, as more festivals and venues were born, the crowds became smaller. With costs going up and attendance going down, it became a challenge for the WIA Board and volunteers to keep the Festival alive. However, the need for this event remained, as did this rich history that had to be preserved.

Based on a lot of feedback, the Board decided in 2007 to move away from a university setting. Festi-goers had become more selective with how they wanted to spend their money, and they no longer wished to sleep in dormitory rooms or eat cafeteria food. The decline in attendance the NWMF had experienced was never about the entertainment; it was more about comfort.

The Board also knew that moving the Festival around was not a plus for building attendance. NWMF needed a permanent home. Most importantly, it needed a home in a city that embraced the Festival, where volunteers and staff could be involved year round and not be fearful of repercussions from their association with a women’s event. The NWMF needed Madison, Wisconsin! In December of 2007 the Board voted unanimously to make what it intends to be its last move. Madison has everything NWMF needs for success and a long-term partnership.

Board members and other volunteers leaped into the familiar rush to learn a new venue and get the details in order with only six months from the date of the decision until the Festival. It had a great feel from the start.

The 2008 National Women’s Music Festival was held at the Alliant Energy Center Exhibition Hall in Madison. Past attendees found the transition an easy one. With a hotel attached, most Festi-goers stayed onsite and were able to feel the sense of community that builds across the Festival’s four days. NWMF 2008 was a great success. At the 2008 NWMF’s end, we had a new Madison Board member and amazing volunteers who stepped into key positions.

Another milestone occurred for NWMF in 2008. On the Saturday night main stage, Women In the Arts, Inc., signed a collective bargaining agreement with Local 1000, the North American Traveling Musicians Union. NWMF became the second Festival, the other being Pete Seeger’s Clearwater, to sign a CBA with the Union, and NWMF is the only women’s music festival with such an agreement. Through this agreement, NWMF guarantees artists fair wages and a pension contribution on behalf of each musician. Looking back to that 1974 article, the Festival still holds those same values.

For 2009, the NWMF announced a new partnership with the Madison Marriott West. This facility brings all of the events into one conference center with great meeting rooms, excellent acoustics, multiple food options, and excellent hotel rates. Another wonderful feature of this location is the close proximity (walking distance) to multiple hotels at various prices and many restaurants close by. These options will allow everyone to find lodging and food that fit their individual needs, while still having easy access to everything at all four days of the Fest itself.

The 2009 NWMF will be July 2-5, and those dates will continue to be the Festival’s dates into the future. In 2009 the holiday (July 4) falls on the weekend, but this will not always be the case. Signing on to this consistent date allowed the Festival to secure better hotel rates and will give many attendees the benefit of a holiday from work, with more time to travel!

The 2009 lineup is packed with talent, some NWMF legends and many new faces. Festival favorites, Lucie Blue Tremblay, Zoe Lewis and Pamela Means, will return along with spoken-word artist, Alix Olson. The comedic genius trio of Lisa Koch, Vickie Shaw and Roxanna Ward return by popular demand and are guaranteed to make you laugh until you cry. Maggie Cassella, a favorite comic headliner during Women’s Week in Provincetown, makes her NWMF debut this year. Some awesome musicians are also making their first NWMF appearances: Steff Mahan, Julie Clark and Adrianne, along with Erin Mckeown, Patrice Pike and Sarah Bettens are sure to rock the house.

Women of the Drum is a must-see this year. This cultural collaboration of rhythm and sound features Judy Piazza and the amazing Ubaka Hill. An NWMF version of “Idol” will also take the stage for the first time. Winners from Kansas City and Indianapolis will join our Madison finalists for the semi-finals on Thursday and the big event on Sunday. The NWMF Idol winner will be featured on the Festival main stage in 2010, so the competition will be fierce! The Sunday stage also will feature the Fest’s annual all-performer jam where attendees get to see all of the NWMF artists on stage together in a live jam session, always a Festival highlight!

Music is just one part of the Festival. The NWMF is full of workshops (including a writers’ series, a women’s spirituality series, an animal lovers’ series and more!) networking and fantastic shopping in the Marketplace. The NWMF Auction is quite the event, a show within itself really, where everything from kayaks to breathy wake-up messages from favorite performers are sold to the highest bidder. The Auction, along with the intimate Sunday Artists’ fundraising breakfast, are events that help pay the bills and seed the 2010 Festival.

Find more on NWMF and purchase your tickets at wiaonline.org.

*Editor’s Note: The National Women’s Music Festival continues to be held in Dane County. The 2015 festival is to be held on July 2nd, 2015 through July 5th, 2015.