Welcome to Nowhere: How one indie festival is making a dent in a male-dominated music scene

There's no cellphone reception, no internet access and no worries.

For its attendees, Welcome to Nowhere is a chance to step away from the fast-paced city life where they can camp out, laze in a swimming hole and enjoy the best music, poetry, comedy and art Aotearoa has to offer.

But for its organisers, the festival is a chance to make a change to an industry which overwhelmingly focuses on men and male-centered acts.  

Welcome to Nowhere curator Joel Manu Cosgrove and co-curator Bianca Bailey are working hard to ensure their festival is a breath of fresh air in a male-dominated landscape.

Cosgrove says it's vital that events represent the people who attend them.

"Gender inclusivity is important in music, as it is in everything else - you want your events to represent the people who come and our audience isn't just dudes playing guitars," he told Newshub. 

Almost 60 percent of the acts playing are centered around women or non-cisgendered people. 

It's a far cry from New Zealand's more mainstream festivals - Bay Dreams faced criticism for its 2021 male-centric lineup with just six out of 25 acts in the first announcement including women. 

In 2020, just three out of 27 acts in Wellington's Homegrown lineup included women and just 14 percent of Soundsplash's lineup included at least one non-male artist.

The problem is so prolific there's an Instagram account dedicated to photoshopping male artists out of New Zealand and Australian festival lineup announcements. 

For Cosgrove and Bailey, Welcome to Nowhere is a chance to make a change to an outdated industry.

Bailey told Newshub conscious programming is vital.

"If you are an industry professional, in a position of power then I think you have a responsibility to do something - and gender equality is just one part of a series of things which need improvement in the industry.

"Our kaupapa is all about inclusivity and community - gender equality is just one part of a range of things we are conscious of in our programming."

Cosgrove says they don't follow any strict quota to ensure they are booking women and gender diverse people but credits the festival's inclusivity to it's upper management.

"Part of ensuring equality is having a good team - a group of people who feel comfortable raising the issues they have and calling out the things they see that perhaps aren't quite right," he told Newshub. 

The main stage from February's festival.
The main stage from February's festival. Photo credit: Supplied

"Having diversity in your upper management means that you can see those blind spots you might not have even noticed you had."

While Welcome to Nowhere is more diverse than other Kiwi festivals, Cosgrove doesn't shy away from the fact there is more to do.

"We're definitely not perfect, we all have blind spots and make mistakes, I know I have - we're not some kind of totem pole of equality but it's about trying to improve and learn."

As well as ensuring an inclusive space in terms of gender diversity, Welcome to Nowhere has a strong focus on harm reduction - it's one of the few festivals in New Zealand which publicly promotes it will have drug testing service Know Your Stuff on site.

The service currently exists in a "legal grey area" meaning some festivals are hesitant to admit it will be available - but Cosgrove says this is "negligent". 

"We don't encourage or promote drug use, but we're also realistic," he says.

"It's negligent to pretend people don't sneak drugs in, and it's further negligent not to prepare for those contingencies.

"Every person who gets rid of their drugs because they've been tested and aren't what the person thought they were, makes our festival a safer space."

And it works - a survey of Welcome to Nowhere's 2020 attendees showed 98.2 percent percent of respondents felt safe during the festival and 100 percent said they enjoyed the experience. 

It's hard work which spans months but Cosgrove says the looks on people's faces as they drive through the gates makes all the effort worthwhile.

"We can get quite beat down with all the work but as soon as you see those first few fresh faces coming in, their looks are just priceless - it makes it all worth it."

For Bailey, the sense of community is what inspires her.

"This is exactly the kind of festival I want to be a part of and I'm really excited."

Welcome to Nowhere 2021 will be held February 6-7, just outside Whanganui.