MusicMusic Features

Femme Fest Spotlights Local Women in Rock at The Milestone

Female, femme-presenting and LGBTQIA+ communities represented in all-day concert

a portrait of Oh! You Pretty Things
Oh! You Pretty Things members helped launch Femme Fest, scheduled for May 11 at The Milestone. (Photo by Melanie Mae)

2024 seems to be a banner year for women in the music industry. In February, women artists including Miley Cyrus, música urbana dynamo Karol G and singer-songwriter Victoria Monét swept the Grammy Awards. The unstoppable Taylor Swift won her history-making fourth album of the year, and Paramore became the first woman-fronted band to win Best Rock Album. 

Under this note of triumph, however, currents of discord continue to sound. Two music industry reports published this year, “Be the Change: Gender Equity in Music” in the United States and “Misogyny in Music” in the United Kingdom, confirm a shocking level of sexual harassment, abuse and gender discrimination in the industry.  (Britain’s conservative government subsequently rejected all of the “Misogyny in Music” report’s recommendations.) 

Callie Wolfe and Joseph Conde, cofounders of Charlotte alt-rock band Oh! You Pretty Things, are well aware that the music industry is still a boys club, riddled with discrimination against women and femme-presenting artists. As members of a popular band with a growing regional audience, they’ve decided to leverage Oh! You Pretty Things’ burgeoning fan base to do something about their chosen industry’s gender inequities. 

The result is Femme Fest, an all-day charity music show scheduled for May 11 at The Milestone, presented by Conde’s Showalter Records and sponsored by nonprofit House Shows for Hope. The festival features 10 bands or artists that have at least one female or femme-presenting member, or are members of the LGBTQIA+ community. 

“The bands are in our local and … regional music scene,” Wolfe says. “We’re coming together to raise awareness and funds for local charities that support and contribute to those communities.”

Oh! You Pretty Things is on the eclectic and impressive bill, which also includes Queen City electronic music duo Girl Brutal, singer-songwriter Marissa Missing, Savannah alt-metal punk rockers Neckromance, raw Carolinas cabaret rocker Jordyn Zaino’s supergroup With Haste!, Charlotte’s anthemic feminist punk rockers Hey RICHARD, western North Carolina’s indie-punk post-hardcore band Fantømex, Charlotte sludge-punk purveyors Wastoid, ferocious Savannah grunge outfit The Maxines, and Charlotte alt-indie rock band Leaving For Arizona.

All of the bands are playing for free, Conde says, although artists traveling to the gig from out of town will receive a gas stipend. Likewise, three photographers and a videographer slated to record the fest will also receive gas stipends, and The Milestone’s operation costs for the evening will also be paid from the fest’s total takings.

Once all that is covered, the rest of the proceeds will be evenly distributed between eight organizations, says Conde. 

The recipients of the festival’s proceeds are Center for Reproductive Rights, Time Out Youth, Saffron, Femme House, Girls Rock Camp Alliance, Women in Music, Abortion Funds and We Rock Charlotte, where Hey RICHARD’s Krystle Baller serves as creative director. Conde says the fest sought to mix local charities with national and international organizations that help women entering the music industry.

a black and white portrait of the band members from punk-sludge band, Wastoid
Wastoid (Photo by Evan Dennis)

“They can start offsetting the inequities in the amount of women that are producers or in the larger management roles,” Conde says. “We all listen to a lot of female artists, but women in the production and business side of the industry are particularly underrepresented.”

Wolfe feels there many talented individuals, female as well as genderfluid/nonbinary, that have so much potential as producers or designers.

“I don’t think it’s fair that they’re not given that same opportunity or representation,” Wolfe says. 

The situation particularly hits hard for Wolfe, who identifies as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Oh! You Pretty Things, a group where three-fifths of the members identify as non-binary or not heterosexual, is also sensitive to the music industry’s homophobia and transphobia. 

Misogyny within the music industry

Conde says his awakening to music industry sexism occurred simply from being in a woman-fronted band and being friends with other women-fronted or female majority bands. Women would tell him how often they would be brushed aside or not taken seriously by promoters, producers and fans.

“Fans come up at a show and talk to a guy and [say], ‘Wow, you’re so great!’” Conde says. “Then they talk to a woman, and it becomes more personal and about their looks.”

As a performer, Wolfe has experienced how hypersexualization in the culture informs the way women are viewed when they’re onstage. Some less subtle misogyny can occur when fans approach her after a set. 

“I’ll have someone come up to me and it’s almost like a quiz; ‘What kind of gear do you use?’” Wolfe says. “It’s like [they’re] testing me. There’s a, ‘Do you really know what you’re doing?’ vibe that I get.”

When it came time to put Femme Fest together, however, Conde and Wolfe really weren’t entirely sure how to proceed. The idea had begun to germinate when women’s abortion rights were overturned by the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision. Oh! You Pretty Things subsequently played a show at Petra’s where the band donated their merch earnings and door pay-out to Planned Parenthood. 

Wolfe and Conde, who frequently hold long conversations together about the state of the world, decided to take the concept of using music to support women one step further.

In 2023, the band booked its first out-of-state tour, playing cities like Nashville and Chicago, and covering 2,700 miles in seven days.

Aubrey Hollopeter from Leaving for Arizona playing drums during a show in Charlotte
Aubrey Hollopeter from Leaving for Arizona (Photo by Lila Rosser)

“As we started going on the road more and playing out of town shows, we started to find bands that we sound similar to, [as well as] bands that are female majority or female-fronted,” Conde says. 

Soon, he and Wolfe had compiled a list of artists they wanted to ask to play a charity festival in Charlotte.

“At the end of every show [we played with] these bands, we’d ask them, ‘Hey, we’re thinking about putting together a Femme Fest,” Conde says. 

Some bands refused to join the bill because of things Conde and Wolfe consider insignificant. For instance, The Milestone doesn’t have a green room, and Femme Fest didn’t have a budget for catering. But the bands that did commit were completely into the fest’s goals and concept.   

“As soon as we started to describe it, they were, ‘Oh fuck yes, we’ll do it!’” Conde says.

In the meantime Oh! You Pretty Things had been making a name for itself at The Milestone, so much so that the band started thinking of Charlotte’s venerable music club as a kind of home base. That in mind, they reached out to Milestone owner Wyley Buck Boswell, who confirmed the venue for Femme Fest.

During this process, extra funds were donated to Femme Fest through the nonprofit House Shows for Hope, which is run by Peter Ippolito, the lead singer of revered Taylorsville-based pop-punk band Home For The Day.

Conde and Wolfe had met Ippolito when both Oh! You Pretty Things and Home For The Day played at The Underground in Charlotte’s AvidXchange Music Factory in November 2022. Ippolito’s nonprofit stages house shows in Taylorsville to raise money for organizations including Toys for Tots.

“Peter helped us raise an additional $300,” Conde says. Femme Fest has also set up a donation link, so people who can’t make the show, or just want to support the organizations the fest benefits, can donate instead of buying a ticket.

Since Ippolito is well versed in the way of nonprofits, he also offered Conde valuable advice on how to set up the charity festival. Finally, after reaching out to 20 or so bands, Conde and Wolfe got 9 acts to commit. Including Oh!, You Pretty Things, the festival boasts 10 unique acts.

a portrait of the alt-indie band, Leaving for Arizona
Leaving for Arizona (Courtesy of LFA)

The sounds and dreams of Femme Fest

Wolfe isn’t picking favorites on the Femme Fest bill, but With Haste! is one band she’s particularly excited to see and support. Fronted by inspired rock troubadour Jordyn Zaino, the band includes Petrov guitarist Syd Little, synthesizer player Allison Friday, bassist Oscar Gerardo Castillo, multi-instrumentalist Kealz and second guitarist Carlos Cortez. Femme Fest will be the band’s first Charlotte show.

“[Zaino] was on the bill for the first Oh! You Pretty Things public show that we did in 2019,” Wolfe says. “I adore her and I’m excited to support her new endeavors.”

Read more: Diverse Sounds Make Oh! You Pretty Things Sparkle

Grace Nelson, one half of the electronic music duo Girl Brutal, has run sound for the Oh You Pretty Things! at The Milestone a handful of times. When Conde presented the idea of Femme Fest to her, she jumped at the chance to come on board. With Girl Brutal, Nelson hopes to expose people to what she calls “weird and kooky electronic music.”

“Something about digital noise is so compelling to me and I hope I can inspire others to explore a different side of music,” Nelson says.

Wastoid vocalist Mike Smith says his band embodies an energy that is “fueled by failure, anger, and civil disobedience.” 

a black and white portrait of the band Fantomex posing on abandoned train tracks
Fantomex (Photo by Geddi Monroe)

Smith also feels honored that his band was considered for the festival. 

“Femme representation is very important to us and we want the femme community to have a safe space at … shows,” Smith says.

“As a gay, female musician, I’m stoked we’re raising money for music programs geared towards girls and LGBTQ youth,” says Leaving For Arizona drummer Aubrey Hollopeter.

Fantømex consists of vocalist Abigail Taylor, guitarist Isaac Crouch, bassist Max Miller and drummer Edwin Mericle. Mericle says accepting the offer to play Femme Fest was a no brainer because of the phenomenal bands on the bill as well as the worthy charities that will benefit from the gig.

“Whether it’s supporting women’s reproductive rights or providing a safe place for the LGBTQIA+ community or putting a pair of drumsticks in a young person’s hands, we’re down for all of it,” Mericle says. “With two of us having young daughters, we would do anything to see that they can grow up safe and happy and have the opportunities to rock as loud as they want.” 

“We love a good festival, so the fact that it’s a charity show and a femme-fronted festival really puts the cherry on top,” adds Neckromance vocalist Ava Foster. Foster supports anything that brings female and femme-presenting musicians to the forefront. 

“This industry so frequently undermines music created by women and queer people, and it’s heartbreaking to see so many artists not get the recognition they deserve,” Foster says.

a photo of Grace performing on the floor during a show
Grace Nelson from Girl Brutual (Photo by Capturing Grace Photography)

Conde and Wolfe are hoping Femme Fest is a success so that next year it can go bigger, maybe expanding into a two-day festival so that potentially more money can be raised for the causes it champions.

“I would love to see this grow into a charity work tour, playing multiple cities, with big bands, high turnout and the proceeds going to charity,” Conde says. “There’s unlimited growth for this, and it’s for a great cause.”

Nelson hopes Femme Fest will foster appreciation for different kinds of music.

“I hope that this can inspire other aspiring artists to bring their visions to life … and have a community of amazing people that will always back them and lift them up,” Nelson says. 

“I hope [that people have] an amazing day of 10 bands melting everyone’s faces clean off,” says Mericle. “We also hope we can show that … you can create a better world for everyone. You can make your voice heard. You can be a badass.”

“As a female that is trying to pave her way in the music industry I just want to, with whatever power I can, make a difference in some way, shape and form,” Wolfe says. She has a simple message for upcoming women and LGBTQIA+ musicians, producers and anyone else who wants to get involved with the music industry.

“I want them to know they belong,” Wolfe says

The eclectic, impassioned lineup of artists on the Femme Fest bill will provide a powerful all-day show, but Femme Fest’s mission and message goes beyond music and the music industry. 

Zooming out,  seeing the erosion of women’s equality and reproductive rights in America while the ACLU tracks 487 anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in state legislatures across the nation. In this context, a committed gathering like Femme Fest can also support and issue a rallying cry for embattled communities. Femme Fest is a promise and a conviction that the barriers erected by the boys’ club are coming down.

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