International Women's Day 2023 - Emma Zillmann

Mar 01, 2023

Emma Zillmann is a festival programmer based in Manchester who is passionate about achieving gender parity on music festival lineups, as well as empowering other women and non-binary people behind the scenes in the male-dominated music promoting world. She runs club nights in her spare time, including the inclusive and body-positive dance party, Everybody Loves Lizzo.

Can you tell us about your journey to your role? Did your education set you in this direction or did you have a less conventional path to where you are now?
After dropping out of uni in London at 19, I flitted around various jobs in the civil service, book publishing and TV; with very little success or progression.
I wanted to try something different, and started to help a friend of a friend with his tiny music festival on the south coast in my spare time - which I absolutely loved and quickly took over my life.  Through the connections I made while working on that festival, I was lucky enough to be offered an assistant job at a company that runs music festivals in Manchester. 
So I packed up and moved up here - the next 8 years were spent gradually doing more and more music programming until I was booking two festivals full-time. 
A year ago I decided to take a leap to a bigger company to develop more professionally, and to start entirely new projects. 
 
If you could redesign your learning and career journey to this point, would you? And if so, what changes would you make?
I don’t regret spending so much of my 20s in jobs I didn’t enjoy, as I think they all shaped me in some way. But I spent a lot of time at the beginning of my career in festivals trying so hard to catch up with everyone else - saying yes to everything and pushing myself harder than I felt comfortable with sometimes - that I think it burnt me out a little eventually.  But I’m mostly very happy with how things have panned out, and I’m excited for what’s to come. Change is good! 
 
What advice would you give to women looking to move toward a role in your field, particularly those whose education and career thus far has been in a very different field?
Put yourself in the right places and in front of the right people! There are so many networking opportunities in the music industry, but try and be strategic about who you speak to. Some great women’s only networks are NOWIE, Shesaidso, Women Connect. Check the charity Brighter Sound for opportunities too. Volunteer placements are valuable for networking too - one of my first paid jobs in music 8 years ago was doing Artist Liaison for End Of the Road Festival, and I’m still good friends with some of the people I met during that weekend. 
 
In your experience, is there anything that you think businesses could do to be more supportive of women in the workplace? Or is there anything that you think is really positive in your workplace?
I’d suggest that there is such an imbalance at the top, that providing extra mentorship, guidance and support for younger female employees so that they’re able to progress more quickly up the ranks is a good start. Some positive discrimination is going to have to happen to even things out a bit. Also… I remember going to the ILMC (International Live Music Conference) for the first time in 2015, and the networking activity for delegates to take part in was a game of poker. At Great Escape there is a football match every year. Lots of women play poker and football of course, but I would suggest that they are typically male dominated activities - so maybe organizing additional activities that everyone can enjoy or take part in (and aren’t boozy) would be a simple step! 
Generally I’ve found in this industry that women will just go ahead and organise themselves into group activities where they can be the majority, but the best thing that the bosses/gatekeepers can do is to facilitate those groups - at Great Escape last year I got most of the female agents and promoters together (about 40 in total) for a brunch and Live Nation footed the bill :)
When I moved over to Live Nation I did worry it was a bit of a boys’ club, but there’s lots of initiatives and behind the scenes work happening there to change that.
 
Can you tell us about any strong female role models that have inspired you in your career? These might be friends, family members, or women who have blazed the trail before you.
The festival booking and promoting landscape in general has nowhere near enough women. But those that are there seem to really making up for that – apart from the remarkable women I work with at Live Nation, I’m in genuine awe of people like Jane Beese at Factory International, Laura Davidson at Amigas Live, Lauren Down at End Of the Road, Santana Guerout at Band On The Wall… to name only a very few.
Just in Manchester, I’m in a whatsapp group with 30 incredible women and non-binary people who are all actively promoting shows and running events in the city. They’re all inspiring and I get to be around them all the time! 
I’m also lucky enough to be surrounded by powerful, strong women outside of work too – and I’m motivated and inspired by them every day in different ways. That sounds so cheesy but it’s true!!
 
What do you do outside of work?
During the pandemic and those two festival-free years, I got a dog, a surfboard and a campervan, and now find myself outdoors a lot these days. We’re so lucky in Manchester to have the Peak District, Lake District, North Wales and the North Sea all within 100 miles.
Cold water swimming was another positive that came out of that time, and I’ve just started going bouldering this year too which I love. 
Those activities make me feel strong and capable, which definitely then flows into my work life also - mental and physical health are so interlinked. 
 
Why do you think there are fewer women in your industry than men? What steps do you think will help to shift this balance?
Where do I start! Women are, at best, often not taken seriously, and at worst harassed or assaulted when just doing their jobs.
When a woman is running a show, engineering the sound for a gig, playing an instrument on stage… there are countless examples of condescending behaviour from men.
As a result, maybe I  think women tend to second guess themselves a lot more; something which I definitely do. Or maybe just aren’t willing to put up with it!
Music promoting requires a very thick skin (for people of any gender). You will have constant knocks… and that perseverance to keep going, is what all the best promoters have in common; alongside good ears! For women, you have to add another layer of resilience, to put up with regular patronising behaviours.
Then once you’ve got yourself a foot in the door, you’ve got to be loud enough to make yourself heard without being so loud that you alienate people. It can be intimidating to be one of the only woman speaking in a meeting of 30+ people.
Having more women in higher up positions would help with that.
I can only really speak from experience, but having a (admittedly male) mentor who believed in me, which then meant I learned how to believe in myself, really changed things for me. 
As I mentioned above, I think that more support, guidance and mentorship - from more experienced men as well as women - would be a good start.

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