The streets of Old Ellicott City will be filled with the sounds of women-fronted groups on Saturday as the city plays host for the first time to the Ladybug Music Festival, a free event that celebrates the work of female musicians.

More than 30 musical acts — from Maryland and across the world — will be intertwined with Main Street, playing in front of and inside the shops that line the long and winding road. They will also be spread across seven stages, with a staggered schedule, as a free shuttle offers rides to concertgoers up and down Main Street.

David Grabelle, program assistant for the Ellicott City Partnership, hopes national interest in the event will help change the downtown district’s narrative away from “the town that floods.”

“Over six years ago was the last one,” Grabelle said. “So we have progressed quite a bit, and this is kind of saying, ‘Hey, we are here. We are back, and we’re better than ever.’”

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Old Ellicott City is seen on Tuesday, Feb. 13, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The Ladybug Music Festival is by far the largest event Ellicott City has coming to town, an unincorporated area in Howard County anchored by its historic shopping district.

This year is also the first time that the 2012 Delaware-born music festival has crossed state lines, said Gayle Dillman, the festival’s founder.

Ellicott City was selected because it’s within 100 miles of its birthplace of Wilmington, and Dillman said she wanted the festival to be expanded to a community that embraces the arts and also has a downtown feel.

Ellicott City fit the bill, she said.

“This is very much an urban festival,” Dillman said. “We use small businesses for people to go into, and we create them as music venues.”

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The venues include Backwater Books, E.C. Pops, the Museum of Howard County History, as well as a main outdoor stage in one of the parking lots.

And the musical acts inside each venue reflect the vibe of the venue, so attendees won’t, for example, find a heavy metal act inside Backwater Books, said Julia Sanger, president of the Ellicott City Partnership.

Sanger said that the partnership between Dillman, who is also the CEO of Gable Music Ventures, began two years ago, at a time when the Ellicott City Partnership was not in a good position to pull it off.

But Dillman reached out again late last summer.

“We signed a contract with Old Ellicott City nine months ago, so we’re kind of lovingly saying, this is the baby — we’re giving birth,” Dillman said. “So our connection with this has been a long time in the making.”

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The Ladybug Music Festival began 12 years ago as a free block party that was held the day before the Firefly Music Festival’s debut — a music event in Delaware that has been canceled in recent years.

“We decided to look for a bug name, just to play off of the Firefly thing, and I was like, ‘I like the idea of Ladybug, and let’s make it all about women,’” Dillman said.

Twenty women performed the first year across four venues, she said. No streets were closed, and there were no vendors. It was very simple.

About 300 people showed up the first year, and it has grown exponentially since then, with almost 6,000 people attending this year’s festival in Delaware, Dillman said.

Sanger said she hopes that the turnout for the Ellicott City location will be anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 people, which is the typical turnout for other large festivals the Ellicott City Partnership hosts.

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The festival has also grown on the artist side, too, Dillman said. This is the first year in which there is an international lineup, with women coming from three different countries to the Delaware festival last month, and one woman coming from Canada to perform in Ellicott City.

“We can honestly say that this is the largest free celebration of women in music in the country,” Dillman said.

Keeping an event free, she said, allows the community to come together over a shared love of music, and it means that there are no barriers for anyone to participate.

The festival is free through sponsorship dollars, she said. Some of this year’s sponsors include Howard Community College, The Fund for Art in Ellicott City and the Maryland Lottery.

Dillman also said that the free aspect of the festival is important because, as an event that celebrates women in music, it addresses gender inequities in the form of pay and opportunities for women in music — a mission of the festival.

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“It’s something that we’re making progress [on], but we’re not making enough progress. … We find that it’s really important that we offer an opportunity, a platform, for women to be together and to be able to collaborate together and perform because when we’re together as women, our voices are stronger,” she said.

Dillman said she follows a group called Book More Women that analyzes festival lineups, and they’ve found that very few festivals have women and nonbinary artists making up more than 30% of the lineup.

Traversing any professional field is challenging for women, she said, but the first step to changing the narrative is to address the issue of gender inequities.

“It just gets people to start to pay attention to it, instead of saying, ‘Okay, we’re gonna have this, this and this guy, and we’ll throw this woman in there,’” Dillman said. “We’re trying to raise awareness in the hopes that it will continue to initiate a change.”

Dillman is also trying to make a difference in her production company, too, by striving to find and hire female stage managers and audio techs for the stages.

“We have to show the world we can do it,” she said. “We can do this. We can do it as well as anyone else, and, if I can get thousands of people to come out to a free event celebrating women, people can embrace that notion and integrate it more into their festivals as well.”

Sanger agreed that a free festival celebrating women is needed, coming more than a quarter-century after Lilith Fair was first held in the 1990s.

The Ladybug Music Festival is also important for Ellicott City’s economy and overall appeal, Sanger said.

“Of the 30-plus bands that are playing, more than half of them are coming from out of state, and I think that’s huge,” she said. “Not only from an artist’s perspective, and who the people are going to be able to see, but also it brings some exposure to our town, and may encourage people who hadn’t been here to come visit or come back and visit.”

Ways to help with a growing economy are by putting the music acts literally inside the local shops, with hopes that people will enjoy the music and also shop local. “Ladybug is partially designed to help with that revitalization,” Dillman said.

The festival officially starts at 3 p.m. Saturday, with a pre-party at 2 p.m. at the main stage. The festival concludes at 8 p.m. after the headliner, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, performs. There is also an after-party at La Palapa Grill & Cantina until 10:30 p.m.