Festivals are the highlight of many of our summers, but beneath the music, mud and mosh-pits is dark reality: a disparate gender gap in festival line-ups that is nothing to sing and dance about.
January 2018 saw music giants Lily Allen and Annie Mac speak out in anguish against the lack of women on mainstream festival line-ups; specifically criticising Wireless festival – which specialises in grime, rap and hip-hop – for a bill consisting of only three female acts across three days of music. Allen tweeted a photo of the 2018 Wireless line-up poster with all of the male artists removed, and the symbolic blank space between the names spoke a million words. Similarly, by the end of 2019, Paramore will have been Reading and Leeds Festival’s only female headliner in twenty years.
“an all-female stage, although empowering upon first glance, fails to push anything forward”
Bills like these are a huge blow to aspiring women in music and carry implications that there is no space for them on music’s biggest stages. Following the controversy, Wireless announced an additional all-female stage to be headlined by twenty acts across the weekend, after the number of female artists dropped to just two after Cardi B pulled out due to pregnancy.
However, an all-female stage, although empowering upon first glance, fails to push anything forward. Women in music do not want special treatment, nor do they wish to be segregated from their male counterparts. Although it may have been the organisers’ only option at last minute, the stage felt somehow patronising; there was a disconcerting irony to how after much controversy, organisers were able to find a host of women to play the festival, including Emerald and Spanish singer Bad Gyal, who had been left off the original bill.
Calling the inclusion of more women in festival bills a ‘challenge’ is an insult, but that’s what it seems to be to organisers and promoters. With the plethora of fresh and talented women who have burst onto the music scene these past few years, it seems like more of a challenge to leave them out.
A few honourable mentions include Ariana Grande, who dominated the Official Singles and Albums Charts as her new album, Thank U, Next, debuted at number one; Hayley Kiyoko, nicknamed the “Lesbian Jesus”, who is a refreshing antidote to both androcentric and heteronormative pop music; and the female-fronted indie band Wolf Alice, who achieved critical acclaim for their newest record Visions of a Life. But still we see festivals fighting over the same handful of male rock acts like Muse, The Killers and Red Hot Chili Peppers who have dominated decades of headline spots.
“the gender gap has increased and may help to explain why men continue to dominate streaming platforms and festival bills”
Many critics have suggested that this kind of line-up misrepresentation is an offshoot of a much bigger problem, and the general lack of women in music. Rather than it being about the people booked for the line-up, we also need to focus on why there aren’t more all-female or female-fronted bands in the music industry as a whole. In 2008, thirty female artists were credited on the UK best-selling hundred songs of the year, a figure of which has not changed in a decade, yet the number of men accredited to best-selling songs has risen by 50% over that time, as collaborations between men has grown. This demonstrates how the gender gap has increased and may help to explain why men continue to dominate streaming platforms and festival bills.
The festival booking process, particularly for major commercial ones, is based on this overall popularity: which artists are currently touring or promoting an album; who’s most likely to resonate with the audience; and what size shows an artist is already playing. If there are fewer women who satisfy these criteria, then there is very little that organisers can do. When attempting to justify Reading and Leeds’ unbalanced bill, Festival Republic CEO, Melvin Benn, told the BBC: “festivals have to be a reflection of what the public are listening to.” However, Dua Lipa, who was the UK’s most-streamed female artist of 2018, was beaten to the festival’s headline spot by dad-rock band Kings of Leon, who haven’t had a UK number one single since 2008.
Thus, whilst men still seem to dominate the music industry, the women who are making tremendous strides, and placing women at the forefront of many record-breaking lists, are still failing to make headlines. It would seem that women are not less inclined to make music, but are prevented from pursuing careers by social barriers, a lack of role models, and a seemingly old-fashioned and prejudiced industry.
However, the past year has seen a surge of schemes and projects to tackle these issues and reinstate equilibrium in the music scene. The PRS Foundation (the UK’s leading funder of new music and talent development) are leading ‘Keychange’, a Europe-wide initiative backed by EU funding that aims to achieve a 50/50 gender balance at festivals by 2022. Benn, however, in an interview with the BBC, seemed wary about the idea of imposing a quota: “Is that the right way to go about it – to say it’s got to be 50/50? I don’t know that it is.”
“‘ReBalance’ aims to introduce budding female artists to the public domain and create potential female headliners”
Festival Republic (the promoter behind Download, Latitude, Wireless, Reading and Leeds, Community Festival, and Lollapalooza) have instead launched the ‘ReBalance’ project, which invests in the grassroots of the industry. The project offers artists nominated by a panel of industry professionals funded studio time, guaranteed slots at their festivals, and apprenticeships for women to work behind-the-scenes in music. ‘ReBalance’ aims to introduce budding female artists to the public domain and create potential female headliners, whilst ‘Keychange’ is working to secure spots for them on festival bills.
With this range of approaches backed by a shared passion for fundamental change, I am optimistic that 2019 will be the watershed moment for women in music that we have been waiting for.
Featured Image courtesy of Scott Guion via Instagram.
Image use licence here.