Inspired by the half-witted excuses of male festival organisers when questioned on their distinctly disparate line-ups, equality campaigner Vick Bain has assembled over 4,500 female musicians across all genres and industry levels into the coveted ‘F-List’. Holly Watts reports.
Although music festivals may feel like a distant memory right now, when they finally resume in 2021, their line-ups could look very different thanks to a new database of female artists. This will mean that festival directors have no excuses when it comes to tackling gender imbalance across their stages. When a festival bill is released, the first thing that crosses your mind probably isn’t the number of female artists that feature. But maybe it should be something to consider before you buy your ticket. A lack of female promoters, exclusivity clauses, and a male-dominated festival culture has led to a lack of female representation on a global scale.
The issue of gender imbalance at music festivals has been around as long as the festivals themselves. However, it wasn’t until 2015, when the music blog ‘Crack in the Road’ tweeted the Reading and Leeds poster with the male acts edited out, that it became a major industry talking point. When only female-identifying artists and bands with female-identifying members were left unedited, less than ten acts remained. This stark revelation of inequality meant festival curators were suddenly under much more scrutiny. If things were going to improve, festivals had to be held to account.
The F-List is a directory of over 4,500 female musicians across all genres and industry levels
A study undertaken by Pitchfork revealed that, even by 2017, festivals were 74% male on average. The following year, forty-five festivals pledged to have gender equal line-ups by 2022, including Kendal Calling and Liverpool Sound City. So, in 2021, how close are we to seeing this 50/50 split? Well, we certainly aren’t quite there yet. Analysis by the BBC suggested that, pre-pandemic, only 8% of 2020’s headliners were set to be female. Haim, Little Mix, and Taylor Swift were billed as the only female headliners across sixteen of the UK’s top festivals, whilst when Reading and Leeds revealed a huge 2020 line-up with ninety-one acts, only twenty-one of those acts had female members. Even the most gender-balanced British festival in 2019, Latitude, was only 40% female. Globally, it was only the Spanish festival Primavera Sound that achieved a 50/50 split last year.
So, why is this target seemingly so difficult to reach? When challenged on their gender imbalances, festival directors have traditionally blamed a lack of female musicians. “There are insufficient women […] that are strong ticket sellers,” the Managing Director of Festival Republic claimed in 2018 when questioned on Wireless Festival’s stark bill imbalances. However, one need not look further than the charts, to see that it is certainly not the case that there is less female talent to choose from. The problem lies in representation: curators do not know where to find female talent due to the inequalities inherent in the professional music industry. For example, of all the musicians signed by record labels, only 20% are female.
On top of this, fewer than one in five songs on 2020’s Top 100 airplay charts were by British female acts. The problem is not that there aren’t any womxn in music, but rather that they don’t get enough visibility – enter the F-List. Created by equality campaigner Vick Bain, the F-List is a directory of over 4,500 female musicians of all genres and industry levels. Bain first compiled the artists on a spreadsheet which she posted online, but its immense popularity led her to transform it into a fully searchable non-profit website funded by Arts Council England. Launched last year, the website allows you to filter by category, genre and location in order to find the right artist for you.
Also on the list are female-owned record labels, music publishers, and agencies, with Bain aiming for the directory to be a “major authority for promoting women in music”. She hopes that the list will encourage festival bookers and promoters to “extend their horizons” instead of using the same acts every year to sell tickets. The website will be continually updated with solo artists or groups with at least one female-identifying member, making it easy for festival organisers to access the abundance of female talent which they claimed did not exist. Bain told the BBC: ‘‘Now there is no reason for people to say, ‘it’s really difficult to find all these women’ – I’ve done the work for them, so there’s no excuse”.
When we finally return to sunny festival fields, stages could be more gender-balanced than ever before
It is clear that this simple resource will greatly impact the way festival line-up’s are built in the future, especially further down the bill. The F-List will allow festival bookers to easily find and contact mid-level female artists that lack the representation of their male counterparts. The CEO of OneFest, Sandra Bhatia, said that the F-List “is an excellent tool and resource” that will be “utilised for forthcoming events”. Similarly, Sybil Bell, the CEO of Independent Venue Week, said the list “encompasses everything we need to move towards making a lack of female representation a thing of the past”.
However, it needs to be emphasised that this is not about filling quotas or tokenistic bookings. Just because ensuring the representation of female currently requires a conscious effort does not mean that it should be seen as a tick-box exercise. DJ and producer, Nabihah Iqbal told the Guardian that she believes the industry’s mindset needs to change: “Real change only comes when the people in those positions of power change the way they think and they don’t feel like they’re trying to fill a quota for the sake of it”. This means there needs to be diversity amongst the people making the decisions in order to promote organic gender-balance onstage. And, whilst selections should eventually be based on merit alone and not gender, this cannot happen until the merits of non-male artists are recognised.
The F-List is just one sign that things are changing for the better, as Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis tells Radio 1 Newsbeat that the future of the UK’s biggest festival “has to be 50/50”. Male acts are also supporting the effort, with indie giants The 1975 stating that they will only be playing festivals with gender-equal bills and tweeting, “this is how male artists can be true allies”. It’s clear from this that the issue is rapidly gaining industry attention and claiming space in public discourse. So, when we finally get to return to the sunny festival fields, the stages could be more gender-balanced than ever before. Just another reason to let the music play.
The F-List Directory of UK Female Musicians can be found here.
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