Why are there so few women headlining music festivals?

Glastonbury has been criticised for its all-male headliners but it’s far from the only one – the result of an industry that has deprioritised women for decades

Glastonbury caused consternation when it announced three male headliners this year, but it is far from the only event to have a complete lack of gender equality at the top of its bill. Latitude festival, End of the Road, All Points East and TRNSMT are just a few examples of major events that have no women headlining in 2023, and last year, a BBC report found that just 13% of UK headliners at the top 50 festivals were female.

Researcher Vick Bain, who set up The F-List – an online directory of female and gender minority musicians available to play at festivals – says the issue spans the entire music ecosystem; from inequality in education to barriers in the music business. “There’s still a lot of sexism, and that can be overt or covert, and a lot of stereotyping, which is restrictive to women,” she says. “Women in music education will be encouraged to go into music teaching, rather than performing, or will be rewarded to be singers rather than instrumentalists.

“Then, women are far less likely to be picked up by an A&R, far less likely to be invested in, far less likely to get a manager or an agent, and all of these things mean you’re less likely to be chosen to play on festival stages.”

Bain’s comments echo those of Glastonbury co-organiser Emily Eavis, who said the lack of female headliners this year is due to a “pipeline problem”. “This starts way back with the record companies, radio,” she told the Guardian. A report by Bain published in 2019 revealed that female acts and songwriters counted for just 14% of those signed to 106 British music publishers, and that women made up under 20% of those signed to 219 British record labels.

Self Esteem, one of the few female acts to move up to headliner status this year.
Self Esteem, one of the few female acts to move up to headliner status this year. Photograph: Jason Sheldon/Rex/Shutterstock

Simon Taffe, co-founder of End of the Road festival, says that part of the problem is due to the fact that, historically, few bookers paid any mind to gender diversity so female acts haven’t progressed up the bill. “Eight years ago, the lineups weren’t giving any space [for female acts] to start from anywhere,” he says. “Growing up, you’d see these landfill indie festivals where the bill was 85% male and no thought had gone into it. That’s why we’re in the position we are now.”

This year, End of the Road is headlined by King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Future Islands, Wilco and Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Taffe says that he tried to get Angel Olsen on the top of the bill but she wanted to play the smaller garden stage because it better fit the style of her latest album. “We try to get as good a balance as possible but it’s down to availability,” he says. “In our niche world, how many [female acts] can headline a Green Man or End of the Road? There aren’t many.” Arguably there’s plenty, but exclusivity clauses, which limit acts from playing other UK festivals and shows in the same season, make the talent pool smaller. Taffe says he lost out on “a big female band” this year for that reason.

On the business side, over recent years there has been a concerted effort by music companies to elevate more women into senior and decision-making positions, but music agent Hannah Shogbola, who represents acts including Katy B and Jaguar, said that there is still a lack of diversity: “You have people in senior positions who are quite detached from the reality of [gender inequality].”

To counter all these forces, Taffe says festivals have a responsibility to try to achieve a 50/50 gender balance lower down the lineup so that more female acts have the chance to rise up the ranks. This year, he says End of the Road’s bill is 40% male acts, 50% female and 10% mixed.

It’s a similar picture at Standon Calling, which has Self Esteem, Bloc Party and the Human League headlining and an overall lineup that’s currently 55% female. Festival manager and booker Rob Lee says it’s also important to take risks and give female acts their first headlining slots. “In 2019, we booked Wolf Alice for their first festival headline slot and from there they’ve gone on to headline other festivals, such as Latitude and Reading.” He says that Self Esteem is the first artist in the festival’s 17-year history to go from headlining the second stage (in 2022) to headlining the main stage the following year.

Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice performing in Spain in November.
Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice performing in Spain in November. Photograph: Javier Bragado/Redferns

Standon Calling is one of 72 UK festivals to have signed up to the Keychange pledge, which challenged events to achieve gender parity by 2022 (though across their whole lineups, rather than ensuring female headliners). So far, two-thirds have reached the target. While independent festivals have been “quick to act” on gender representation, according to Keychange’s UK project manager, Francine Gorman, major festivals are notably missing from the list. “We’re continually in dialogue with major events, too – some have signed the pledge, some have put their own actions in place and some need to be doing much more to address this urgent topic,” she says.

Taffe chooses headliners who put on an “exciting show” and are typically playing a venue the size of the 5,000 capacity Brixton Academy for their own tours. However, that isn’t imperative – “I like taking risks,” he says. “Amyl and the Sniffers are probably at 2,000 tickets but if I could have gotten them this year, they would have been perfect.”

Risk-taking is something Bain would like to see more of – as she points out, some festivals sell out before they announce lineups so there’s little reason not to take a chance on acts who haven’t headlined before. For others, having experienced headliners alongside newer ones can ensure tickets get sold across a broader demographic. With her clients, Shogbola uses an “inclusivity rider” when negotiating bookings for events, which stipulates that another act from a marginalised group gets offered the same opportunity on the lineup. “It means that when I’m negotiating a deal, we will not play the lineup unless there is a fellow Black or brown person, a fellow non-binary person or a fellow gay person”.

Artists could therefore have it written into their contract that they won’t play festivals without a female headliner (just as the 1975 did by promising to only play festivals with balanced lineups). But it will take A-list acts to really apply pressure to promoters, who can easily be apathetic about this issue – most punters are unlikely to boycott an event for having no female headliners and tickets often sell out regardless. Shogbola says the inclusivity rider is “really making a change when it comes to lineups on festivals, clubs, and touring but our biggest challenge is pushing it to those top tier acts”.

Ultimately, every part of the music industry ecosystem has a responsibility. Bain concludes: “We need hundreds of festivals out there doing the work, being more committed and proactive, starting with the smaller stages and then actively working with agents to pick out the talent, develop it and give them the opportunities. Talent agents will ask the labels for more female musicians and the record labels will go out and look for that talent and invest in them.”


Rhian Jones

The GuardianTramp

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