Music festivals return but lineups still lack women

Guardian analysis of 31 events reveals many still falling short on equal gender representation

As the UK festival industry gets back on its feet after a fallow, fun-free year, the issue of gender equality on lineups has fallen by the wayside, Guardian analysis of 31 events has shown.

Friday marked a mini-boom for festival bill announcements, all heavily weighted towards male performers. Headlined by Liam Gallagher, Snow Patrol, David Guetta and Duran Duran, Isle of Wight offered a 73% male lineup.

Gallagher also headlines Scotland’s TRNSMT festival alongside the Chemical Brothers and the Courteeners, topping a bill where all-male acts make up 61% of performers. At Kendal Calling, headlined by Stereophonics, Supergrass, the Streets and Dizzee Rascal, a partial lineup announcement featured 79% men.

“It’s totally unacceptable that after a year of turmoil, women and minorities are being excluded from this return to live,” said Maxie Gedge, UK project manager of Keychange, the PRS Foundation’s initiative encouraging music festivals to pledge to commit to lineups featuring 50% women and gender minorities by 2022.

“We usually stay on the positive side instead of calling people out, but we’re getting tired,” said Gedge. “It’s not an accident any more, it’s a statement of exclusion. The fact that this keeps happening shows that there are certain festivals that just aren’t taking responsibility, or they’re not viewing it as their responsibility when, in actuality, it’s everyone’s.”

Billy Nomates on stage
Billy Nomates is one of several female act in the middle of Standon Calling’s bill. Photograph: Thomas Jackson/TyneSight Photographic

Kendal Calling signed up to Keychange in 2018 and has improved its gender representation year on year, said programming director Emma Zillmann, growing from 14% acts featuring women in 2016 to what would have been 32% in 2020, had the festival not been cancelled. She hoped that this year’s final lineup would include about 40% female performers.

It wasn’t for lack of trying, said Zillmann. “It’s not like it’s something I took my eye off because of the pandemic.” The festival was founded in 2006, “so the amount of relevant, affordable, available artists that we haven’t had before is so small,” she said.

Booking emerging acts featuring women and non-binary performers was easier, she said. “Once you get to the level of an artist that [sells more than] 400-500 tickets regionally, it becomes a lot harder. Is it the music industry being geared towards male acts? A lack of role models? Sexual harassment? A lack of childcare or not having somewhere to change?”

Becky Ayres, managing director of Liverpool Sound City, the lead UK festival in the Keychange initiative, said it was widely rumoured that agents were raising the prices for female artists “because they know there is more of a drive to have a gender-equal lineup”. Zillmann said she had not encountered this.

While the issue of gender parity at festivals is an annual flashpoint, “Kendal Calling’s audience are not really clamouring to see those artists, which makes things a little bit difficult for me,” said Zillmann. “I don’t dispute that everyone should be trying harder. It’s not just festivals – we’re just the endpoint. We’re an easy target because we have a poster that clearly shows the hierarchy of the music industry.”

David Guetta
David Guetta is also headlining the Isle of Wight festival. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

The male-skewing trends chimed with earlier festival announcements, some of them still partial. Dance festival Creamfields features a 91% male lineup. Indie-rock festival Victorious and metal events Slam Dunk and Bloodstock offered in excess of 80% male performers; at Strawberries and Creem, the Big Feastival, Latitude, Parklife and Big Foot it was more than 70%; Naked City, BST Hyde Park, We Out Here, Maiden Voyage, Field Day, Neighbourhood and Leopallooza over 60%.

Only Love Supreme and Deer Shed festivals featured more acts featuring women than men on their line-ups. Reading and Leeds, Standon Calling, Black Deer, Kaleidoscope, Camp Bestival, Gala, Liverpool Sound City, Wide Awake, Cross the Tracks and End of the Road featured between 50 and 60% male performers.

Standon Calling founder Alex Trenchard signed up to Keychange in 2018 after the festival’s family-heavy demographic said it wanted to see more women on the bill. This year’s event features 53% male performers, but 100% male headliners, Trenchard rued.

Partially that came down to an inability to book international artists owing to the ongoing coronavirus restrictions on travel, he said. “We’ve tried to make up for that further down the bill – this year our second stage is 65% female.”

Since the government revealed its roadmap out of lockdown in February, UK festivals have experienced record ticket sales. Some festival organisers may question why they would mess with a winning formula.

Porridge Radio on stage
Porridge Radio will also be performing mid-bill at Standon Calling festival. Photograph: BBC Music Introducing

But Keychange’s Gedge said there was “only a positive economic case for diversity and gender diversity”. Refreshing the talent pipeline prevented events from becoming stale and enhanced the sustainability of annual events, she said.

In contrast, exclusionary programming sent a negative message to attenders, as well as performers and festival workers. “If women and gender minorities aren’t being considered, what does that say about safety?” said Gedge. “Decision-making processes are not considering the experiences of half the population, and it should be challenged.”

In September, the Musicians’ Union reported that one-third of professional British musicians were considering giving up their careers due to a lack of work and financial support during the pandemic. With women, gender minorities and women of colour disproportionately affected by the pandemic, said Gedge, better representation was crucial. “It’s really important that we take that very seriously and think about what we want the future of music to look like, and not what it did look like.”

Oliver Jones, director of Yorkshire’s Deer Shed – which has one female-fronted headliner of three overall, and 49% all-male acts on its bill – said festival organisers should be “actively seeking out female bands” and “supporting the underdog”. This year, London punk trio Dream Wife are headlining the festival’s second stage after appearing in an earlier slot a few years ago.

While Standon Calling had struggled to book a female headliner this year, said Trenchard, the strength of the female performers in the middle of the event’s bill – among them Porridge Radio, Billy Nomates and Greentea Peng – boded well for the future. “It’s a positive sign, even if things don’t look positive for now.”

• This article was amended on 26 March 2021 to correct the date of the Keychange pledge for gender parity on festival bills. It is 2022, not 2020 as previously stated.


Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

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