Female artists at music festivals: where are they?

I remember being 14 years old and watching Beyoncé headlining Glastonbury on TV. It was an absolutely brilliant show: glamorous and empowering, with slick choreography and an impressive combination of dancing and singing from Queen B herself. But what felt more impressive, ground-breaking even, was the fact that this was a woman, with an all-women band, headlining arguably the biggest festival in the UK. Beyoncé acknowledged this herself, exclaiming during the gig that: “A girl, a woman, has not headlined in 20 years, so this is history for me!”

Five years have passed and this year Glastonbury once again has a female headline artist – Adele is headlining the Saturday night. However, this can be viewed in the same light as Beyoncé’s appearance on the main stage in 2011: an exception in the unbelievable male-dominated festival scene. Of the 10 usually three day-lasting festivals, only two have a female headliner this year: Rihanna at V Festival and, as mentioned, Adele at Glastonbury. That means that the 25 other headlining artists are solo male artists or all-male bands. A disparity so glaring it should be unacceptable.

We collected data, looking at artists on main stages of the 10 major UK music festivals, as defined by the UK Festival Awards 2015 shortlist. Indie/Dance festival Bestival is at the top when it comes to booking female artists, as they’ve had three headliners and 30 other main stage acts that were at least partly female over the last five years. An extremely painful contrast is dance music festival Creamfields and rock festival Download, the first presenting just four female artists at their main stage and the latter only one. One female artist in a period of five years – it’s almost incredible they managed. But most of all it is incredibly tragic and unrepresentative.

Obviously, when comparing representation at festivals it’s only fair to look at the available numbers of male and female artists available. However, festivals aren’t simply reflecting a disproportion within the music industry. Women are out there. You could say this is a golden age of female performers: Lady Gaga, Adele, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Florence & The Machine, Lorde, Ellie Goulding, Sia, Meghan Trainor, Haim, Charlie XCX, Alabama Shakes… just to name a few. Nonetheless, festival bookers still follow the hopelessly old-fashioned and archaic notion that a headliner should be a white, male rock star, creating festival line-ups that feel removed from the audience and contemporary music itself.

The gender gap seems to close – just a little, but that’s still something – when comparing the line-ups of UK’s large scale festivals to those of newer, smaller and more grassroots ones. Is it that music fans who attend local festivals are more appreciative of new and non-commercial music? Or is it just that new festivals dare to break the tradition and actually present interesting artists rather than the same bands over and over again? Natasha Haddad, deviser of Latitude’s music line-up, points out that there are fewer women who can headline huge festivals, partly a result of practical issues like tour schedules. Adele, for example, previously said that she would never play Glastonbury because “the crowds are too big – I don’t know if I could do it.” You would never hear a male artist say that. But then again, the influence of representation cannot be underestimated: when you see all-male bands rocking every festival, it’ll persuade you to believe that you can do that too, when you’re a male artist.

Emily Eaves, responsible for booking Glastonbury (86% male line-up last year) says the problem lies with the music industry as a whole. “The question of why there are so few women needs to be asked further back than us. We book bands, especially on the bigger stages, based on who is right to do those big slots. And it’s important that we have women at the top as well as men, but we also need those female artists to be pushed through – by record companies, radio and the media.”

I agree wholeheartedly. In addition to festivals realising the dominance of male artists in their booking, the music industry must take steps to ensure that female artists are encouraged and represented, in every genre and on every stage. This is not about tokenization or booking women in a positively discriminating manner, this is simply about recognising the wealth of female musicians that’s out there.

Additionally, it’s our responsibility as well. When audiences still see female rock stars as an oddity, that doesn’t help the acceptance of women in a genre that is historically virtually all-male. Voicing your opinion online is also a good way to show festival curators that what they’re doing, for example advertising almost solely with male performers on line-up poster, isn’t acceptable anymore. Edited line-up poster including only acts with females – mind you, not all-female bands or female solo artists but simply acts with at least one woman on stage – swarmed the internet last year and made many people aware of the complete lack of female artists on festival posters, and at festivals in general. What subconsciously seemed to be an expected and accepted image, isn’t anymore. Because it’s pretty terrifying that, in 2016, a music fan can spend all weekend at a UK festival without seeing a single female performer.

[Aike Jansen]

Thanks to Ally Shaw for crunching the numbers and providing us with the data that made this article possible. N.B. Not all festival line-ups have been announced in full at the time of writing, and are therefore the stats used above are subject to change.

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