Music critics touted 2014 as the ‘Year of the Woman’. With the best-selling album of last year belonging to Taylor Swift (second only to Disney’s Frozen Soundtrack, also by an – albeit fictional – woman), and four out of the Top Ten Billboard best selling albums being by female artists (five including Elsa’s contribution), on the surface of it, all the signs point to a time of gender equality in music. And not just within the commercial field of the Swifties and Beyoncés. 2015 has seen the revival of riot grrrl with Sleater Kinney, L7, Babes in Toyland and The Julie Ruin all announcing tours and releasing new material. Tour dates and festival appearances from veterans Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Bjork and Roisin Murphy as well as the encouraging uprising of female rockers such as Hinds, Girlpool, Courtney Barnett, Alabama Shakes and Bully to name a mere few; 2015 indeed seemed to be an exciting and varied year for female musicians.
Unfortunately, the abundance of great female artists, old, new and everything in between, does not seem to be represented by the UK festival circuit. At all. At the time of writing, statistics for this year’s major UK festivals showed a combined 89.6% male precedence. The following edited version of this years’ Reading and Leeds line-up poster shows how the festival looks with acts featuring at least one female member. I repeat, this is not all-female bands or female solo artists; it’s just any acts whereby at least one woman will appear on stage.
This edited poster shows an outrageous grand total of nine acts over the weekend, and only one act with a female member appearing on the top tier of the bill. That accolade goes to Becca Macintyre, singer of the Marmozets. (Since this article was written, there have been a couple of attempts to bulk out the female quota with news acts including Ms Dynamite and Charlie XCX). As a female music fan, who has gone to many festivals over the years, I am stunned and dismayed by this picture. During all my years as a festival aficionado, the disparity has never been this starkly apparent to me. Yes, I was aware that a lot of headliners are male fronted but not to this extent. I’m female. I love music. I love nothing more than to see girls with guitars. Some of the best gigs of my life have been those of female creation. Why was it that I hadn’t noticed this before? If this hadn’t been pointed out to me so starkly by the above image, would I have looked at the Reading line up and realised that there are practically no female artists? In a subconscious way, has it just become an expected and accepted scenario? The current representation of women in the festival circuit is nothing short of shocking.
When questioned on the issue, John Mac, booker for Reading and Leeds said that when it came to women appearing festivals, there is, “a historical precedent that needs to change. If you look at aspiring musicians in the past, particularly in the rock, indie and dance worlds, there were more boys than girls trying to make a go of it and therefore more breaking through. Things need to and I believe are changing.” For him to make this statement, and then proceed to be part of booking in nine acts featuring women across the whole weekend, is hugely worrying. If this is change happening, well, fuck me.
While the Reading and Leeds line-up may have acted as a catalyst for a resurgence in an on-going equality debate, there is clearly a much bigger issue at play here than one particular weekend. The huge gender gap in festival line-ups is in no way (despite my blissful unawareness), a new trend. Last year, if Lily Allen hadn’t been drafted in last minute to replace Two Door Cinema in the Friday night headline slot at Latitude, there would only have been no female only acts headlining any major UK festival. In fact, last year there was a measly total of 4% all-female acts on the line-up of all UK Festivals. The lacking presence of women in major festival line-ups has been historically persistent, ever since the heady days of Woodstock. Surely, in the wonderfully diverse age of 2015; we should be long past this stage.
When reading what music fans had to say about these issues online, I struggled not to get into several aggressive cyber arguments with idiots claiming that ‘indie’ and ‘rock’ are simply male genres and that most female bands just aren’t as good. Firstly, let’s just clarify that male is NOT a genre. Secondly, what a lot of bollocks. Take a look at the image below which shows a fictional Reading and Leeds line up, comprised solely of female acts, or at least acts containing females
It’s the best festival line up I’ve seen in a long time and undoubtedly better than the actual line-up. Sure, there is a lot missing from there but it’s pretty fucking great (and the fact that there is a LOT missing off of there is also pretty fucking great – we could fill a whole other weekend with Girlpool, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, First Aid Kit, Courtney Barnett and the likes). Before anyone jumps down my throat, perhaps ALL of these artists aren’t touring/available/willing, I totally get that. But this is in direct response to the dim-witted suggestions made that female fronted bands just aren’t as worthy festival bands. Try and tell Karen O, Patti Smith and Carrie Brownstein that women can’t rock like men do. It’s laughable.
When comparing the representation of men vs. women in the festival circuit, it’s only fair to consider available numbers of female and male artists. If only 10% of all artists are female, this must be acknowledged and there will obviously be a gap in favour of male dominance. Looking at the charts, recording and touring artists, this just isn’t the case. However, while the gap certainly isn’t this huge, if there IS a lack of female artists in comparison to male, and that’s the supposed reason for their lack of festival presence, then the reason for this needs to be addressed. Female artists need to be encouraged and the music industry must take steps to ensure that women are represented in a fair way.
It’s not about tokenization, or female members being booked above their male counterparts in a positively discriminating way, it’s about recognising that great female musicians there are out there and addressing a disparity so glaring that it should be completely unacceptable. The first step is to start questioning it. It’s about being aware the problem exists. The music industry, including festival bookers, has to shoulder some of the responsibility.
Last year Blood Red Shoes’ Laura Mary Carter addressed the issue in an interview with NME. She said, “This isn’t just a problem with festivals not booking enough women. We need to look at the way society as a whole looks at female artists. If the audience still see women in rock bands as something of an oddity, that’s where the real problem lies.”
Now, I can’t even contemplate what a ridiculously difficult job collating a line up for a festival catering to tens of thousands of music fans would be. I’m not trying to claim that I would be better at it but I can’t help but feel that the major festivals are stuck in a rut. Following a repeated pattern of Kasabian and Arctic Monkeys headlining every year, they are happy to re-book and re-book the same white guys with guitars, over and over again. It smacks of laziness, with organisers half-heartedly following a model that has worked in previous years. (Although, Leeds didn’t actually sell out last year, and Reading tickets sold much slower than previous years, so is it really working? No, it’s dull as fuck. Come on, it’s time to shake it up.)
Interestingly, comparing the line-ups of the UK’s large scale festivals to those of the newer, smaller and more grassroots festivals, the gender gap seems to close, even just a bit- which is at least something. It could be that organisers for less established festivals are more open minded and actually consider which new and interesting bands are available, as the option to mindlessly book the bands that have appeared previous years, and bands that sell out stadiums and arenas, isn’t available to them. A fresh approach to forming the bill = smaller bands and new music = booking Jagaara and Kate Tempest.
Take Coachella (now in its sixteenth year) vs. Governors Ball (five this year) as an American comparison. Coachella has been jokingly referred to as Brochella given its historically male dominated line up, a model which it continues to follow year after year. On average, women have represented less than 16% of the total line up. Since its debut year in 1999, only two female-fronted acts have been given top billing at the festival; Bjork and Portishead. No female-fronted acts have been given top billing since Portishead in 2008. The freshly formed Governors Ball has named Florence and the Machine as one of its headliners this year and seems to have less of an obvious disparity in the line-up as a whole.
This years’ Field Day Festival (which is in the middle tier of festivals in terms of age and size) displays a line-up moving in the right direction, with Patti Smith headlining, appearances from Jagaara, Tune Yards, My Brightest Diamond, Jane Weaver, Nina Kraviz and FKA Twigs amongst the acts. Yes, there is still a male dominance but it seems a far more acceptable margin of difference.
Bristol’s Love Saves the Day, only in its fourth year and with a 5,000 person capacity, showcases some encouraging headliners. There are only two and they are both female solo artists, in the form of Jessie Ware and Azaelia Banks. Similarly, Wilderness Festival sees Bjork headline the stage and features Roisin Murphy as one of the biggest names on the bill.
An exemplary line-up comes in the form of the bill for The Odd Box Weekender, held at East London’s Shacklewell Arms in May. It has a 67% female dominated line-up, with bands such as The Just Joans and Giant Burger forming the line-up. A small affair, the whole weekend only features 27 bands; 18 of which includes at least one female member. This is highly encouraging and proves it CAN be done. Compare this to a total of 14 female only acts out of a total 650 playing across the six major UK festivals last summer. Embarrassing really.
Are these different musical worlds? Maybe it’s not fair to compare. Perhaps music fans who attend local, grassroots festivals, are more appreciative of new and non-commercial music? And, in fact, if Odd Box could, would they too book in the huge male headliners playing at Reading this year?
Encouragingly, Bestival organiser Rob Da Bank has recently announced a new wave of female artists to the Isle-of-Wight based festival line up. Bestival is included in the ‘major six’ British festivals, making this act of support significant. New acts announced included Lianne La Havas, Girlpool, Jagaara, Neneh Cherry and Charlie XCX. Rob said the following about the announcement on the Bestival website, “Well whaddya know? There are shedloads of amazing people making some startlingly good music at the moment… from pop to leftfield, soul to hip-hop and some ace DJs too, and look, lots of them are female! Whatever next?” While it is a small move in the right direction, it is encouraging that major festival organisers are recognizing that there is a problem and taking steps to address it.
The fact of the matter is, the lack of representation of women on the festival circuit is part of a deeper issue. It’s a multi-faceted problem that begs the question, who should take responsibility for gender representation in music?
In no way am I suggesting that festival bookers or men working within the music industry are raging sexists. But the marginalization of women in festivals, whether intentional or not, is a stark indicator of the persistent sexism in an industry still largely dominated by men. The suggestion that festivals simply reflect disproportions within the music industry and reflect what is in the charts, what is being released, recorded and played just isn’t the case. The festivals are getting it wrong – women are everywhere; commercial and indie. I’m not suggesting we have to get all PC about it and have an evenly split 50/50 line-up but a 4% representation of all-female acts across the major festivals last year. Seriously. That is not OK.
Please, please let 2016 see some positive changes. In the words of Riot Grrrl pioneer and Bratmobile founder, Molly Neuman, “We’re not anti-boy, we’re pro-girl.” Hear hear.