Why achieving gender equality at music festivals means looking beyond the main stage

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Debate about the lack of female headliners at music festivals is becoming an annual event. To see real progress the music industry and festival organisers need to nurture up and coming talent as well as booking star headliners

A fortnight ago Emily Eavis, one of the organisers of Glastonbury, the UK’s largest music festival, was asked by The Guardian why her festival had not booked any female headliners this year. “The pool isn’t big enough,” she said “It’s time to nurture female talent. Everyone wants it, everyone’s hungry for women, but they’re just not there.”

For those of us running women dominated club nights, playing in women only or female fronted bands, or just listening to a lot of music by women, her comments felt like yet another slap in the face.

To be fair to Eavis, Glastonbury is far from the worst performing UK festival when it comes to booking women, but it takes a special kind of festival to book both Kylie Minogue and Janet Jackson to play your main stage and not give either of them headline status.

If you look at the ratio of female to male performers across Glastonbury’s seven most prominent stages in 2019, they had a ratio of 97 male artists to 79 female. By comparison, Reading and Leeds festival, across its seven most prominent stages, had a ratio of 118 male artists to 24 female artists. Neither festival had any women headlining on their main stage this year.

Perhaps sensitive to criticism about a lack of diversity, Glastonbury introduced the women and non binary only Sistxrhood stage in 2016. 2019’s lineup also included a range of nationalities and a sizeable number of BAME acts, which would suggest that the festival is conscious of its social responsibilities. Ironically, it is the sheer size and scale of Glastonbury that mitigates against its drive towards greater diversity.

The Glastonbury effect

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As a family friendly festival that includes non music activities as well as global music superstars Glastonbury seems to be trying to be everything to everybody. This years festival had a crowd capacity of 203,000 and it has over 25 stages and tents. Because there are so many stages, so many bands, it’s actually very easy for new or even relatively established bands to get lost in the listings.

Neither the Sistxrhood nor BBC Introducing (a showcase for new unsigned talent) stages at Glastonbury are among the most prominently displayed and promoted of the stages at the festival. You have to trawl past a lot of festival lineup information to even find a mention of them. As such, unless you’ve read elsewhere about the bands performing on those stages, it’s unlikely that you would even know they were playing Glastonbury. Self Esteem, Rebecca Taylor’s new project, was booked to perform at the Pussy Parlure stage, but you’d never know it unless you followed her socials.

There’s also a media amplification effect with Glastonbury that heightens this sense of the main stages being divorced from the rest of the festival. Both TV coverage of the festival and press reports over the years have served to throw ever greater prominence and emphasis onto the festival’s headliners over the years. They are the ones whose performances will be filmed, shown in full on the BBC, then put up on YouTube. For the audience at home, anyone whose set isn’t shown on TV may as well have not been there.

If we look to the kind of acts who are booked to play Glastonbury’s main stage, the Pyramid Stage, it’s here that the size and scope of Glastonbury really seems to mitigate against risk: While women can pack out stadiums and sell out tours, there’s a lack of faith from Glastonbury’s organisers that any woman could sell 203,000 tickets.

If we look at the headliners Glastonbury did have this year: Stormzy, The Killers and The Cure, we can see that they are made up of one grime superstar, one rock band and one ‘heritage’ rock band. If we then look at the women who have been chosen to play below them on the bill, we can see that they have largely been selected from the world of pop and R&B: Ms. Lauryn Hill, Sheryl Crow, Janet Jackson, Anne Marie, Carrie Underwood, Miley Cyrus, Kylie Minogue, and Mavis Staples. This is interesting because, whether these artists get to headline or not, the implication seems to be that (with the possible exception of Sheryl Crow) Glastonbury doesn’t want to put female rock bands or female indie bands on the Pyramid stage. Florence + The Machine, who headlined in 2015, have played a lot of festivals this summer, but they haven’t returned to Glastonbury since 2015.

What Florence did next

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One festival (of many) Florence + The Machine did play this summer was British Summer Time festival in London’s Hyde Park. While it has a smaller crowd capacity (65,000) than Glastonbury, British Summer Time is known for giving its headline artists considerably more say over the lineup than Glastonbury does. Whereas tickets go on sale for Glastonbury long before most acts are announced, tickets for British Summer Time are announced along with the headliner and about a third of the bill. In the case of Florence + The Machine’s show on 13th July, there was a ratio of 3 male acts to 13 female acts, which is unprecedented for a mainstream music festival in the UK. The five British Summer Time shows across the summer also scored well in terms of headliners, with three female headliners, two male.

Parklife Vs Lovebox

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By comparison, Manchester’s Parklife festival has a crowd capacity of between 70 and 80,000, had no female headliners (on their main stage) and a gender ratio of 110 male acts to 24 female acts across the festival. Initially I felt that the predominance of DJ’s and dance and urban music on the Parklife bill might have something to do with this particular gender ratio, so I was prepared to cut them a bit of slack. That was until I took a look at Lovebox festival in London, which is specifically an urban and dance music festival, with a crowd capacity of 50,000. It had one female headliner and a ratio of 54 male acts to 26 female acts.

Bittersweet news from Latitude

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Despite Parklife’s woeful showing on gender, there are some positive trends in festival land.

Latitude festival, for example, in Wiltshire has a crowd capacity of 39,999, and it had one female headliner this year, and a gender ratio of 83 male acts to 78 female acts across its seven most prominent stages. What’s interesting about that ratio of 78 female acts is that 17 of the 24 acts on the BBC Introducing stage had women in them and, because Latitude is a smaller festival than Glastonbury, those acts appeared higher up the bill and were given more prominence than they would have been at the larger festival. That’s not to say that Latitude doesn’t have its own problems: This summer’s event was marred by reports of another sexual assault at the festival, and this is not the first time that women have been attacked at a UK music festival.

Small is beautiful?

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Smaller festivals, such as All Points East and Kendal Calling, tend to score better than the big festivals when it comes to having female headliners and in terms of their wider gender ratio of performers. Like Latitude, All Points East (which has a crowd capacity of 40,000) had one female headliner this year, but it also had a wider gender ratio of 111 male performers to 60 female performers. Kendal Calling, by comparison, has a crowd capacity of 25,000, also had one female headliner, and had a ratio of 26 male acts to 19 female acts amongst the first half of it’s bill (beyond the first half of the bill, non music acts such as podcasters, comedians etc get listed too so I stopped counting at that point).

Boutique sized festivals do equally as well as smaller festivals, sometimes better. Green Man and Bestival, who each have a crowd capacity of 10,000, had similar gender ratios overall, with Green Man on 63 men to 53 women and Bestival on 52 men to 39 women, but Green Man had no female headliners whereas Bestival had three female headliners.

Lip service or commitment?

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One of the reasons why I wanted to audit a selection of UK music festivals, beyond the main stage, was because I was starting to wonder if the media focus on female headliners was leading to a certain amount of window dressing on the part of festival organisers: Were festivals booking female headliners but then not bothering to book many women away from the main stage?

I have to say that this is one area where I was pleasantly surprised by the results: While those festivals with a poorly balanced gender ratio, such as Reading and Leeds and Parklife, tend to have a poor gender balance across all their stages, it’s also the case that the reverse is true. Those festivals who have a more equal balance of female and male performers tend to keep that balance across all their stages.

“They’re just not there”

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Earlier I wondered whether men dominate the lineups of urban and club music festivals, and if so why that might be. While it’s certainly the case that festivals who feature more pop and indie acts tend to score better from a gender point of view, they tend to score badly when it comes to booking BAME acts. It’s not only DJ and urban festivals where there’s a significantly higher ratio of male to female performers. Metal and heavy rock dominated festivals also have a gender ratio that’s very unbalanced.

This all begs an important question: Are there really massively more male DJ’s, grime artists, rappers, metal and hard rock bands out there than female ones? Or is it the case that women are making those kinds of music but that we don’t get to hear them? Are all the female metal and hard rock acts playing on the Sistxrhood stage? The festivals promoting those kinds of music are not exclusively to blame for any perceived gender roles ascribed within those scenes, but they are culpable in perpetuating them.

If you want to hit gold in terms of areas of music traditionally populated by women, you should look to the acoustic stages at festivals, which are populated by singer/songwriters and folk performers. Those stages and tents always have a lot of women on the bill. Why? Because being a singer/songwriter with an acoustic guitar is a traditional role for musical women, almost to the point of cliché. It’s a tradition that goes back a long, long way and, because there are recognisable role models for women and girls in that genre of music, it’s seen as an acceptable musical path for a woman in 2019.

The Future

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To return to Emily Eavis’s comments: It will be interesting to watch the careers of those acts who performed on the Sistxrhood stage at Glastonbury this year, or on the BBC Introducing stages at Glastonbury and Latitude. As previously mentioned, 17 of the 24 acts on the BBC Introducing stage at Latitude had women in the lineup. If Eavis is serious about nurturing female talent then both the Sistxrhood and BBC Introducing stages would be the obvious places to look for the female festival headliners of the future.

The then unsigned Florence + The Machine first played Glastonbury in 2007, in the tea tent on a Sunday afternoon. In 2015, they headlined the Pyramid stage. It’s only in the past four years that I’ve realised just how unusual that festival career path was.

Perhaps none of the acts playing the BBC Introducing stage or the Sistxrhood stage would want to graduate to the Pyramid stage, but if they did want to follow that path, why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t a young British band climb the ranks from the unsigned tent to headline the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury? If that were to happen again, it would suggest that Glastonbury is interested in providing opportunities for up and coming talent.

A football analogy springs to mind: While Glastonbury doesn’t have its own youth scheme to nurture young artists, it does have access to BBC Introducing, which is essentially BBC Music’s youth scheme. Similarly, there’s nothing to stop Glastonbury from starting or expanding on its own talent spotting schemes. Successful football clubs invest in young local talent, they have an eye on the future and they don’t rely entirely on shelling out expensive transfer fees to ship in the superstar talent of the day. If Emily Eavis is serious about encouraging female talent at Glastonbury, maybe she should be looking closer to home.

Music journalist, blogger

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