In 2015, music blog Crack in the Road tweeted a doctored image of the poster for the Reading and Leeds festival, erasing all acts that didn’t include a female performer. Only 10 groups remained. It started a conversation about gender inequality at music festivals – an issue that, despite the outcry, persists in 2019. This weekend’s edition of Reading and Leeds features only one female performer, Billie Eilish, among the festival’s 11 top-billed acts. Scotland’s TRNSMT and metal festival Download each had only one act featuring women across their nine lead acts, while there are no female headliners at indie festivals Green Man and End of the Road.
At this year’s Glastonbury, despite the presence of Janet Jackson, Kylie, Lauryn Hill and Miley Cyrus lower down the bill, the Pyramid stage headliners were all male. “The pool isn’t big enough,” said organiser Emily Eavis. “It’s time to nurture female talent. Everyone wants it, everyone’s hungry for women, but they’re just not there.”
This year, a number of festival organisers are attempting to redress the issue by having only women on stage. Those with all-female lineups include Native festival in Kent, Loud Women Fest in north London, and Boudica festival in Coventry. KT Tunstall has launched a festival called HearHer, which will feature a programme comprising female solo artists or women-fronted bands; and women will run the behind-the-scenes production. On the west coast of the US, there’s California Women’s Music and Women Sound Off; meanwhile, Brandi Carlile, the Americana star who won three Grammys this year, will bring back her Girls Just Wanna Weekend to Mexico in January 2020.
Angela Martin – co-founder of Cro Cro Land, a female-organised festival in south London where the lineup and crew have a 50/50 gender balance – puts the boom in such festivals down to “unrest among women in music”. This, she says, leads to an increase in female promoters creating their own events.
She cites the PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative as a catalyst in raising awareness about gender inequality at festivals. The campaign encourages festivals to have a 50/50 gender split among performers by 2022. More than 150 events worldwide have pledged to hit this target, including the Proms, Bluedot and Standon Calling.
The mastermind behind Keychange, Vanessa Reed, said the rise in all-female lineups this year was a necessary phase to help redress the balance. “People are feeling frustrated by festival lineups being male-dominated. Until Keychange there was no big debate about this or positive action. Some places, as an act of defiance, are saying: we are going to book loads of female talent in our city.”
Others put the rise down to politics, including the #MeToo movement that took off in the wake of sexual assault and rape allegations made against the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. Reed mentions Statement festival in Sweden, which had an all-female lineup and an all-female audience, too. (It was later successfully sued for discrimination.) “That was set up for a different reason, specifically in response to incidents of sexual harassment – they wanted to make a statement.”
Victoria Boyington founded California Women’s Music festival in 2014 because promoters were not booking enough women. In the last year, she says there has been an “insurgence of feminism and the feminist movement”. She believes the trend may have peaked, and that it is a sign of change when bigger corporations jump on the bandwagon. She points to US radio conglomerate iHeartRadio and its all-female Women Who Rock concert for International Women’s Day, which featured artists including St Vincent and Karen O. “The future won’t necessarily be all-female lineups, but more inclusive festival lineups for major festivals.”
However, Boyington says some bookers lack integrity, booking women simply as a marketing ploy. “I am not sure they have the same focus as our organisation, which is more grassroots and founded by women for women.”
Reed says the next step is to establish gender equality more deeply through the festival industry. “There are still so many male promoters and bookers and established networks that have traditionally booked more men than women. All those things mean it’s harder to instigate change. But I have been inspired by the fact that lots of younger men in the music industry are as keen as women are for programmes to be more balanced. So I hope to some degree it’s about generational change.”
Change is certainly happening – Barcelona’s Primavera festival, one of the biggest music festivals in Europe, offered a 50/50 gender split in its 2019 lineup. “With loads of great music made by women, the paradigm of what we understood as ‘headliners’ until now is changing,” organiser Marta Pallarès wrote in Loud and Quiet magazine. “Music shouldn’t be the ‘pale, male and stale’ playground any more.”