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Are gender-neutral line-ups becoming the “new normal”?

As awareness of female representation on festival bills continues to grow, European events tell IQ about their efforts to achieve more balanced line-ups this summer

By Anna Grace on 12 Jun 2019

Gender-balanced festival line-ups

Janelle Monáe performs at Primavera Sound 2019

image © Sergio Albert/Primavera Sound

Most festivals are now aiming to book a higher percentage of female acts, but opinion remains divided as to whether 50/50 line-ups are the most effective way of achieving gender parity in the wider music industry, conversations with prominent European bookers reveal.

Several festivals have made headlines for the gender balance – or imbalance – of their line-ups this summer. Primavera Sound this year presented its first gender-equal festival bill, with performances from Miley Cyrus, Solange and Janelle Monáe.

Elsewhere, Glasgow’s Trnsmt festival came in for criticism after revealing a line-up in which only 20% of acts were female. Festival organiser DF Concerts later added the female-only Queen Tut’s Stage, to help “to close the gender play gap” and provide “a platform for female acts at a grassroots level to help them become the bill toppers of the future.”

At Roskilde Festival, “we’re moving in the right direction,” Anders Wahrén, head of programming at Denmark’s largest festival, tells IQ. “Our percentage of female acts has come up from roughly 20% to more than 30% in relatively few years.” Although a relative lack of female headliners can “sometimes mean festivals end up fighting for the same performers”, Wahrén says he is “very happy with the headline side of things” this year.

Roskilde 2019, which takes place from 3 to 6 July, will feature headline performances from Cardi B, Robyn and Janelle Monáe, with Christine and the Queens and Rosalia also appearing high up on the bill.

“Everyone of us in this industry should work together to support female bands and artists, and push them up the ladder to success”

Wahrén says it may be possible to achieve a 50/50 balance “faster than we will”, but stresses it is not about achieving absolute parity as quickly as possible. “We need to look more into why the mix is so bad,” he comments. “This doesn’t change with us booking more female artists – it has to do with music in schools and making the music industry more accessible.”

Mad Cool festival director Javier Arnaiz agrees that more needs to be done to boost female talent at an earlier stage. “It is important to work from the bottom,” says Arnaiz. “Every one of us in this industry, including the festivals, should work together to support these female bands and artists, and push them up the ladder to success, one step at a time, until they finally reach the top.”

Initiatives helping to give female artists an early-career leg-up include Festival Republic’s ReBalance, launched in 2017 as a reaction to what MD Melvin Benn described as a “significant lack of female acts”.

Although featuring exclusively male headliners – Bon Iver, the Cure, the National, the Smashing Pumpkins and Prophets of Rage – Arnaiz says this year’s Mad Cool line-up in general is “quite close to the 50% range”.

The Mad Cool director notes that genre plays a part in a festival’s ability to book many female acts. “It’s not the same to book a Primavera Sound line-up as it is to book one for Download – certain music styles have a low or very low percentage of female artists.”

The organisers of dance music festival Tomorrowland are in agreement, stating that “there are fewer female DJs than male DJs, so maybe that’s reason [why the line-up is male-heavy].”

“We curate our line-up based on the market – we do not choose because of gender”

“We curate our line-up based on the market and we like to have all genres, styles and sub-styles of electronic music represented,” says a Tomorrowland spokesperson. “We do not choose because of gender.”

At this year’s Tomorrowland, Belgian DJ and producer Charlotte de Witte and Russian techno DJ Nina Kraviz will each host their own stage.

Another festival which rejects booking decisions “purely based on gender” is Iceland Airwaves. However, in 2017, the Icelandic showcase event signed the Keychange pledge to achieve a gender-balanced line-up by 2022 – a target it reached last year.

“We’re different in the fact that we’re a showcase festival,” head of marketing and operations Will Larnach-Jones tells IQ, “so we’re never short of having options for artists meeting our criteria.” Recently, says Larnach-Jones, the festival team has gravitated towards lots of “new and exciting” acts that happen to be female-led.

The Airwaves rep admits that it is harder for “mainstream festivals” that “need to have big names on the top of their bills”, but notes that the narrative is changing and that many larger festivals are now lending their support and presenting more balanced line-ups too.

Bluedot festival is one more ‘mainstream’ event supporting the curation of more neutral line-ups. The festival signed up to Keychange last year and this year around 40% of acts are female, says head of programming Emma Zillmann.

“Gender-balanced line-ups really will – and should – become the new normal”

“I think it’s important to state that with most of those [female artists], the woman is the lead of the act,” says Zillmann.

However, the festival’s headliners – New Order, Kraftwerk and Hot Chip – are very male-heavy, with only one female member between the acts.

“It’s really tough – that is really the best line-up that we could have got this year for the budget that was available,” says Zillmann, “and we’re on track to sell out in advance again, even with a 35% increase in capacity.

“So on the one hand I feel incredibly happy, but on the other I’m still not where I want to be with our gender balance.”

Rather than placing the emphasis solely on bookers, Zillmann believes that the whole industry needs to work on “pulling together to build fanbases for talent and making sure that people of all genders are given equal bites at the apple.”

Although booking 50/50 gender-balanced line-ups remains a challenge, and can involve some risk for an event, the Bluedot booker says she believes that equal line-ups “really will – and should – become the new normal.”


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