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Keychange: ‘The conversation about representation has never been so loud’

This year marks a seminal moment for gender equality initiative Keychange and the rafts of music organisations that have signed its renowned pledge.

Proposed in 2017 by a number of European festivals, the Keychange pledge initially asked live music events and conferences to commit to achieving a gender-balanced programme by 2022.

Since then, the pledge has expanded to include venues, promoters, booking agencies, trade bodies, record labels, broadcasters, publishers, collection societies and orchestras, as well as festivals.

Now, more than 550 music organisations across six continents have signed up to the 2022 pledge, committing to giving underrepresented talent a seat at the table.

Ahead of Keychange’s progress report this autumn, IQ catches up with Keychange project manager Francie Gorman to find out whether the signatories are on track to hit the target…


IQ: Keychange initially set 2022 as the target date for pledge signatories to achieve gender balance. Does that still stand?
FG: It was the initial target date when we launched the pledge back in 2018 but we’ve tweaked the language somewhat since then in reaction to some feedback that we’ve had from the industry. We broadened the scope of the pledge to include orchestras and conservatoires – moving away from it just being a festival pledge. Orchestras commission years ahead of time, and therefore, it would be good for them to be able to extend that target date so that considerations were put in place for the coming 10 years rather than just the coming four years. So we added in a bit of flexibility at that point, just to make the ledger as accommodating as we could to all of the different music sectors.

So the pledges are tailored to the organisation?
Everybody makes a different pledge, which I think is an important thing to note. Some organisations have pledged to have at least 50% women and gender minority artists on the stages and some have pledged to do that and also look at the technicians and the bookers and all of the infrastructure surrounding the festival. But when it comes to festivals, and all of the festivals that signed up when we first launched the pledge in 2018, then 2022 is definitely an important date, and the one that everybody’s been working towards.

“There are absolutely no excuses for people not booking representative lineups post-pandemic”

How many festivals do you expect to have achieved the pledge this year?
We are currently in the process of getting in touch with all of our pledge signatories and making sure that they’ve submitted data for each of the years that they’ve been involved in the pledge. Our hope is that the majority will have reached at least the pledges that they’ve made and perhaps even have some further feedback or some further achievements that they’re able to share. But we do also have to very much take into consideration the disruption of Covid and the fact that some of the festivals that pledged haven’t been able to hold events for a couple of years so how do we take that into account when we’re looking at their pledge? Should we extend their pledges? In what ways can we accommodate their ambitions to meet the target if they haven’t been able to put the events on?

To what extent can the pandemic be used as an excuse to take a rain check on representative line-ups?
There is absolutely no excuse – especially when it comes to festivals – because we’ve seen that the hunger for festival tickets has been such that festivals have been selling out with barely any names announced. So what better opportunity to really programme a festival as you want to and make it as gender representative as you possibly can? This excuse of women not selling tickets is invalid anyway but it’s invalidated further by the point that people have bought the tickets anyway.

And I think that another thing to consider is how active so many artists have been throughout the pandemic, putting sessions online and making themselves visible and available. So there’s also no excuse for bookers not to have discovered new talent throughout the pandemic as well. We will (hopefully) never again have so much time to sit and explore music in an online setting rather than a live setting. So there are absolutely no excuses for people not booking representative lineups post-pandemic.

“We’ve never had as many women of headline status available as we do now”

What other age-old excuses do you hear for gender disparity in the industry?
Throughout this project, we have had the comment that female headliners don’t sell as many tickets and it’s unfounded. If an artist is at the point where they can be headlining a festival then they can sell the tickets. We’ve never had as many women of headline status available as we do now. I think that we have quite successfully argued – and the wider industry has agreed – that there are no headliners if there are no opportunities at development levels.  Festivals really need to look at their full infrastructure and figure out if they’re giving grassroots artists the opportunities to then be booked as a mid-level artist and, two years later, have the opportunity to build themselves up to that headline slot.

Is the onus of gender equality in the music industry disproportionately placed on the festivals?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think it’s unfair because, at the end of the day, every festival booker in every festival team is responsible for the production that they’re putting in front of their audience. So there is certainly accountability in that respect but it is a good point that the festival headline slot is one of the last pieces of the puzzle. This is exactly the reason we expanded the Keychange pledge to be able to represent any music sector rather than just festivals because it’s a conversation that needs to be had at every twist and turn in the music industry. That’s why it’s fantastic that we have people like Alex Bruford at ATC Live making sure that at an agency level their rosters are representative so we can work collaboratively towards this end goal.

“I definitely feel like we’re in a much better place than we were when this project started”

The 1975 once committed to playing only gender-balanced music festivals. Do you think artists have a part to play in this?
It’s a difficult position to put musicians in when they’re at a certain level because the point of this conversation is not to take opportunities away from anybody – it’s to increase opportunities for those who have had less access to them in the past. We want all artists to advocate for each other and we especially want them to advocate for themselves. If they’re performing at a festival where they don’t see a representative lineup and they’re not comfortable with that, we want them to feel empowered to speak up about it and ask some questions. At the same time, we don’t want musicians to be losing out on opportunities ever, which is why Keychange exists. Inevitably, there are times and situations where conversations need to be had so we just want to make sure that we have a support system in place and an action plan for those festivals.

Tell us about the action plans for festivals that want to achieve a balanced line-up?
The very first thing that we get organisers to do is to look at the gender balance of previous lineups to get a very basic numerical overview of how things stand. If the festival wants to make changes, they will sign the pledge and the steps will be outlined. The steps can be things like incrementally increasing the number of gender minority artists on their stages by 2022. Then it’s a case of finding the talent. We are there to put festivals in touch with other festivals to find out how they’ve gone about changing the representation of their lineups. We can put them in touch with booking agencies, which could widen the pool of artists that they have available to them. Also, we can introduce new talent through our talent development programme. I think a huge part of making this change – especially on the festival level – is getting festival bookers to broaden their networks and make different contacts.

“I don’t ever get the ‘why is gender equality important’ question anymore…I see that as considerable progress”

Can you give examples of festivals that have risen to the challenge?
We have festival partners in 12 countries including the likes of Reeperbahn (Germany), Iceland Airwaves, and MAMA (Paris) who all work so hard to achieve gender balance in their conference and festival programmes each year.

It’s important to mention Primavera Sound which isn’t a Keychange signatory but is very much working within the framework of a 50/50 gender balance. It’s an absolutely enormous commercial festival and I think the fact that the organisers have been so publicly outspoken about the work that they’ve done in this area is so important.

In 2022, is the music industry the most equitable it has ever been?
The conversation around representation has never been as loud as it has been in 2022. I think that the feeling of empowerment that women currently have to claim their rightful space within the music industry has never been so strong. I definitely feel like we’re in a much better place than we were when this project started. Having worked on the pledge myself since 2018, I’m having such different conversations now to the ones that I was having when the project first launched. I don’t ever get the ‘why is gender equality important’ question anymore. The conversations tend to be about the finer details of how to achieve gender parity. I see that as considerable progress.


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