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UK festival bosses react to gender balance report

UK festival promoters have responded to a BBC study which revealed that only one in 10 headliners at this summer’s leading festivals are female.

The study, which focused on 50 of the biggest festivals in the UK, found that, out of 200 headline acts, 13% were an all-female band or solo artist, 74.5% were either an all-male band or solo artist, 12% had a mixed line-up of male and female performers and 0.5% identified as non-binary.

The figures come despite a series of gender balance initiatives being rolled out over the past few years. More than 550 music organisations across six continents have signed up to gender equality initiative Keychange‘s pledge to achieve a gender-balanced programme by 2022, while Festival Republic announced three-year funding scheme Rebalance, supported by PRS Foundation. Equality campaigner Vick Bain also launched the F-List, a directory of UK female and non-binary musicians.

Becky Ayres, MD of Sound City, the UK’s lead festival partner for Keychange, tells IQ the findings are “sad to see”.

“As an industry, we have to look at what the issues are for female artists coming through”

“Festivals have got a big part to play because they are very visible – their line-up is on a poster that everyone can see – so it’s important to be attentive to what artists are out there,” she says. “Female artists like Dua Lipa and Olivia Rodrigo are doing their own tours rather than festival headline sets, so there are quite a few different things at play. But, as an industry, we have to look at what the issues are for female artists coming through.

“Festivals will probably be scrutinised more, but if you look across the music industry as a whole last year, only 15% of the best selling songs were by female artists, so it is [an issue] across the recorded music industry as well. And a lot of the time it’s not just about who books the artists, it’s about who’s developing them.

“It’s about gender diversity as a whole and gender minorities are still not being represented either. So it’s important to look at every aspect of it, but festivals have a key part to play because they are so visible.”

Ayres suggests the reason some of the biggest events are yet to adapt their booking policies is because the controversy has not adversely affected their ticket sales, but expects that to change in the years to come.

“Over time, I think that people will vote with their feet”

“Audiences are more savvy and more critical of things than ever,” she says. “There’s more choice out there than there ever was with live music, especially since the pandemic, so I think people will vote with their [feet] and over time you would expect to see that.”

For Sound City Liverpool’s 2022 edition, which was held from 30 April to 1 May with headliners The Lathums and Self Esteem, Ayres expanded the event’s gender equality pledge to include the conference as well as the festival.

She adds: “I know that if we just had a completely male dominated line-up one year, we’d really see an impact. People expect us to now have a very gender balanced lineup because of us being a UK Keychange Festival, and I believe that that is something that is really important for us to uphold.”

Association of Independent Festivals (AIF) chief Paul Reed agrees the matter is a symptom of a wider issue.

“While gender inequality in music is often easiest to see on festival line-up posters, this is a problem that exists right across the talent development pipeline, with festival main stages at the very end of that process,” he says. “It is an issue that the entire industry must take responsibility for. There are a number of initiatives, including Keychange and The F List that are having an impact here, as well as festivals such as Standon Calling and Strawberries & Creem who have achieved 50/50 line-ups and set a good example for others to follow.

“It’s also really positive that our latest member demographic survey suggested that 49% of AIF festivals are run by promoters who identify as female, so we have come a long way in that regard. We hope that this kind of progress and continued efforts under the Keychange initiative will soon translate to greater representation on festival stages.”

“We felt it was important that our programming was representative of society as a whole”

Standon Calling, which runs from 21-24 July, achieved gender parity by booking more than 50% female and non-binary artists across all of its stages this summer, including main stage headliner Anne-Marie, Laundry Meadows second stage headliner Self Esteem and electronic headliner Annie Mac. The festival signed up to Keychange in 2018.

“At the time, I think probably about 30% of our line-up was was female/non-binary and so it did feel like quite a mountain to climb,” says Standon Calling founder and director Alex Trenchard. “But we felt it was important that the programming was representative of society as a whole – not just lads playing indie music, but a full spectrum of what UK music has to offer. That was our goal and this year we’re at 53% female/non-binary artists. We’re delighted to become one of only three festivals – and the only mainstream, multi-genre music festival – that has achieved the target.”

Trenchard says the latest UK-wide statistics did not come as a particular surprise.

“But I would also say that the UK music industry has been working hard, particularly over the last sort of five to 10 years, at producing incredible new acts,” he adds. “And I do think that perhaps focusing on headliners doesn’t tell the whole story. There’s still work to be done, particularly at headliner level, but festival bills are becoming more diverse and gender balanced across the whole line-up. And initiatives like Keychange have really helped drive that progress.

“If you look at the artists who aren’t quite at headliner level, but are almost there, that’s where it’s exciting”

“It’s easy to criticise festivals at the moment and saying, there’s only 13% of headliners. But actually, I think if you look at the artists who aren’t quite at headliner level, but are almost there, that’s where it’s exciting. In our case, we’re always looking for opportunities to give artists their first headline slots. Wolf Alice did their first festival headline slot at Standon Calling and that’s something we’re really proud of. So we’re looking for more opportunities like that and it will be good to see those female artists like Sigrid coming through to headline festivals in the UK.

“Ultimately, we know that a gender balanced line-up challenges us to programme better and not always go for the easy option. We think really hard about booking the best artists in a gender balanced way across the whole festival.”

Keychange project manager Francie Gorman recently spoke to IQ ahead of the organisation’s progress report this autumn.


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