Where are the Women?

Guest writer Libby Mayfield confronts the lack of female and non-binary performers on UK festival line-ups.

Although I was lucky enough to grow up with a plethora of female musicians in my childhood soundtrack, the reign of Blondie, Texas and The Bangles couldn’t last forever, and there was a time when the only prominent female fronted in the world of alternative rock was Paramore. Worse yet, there was a time when any female fronted band, to an extent regardless of genre, was compared to Paramore. I’m glad we’re past that, but we’re not out of the woods just yet.

Last year we saw a huge light shone on male-orientated festival line ups and a lot of questions were raised. Most importantly – why, even in genres that have their fair share of female artists, are such a small proportion of women playing major festivals?

If you ask the festival bookers, they’ll say that they book the acts which pull the biggest crowds. But with female acts comprising between a quarter and a third of 2015’s charts, Adele releasing the biggest selling album in the UK ever, Jess Glyne releasing three singles that each made it to number one, and Rihanna announcing a tour of almost 70 dates, it’s not like female artists can’t pull in the cash.

Many people are fighting for an even gender balance on festival line ups, but as aforementioned, only around a quarter to a third of the charts are made of acts including women; although this may be an indicative sign that either there aren’t enough women in music, or the problem runs deeper and radio stations and magazines are more keen to promote male acts than female. Whilst charts aren’t necessarily the most representative figures, it seems the best way to compare like for like; the UK’s biggest festivals alongside the UK’s best selling music.

Even if festival bookers were worried about losing ticket sales by booking a female headliner – though I seriously doubt any refunds were demanded when Florence And The Machine replaced Foo Fighters’ Glastonbury headline slot last year – that wouldn’t stop them throwing in five or ten female acts in further down the line up, would it? In fact, further down the line up is where we need female acts as much as anywhere else, especially if we want to feed the pool of women in music. We can’t expect more women to want to perform if it’s seen as a male dominated world.

To an extent, I do empathise with the viewpoint of festival bookers where they want to book acts that will sell tickets; running a major festival is a huge risk with a lot of money involved and an underperforming weekend could damage reputation for the following year. If that’s the case, we need to convince show promoters internationally, nationally, and locally to put on more female acts, even if just as openers. A show with two international touring bands and a big UK support band wouldn’t lose ticket sales over the gender make-up of a local support.

Unfortunately this isn’t the sort of change that’s going to take place over night; we need to see the support for women in music grow on a local level and swell to a national level before it may have an impact on the amount of women prepared to pick up on a guitar and get on stage among. But when women are making up only 3-19% of major festival line ups (based on analysis by The Guardian), things can’t get much worse.

Of course festival line ups are not the be all and end all, and the rise of women in popular bands is coming thick and fast – of last year’s Mercury Prize shortlist, five out of the twelve acts were, at least partially, made up of women. We’re past the point where a female vocalist makes the band “like Paramore”.

After all the social media frenzy regarding last year’s male-orientated festivals – only 6% female for Reading and Leeds – it will be interesting to see how 2016’s line ups compare, because it’s all looking pretty testosterone filled at the moment.