FEATURE: Immune to the Muse: Why Are Women Not Being Booked as Festival Headliners?




Immune to the Muse


IN THIS PHOTO: Solange is headlining Primavera Sound in Barcelona this year but is in a minority - there is still a huge male dominance regarding festival headliners/PHOTO CREDIT: Mikael Jansson

Why Are Women Not Being Booked as Festival Headliners?


I am confused as to why most of the headliners out there...     


 IN THIS PHOTO: Lana Del Rey (she has been booked as a Lattitude festival headliner but is the only female headliner announced for a major British festival so far this year)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

are male but one might assume it is because a lack of quality. We are seeing the headline acts being named for big festivals and the likes of Isle of Wight and Latitude have already named their big acts. It is shocking to see only one female headliner – Lana Del Rey at Latitude – named. There are Glastonbury headliners to come but I do wonder whether there will be any sense of balance. Even if only one woman was booked for a Glastonbury headline slot, it would still mean a huge gulf and discredit. Look back through the years and I wonder whether there has ever been a time when women have been equal to men. Maybe there have been years where women have had a bigger say but, for 2019, are we really going to believe the imbalance is due to a quality divide?! One cannot even claim the names booked as headliners for this year are hitting their peak and at their most popular. If that were the case then one might assume IDLES and Childish Gambino would take some spotlight. Among the headliners for major British festivals, only The 1975 are really on the rise. George Ezra will headline both Isle of Wight and Latitude but one cannot claim he is reigning in the mainstream and the first choice. There are, among the other headliners, a collection of established acts and past-their-prime artists who are lazy bookings.

 IN THIS PHOTO: IDLES (who would make a more exciting festival headliner than George Ezra and Snow Patrol!)/PHOTO CREDIT: Ebru Yildiz

Let’s make a difference between gender equality and headline acts. Over forty-five festivals have pledged to have an equal split by 2022 but that does not mean that will include headline acts. Even if that pledge did include headline acts, why do we need to wait three more years?! Pitchfork ran a feature last year tracking the changes to festivals in regards gender:

When we ran the numbers on music festivals last year, the gender disparity was glaring: Only a quarter of artists booked across 23 of the summer’s biggest fests were female or groups with at least one female member. Earlier this year, a group of 45, mostly non-U.S. festivals pledged to book gender-equal lineups by 2022. But where do we stand in 2018, and how much further do music festivals need to go to reach that goal?

But when you break down gender balance by festival, the results are more varied. In 2017, not a single festival reached the 50/50 male/female threshold. In 2018, three make it: FYF, Pitchfork, and Panorama. On the other end of the chart, Firefly, Bottlerock, and Bunbury barely clear the 20-percent mark when it comes to female and mixed-gender acts in 2018, though Bunbury at least doubles its female artist numbers over last year… from one to two.

We also broke down the numbers to see whether particular genres correlate with better gender balance. Of the top five best-represented genres, booking more electronic, hip-hop, and indie artists generally means more female musicians, while more rock- and pop-oriented fests drive more male-heavy lineups...

IMAGE CREDIT: @IsleOfWightFest  

Is there a big difference – in terms of gender balance – between the smaller festivals and the big players that most of us look towards?!

If there’s a common thread between the gender balance and uniqueness data, it’s that smaller festivals tend to do better on both. That dynamic suggests what could be the biggest problem with the modern festival scene: The events that can afford to take the biggest risks—the ones that sell out or come close before their lineups are even announced—often don’t. While some mid-size festivals develop their own unique character, many more emulate the industry leaders or are operated by shared promoters, creating regional mini-Coachellas that carry over or amplify systemic biases. For a brighter festival future—as measured by gender balance, genre diversity, or just plain variety of acts—the deep changes will have to happen from the top down”.

It is good that the pledge has been made but I am miffed as to why it takes three years to do something very easy. You only need to book more women and that can be done in 2019: waiting until 2022 means we have three more years of lop-sided line-ups and a lack of women at the top. There are female headliners are larger festivals but most of the bigger options go with men still.


 PHOTO CREDIT: @anniespratt/Unsplash

Not only is it bad enough to see the men dominate the headline slots but the nature of the music hardly changes – white guys with guitars. If you are going with male artists then why not book more R&B, Rap and Hip-Hop talent?! I understand the likes of Eminem and Stormzy are booked to headline but there is still a dependence on Rock bands and Pop artists. This year has started pretty badly and we all know what split will come: major festivals will have a few women on the bill but lower down whereas female headliners will occur at smaller festivals. It is great the smaller festivals do put women on as headliners but there is still an imbalance there. The only festivals I can see creating gender parity soon are those that are smaller. In fact, Primavera – a pretty big festival in Spain and Portugal – has a few female headliners for this year and they are in the minority. Maybe Coachella 2019 will show fortitude and have more than one female headliner and, when I think about it more, it is British festivals that are culpable. Last year’s Cambridge Folk Fest featured Patti Smith, Rhiannon Giddens and Rosanne Cash to top the bill but, again, it shows the divide out there. Genres like Folk are a lot more aware of gender and ensuring headliners are not all male.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Kylie Minogue is playing this year’s Glastonbury but, rather than appearing in the ‘legends’ slot, why was she not considered for the Pyramid Stage?!/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Past the Folk festivals and the smaller alternatives, what hope is there beyond that?! Not only are the majority of festivals booking more men but the vast majority have either all-male or male-dominant headliners. I do not hold much hope Glastonbury will book a female headliners (on the Pyramid Stage as opposed other bigger stages at the festival) for 2019. It is encouraging that Glastonbury have booked Kylie Minogue for the ‘legends’ slot and Janelle Monáe for West Holts - but is that small compensation? What of the biggest stages in Britain and the artists we are selecting?! They are still, and always have been, largely male. Why are festivals, large and new, still dependent on the obvious and unwilling to break from the parable?! Beyoncé, Björk and Lauryn Hill have headlined big festivals before – including Beyoncé’s Coachella-owning set last year – but why do they need to be one-offs?! Why were they not considered this year?! I always argue Beyoncé should headline Glastonbury and it has been a few years since she did. Björk released an album last year and Lauryn Hill has been touring her sole solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. I know these women have been in the industry for a while but they are established, iconic and capable of owning the stage. Why not book Beyoncé for Glastonbury and have Lauryn Hill for Reading and Leeds?  How about the always-popular and evolving Alicia Keys for Glastonbury?! I know she would be awesome and a huge popular choice! Festivals’ sounds are always changing so I see no reason why respected female artists are not headlining.


 IN THIS PHOTO: If you want a legend to headline a major festival than why look any further than Chaka Khan?!/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

One cannot say major festivals have a particular sound and have to cater to a particular audience. Glastonbury has put up Rock, Alternative and Pop headliners for years but, as they have booked Skepta this year, one cannot say they are unevolved. Even if it was pure Rock and Pop, there are women old and new who can come in. Look at the names I have mentioned and couple that with female bands like The Breeders, HAIM and First Aid Kit. Pop artists such as Katy Perry, Lorde and Taylor Swift are ready and the likes of SZA, Cardi B and Kacey Musgraves are riding high. It is clear big festivals are not beholden to new artists so, if you are heading back in time, look at Madonna and PJ Harvey as ideal headliners. Toss in St. Vincent, Tori Amos and Laura Marling and there are some ready-to-go-headliners right there. I can also list Britney Spears, Robyn and Chaka Khan who, between them, could storm any festival they headline. Female-made music is not a genre or narrow thing that is only suitable for particular festivals. People have argued there are female artists in the industry but that is not true. In fact, a large percentage of the critics’ favourite albums from 2018 were made by women and could headline right now – including Anna Calvi and Christine and the Queens. We have established the quality is out there as is the variation. Women WANT to headline so it is not a case of apathy and indifference. Also, as some have claimed, women are not approached and refuse to play.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Big artists like Lady Gaga are being overlooked when it comes to headline slots/PHOTO CREDIT: Steve Granitz/WireImage

One of Glastonbury’s excuse in 2017 – with regards a lack of female headliners – was the fact they made offers but the women were busy. Why would women be busier than the men?! There are countless options so there is never a case when female artists are tied up and unable to make themselves available. If you are linking commercial appeal to headline worthiness than you would see plenty of women eligible. From Pop newcomers like Dua Lipa and Jess Glynne to bigger acts like Courtney Barnett and Florence + the Machine. I was baffled as to why Kylie Minogue missed out on a Pyramid Stage slot because, given her career span, she could make for an epic booking. Other legends like Madonna would be perfect and there are endless combinations when you could book new and established women in any genre and fulfill the fans’ needs. I have been reading feedback regarding festival announcements and there has been a lot of anger regarding the headliners – seen as too dull, samey or irrelevant. Festivals are not only booking mostly men but they are selecting tired and uninspired artist rather than better, fresher options. GRAZIA, writing in 2017, highlighted the statistics and raised theories as to the gender imbalance:

This summer at V Festival, Pink headlines one stage and Annie Mac the other – and if you brave the Worthy Farm mud, you can catch the likes of Katy Perry, Solange and Lorde somewhere on the Glasto bill. But these women are the minority. Just because Adele and Beyoncé (two of only eight female Glastonbury headliners ever) are on hiatus, is there really no one available to represent female artists? What about Super Bowl- smashing Lady Gaga? Rihanna, who has the third highest number of Top 10 hits of all time? Björk and her four-decade career?

IN THIS PHOTO: How long until Björk gets a headline slot?/PHOTO CREDIT: Tim Walker  

The reasons for male-dominance are many – and continually debated. Structural power in the music industry remains overwhelmingly male, with one survey showing that only 30% of senior executive roles are occupied by women. As the culture of mainstream festivals has become intertwined with lad culture and Topman slogan T-shirts, perhaps promoters, bookers and A&Rs want more of the same.

It is, like so much in the music industry, normalised to see male names appear physically bigger on flyers and social media promos, but there is a more systemic issue at stake. Who makes the decisions about who sells and who doesn’t? Who chooses who gets playlisted on Radio 1? Or has the album of the week? All these contribute to consumers’ access to artists and in turn who makes top billing because of their popularity.

Perhaps the gender split in audiences is at play. Male-dominated ticket-buying has been blamed for male-dominated line-ups but, conversely, seeing more women on-stage might also make for safer spaces for female attendees. Last year, Glastonbury featured its first women-only ‘intersectional, queer, trans and disability-inclusive space’ called The Sisterhood, in an attempt to disrupt the status quo. And sexism is just one issue: more women doesn’t automatically equal more diversity all round. More straight white women at Glastonbury doesn’t mean more female artists of colour next year, but it does present a healthy challenge”.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Emily Eavis (one of only a few female bookers/heads of major music festivals)/PHOTO CREDIT: PA/Getty Images

There are female bookers – like Glastonbury’s Emily Eavis – but there is some truth to the theory male bookers go for male artists. There are more women in the world than men and festivals are recruiting more women than ever. One thing that does cloud some festivals is sexual assault and abuse but having more female headliners would not only give them a voice and sense of safety but it would help reverse this male dominance. It is fair to say most of the decision makers – from label bosses and radio heads – are men and there has not been a kick up the arse to make them change their ways. Radio is changing a bit and we are seeing more women, such as Sara Cox and Lauren Laverne, appearing in bigger slots. Look at the total numbers and there are still more radio men than women – more in the breakfast and drivetime positions. Most label bosses and festival heads are men and the male odour continues into publishing, A&R and P.R. labels. I could rattle off the great female artists and bands coming through – including Let’s Eat Grandma, Dream Wife and Stealing Sheep – who have to look at festival bills and see that male rule. How long do they have to wait to get a shout and be higher up?! I do not feel audiences and ticket buyers would rebel and have a temper tantrum if women were booked as headliners.


 IN THIS PHOTO: Foo Fighters (who will headline Reading and Leeds this year)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Too much power lies in male hands and it is not the case they hate female artists and do not want them to play. Look at the big record labels’ websites and you can see a fairly equal split. Most number-one singles are from men but there are a lot of great female artists visible and popular. The only real reason why men are still being booked as headliners is because that’s how things used to be. Change is a big thing but there is a risk bucking trends because, at the end of things, there is that bottom line and profit. What is a female headliner bombs or Foo Fighters are denied the chance to play?! In fact, the more I think about it, the less I understand why women are overlooked in the headline places. We have been promised gender parity in 2022 but, as I said, that does not mean headline acts will be fifty-fifty.  Music festival headliners should be based on a number of things: stage presence, experience; popularity, relevance and energy. Can anyone honestly say there is an absence of women that fulfil that criteria?! I think not. Look at this report from The Independent from late last year and there are ample options:

“The key thing about any festival is that you don’t stand still,” Benn said in February. “You can’t keep drumming up the same acts and expect people to continue to come and see them.”

The delusion in this statement is laughable. Including next year’s headliners, 11 all-male acts have headlined at least twice in the past 20 years: Fall Out Boy, Muse, Kasabian, Kings of Leon, Biffy Clyro, Eminem, Green Day, Guns N Roses, Manic Street Preachers, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Foo Fighters have headlined four times in 16 years...

IN THIS PHOTO: Kate Tempest has released two solo studio albums and is a respected poet, writer and playwright/PHOTO CREDIT: Eddie Otchere 

Off the top of my head, headline-worthy female acts that festival organisers could pick from for 2019 include Charli XCX, Dua Lipa, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, SZA, Florence + the Machine, Lorde, Katy Perry, Patti Smith, Stevie Nicks, Lana Del Rey, Solange, The xx, Lady Gaga, Janelle Monae, Camila Cabello, Cardi B, MIA, Nicki Minaj, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Bjork. The majority of those acts have either recently released or are expected to drop new albums within the next 6-12 months – and will certainly be more timely than Foo Fighters, who released their latest album Concrete and Gold in 2017.

Other female, gender-neutral or female-fronted acts that would be amazing on any number of the other stages are: Little Simz, Flohio, Anteros, Lion, Yonaka, Yaeji, Goat Girl, Sigrid, LAUREL, Kate Tempest, Cupcakke, Ms Banks, Aine Cahill, Alma, KoffeeJessie Reyez, The Aces, INHEAVEN, Black Honey, Nadia Rose, Ray BLK, Lady Leshurr, Sleater Kinney, Jain, Haim, July Talk, Clean Cut Kid, The Japanese House, Jorja Smith, Maggie Rogers and Anne-Marie”.

Lana Del Rey is already headlining Latitude but I could name ten female artists who can headline festivals this year: Solanhe, Beyoncé; Madonna, Kate Tempest; Florence + the Machine, Lady Gaga; PJ Harvey, Janelle Monáe; Tina Turner and Britney Spears. In there, we have a nice mix of legends and newer acts and I do not see why they are overlooked. I am pretty sure every one of them would be free for a big festival and they are not reserved to the likes of Glastonbury.


 IN THIS IMAGE: PJ Harvey performed on the Other Stage at Glastonbury in 2016 but one feels it is a perfect time for a Pyramid Stage headline slot/IMAGE CREDIT: tomhermans

Isle of Wight has a Rock ethic but we have PJ Harvey and Tina Turner; Latitude could do well with Kate Tempest and Solange whereas Reading and Leeds could have Beyoncé and Florence + the Machine offer something good – Glastonbury could have Lady Gaga headline given the fact she is now an Oscar-nominated actor! There are plenty of excuses but there are no reasons and facts beyond the continued lack of female artists in the headline slots. There are waves of musicians ready to take the reins and they are not being handed them. If festivals are evolving and committed to quality then how can they rationalise booking past-the-sell-by-date bands like Foo Fighters, Biffy Clyro and Snow Patrol when there are dozens of better and more interesting female artists who could rule! We should not have to wait until 2022: action needs to be taken right now and festival organisers have to account for their inexplicable reliance on male artists. I hope there is genuine change by 2022 and, if it cannot come sooner, we need to ensure that this pledge of equality and balance...

PHOTO CREDIT: @v_well  

EXTENDS to the headline slots.