FEATURE: Merely Players: Are Women Always Going to Be Underrepresented at Festivals Whilst Men Are in Charge?




Merely Players

IN THIS PHOTO: Janet Jackson (photoed in 2009) is confirmed for this year’s Glastonbury Festival but not, oddly, as a headliner/PHOTO CREDIT: Mary Ellen Matthews  

Are Women Always Going to Be Underrepresented at Festivals Whilst Men Are in Charge?


THERE are articles out at the moment…


 PHOTO CREDIT: @v_well/Unsplash

that concern Glastonbury this year and which artists will make surprise appearances. NME have predicted some acts who will turn up but, as you can see, it is largely male. I am not signalling out Glastonbury but, as I have said on a number of occasions, there is this real problem that seems to get blown over. A few shocking and ridiculous omissions have meant that, once more, there is an all-male headlining situation. Many might say that this is not a problem but, when one bears in mind the rest of the bill is still tipping the way of men, it makes a lack of female headliners glaring and troubling. I know organisers Emily and Michael Eavis have addressed the imbalanced and said they have tried to make it more even but, when you consider the problem is less to do with logistics and money and more to do with arithmetic, it does dumbfound. If the Eavis’ and the crew behind Glastonbury had just invited a few more female artists – there is still time but I do not see the bill being fifty-fifty in terms of gender – then that would have been something. Headline slots are important because they are what people talk about most. These names appear at the top of the bill and it represents a certain measure of popularity and achievement. I was stunned Kylie Minogue – who was due to headline Glastonbury in 2005 – was not asked to rightfully come back and headline this year.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Kylie Minogue was due to headline Glastonbury in 2005 but had to bow out because of her breast cancer diagnosis and, whilst she is at Glastonbury this year, one has to ask why she was not asked to headline/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

She is on Glastonbury’s ‘legends’ stage and, whilst she gets some exposure, why was she not asked to headline the Pyramid Stage?! She is worthy of that top slot and it is rather worrying that she was not asked. The fact that The Cure, The Killers and Stormzy are headlining means you do not have that much variation and quality. One can say Stormzy’s booking is a big move forward from Glastonbury, why not a Grime equal like Little Simz? She has a richer catalogue and would, I feel, put on a better show. The Killers are past their best and (their booking) reeks of a lack of real effort. The Cure might be okay but it is another year where our biggest festival lets down women. I keep addressing this subject because there is never a defence against the imbalance. Look at Glastonbury and it took them until 1989 when the first female headliner, Suzanne Vega, was booked – given the festival started back in 1970! In fact, in 1989, 1990 and 1992 – 1991 was a fallow year – there was one female headliner per year. The last woman to headline Glastonbury was back in 2016 when Adele took to the Pyramid Stage. Since 2013, there have only been two female headliners – Florence and the Machine replaced Foo Fighters in 2015 – and it makes for shocking reading. There are reports that incorrectly say Miley Cyrus is headlining too.


 IMAGE CREDIT: @GlastoFest

I am not sure where that rumour started and, whilst she is performing at Glastonbury, there are only three headline acts. She is on the bill but she is not one of the headline acts. The same is true of Janet Jackson. Some have stated she is headlining but that is not the case. She cheekily edited the Glastonbury poster to put her name in a headline slot and it made me ask why she was not given that honour. I am sure she would have accepted and just think how popular that appointment would have been. Even if we had one female headliner, it would have still seemed a bit lacklustre – the fact there are zero makes it another embarrassing year. It is great that artists like Janet Jackson and Lauryn Hill are playing Glastonbury but it makes me wonder why they were not both asked to headline – they would have made superior bookings to The Cure and The Killers. Even though Miley Cyrus is booked, her absence from the headline slot underlines the fact that Pop has taken a back seat. This year’s Glastonbury headliners are all men and, in terms of their tone and style, there is not a lot of upbeat music and Pop flavour – anyone from Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill and Janelle Monáe  (who headlines the West Holts stage) would have made better options. One can say the fact Monáe  and Minogue have technical headline slots means that counts – making it three men to two women!

 PHOTO CREDIT: @trapnation/Unsplash

When it comes to festivals and the headliners, we look at the main stage and that is where the emphasis lies. I do think there is progression regarding women but Glastonbury’s true headliners are on the Pyramid Stage – why are there no women featured there at all?! I am not only referencing Glastonbury when I pick on the lack of women headlining. There are endless names one can rattle off – including Beyoncé and Björk – who could put on stunning sets and it would not aggrieve people or ruffles feathers. I think we have got into this mindset where people are pacified and placated if female artists are given spots of stages like West Holts and the legends stage. It is great that women are top of those bills but the ‘true’ Glastonbury headliners have always been male – there have been very few female headliners since the start. Is it the feeling that it doesn’t matter whether it is all-male or there is not enough female talent around?! Apart from Christine and the Queens headlining All Points East in London, there is a real absence of female headliners around the U.K.’s festival scene. It is not even the case that women are being fairly represented away from headline slots: look at every bill for every British festival and I defy you to find one that is gender-equal. Would the world end if there were a couple of women headlining festivals?


 IMAGE CREDIT: @IsleOfWightFest/Unsplash

What if one festival has a female-only headline year? I do not think fans would revolt, and yet, it seems that there is a real nervousness and stubbornness to book women to headline. We must make the distinction, when it comes to the likes of Glastonbury, what a headliner is – it is the Pyramid Stage (Glastonbury) and it is not good enough to ignore women on the main stages if there are a couple of headliners on lesser stages. Look around festivals such as Isle of Wight and Reading and Leeds and, again, there is that vacancy. I do honestly believe  festival organisers sprinkle in women and almost make the bill fifty and think that, well, that is good enough, right?! Nope. Not even close! I opened by stating booking acts to play is not based on educational qualifications or anything bar the music itself. By continuously ignoring women for headline slots and having festival bills where men are the majority it is saying that women are either not as good as the men or they are not able to headline. What other reasons would there be?! That quality-related argument is ball as one could easily name a few dozen female acts that are worthy of headlining. I like the fact festivals such as Reading and Leeds are diversifying their line-up and including genres like Rap. Whilst there is sonic diversion and expansion, festivals are still doggedly featuring men at the top.


There is a link between the men at the top of festival posters and the people who are responsible for booking artists – who are, in the main, men. In a year that has been dominated and owned by women – look at the best albums of the year so far and few men are among the pack! – it is appalling that there is such myopia and ignorance. I am not sure what defines a headline-worthy artist but there are women who will be appearing at U.K. festivals who have serious clout and promise. I have already mentioned heavyweights Kylie Minogue, Lauryn Hill and Janet Jackson. One can throw in Lana Del Rey and Sigrid. In fact, one looks at the posters from the biggest festivals and there are so many female names that could have been added that seem to have been omitted. I keep touting names like St. Vincent but with good reason: someone like her would be perfect to headline. I am not slating all festivals but there has been plenty of criticism regarding the quality and level of excitement regarding confirmed acts this year. I do not feel music has got less thrilling and emphatic but festival bills – especially the headline acts – seem to suggest a lack of invention, progression and, well, they do lack a sense of fun! There are so many great women coming through that could spice up a festival; plenty of icons who could headline but, alas, there is this familiar miasma.

 IN THIS PHOTO: George Ezra is appearing at several festivals this year, including a headline set at the Isle of Wight/PHOTO CREDIT: Phil Smithies

If one argues that there are comparatively few great new female artists coming through that could headline then I suggest you look at the festival bills and count the number of ‘new’ artists headlining! It is great there are some older acts headlining festivals this year but it does make me wonder, again, why female acts were not asked in that case! I do think it is the fact men are at the top and making the decisions that is creating this lack of movement. Apart from Emily Eavis at Glastonbury, most of our major festivals are controlled by men. It is all very well some of these organisers getting excited about their bookings and how great things are but, when you put the question of gender inequality at their feet, do they have a straight answer?! There is this attitude problem (mainly men) who sneer and festivals book on the basis of talent and organisers are booking the best out there – the fact there are fewer women on bills is only fair, in that case. I think it is this misguided assumption that is in the heads of men as they select artists to play. I already mentioned how women are dominating 2019 and I wonder whether they will be recognised in the coming years. Will the likes of Little Simz, Cate Le Bon; Self Esteem, Jamila Woods and Sharon Van Etten get headline slots because they have created masterful albums in 2019?

 IN THIS PHOTO: Jamila Woods (a future festival headliner, perhaps?)/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

If we are equating headline slots and festival equality with quality then, surely, we will see greater balance and more female headliners in the next year or so?! It is complete crap, of course, because 2019 is no strange year where women are suddenly coming out of nowhere: they have always been making great music but this is not being reflected in terms of festival visibility. There are countless other areas of music where one can look at gender imbalance but, as we are preparing to get our tents ready for another year of festival-going, it makes me wonder whether there will ever be a day when we see women treated the same as men. It is almost like male festival organisers are straining and sweating when they count up the confirmed bookings and counting how many are men and how many are women – proud of themselves that they almost created a fifty-fifty split and leaving it at that. I do agree that festivals should be based on quality and potential and this is definitely the case of headline slots. One can look at the bills of this year’s big festivals and you wonder whether the very best artists are headlining. There are numerous women who could make for stronger headliners and many more who warranted an appearance at festivals this year but have, as always, had to make room for the men.

 IN THIS PHOTO: Foo Fighters are no strangers to festival headlining and are one of the headline acts at this year’s Reading and Leeds/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Away from the lame excuses and apathy, there is a lot of anger coming from women and a real impotence from men. At the very least, there is this real lack of interest either way. It really should bother people that huge festivals are ignoring women for headline slots because we will look back in years to come and see festival bills dominated by men. Are musicians coming through now going to be deterred because there are very few women headlining? I think so. If they look at minor concessions like we see at Glastonbury then that is not going to change their mind of make them feel women are represented and heard when it comes to festivals – as I said earlier, one needs to be clear that headliners on smaller stages are not THE headliners. I do fear that there is always going to be this male dominance at the top of festival bills. I do understand there are women in positions of power when it comes to festivals but how much say are they having? Is it the case that the same names are being trotted out – because they are commercial or have a reputation – and women are being overlooked needlessly? I do think there is something in that and, as we strive to create a gender-balanced festival line-up by 2022, is that going to include the headliners? It is great festivals are pledging to put women on a level footing with men going forward but that pledge does not include headline acts – just so long as the entire bill has a fifty-fifty split.

 IN THIS PHOTO: What will Lauryn Hill bring to this year’s Glastonbury?/PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

I do think we will continue to see festivals giving the top slots to men time and time again – complete needless considering the female talent out there and the sort of message it sends to the world. Glastonbury f*cked up not asking Janet Jackson to headline and I think there would have been this huge wave of positivity if she was confirmed as a headliner. What about getting more say from the public and those in the industry?! I do think festival organisers can get a little lazy with bookings and do not realise why it is important to have a more gender-balanced line-up. Perhaps there is not enough resistance and anger aimed their way that provokes them to change and make improvements. I think I have vented enough at festivals this year but I do know that it will not make a difference. Whilst festivals are making small steps in the right direction regrading gender equality and other areas – a few of the big festivals have pledged to go plastic-free going forward – I am constantly exhausted seeing more men on festival bills (compared to women) and, every single year without question, more men headlining festivals. In fact, look at all the major festivals in the U.K. and U.S. and has there been a year in history where we saw two women/female acts headline or it being all-female? I am struggling to bring one to mind and that makes it even more disgusting. Of course, the festivals themselves are more than headline acts and the quality of the music itself is the main thing. Organisers do need to be more aware of the huge gender gulf and why they are not giving more recognition to women. All the excuses in the world cannot disguise the fact that, for literally no reason at all, women are (largely) being excluded…


 IMAGE CREDIT: @allpointseastuk

FROM the headline slots.