What do Arctic Monkeys, Elton John and Guns N’ Roses have in common? Well, apart from the fact they haven't been groundbreaking or relevant for well over a decade, you've also probably seen them on festival lineups as often as Matt Hancock has fucked over the Conservative Party. And so, when Glastonbury announced its headline acts for 2023, the whole country rolled over and went back to sleep.
To put it mildly, it was a strong case of déjà vu – Arctic Monkeys are headlining for the third time, the others being their undisputed glory years of 2007 and 2013, and Guns N’ Roses are also a familiar name on UK the festival circuit, playing memorably disastrous sets at Reading and Leeds in 2010. The problem is they haven’t had a hit single since the 90s or a cult moment since the now practically retro comedy Step Brothers was released in 2008. As for 75 year-old Elton John, sure, he’s arguably a newbie to the Pyramid Stage, but he’s played everywhere since his 2013 comeback headlining Bestival and is hardly going to be reinventing himself for the last UK gig of his touring career.Now, unless you’re a diehard fan of a particular act, seeing the same artists headlining festivals is downright boring – I for one don’t particularly want to be reminded of nursing my first broken heart to “505” by Arctic Monkeys 16 years later. I’ve moved on and so has my music taste. But that’s exactly what festivals are doing.
Recent research suggests that over the last ten years, not only are the UK’s most popular festivals booking legacy acts to play year after year, popular artists are being booked at multiple festivals each year – making lineups look disappointingly homogenous.With all of Glastonbury’s headline slots also essentially going to older white men, there’s understandably been some backlash about the lack of diversity and women, especially.“The pressures of ticket sales is a huge thing, and I’m not saying that women don’t sell tickets – that’s not the case whatsoever – but I think it’s a historic music industry thing of, ‘We need to play it safe,’” says Rivca Burns, creative director of Manchester’s Sounds from the Other City festival and programme curator of Manchester International Festival’s Festival Square. “That’s why I was so shocked by Glastonbury, because they sell out in advance, they don’t need to sell tickets on their headliners.” It’s true that punters sign up for Glastonbury tickets before knowing who’s playing because the festival is known for once-in-a-lifetime moments. We anticipate headline performances from artists at the peak of their careers like Beyoncé, Stormzy or Billie Eilish – but also impromptu ones à la Dave getting Alex Mann (AKA “Alex from Glasto”) to rap AJ Tracey’s part in their hit “Thiago Silva”. But this year we’re not getting any headliners that we’ll look back on as defining the sound of 2023, rather, it’s a lineup we’d be paying half the price for at somewhere like Isle of Wight Festival or Download.
Indeed, it feels like an extra slap in the face because the price of Glastonbury tickets has increased so dramatically this year – and who wants to pay half a grand for acts we’ve seen before?Glastonbury’s co-organiser Emily Eavis says there’s an “industry pipeline problem”, in response to the criticism of the controversial male-heavy lineup. She argues that because the music industry doesn’t invest in enough female musicians, there aren’t enough female headliners to go around. Burns agrees there’s a lack of investment in women across the board, citing a recent report by the PRS Foundation that found 98 percent of its grantees agree that their women-supporting fund is still needed. “I do believe there’s a problem in that mid-career moment for artists, especially women, where we come up against so many challenges,” says Burns. “And not only physical challenges of life like childbirth, but the route through the industry is harder for women because of the historic misogynistic way the industry is set up.”Still, there are plenty of headline-worthy women who are touring this year that could’ve taken those spots – Madonna, Taylor Swift, Adele or Dua Lipa to name a few – and Eavis’s explanation frankly feels like a lazy excuse. Glastonbury has historically been a pioneering festival.
Vick Bain, founder of The F-List directory of UK female and non-binary musicians, agrees there’s a huge amount of misogyny within the industry. Her research for the Counting the Music Industry: The Gender Gap report found that 86 percent of signed songwriters and publishers, and just over 80 percent of signed artists on record labels, in the UK are male. “When I discussed the early results with some very serious, experienced music industry executives and asked them why the it’s like this,” says Bain. “I was told things like, ‘women just aren’t as good at music as men’, ‘they’re not obsessive’, ‘they don’t like being in bands’ or ‘they’re not as interested or ambitious in terms of their music careers’.”The stats back up just how dangerous these kinds of views are for women artists: In 2022, only 13 percent of UK headliners in 2022 were female, with 74.5 percent either an all-male band or solo artist, a BBC study found. There’s also “significant inequality in the popular UK music charts and on radio airplay,” writes Bain, alongside co-author Dr Metka Potočnik in their contribution to the government’s Women and Equalities Committee’s 2022 inquiry into misogyny in the industry – not to not to mention the other types of misogyny, such as sexual harassment.
The perplexing thing about the Glastonbury headline announcement is that it’s otherwise doing well on gender representation. Many would argue there are women playing this year who could’ve easily taken those headline spots, like recent Grammy winner Lizzo or Lana Del Rey, arguably a woman who changed the direction of pop music and who’s got a new album on the way to boot. So why not give them a headline slot?“Women’s contribution to music is not seen on equal footing,” says Potočnik, who's researched extensively on gender and music. “And there’s a broader question of why women aren’t taken seriously.” She cites research by author Mary Ann Sieghart which demonstrates the ways women are continually questioned, undermined and patronised in work and public life – she calls it “the authority gap”. Burns agrees there’s a double standard at play: “Carl Cox doesn’t produce any of his own music and is headlining stages left, right and centre but [fellow top-level DJ] Peggy Gou is currently being shamed for not producing her own music.”Still, Burns sees opportunity in the debate about Glastonbury’s lack of imagination and diversity in its headliners. “It’s also a way to start a discussion about how the big conglomerates can support the mid-career artists,” she says. “We’re in a precarious position at the moment as an industry – we’ve got grassroots venues struggling, we’ve got a lack of rehearsal spaces across the UK – and so we need to start looking at a bit more of a football model, where the Premier League actually supports the grassroots, which then supports the pipeline.”It's also a way to highlight the good work of small to medium-sized festivals like Shambala, Bluedot or Love Supreme – festivals with a capacity of under 20,000 and 50,000, respectively. Research shows these festivals tend to consistently book new artists each year.For us to see more diversity across the board, though, there needs to be a new headliner qualification process that’s more democratic, transparent and involves decision-making from a wider spectrum of the music industry. Because how do we create new legacy artists if they’re never given the opportunity to perform era-defining shows?If it’s the same white men performing year after year, we’re robbing the next generation of experiencing what made Glastonbury, and the British festival circuit more widely, such a special part of the UK music scene in the first place.@kamilarymajdo