You don’t need a thinkpiece to tell you that the UK festival circuit is overwhelmingly male, the evidence is right there on the posters. But there’s nothing like a good old fashioned bit of data crunching to make you realise just how dire things are. To that end, the Guardian published an article by Jenny Stevens and Ami Sedghi analysing the gender split of artists on the line-up’s of Glastonbury, T in the Park, Reading and Leeds, V, Isle of Wight, Creamfields, Download, Bestival, Green Man, Latitude, Wireless and Field Day. Unsurprisingly but no less depressingly, the count shows 2,336 men performing on stage compared to 270 women. What might come as a little more shocking, though, is the fact that some festival promoters don’t seem to think it’s their problem.
You might expect traditionally rock-led events like Reading and Leeds or Download, which are 94% and 96% male respectively, to suffer some dramatic gender diversity, but as the Guardian reports, there is a problem across the board. Despite being a pop-heavy festival - an arena in which women historically tend to excel - V Festival is 84% male. Wireless is a little better at 80%, but even the smaller festivals like Bestival and Latitude don’t manage more than an 80/20 split. The worst offender is Creamfields, whose 97% male line-up argues the case that dance music has the longest way to go when it comes to actualising the ancient proverb: “variety is the spice of life.”When asked what could be done to address the problem of gender disparity on festival bills, promoter Melvin Benn, who curates both Reading and Leeds and Latitude, replied: “I don’t have a problem. We don’t have a problem. We put on bands that people want to buy tickets to watch – so it’s the public that makes the decision about what bands play at festivals."“We’re not the tastemakers,” he says, probably miming the washing of hands as he does so. “Putting a festival on is a monstrous financial risk. The only way I balance the books is selling tickets. Why do you think we book the same male acts again and again? Because they sell tickets. Trust me, if there was a female headline act in the rock genre that sold the same amount of tickets as any one of the headline acts this year, I’d book them. Why isn’t there a heavy metal act like Metallica that is female? I can’t answer that.”
Download festival booker Andy Copping also thinks the problem comes down to a lack of women in bands. “There’s no shortage of women coming to our festival, but they seem to like watching bands more than being in them. They just haven’t felt inspired enough to pick up a guitar or be the singer of a rock band.”So, let's get into this shall we? Is it really that baffling that women statistically feel more comfortable observing bands than actually being in them? Rock music has a fairly unwavering tradition of keeping women at arms length, confined to the sides of stages playing the role of the “groupie” and never the guitarist - even when they are literally the guitarist. Of course there are swathes of confident women out there who don’t need to follow anybody’s lead, but generally speaking low female visibility will only serve to breed low female visibility. If you pick up a magazine and there’s a white male on the cover 11 months out of the year, you have no reason to assume you could be on it one day. If you spend three days at the main stage of a festival and see only one woman, then that doesn’t encourage you to work your way there. There is no inspiration, no encouragement, and no sense of belonging. The odds, it would seem, are stacked against you. Those who have made it have beaten them - and fought their own battles with industry sexism in the process.Thankfully, not all of the promoters were found to be shirking responsibility. Bestival’s Rob da Bank says: “I made a real effort this year to have more women on our lineup, because it has been a talking point for the last few years. A lot of these women are vocal on social media about wanting to see strong women performers. Obviously, we’re not near equality yet. And we do face the problem that most musical acts are male. But although that’s not a festival promoter’s fault, it is something we can address by getting a lot of big, strong, female names at the top of our lineup.”
This is, admittedly, among the more progressive sentiments out of all of them, but sadly his good intentions don’t translate to Bestival’s 90% male line-up, and though he’s right when he observes that the lack of women in the music industry isn’t a necessarily the “fault” of the festival promoter, that doesn’t absolve them of responsibility. What we’re dealing with at the moment is deeply ingrained sexism compacted with the problems of an industry based on expectation; an industry in constant financial peril that only supports acts that have already proven themselves to be successful. Poor female visibility on festival bills isn’t an isolated issue, it’s endemic.
“I’d love to have a bill full of females, but it’s just not that easy,” says Emily Eavis, who books Glastonbury (which has an 86% male lineup this year). “It’s more complicated than choosing an artist and just booking them […] The question of why there are so few women needs to be asked further back than us. We book bands, especially on the bigger stages, based on who is right to do those big slots. And it’s important that we have women at the top as well as men, but we also need those female artists to be pushed through – by record companies, radio and the media.”Watching men on the same stage all day long may well be “boring”, as Isle of Wight festival’s John Giddings notes, but it’s not just boring, it’s short sighted. Our festival line-up’s are becoming increasingly distanced from our pop culture, where women are considered some of the most innovative voices in punk, hip-hop, dance, and art as a whole. Whether it’s Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves’ relentless appetite for creativity, Dej Loaf being hailed as the Queen of Detroit, or Petra Collins’ menstruating vagina t-shirt, women are making enormous gains in music and art. So why isn't it being celebrated? “It is alarming,” Jenny Stevens writes, “that, in 2015, a young music fan can spend all weekend watching acts at a UK festival, and not see a single female performer.”
It seems almost unrealistic that Florence Welch will be the first British woman to headline the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury since Skunk Anansie in 1999, and she wasn't even supposed to do it in the first place, but, hey, that's state of things. These line-ups may be the direct result of a male-dominated industry - as Emily Eavis notes, “Every year I go and meet the big booking agents and band representatives and I’ve often been the only woman in the room” - but pandering to the problem is not the answer. In the past couple of years, versions of these festival lineup posters, with the male-only acts deleted, have swamped social media and made headlines for highlighting the lack of women on festival bills and discussion panels alike. We’ve reached a point where sexism is not only really obvious, but no longer tolerated. Clearly, people want to see more women on stage.
The fact we've even reached this point is a sign of progress, but the only thing that will get us over the hump is for people in positions of power to accept some semblance of responsibility rather than deflecting the blame onto “the industry”. Our music festivals are fast becoming some of the most important cultural events in the country. In a climate where our most significant and historical venues can be boarded up on a weekly basis, tickets for this year’s Glastonbury still sell out in record time (25 minutes). Latitude and Green Man also sold out way in advance. Arguably, the allure of the “festival experience” now goes far beyond the reaches of the music fanatic.We need festivals who are willing to break this cycle, not consistently wash their hands of a self-perpetuating problem, hailing themselves as tastemakers when it suits and shirking off their responsibilities as such when it doesn’t. By acknowledging yet still pandering to music industry sexism, festivals will remain a significant part of the larger problem, not, as they'd like you to believe, a result of it.Follow Emma on Twitter.