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We Asked Festival Organisers To Explain The Lack Of Women On The Line-Ups

Mainstream festivals seem to find it much more difficult to achieve diversity than independent ones...

Ever since a picture of how sparse the Reading and Leeds festival line-up would be if it only included acts with female musicians was tweeted in 2015, the conversation around the lack of women on performing at festival has been evolving. That same year, the Guardian analysed the lineups of 12 major UK festivals including Reading and Leeds, Glastonbury, Isle of Wight and Download, and found 86% of the advertised performers were men.

It was only last year that promoters really began to step up and address the imbalance. Festival Republic (the promoter behind Download, Reading and Leeds, Latitude, Wireless, Community Festival, Electric Picnic and Lollapalooza Berlin) announced the ReBalance scheme: a three-year project that offers artists nominated by a panel of industry insiders funded studio time, a guaranteed slot on one of their festivals, and apprenticeships for women wanting to work in behind-the-scenes roles such as sound engineering. The PRS Foundation, the charitable arm of the music royalties collection company PRS, is leading Keychange, a Europe-wide initiative backed by EU funding that aims to achieve a 50:50 gender balance at festivals by 2022. A number of independent British festivals including the BBC Proms, Kendal Calling, Liverpool Sound City have signed up to the pledge, as have a festivals and conferences throughout Europe, the USA and Canada.

Some Twitter critics still put the lack of women down to plain old misogyny, not least because the methodology behind booking a festival is something of a mystery to many fans. I asked Latitude’s booker Lucy Wood to explain the process.

‘We all want more women on the bills and we’ve all consciously tried to get more women at the top end, but there’s only so much you can really do,’ says Lucy. ‘At the end of the day we need to think about ticket sales and that the artists we choose attract people to buy tickets. That narrows you down to people who are in cycle, and there’s a narrow pool at the headliner end. We look at people who are already arena level or above. We’re very lucky to have Solange at Latitude this year, she’s going to be an amazing headliner for us. Across the whole Latitude bill [this year], it is about 50:50.’

As Lucy explains, the booking process for festivals, particularly major commercial ones, is based on which artists are currently touring or promoting an album, who’s most likely to resonate with the audience, and what size shows an artist is already playing. ‘It wouldn’t be a fun festival for anyone to headline if only half the audience were present, as much as I’d love to be able to book without thinking about the audience,’ she says. That’s where ReBalance comes in – to try and introduce more female artists to the public domain and help them develop, with the aim of creating more female potential headliners.

‘I think there’s problems all the way along the pipeline, we’re addressing one end of it and trying to get more women to enter the pool, and generate interest in them,’ she says.

When I asked why Latitude or other Festival Republic properties haven’t signed up to the Keychange pledge, Lucy says that a 50:50 balance ‘might not be achievable every year. A lot of pressure is put on promoters but we’re responding to a market. I have real sympathy for other festival bookers because there could have been a year where there aren’t many female artists releasing albums.’

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Some independent festivals like Mighty Hoopla, an independent event from the team behind club night Sink The Pink, have already surpassed the 50:50 target. The lineup for the one-day event, to be held in Brockwell Park on June 3rd, features Lily Allen, Belinda Carlisle, B*Witched and Melanie C, and men are actually in the minority.

Co-founder Glyn Fussell says that, similarly to Lucy, the bookings reflect the audience. ‘Its predominantly the LGBT crowd and women,’ he says. ‘We don’t operate the same model as the classic festival. I was just seeing the same churned out acts; it’s not their fault, they have albums out, they’re on their tour run. The whole premise of our festival is to book acts our community grew up with and are nostalgic for, and fresh pop acts that wouldn’t necessarily be on normal festival lineups. I don’t care about being cool, I want to jig about in my double denim to B*Witched!’

He thinks large promoters could improve diversity by being more daring in their lineup choices. ‘A lot of corporations are coming in and monopolising the festival market, and people are scared to take risks,’ he says.

Lara Baker, former Marketing and Events Director at the Association of Independent Music and current music business diversity consultant, echoes this view. ‘The simplest explanation for the better gender balance at indie festivals is that the organisers generally have full creative control over their event and can curate a line-up of the acts they want, rather than being beholden to big corporations governed by profit,’ she says. ‘Independent festivals like End of The Road have thrived with well-balanced line-ups, and if you're troubled by the imbalance of certain mainstream festivals, vote with your wallet and get a ticket to a more diverse indie festival instead. Young girls need to see women in these roles [as headliners] or they won't be inspired to reach for them themselves. The industry needs to take responsibility for effecting change.'

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A swift look through Festival Republic’s accounting history on Companies House presents a healthy picture. Profits for the financial year rose 66% from £3,798,200 to £6,314,925 between 2015 and 2016, and hovered between £4m and £5.3m from 2012-2014. Similarly, Glastonbury’s gross profits were between £2.4m and £2.8m between 2013 and 2017, although associated costs of running the festival, and the annual charitable donations it makes, means the net profits varied greatly.

The financial health of smaller independent festivals that typically offer a more diverse lineup, such as End of the Road and Larmer Tree, is more difficult to determine as they’re not obliged to publish such detailed accounts. Still, it would seem that those particular mainstream festivals are not in such an untenable position that an overhaul of the booking strategy would be too risky to consider, although there are other gargantuan costs when staging a festival. John Giddings, head of the Isle of Wight festival, told the Guardian in 2015 that police and security alone cost £1m, and making the car parks accessible cost a further £250,000'

Effecting change, though, is something Keychange is trying to do. PRS Foundation CEO Vanessa Reed says the diversity push should be an international effort where artists, festivals and execs can network and learn from each other. I spoke to Vanessa at Tallinn Music Week, an industry conference and showcase in Estonia and one of Keychange’s official partners. This year’s event was particularly dedicated to gender diversity, with panels on everything from lineups and the pay gap to how musicians are helping champion women’s reproductive rights. Female artists were just as prominent across the gig schedule as men.

On the topic of why mainstream festivals seem to find it more difficult to achieve diversity than independent ones, Vanessa thinks press scrutiny could play a part. Indeed, when the Guardian quoted Download booker Andy Copping as saying women ‘seem to like watching bands more than being in them’ – a quote he said was taken out of context – he got such a bashing on Twitter than he decided to retreat from the debate entirely. ‘[Mainstream festivals] all want the same thing, but they're approaching the challenge in a different way,’ says Vanessa. ‘I think for some of the big festivals are worried about putting themselves on the line on something the press is watching and not being able to make the 50:50 target in time. Keychange is absolutely are not about naming and shaming. It’s about having a voluntary target, not a quota, and owning that target and being honest if they can't get there.’ She also mentions openness on the booking process: ‘It's about sharing expertise about what techniques, methods and recruitment channels are working best.’

She cites the example of Florence and the Machine headlining Glastonbury in 2015 after original headliners Foo Fighters were forced to pull out when Dave Grohl broke his leg as testament to the fact that taking risks can pay off. ‘For me, that’s proof that someone who had been considered not quite ready for the headliner slot in fact completely smashed it. It's to do with how you move away from familiar ways of working and from working with promoters and agents who are putting lots of resource behind a fairly small number of acts.’

There are other factors beside commercial interest at play. Availability is one; it is theoretically possible that more women were asked to participate in major festivals than were free on the dates required (when Wireless came under fire for having only three women on the lineup, Ray BLK revealed she’d been approached but was unavailable). It’s at this point that a choice must be made: to do what people like Glyn and Vanessa encourage – and what Wireless promoters clearly didn’t – and cast the booking net a bit wider to ensure diverse lineup if even at the low end of the bill, or fall back on familiar names who may be male.

Follow Thea on Twitter @theadegallier