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26 February 2015

Just why are there so few female artists on music festival line-ups?

The Reading and Leeds line-up is outrageously light on women musicians - but with set-in-their-ways promoters and the exclusionary demands of touring, it's going to be hard to change.

By Stephanie Boland

Have you seen the line-up for this summer’s Reading and Leeds festival? Have you noticed anything a bit “off” – aside from the continued prominence of 00s hoodie-fodder Limp Bizkit?

The internet was all abuzz yesterday – I know, so far, so usual – as a graphic circulated of the Reading and Leeds line-up poster if it only included bands with female members. While some on Twitter suggested the bigger problem was that the line-up was generally terrible, others wondered how, when the charts include plenty of high-profile female performers, the festival could still be such a, well, sausage fest.

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I’m not going to debate whether Mumford and Sons are an act of general artistic merit, but the latter question is worth digging in to. 

Of course, some of the answers are obvious. There is, for instance, always the tiring existence of what I like to call “the ouroboros of patriarchy”. Women who already spend a good portion of their personal and professional lives fighting to be taken seriously often aren’t interested in trying to establish a profile in the spaces which appear specifically hostile. The hundred small acts of resistance you have to undertake just to exist as a woman in a creative field are wearying enough. If a certain industry, or panel show, or festival line-up seems to hold little regard for female artists, then many of those artists will be less inclined to push for a slot (the Question Time Rule). And if women do begin to take up more room, various commentators find it jarring – being so used to seeing women vastly underrepresented that it starts to look “wrong” way before the numbers even approach gender parity. Thus male-dominated spaces continue to gobble up more male contributors, eating their own tails until they become a perfect self-perpetuating circle of man art.

Many other festivals are the same story.

But this is boring: a fact which gets pointed out again and again, while doing little to either fix the problem or look at the other, case-specific factors which make an event unfriendly to women. The Guardian rightly took care to rebut the idea that there is a specifically “male” type of music, but both the festival scene and the culture around certain forms of music do, sadly, run overwhelmingly male. Note, for instance, the distribution of the few acts which remain on the poster: a few on the Festival stage, a smattering of main stage artists and nothing on the metal/doom/shouty line-up. A festival like Reading and Leeds, some will argue, will always have a majority male line-up because rock and indie are men’s genres. Although this is, of course, bollocks, it’s a deeply ingrained message – so ingrained, in fact, that Kim Gordon’s autobiography, released this week, is called Girl in a Band in homage to how frequently interviewers asked her what it was like being one. And Reading has long skewed male: the 1990 line-up has The Cramps, and The Fall who of course had Brix, but otherwise…

Reading 1990.

This is partly due to a specifically indie iteration of the old lie which says complicated things are for men. Indie falls through the gaps of women’s cultural liberation. Women are allowed, after all, to do pop, which people think of as bright and loud and cheerful. They’re not allowed to be too weird, or dark, or introspective. Once Lady Gaga gained weight and made it clear that she was going to keep being strange, and refuse to pander to the gaze of the pop world – like the male gaze, but somehow more shallow and toxic – she was berated.

Indie is an introspective genre, with a rhetoric so subtle (Cold War Kids) so as to sometimes verge on nonsense (Oasis). Morrissey is lauded – quite fairly, in my opinion – for his ability to spin gold from heartfelt sensitivity. But when women say something confessional, it’s “oversharing”. If female lyricists write complex, self-indulgent things of the type that their male counterparts wallow in, they’re dragged over the media coals (see: Lana Del Ray). What would a woman have to be like to be the female Morrissey, darkly keening about her schooldays, or the female Noel Gallagher? She’d be called unhinged, or cocky, or shrill. And while people think of certain genres as male, the female artists operating in those genres won’t get the same bookings. I urge you never to try and figure out the full list of venues the Raincoats have played. It’s infuriating.

The Raincoats, “No-one’s Little Girl”.

Yet rock music is changing. In her autobiography How to Be a Woman, erstwhile music critic Caitlin Moran describes how the conversations at Melody Maker, where she began her career, often centered around finding women to cover. “Now, at the Arts section of the Times, editors despair about having to cover male artists: ‘No one cares. Who wants to look at another picture of some dull bloke?’” In October of last year, when the US Billboard charts entered a sixth week of an all-female top 5, industry representatives took it as confirmation of a bigger shift: “There’s something going on culturally”.

So why don’t the line-ups match the public taste? It’s possible festivals can be unwelcoming. Putting aside the number of times I’ve been groped or wolf-whistled in some tented venue, or assumed to be there for a reason other than music interest (I love Molly Lambert on this: “It’s not like men don’t equally want to fuck Mick Jagger. That’s the whole point of Mick Jagger”), the festival circuit doesn’t cater well to women musicians. Girl in a Band discusses the lack of toilets or changing areas at even major venues, leaving artists with little space for basic privacy away from mostly male eyes.

And that’s assuming a woman can attend at all. Men with brilliant wives are still, for some reason, less likely to step into the domestic role than women with brilliant husbands. As long as women bear the brunt of domestic labour, the demands of touring will be harder for them to juggle – especially in the early stages of a music career, when pay isn’t high enough to shell out for extended periods of childcare. Female pop artists on the festival circuit tend to either be childless, or be at a point where they can afford a babysitter. Until the necessary overhaul in distribution of labour comes, I frankly see no reason why the major festivals can’t install an all-hours supervised soft play area off the green room. If it started to not feel rock and roll enough, you could always just let Bez or Pete Docherty have a turn.

There are plenty of women, however, who would figure out a way to tour if given the chance – and ultimately, blame lies with the organisers. Debbie Golt, chair of Women in Music, thinks the music business can be lazy. “There are bands with women bursting out everywhere at the moment – there are major bands that would easily fit on the Reading and Leeds bill that simply aren’t there. You could fill the whole thing with brilliant women’s bands!” She explains that the problem runs deep in the industry: “the bookers, the A&R people, the guys arranging things in the bar after meetings… they’re going for what has worked before”. Her colleague Suzanne Chawner says she herself had to think consciously about the acts she was booking, worrying that audiences would be less interested; but when she began a night for female singer-songwriters, she was proved wrong. “I think it requires more thought and a bit of courage on behalf of bookers”.

For some, though, quotas are a tricky subject. Sophie Coletta, New Music Editor at The Quietus, tells me that her area of expertise – electronic music – has a gender imbalance that leaves promoters in a quandary; especially as many male artists operate under female pseudonyms. For her, the worry is that purposely curating all-female lineups can “diminish the artists involved into a tokenistic novelty”. Yet she accepts the “unfortunate reality” that it’s hard to rectify of situation “without consciously making these positive discriminatory decisions in the first place”. Some venues like the Southbank Centre, whose 2015/16 program has a deliberate focus on women, are beginning to reach out to female artists without relegating them to “women’s” events. But such gestures are still too few — especially in the rock world. It’s high time they changed.

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