Wednesday, 2 September 2020

R&L... where are all the women?

So…. that Reading and Leeds line-up announcement. You’ve all seen it by now, I’ll presume. After having to cancel their 2020 festival, they’re planning to be back, bigger than ever, in 2021. Two main stages. Double the headliners. Six headline slots, unprecedented. You guessed it: all of them filled by men. Joy.

Let’s just say that it isn’t surprising in the least. In fact, I’d be shocked if R&L had come out with a truly diverse line-up. But the best kind of shocked. Breaking news: women exist AND they make good music, sometimes. It seems a difficult concept for some to grasp. There are people defending the organisers for celebrating this line-up as if it is somehow groundbreaking… are they serious? Currently, it feels as if R&L are more likely to announce that a bunch of aliens are headlining their festival, or to put on a TV talent show to find the next (male) headliners, than they are to acknowledge that women make music.

the 2021 R&L line up sans men, courtesy of @lucy_mccourt on Twitter


Scrolling through past line-ups, the problem is strikingly clear. A whole six years ago, the last female-identifying act in the headline slot, with Hayley Williams fronting Paramore. Even then, it was a co-headline slot (only the second time this had happened in the festival’s history) alongside Queens of the Stone Age (who, it’s worth mentioning, are one of the six to just be announced). Including the upcoming line-up, and this year’s cancelled efforts, there have been 27 headliners since Paramore. All of them male. How can anybody truly justify that? Rewind further and you find the sublime Arcade Fire, fronted by husband and wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne, headlining in 2010. Before then, you’d need to delve into the 90s to find any more women in the top slots. You get the picture (and it is chocked full of men.) 

I’ve never been to Reading or Leeds festivals, but as a woman writing about music and live shows on the internet, I feel as qualified as anybody to have a say on this matter. I’m curious about the organisers of the festival, those responsible for this line-up and those that have come before it. The headliners themselves, their management and booking agents. How is it that nobody involved at any stage in curating this line-up has raised a problem with the fact that it is all men, once again? And if they have, why is nobody doing anything? 

To be clear: I know that this isn’t just an issue with Reading & Leeds. All-male gig line-ups, concert series without a single female headliner to be seen, these are far too familiar scenarios across the industry. Given years to address the issue, and still seemingly ignoring it, you can’t help but presume that the likes of R&L simply don’t care. While discussing this post with a friend, she raised the point that it just doesn’t give the impression that women are welcome. How would that make you feel when attending the festival? Similarly, I can’t help but think of young artists growing up with dreams of making it in the industry. From the start, it’s made absolutely clear to them that no matter how good they are, no matter their chart positions, album sales, the tours they do, their number of fans - they’re unlikely to ever get the opportunity to headline R&L. Why? Because they’re not men. In 2020, this is frankly absurd. 

Since the announcement, I’ve tried to stick to the likeminded people on my timeline who realise that there is most definitely a problem with it. It seems that on the whole, people are affronted, and rightly so. It’s easy to stray into comment sections however, and to become bewildered by some of the people defending the line-up. As if these things even need saying, let’s attempt to debunk some of their ridiculous arguments… 

A few people are intent on yelling about ticket sales. True, after the festival was cancelled this year due to the virus, they’ll need to ensure that they maximise ticket sales next year to ensure the longevity of the festival. Personally, I’m not sure that all but telling women they aren’t welcome is the best way of going about that. The notion that a female headliner wouldn’t attract as many ticket sales is silly - gender in itself is not a selling point. With six headliners, it hardly seems that having just one of those (not enough, but it would be a start) be a female headliner would make so much of a difference. With five Grammys, an album which topped the charts in the UK and was the best-performing album of last year in the US, I think that Billie Eilish, for one, could probably pull quite the crowd. Lana Del Rey? Lorde? Taylor SwiftDua Lipa? “But it’s a rock festival!!!!” I hear from the folks of Twitter - perhaps, traditionally, the festival has leant towards rock, alternative, indie and punk, but try telling that to next year’s headliners Stormzy and Disclosure, or further down the line-up, Lewis Capaldi. This post from self-proclaimed ‘festival enthusiast’ Vic on Instagram, which is doing the rounds at the moment, shows how a R&L poster might look, filled with exciting female artists. Big and small. 

“But, there aren’t any headline-worthy female acts!!!” May I refer you to the above? This opinion shows blatant ignorance. There are plenty. There is a LOT of brilliant music being made by women, across many genres, in many countries, and many of those would deliver a superb headline slot. 

"But…. there ARE women on the line-up!” Ah, correct. You’ve got me there. Case closed. They’re nestled right at the bottom, looking like they’ve been booked as an after thought? Some women to put onto the small stages to keep everybody happy? Job done. (Not.) 

In an abrupt change to the booking/scheduling… to me! Hey - it’s my blog, I’ll talk about me if I want to. For years, I’ve listened to far more music by male artists than not. Without any particular intentions. As a kid, I was into pop music - boy bands, the charts. My tastes changed as I grew older and started to get more interested in music in general, discovering bands like Muse and Biffy Clyro, who I still love today. At school, I started to listen to alternative, indie and folk music via recommendations from friends, and began to find a lot of new music by watching MTV Rocks on TV as much as I could. Much like R&L, two of the only bands I can remember from the channel in those days which weren’t all male, are Paramore and Arcade Fire

It wasn’t really something that I questioned at the time, or felt that I had to do anything about. I was just starting to be passionate about music and what did it matter who was making it? Most of my favourite artists at the time were male, but that was just how it was. I wasn’t really aware of the fact that I just wasn’t being introduced to much music being made by women. 

I first started this blog on Tumblr in late 2012, as a way of writing about new work from my favourite musicians. Before the days of receiving submissions via email, that meant that I was covering the artists I already knew and loved. So: men, mostly. Still, I didn’t question it. When I thought about it, I felt that it just reflected the genres that I listened to, there just were fewer women making music in them. Nothing that I could affect. 

When I started to pay attention to people (rightly) questioning the gender split across festival line-ups and the posters with male artists taken off of them (leaving a few tiny artist names) started to surface, I began to be a bit more conscious of what I was putting out on the blog. The more I thought about it, and the bigger the blog seemed to be getting (actual people seemed to be reading it, not just friends I’d dragged along for the ride) I realised that it wasn’t enough for me to just tell myself that this was an issue in the wider industry, that there just weren’t as many women making music in the genres that I listened to. There are: if you have to work a little harder to find them, then it’ll be all the more rewarding when you do. In 2018 and 2019, my favourite records were by Rae Morris and Maggie Rogers. I fell entirely in love with both records and in a way, it was refreshing - the first time that I’d felt quite so much admiration for records that weren’t made by men. 

Behind the scenes, as it were, I’ve been trying to address the gender balance on the blog and in the playlists that I curate for it for the past couple of years. I want to deliver varied and diverse content to the online following that I am very proud to have built up. It has always been my intention to write about music that I love, and it just so happens that a lot more of that is by women now. The blog is all the better for it. In all honesty, it feels like I have spent more time worrying about the gender split on my relatively tiny blog than the organisers of these huge events have in recent years. 

A rough count of my posts from this year so far shows them to be at about 45% about music from female soloists, bands fronted by women, and bands with female members. Compared to 38% (give or take) in 2019, and 23% in 2018. On the main yearly playlist, it’s just a little behind at about 40% for 2020 so far - compared to 34% in 2019 and 24% in 2018. I’m really proud of these figures, the improvement and the efforts I’ve taken to get there. Looking at research by Vick Bain in her report Counting the Music Industry, these percentages are, in a way, above average. In a study of over 300 music publishers and record labels in the UK, her research revealed that “just over 14% of writers currently signed to publishers and just under 20% of acts signed to labels are female […] indicative of widespread discrimination against women in the music industry.” I’m striving towards a 50/50 split. It may be a little harder work, as a majority of the music I am sent in press releases is by male artists, but there is SO much wonderful music being created by women, if you just take the time to find it.

So, to draw this to a close… I think that it is basically idiocy for those involved in the R&L line-up, and others like it, to go ahead with this in 2021. Are the women on those teams being overpowered by their male counterparts, do they simply not care, or do they not exist? It’s clear that everybody has a role to play in improving the situation. As music fans, taking your ticket buying power to those festivals which are striving for a better balance is key. 

The PRS ‘Keychange’ initiative, for instance, is a campaign encouraging festivals to have a 50/50 gender split among their performers by 2022, which more than 150 events worldwide pledged to do. Founder Vanessa Reed said in 2019 that “people are feeling frustrated by festival lineups being male-dominated. Until Keychange there was no big debate about this or positive action.” She posited that the next step was to look more deeply at the industry, saying “there are still so many male promoters and bookers and established networks that have traditionally booked more men than women. All those things mean it’s harder to instigate change. But I have been inspired by the fact that lots of younger men in the music industry are as keen as women are for programmes to be more balanced. So I hope to some degree it’s about generational change.” 

Well, here’s to change. And not a moment too soon! And while these might not all be quite ready to headline a festival as big as Reading & Leeds, here are some of my favourite female artists (and bands with female members) who I’ll continue to give a platform to, as best I can: MarthaGunn, Lucy Rose, Dizzy, Liz Lawrence, Arlo Parks, Siv Jakobsen, The Big Moon, Dream Wife, Marika Hackman, Superorganism, Sophie Jamieson, Lucy Leave, Hailaker, Gia Margaret, Lianne La Havas, Fenne Lily, Billie Marten, The Staves, Winnie Raeder, Annabel Allum, Brooke Bentham… I could go on, and on, and on.

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