Why are we still talking about gender neutrality at festivals?

Band on festival stage

When looking back at the year one thing that struck me was that we are still fighting gender equality at festivals. This really is not new news and we have all seen the 2018 festival line up posters with just the female or female-fronted acts on this year, yet this is something that has been highlighted for years as this 2015 Guardian article shows.

Why are we still not making progress?

When doing a bit of research for this post I came across a series disturbing quotes including Melvin Benn, the managing director of Festival Republic, saying “Within the genre, there are insufficient women across the board that are strong ticket sellers” when talking about Wireless Festival in the Guardian, May 2018. He has also said the same a fair few times about Reading and Leeds. Personally, I disagree — maybe, just maybe, at headline level, but not all the way through the bill. If there is a lack of gender equality in the support acts part of the bill then Melvin, you and your fellow big festival organisers are only making matters worse. How can acts rise towards headliners when they are not getting exposure earlier in their career?

Then you see quotes from those booking at some of the mid-sized festivals, who appear to be saying the artists are there, but booking them is harder.

“As an independent festival, you can’t really get to some of those bigger artists because they’re locked up in exclusivity clauses,” said Yaw Owusu, music curator at the Liverpool international music festival. “Every year when I put my list together, I’ve got a majority female artists in my top 20, but when it comes down to it, I might only be able to get three or four through the door.”

I am not sure what is going on there, but I have also heard some similar tales from smaller festival bookers about it being hard to book artists, male and female due to exclusivity contracts. Seems stupid to me for acts that are not headlining some of the big festivals. It’s crazy to have acts that may headline, say, a 1-2000 audience festival locked in to contracts, but I know it is happening. What the hell are the bigger festivals playing at here, and why are managers / bookers going along with it? So you get to play to a mid-afternoon, or early evening audience in a tent of, say, 500 at a big festival, or you get to headline for 1500 plus at a smaller festival.

More worrying is to see Green Man director Fiona Stewart, part of the festival’s “roughly 90%” female curatorial team, saying: “We want to have more women at the top of the bill, but it has been hard this year, and there is an industry-wide issue of fewer female acts available at all levels that has affected the booking process.”

Personally, I would say that’s rubbish, the female or female fronted acts are plentiful and talented, they are there if you look.

I did come across a very frank, thoughtful and positive article from a festival founder who realised they too were guilty of selecting male dominated line-ups. They have made some changes.

So, what’s the answer? Well, there is some hope when you see a commitment by a number of festivals for gender equality by 2022. It was good to see a wide range of festivals on the list and that it isn’t just the UK.

To be honest 2022 seems a bit far off to me, but is a step in the right direction. If it were for the major festivals then yes, I can maybe understand it being 2022 for headliners. However, for smaller festivals there is no reason for it to take so long. It just needs action now and also for the bigger festivals to make a commitment for gender equality of the supporting acts sooner.

Festivals are all about gaining a wider exposure, picking up new fans and are vital to an artist’s growth. The more fans an act has then the more interest you get from bigger festivals. The smaller festivals are nurseries for the bigger festivals. The sooner we see gender neutrality at the smaller festival level then the greater the chance that we will see a knock-on effect at the larger festivals. I know a lot of small festival organisers are very conscious of the need for a more balanced line-up and are taking action, but not all. We need to get rid of the attitude that there just aren’t the acts at all levels and do it now.

In order to prove that it is possible a few days ago I set myself a challenge: how easy would it be to think up a lineup for a 3-day 3 stage indie/electro 2000-max audience festival. Each act has to be female, 50/50 or female-fronted. I have called it the Hera Festival and the stages are Hebe, Aphrodite and Athena. It isn’t that hard, to be honest. I have a created a festival playlist of 51 acts that I would be very happy with and it has the complete range of new comers through to headliners.

Please remember this was just an exercise to challenge myself regarding whether there really are, or are not acts available. I know there are lots I could have included and haven’t. It is not a festival I would want to go to for all the reasons that a male dominated festival just isn’t right.

Let’s hope we can stop this debate once for all with positive action now, let’s get booking more acts with females now, and stop any discrimination, be it positive or negative.

Photo by picjumbo.com on Pexels.

Oldie Rob

Oldierob – Is not a musician and has a long-time love of new music. He can often be seen in his natural habitat of a small music venue – or a small festival – in a red hat, yellow glasses and clutching a pint of beer. Read more about Rob.


  1. Derval McCloat

    Excellent piece Rob & who better to write it!! Pretty tasty playlist ‘n all! X

  2. Interesting and thoughtful piece Rob. I wonder also whether a similar issue exists with the lack of non-white artists being put on at festivals but that is an issue for further research and another article. I absolutely agree that promoters need to be a bit more imaginative and adventurous in providing the very exposure female artists need and providing it to some of those who are not yet so established but whose case could be significantly advanced by festival directors showing faith in them. We see a high volume of excellent tracks at Fresh on the Net by upcoming female artists so we know there are loads of great acts out there. I also don’t accept that putting on more female artists is somehow going to have an adverse impact on ticket sales. People go to festivals because they love the vibe and there are always plenty of acts they want to see and plenty they end up discovering they like as a consequence of seeing them live. Time for the excuses to end and action to be taken.

  3. Sue

    A fab playlist Oldie Rob – it includes some of may favourites! I have captured it on Spotify – and a great article.

  4. oldierob

    thanks sue

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