Written by Rosie Olver
Photo courtesy of Getty Images
Once the scale of the Covid-19 crisis became clear, the cancellation of UK music festivals seemed inevitable. But as many festival-goers were left scrambling for refunds, others had already made the decision to boycott this year’s events. When lineups were announced earlier this year, many fans were left disappointed once again by the lack of female and non-binary performers. Reading and Leeds festival faced considerable backlash online after selecting a male-dominated lineup with zero female headline acts. Unfortunately, the picture was pretty consistent across the UK, with the Isle of Wight festival, Download, and Tramlines also featuring no women headliners.
But while misogyny in the music industry is rife, festivals tend to face no real damage for their prejudiced programming. The response to unequal lineups may seem angry online, but the festival scene remains popular. For example, Coachella, America’s most Instagrammable festival, is notorious for its lack of representation. Yet year after year celebrities, influencers and the American public flock to California for the biggest event of the year. Coachella 2020 would have been no different, as Rage Against the Machine, Frank Ocean and Travis Scott were booked as it’s three headline acts.Much of the blame for Coachella’s lack of diversity has been directed at its conservative owner, Philip Anschutz, who is known to support anti-LGBTQ organisations.
However, some argue that 2020s disappointing lineups are a matter of artist availability, not misogyny. Album cycles and release dates mean some big-name artists such as ‘Lorde, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, Cardi B, and Beyoncé are all not in the running to headline festivals yet this year’. However, in 2019 Spain’s Primavera Sound festival made a commitment to book as many women as men. Last January they released a perfectly balanced 2020 lineup, proving that gender balance was still achievable despite the availability of some big name acts. And while many UK festival organisers disappointed this year, Glastonbury owner, Emily Eavis, told the BBC in February that ‘the future has to be 50/50’. When Glastonbury’s 2020 headline acts were announced they included Taylor Swift, Lana Del Ray and Diana Ross in top slots.
Positive change can also be seen across Europe. In September 2018 Sweden created the first ever female, non-binary and transgender only festival. Known as Statement Festival, the event included no male acts and although men could buy tickets they were asked not to attend. The idea for the festival came after a series of violent sexual assaults at Swedish music festivals. The shocking reports caused significant backlash from the public and inspired the festivals founder, Emma Knyckare, to provide a safe space for female, non-binary and transgender festival-goers. The event not only protected its audience but provided a groundbreaking lineup. This example has been followed by others, such as the 2019 Hear Her festival in Sanford, which also booked no male artists. The exclusion of male performers may seem counter intuitive, as rather than including women in traditionally male-dominated festivals, they are being completely separated. However, both festivals say they plan to welcome male acts when the industry becomes a balanced one. But in the meantime, these festivals provide the opportunity for often overlooked performers to be discovered and enjoyed.
While examples of female headliners in the past few years can be found, progress remains slow. These top slots are still rarely given to female and non-binary performers. And while positive steps are being taken by some, it’s not only music festivals that highlight the misogyny within the industry. The Brit Awards faced widespread criticism earlier this year after it was found that ‘only one British female artist has been nominated out of 25 available slots in mixed-gender categories.’. This disregard for women and non-binary performers is particularly damaging for up-and-coming artists. Without recognition from award shows, their chances of securing big venues and festival slots are reduced significantly.
It’s hard to predict how much change festival-goers will see in 2021, especially with the Covid-19 pandemic remaining unpredictable. However, 2020 has so far turned out to be a great year for women in music. Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga, Fiona Apple, Selena Gomez and Kehlani are just a few of the women artists to have released albums this year. And while the charts have remained male-dominated, Ellie Goulding, Billie Eilish, Lady Gaga and Ariana Grande have all made it to number one in the UK singles chart. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s sex-positive WAP release has hit Billboard and UK number one, while simultaneously bringing female empowerment to the forefront of online debate. The success of these artists can surely lead to festival bookings, but whether they will make the headline slots remains to be seen. The festival industry remains an unequal one for now, but the positive changes seen from around the world can leave fans hopeful for a more representational summer of music in 2021.