The Silence Is So Loud: Are Music Festivals Finally Committing to Equality?

A battle of attrition to alter attitudes in the live music industry...

I’m sure there are worse offenders. Somewhere, across the unfathomable spread of corporate shindigs and boutique getaways that make up the modern festival scene, there has to be at least one line-up that reeks of IPA and second-hand Bill Hicks biographies more than this one; a metal weekender somewhere in Coventry, perhaps, or Kendal Calling.

But then, Lollapalooza is a particularly massive event to be working this hard to avoid booking women. “Literally the first four lines of the poster are all male artists or bands,” Nandi Rose Plunkett – AKA Half Waif – told me recently, recounting the moment she saw the legendary Chicago festival’s 2018 line-up for the first time. “That’s really not acceptable. These bigger festivals have a responsibility to be representative.”

Even where relatively major female acts are booked, such as St. Vincent or Camila Cabello – appearing 16th and 24th respectively on the Lollapalooza poster – they end up with the kind of billing that, in a just world, Catfish & The Bottlemen would be occupying. Clearly, there’s work to be done.

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The good news is that the work has already begun. Initiatives like Keychange, established late last year by PRS Foundation, have set a target of at least 50% festival representation for “all unrepresented genders… including all trans and non-binary performers” by 2022. Vanessa Reed, CEO of PRS Foundation, is optimistic: “40% of our grantees in 2017 were from a BAME background and 53% featured female artists… The Keychange network of female artists and industry professionals and the festival partners’ idea of establishing a collective pledge will significantly accelerate change.”

It’s not just about who’s on the stage either. Grimes has been in the news recently for wearing a Tesla choker, but it’s worth remembering that she’s been one of the industry’s most outspoken critics of men running everything behind the scenes – or assuming that they always do. From production to sound engineering, a lot of those signed up to 50/50 initiatives are widening the net as far as possible.

Rebecca Stewart of Cambridge Folk Festival is one of them. “Cambridge Folk Festival is delighted to be part of the Keychange initiative, especially as we currently aim for a 50:50 balance on the line-up and have done so for a number of years… We hope it will inspire women to expect to be up there with the best and to keep fighting. And, as we are predominately a female managed festival, we want to show that women are as successful behind the scenes as well.”

If there’s bad news, it’s perhaps that there is still such a long way to go; of course, given that we’re barely six months into that project, it’s understandable that major festival line-ups haven’t see-sawed overnight. But that doesn’t mean that slow, grassroots progress isn’t already taking place. A current total of 85 festivals have signed up to Keychange’s gender balance initiative, including its seven founding partners: Reeperbahn Festival, Iceland Airwaves, BIME, Tallinn Music Week, Way Out West, MUTEK, and Brighton’s The Great Escape.

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And how’s that pledge looking? As bigger and more influential events continue to sign up, the labour being put in by initiatives like Keychange will bear increasingly sweeter fruit, and the founding partners seem be to leading the way already. Clash’s own stage at The Great Escape 2018, taking place this week in Brighton, is in particularly rude health: of the 11 acts announced, seven are female.

The rest of the event’s stages are similarly committed to putting the 50/50 idea into practice. It’s a solid start, and hope remains that representation at these kind of events will develop more female, BAME, trans and non-binary artists to grow into tomorrow’s headliners.

But grassroots may not be enough. While Coachella isn’t without its problems, the spectacular success of ‘Beychella’ this year is the kind of cultural moment that will send a message out to aspiring young artists around the world: that a woman’s place is at the top of the bill. If we don’t have more young acts with that kind of belief today, it becomes a vicious circle, as Plunkett points out: “It’s not like bands with women, or people of colour, or queer members don’t exist – and if there are fewer of them, it’s because our culture has not supported their growth.”

“Often these minorities are discouraged from becoming musicians (or pretty much any other thing) from a young age because they don’t see people like them doing it at a visible level. Representation is key to encourage the next generation of artists.”

No swift, shattering revolution looks likely to arrive straight away. This will be a battle of attrition, shifting the status quo one line-up at a time, until they begin to reflect the talent that’s out there. As Plunkett astutely recognises, it’s a battle for the next generation as much as this one. Affirmative action isn’t designed to be permanent; it exists to redress a present imbalance in society, in the hope that it is no longer needed in the future.

Progress can be painfully slow. But it’s worth it.

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Words: Matthew Neale

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