TRNSMT's Gender Comments Feel Like A Step Backwards
TRNSMT is Scotland’s biggest outdoor music festival, with its Glasgow base attracting around 120,000 people each year. Launched in 2017 by largely the same team who worked on the final iteration of T In The Park, it has undoubtedly become a commercial success, managing to attract huge crowds and big name headliners.
Yet it has also become mired in criticism, with its male-heavy line ups accused of simply booking the same tried-and-tested artists over and over again.
There’s certainly an element of truth in this. 2020 brings the fourth instalment of TRSNMT, and Liam Gallagher’s second headline performance; indeed, if we include last summer’s Chewbacca enhanced Snow Patrol replacement slot, it’s also the second major spot for Lewis Capaldi.
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The full list of headline artists makes for prosaic reading. Only one artist of colour – a stunning Stormzy performance – has topped the bill, while not one single female musician has been booked to deliver a headline set. Of the 13 acts currently on the books to perform in 2020, just two are women: Rita Ora and Little Simz.
This tendency to overlook female artists dogged TRSNMT last summer. Following widespread social media fury over their line up festival bosses introduced the Queen Tut’s Stage – a somewhat patronising re-working of the King Tuts Wah Wah Hut moniker – with an all-female line up. Ironically, this prompted even more criticism, accused of ‘ghettoising’ female talent, and promoting them poorly - especially given the cartoonish, purple-saturated fonts used to signal the venture.
The latest statement from TRSNMT has proved to be explosive. Speaking out on the repetitive nature of the line up announces, Geoff Ellis said: “We all know there aren’t a lot of festival headliners out there. It’s been the case for the past decade.”
Focussing on female representation, Ellis stated that there are “far, far less female artists” at the headlining level to choose from.
"We'd love there to be a higher representation of females but there isn't, certainly on the acts we're announcing today," he said. "It will be a while until there's a 50/50 balance. That's definitely several years ahead for any major festival to achieve because there's far, far less female artists.”
He added: "We need to get more females picking up guitars, forming bands, playing in bands".
It’s difficult to know where to start with this. Put simply: none of this is true. Studies by Fender show that 50% of all new guitar purchases are by women, while a cursory look at the Clash Inbox while show a plethora of bands with female-identifying musicians. Indeed, that’s only if we go down the road of assuming that new music has to be made with guitars – there are a slew of other noise-making instruments to get excited about.
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For TRNSMT to so casually reject the notion of a 50/50 split on gender line ups is absurd, and speaks to deeply engrained modes of doing business. An excellent Keychange / PRS Foundation initiative is attempting to achieve greater balance on festival line ups, with 45 major events signing up to help produce a “better, more inclusive music industry for present and future generations".
"Last year, on average, women made up 26% of the festival line-ups in the UK, so we're talking about doubling that in a five-year timeframe," said Vanessa Reed, CEO of the PRS Foundation. "That's quite ambitious but it's achievable."
TRNSMT’s obstinacy on this issue, declining to sign up to the Keychange / PRS Foundation initiative, makes industry-wide change that little bit harder, and it flies in the face of the success enjoyed by their peers.
Iceland Airwaves has already produced a gender-equal line up, while Primavera’s phenomenal 2019 bill was dominated by the female talent, becoming the first major festival to achieve a 50/ 50 bill.
Primavera's Marta Pallares Olivares told BBC Newsbeat at the time: "It's not difficult once your mind is set - when you decide that you want to do this, you start looking for female bands and see that you have been listening to them during the last month".
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The notion that Christine and the Queens, Robyn, FKA twigs, or Lizzo – all of whom played Primavera this summer – have “far, far less” chance of performing at TRNSMT is absurd. Indeed, if Geoff Ellis required a chance to catch a potential headline artist on his home turf then he could have done worse than grabbing a ticket to see Bjork’s astonishing show at the SSE Hydro during the week.
All of which isn’t to damn TRNSMT too severely. Geoff Ellis has at least discussed the idea of a gender-equal line up, while head of communications Aarti Joshi said last summer that a 50/50 bill was a “long-term goal" for the Scottish festival.
It’s just that when gender issues are so poorly handled, and positive progress is so thin on the ground, that observers discussing Scotland’s biggest, primary outdoor music event can’t fail to feel disenchanted. Put simply: more could be done.
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