Women and music festivals, again…

It’s not often that I find myself shouting at the BBC World Service.

But, on Thursday 22 June at approximately 26 minutes past seven in the evening, I was absolutely incandescent. Why? Because the BBC has conducted an extensive report on the UK festival scene, in which they have found that:

“Festivals fail to reflect the diversity of the British music scene. The line-ups are dominated by male stars and a quarter of all headline slots are taken up by the same twenty acts” (World Service news bulletin. The story is discussed 19 minutes into the bulletin).

This in itself wasn’t what had me shouting at the radio, though it obviously didn’t help. What infuriated me was a man from Leeds University who was interviewed about the report and who seemed to be struggling to name any high profile female performers beyond Madonna, Rihanna and Beyoncé.

This report comes after years of summertime discussions and reports on the male dominated nature of festival bills on one hand, and the number of sexual assaults on women attending festivals on the other.

Looking further at the BBC report, we can see that although it focuses on gender, it also acknowledges a lack of diversity so far as ethnicity and age are concerned (sexuality and disability would be other areas in which festival bills are lacking in diversity, but these were not discussed in the report). Festival headliners have got older over the past ten years, and are usually white as well as male. This has been put down to a predominance of rock at music festivals, which is still widely regarded as being a white, male dominated area, particularly, it would seem, if you exclude indie rock from the equation. Enter into ‘classic rock’ territory and the canon is increasingly male and made up of what the BBC report calls ‘heritage bands’ (a term it does not define, but which has connotations of the classic rock golden age of the 1960s and 1970s), rather than new bands.

The report points out that such a reliance on rock, and on ‘heritage bands’, is going against the grain of popular music in the UK, as it ignores the rise of pop and hip hop (not to mention grime) both of which are less male, less white, and much younger areas of music insofar as performers and fans are concerned.

If the same twenty acts are playing a quarter of UK festivals, this also reflects debates around music and ageing, and the ageing demographic of the festival, as well as – in the wider sense – gig-going audiences. It also ties in with demographics concerning who is still buying CDs and vinyl (though this has been complicated in recent years by a correlation between ‘hipsters’ and vinyl), and who is buying the physical, dead tree music press, and it suggests a sense of stasis rather than progress.

While it would be nice to see more women headline festivals, it would also be good to have a healthy number of female performers playing festivals generally, something that isn’t happening at the moment

The BBC report has found that only 6% of festival headliners between 2008 and 2017 were women and that, in an analysis of more than 600 headline performances across 14 major festivals, eight out of ten headlines slots were taken by all male bands. They wrote: “In our study, only 37 headline performances involved all-female acts, while 68 were bands of mixed gender.

Emmy The Great, interviewed for a short video made to accompany the BBC report, made the good point that it’s not just about headliners at festivals – it’s about having women in bands on the bill at all. This is a good point because, while it would be nice to see more women headline festivals, it would also be good to have a healthy number of female performers playing festivals generally, something that isn’t happening at the moment. Representation of women lower down on the bill is also important, because bands who play the smaller festival stages have the opportunity to slowly, but surely, work their way up from, say, the acoustic tent at Glastonbury to bottom of the bill on the second stage to, maybe even one day, the dizzy heights of the Pyramid Stage. This is, after all, exactly what happened to Florence + The Machine, who made their debut at Glastonbury as an unsigned band in 2007 with a performance Florence Welch later described as a “complete shambles”, before returning for a second attempt in 2008. After getting signed, the band played Glastonbury in 2009 and 2010, but it was 2015 before they played the festival again, this time as headliners.

When it was announced in June 2015 that Dave Grohl had broken his leg and that Foo Fighters wouldn’t be able to headline the Friday night at Glastonbury, the announcement that their slot would be taken by Florence + The Machine came as something of a surprise to some, but not to the NME, who had been petitioning the Eavis’ since February to book Florence for a headline slot. Emily Eavis, in the official Glastonbury announcement about the change to the bill, was firmly behind Florence, but it did feel at the time as though people were holding their breath and it wasn’t long before the anticipated performance had become weighted with a certain expectation that would not have been heaped on a male performer in the same position. Why was this?

The answer is because, in 2015, Florence Welch was being hailed as the first woman to headline Glastonbury this century. This was actually incorrect, as it turns out; that person was Beyoncé. The Economist, more accurately, pointed out that Welch was the youngest person (she was 28 at the time) to headline Glastonbury in a good long while and the NME, back in February 2015, had pointed out that it had been “a whopping 16 years” since a British female artist had headlined Glastonbury. As the line taken by NME suggests, it was wrong to view Florence + The Machine as a band who just got lucky by being in the right place at the right time. That 2015 headline slot on the Pyramid Stage at Worthy Farm arrived after eight years of hard graft, much of it at festivals.

Glastonbury wasn’t Florence + The Machine’s first headline festival slot – that was Latitude in 2010, and the band had already played most of the main UK music festivals, often several times, before they headlined Glastonbury. I would argue that they are the quintessential festival band; it is their natural environment, and Florence Welch is highly capable of exciting and beguiling huge audiences by making every performance feel both intimate and communal. Whether she’s climbing the lighting rig in six inch heels and a bat cape during ‘Kiss With A Fist’ at Reading Festival 2009, or invading the audience during ‘Rabbit Heart’ in 2015 at Glastonbury, she’s always delivered an exhilarating performance.

But there are other, less immediately artistic reasons why Florence + The Machine make a good festival headliner. The rapid ascent of the band generally between 2008 and 2009, as they moved from student union gigs to larger concert halls, would also attest to the band’s ability to draw in more and more people, as a sense of momentum and buzz coalesced around them. By 2015, they were playing arena shows, and as such, could clearly pull in the crowds needed for a festival headline slot.

As it turned out, the audience and critics response to Florence + The Machine’s 2015 Glastonbury set was largely positive, with even those who perhaps weren’t fans admitting that the girl done good.

The list of festivals the band played on the 2015-16 How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful tour, after Glastonbury, included three South American Lollapalooza dates, Hangout and Firefly in the US, In Music in Croatia, Open’er in Poland, and British Summer Time in London.

If recent festival bills are anything to go by, it seems likely that we’ll be waiting a long time for festival organisers to offer a headline slot to PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple or Bjork

British Summer Time on 2 July 2016 was the band’s UK and London homecoming gig, so it was always going to be a bit special. It wasn’t a surprise, then, when the gig sold out. Unlike Glastonbury, headline bands have an input into who goes on the bill with them for their British Summer Time dates and, from a fan’s point of view, they know that their band is headlining from the get go and don’t have to pay for a ticket without knowing who they’ll be seeing. Because of this, British Summer Time 2016 was a festival for Florence + The Machine fans in a way that Glastonbury 2015 wasn’t. Second on the bill was Kendrick Lamar, the south London music mafia were represented by Jamie XX and Blood Orange, Cat Power was fourth on the bill and, earlier on in the day, there were opportunities to watch Liv Dawson, Cloves, Georgia, Kelsey Lu, Polica, and Rivrs, amongst others. As far as I can work out, of the twenty bands who performed that day, seven were female performers or bands, two were mixed or female fronted bands, and eleven were male bands or performers. Due to the scale of Glastonbury, it’s difficult to fairly compare the ratio of female:male performers at Glastonbury 2015 to those at British Summer Time 2016, but I’d say British Summertime comes out more favourably, if only because it’s a smaller number of performers spread across a smaller number of stages on a single day.

Ahead of British Summertime, Florence Welch was interviewed by Time Out, and was asked about the issue of women headliners at festivals. Adele was headlining at Glastonbury that year, and Florence was asked which other women she would like to see headline Glastonbury 2016: “PJ Harvey” she said, before mentioning Bjork, Fiona Apple and Beyoncé.

If recent festival bills are anything to go by, it seems likely that we’ll be waiting a long time for festival organisers to offer a headline slot to PJ Harvey, Fiona Apple or Björk.

Dr Simon Warner of Leeds University, who is quoted in the BBC’s report, puts this lack of risk taking down to economics:

“If you are going to get 80,000 [punters] you need to have acts that can get [punters] to spend cash. If you are spending hundreds of pounds, you are not going to go for an indie band, you are going to go and see the Red Hot Chilli Peppers or whoever.”

If he’s right (and the if is the bit that had me shouting at the World Service that Thursday night), then this suggests that there’s a lack of belief that women such as PJ Harvey and Bjork would pull in enough people to make a headline slot worthwhile. By implication, UK festivals are in a similar situation to premier league football: it’s all got a bit too big and the stakes are too high, financially, for organisers to take risks on new or even existing talent, if there’s even the slightest chance of disappointment.

If you gamble on not including emerging talent in festival bills, you gamble not only the long term future of your festival but also the long term future of popular music

This is only half the story though. As Michael Baker of the publication Festival Insights, also quoted in the BBC report, put it:

”What needs to happen, however, is more long-term thinking and effort applied to the representation and promotion of emerging talent at festivals.”

Because that’s where the real gamble is. If you gamble on not including emerging talent in festival bills, you gamble not only the long term future of your festival but also the long term future of popular music. It might one day be possible to prolong the lifespan of The Who, Pink Floyd and The Rolling Stones by use of holograms when their various members are no longer with us, but would you really want to pay to see that? The music industry has changed irrevocably since the 1960s and 1970s, and it’s unlikely that any band coming through now will ever be as big, or as legendary, as one of those bands. The model has been smashed and fans and festival promoters alike should grow up and accept this.

If I were in the utopian position of being able to draw up my own festival bill for 2017, I would have a wealth of female performers, old and new, to draw on. Admittedly some of them aren’t touring right now and wouldn’t be available but, of those that are currently gigging rather than writing, I could draw on the likes of Stevie Nicks, Regina Spektor, Lorde, Jane Weaver, Jesca Hoop, Laura Gibson, Martha Wainwright, Hollie Cook, Zola Jesus, Honeyblood, Miya Folick, Georgia, Vagabon, Noga Erez, Natasha Kmeto, Overcoats, Gothic Tropic, Kate Tempest, Helen McCookerybook, Beth Ditto, Julia Jacklin, Marika Hackman and Skating Polly. Of those whose availability is limited at the moment I would call on Florence + The Machine, Christine and the Queens, Santigold, PJ Harvey, Courtney Barnett, Patti Smith, Sleater-Kinney, Grimes, MIA, Kelsey Lu, Laura Mvula, Natasha Atlas, Shonen Knife, Speech Debelle, Solange, Angel Olsen, Lily & Madeleine, Basia Bulat, The Staves, Stealing Sheep, Neko Case, Pale Honey, Emmy The Great, Emma Pollock, Bat For Lashes, Grace Mitchell, Cat Power, Connie Constance, Estelle and Katy Carr. I think I probably need to diversify the music styles a bit, and my list is still very white, but I see it as a starting point rather than a completed list. Work still to be done.

The image at the top of the page is an image of a large crowd in front of a festival stage, shot from the back of the crowd. It’s dark and the stage is heavily lit up with lighting. An industrial glitter cannon appears to have been launched and the paper or glitter confetti litter the sky and fall on the crowd. The picture is of Veld music festival and was taken by the Veld Music Festival account and used under a Creative Commons license.

The image in the middle of the page shows Florence Welch, of + The Machine fame, apparently onstage. The picture is a mesmerising upper body shot, showing Florence singing into a microphone, seemingly entirely surrounded by smoke. She wears a flowing white top and holds her arms up in the air in a dramatic pose. Picture taken by Rosana Ayza and shared under a Creative Commons license.