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PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative offers a solution to gender disparity in festival line-ups

ByRuth Murphy

Mar 5, 2018

Back in January, Lily Allen spoke out on Twitter in response to Wireless Festival’s first announcement of acts for its July event: “The struggle is real.” She wasn’t referring to the possibility of having to choose between Giggs and Cardi B on the Sunday night, or the extreme likelihood (now confirmed) of tickets selling out before the full line-up is released. Instead, Allen was outraged by the fact that out of the 39 artists announced for the London festival so far, only three were female. Out of these, Cardi B is the only one who managed to secure a large-font spot, and even at that, she is on the fourth row down out of seven. This blatant gender disparity is unfortunately very common across the board at music festivals: for this year’s summer festival season, Isle of Wight has no female headliners, nor does Reading & Leeds for the fourth year running; Latitude and its sister festival Longitude in Dublin are a little better, both with Solange headlining, while Parklife and End of the Road have two female headliners each.

The issue of female representation in music and culture has been gradually gaining traction in the media over the last couple of years, particularly after Kesha’s struggle with Dr. Luke and the widespread coverage of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements in Hollywood since late 2017 – following in the footsteps of attendees of the Golden Globes’ all-black attire, guests at the 60th Grammy Awards donned white roses in solidarity with Time’s Up. It is evident, however, from the lack of female artists on festival bills and the fact that no female solo act performed at the Grammy’s that much more immediate action is called for from those in the higher tiers of the music industry if we are to see any genuine progression in the near future. In recognition of this, the PRS Foundation has launched a number of initiatives to directly combat gender inequality in music, the most recent being Keychange.

The scheme, supported by the EU’s Creative Europe programme, aims to have music festivals in Europe, the US and Canada pledge to achieve or maintain a 50:50 gender balance across line-ups, conferences and commissions by 2020. Speaking at an industry launch in London recently, PRS CEO Vanessa Reed revealed that 45 music festivals were on board already, including BBC Music Introducing Stages, Kendal Calling, Blissfields, Canada’s North by North East, NYC Winter Jazzfest, and Scotland’s Wide Days, as well as founding partners Reeperbahn, The Great Escape and Iceland Airwaves. Many of these festivals already have a good track record when it comes to gender parity: in 2015 Wide Days’ Off the Record event became the first in the UK to feature an equal amount of male and female speakers, and a majority of the acts in its 2016 convention were fronted by women. Consequently, it is paramount that more major festivals become involved in the initiative, and Keychange intends to have over 100 signees within the year.

Reed also acknowledged the importance of commitment from different kinds of festivals too, from classical and jazz to indie, as it is outside the pop sphere that some of the worst inequality lies. While female solo pop artists do secure headline slots from time to time, finding a way to the top half of a bill is almost impossible for female artists in grossly male-dominated genres like the former, where there is increased focus on musical didacticism and integrity. Festivals that are geared towards fans of genres that glorify a hyper-masculine aesthetic, like rap, R&B, heavy metal and hardcore, are also unsurprisingly hostile to the advancement of female representation – only eight bands out of sixty-two on Download’s line-up have at least one female member, and none of these are among the nine headliners. In the case of a festival like this, much of the problem does seem to lie with a shortage of young women entering the metal scene, but this is also symptomatic of a more general lack of interest in the genre among the younger generation as far fewer young heavy bands appear to be emerging than in the 2000s. The same cannot be said of rap and hip-hop, where recent years have seen a rapid increase in female artists breaking into the public consciousness, from the unparalleled rise of Cardi B to Princess Nokia, Syd, Lady Leshurr, Little Simz and CupcakKe, and yet they struggle to secure the festival slots that they deserve, while male acts of lesser skill and dwindling relevance sail up the boards.

There is an underlying assumption at work here that there is a rich, limitless abundance of male talent to choose from in music, while resources of female artistry would have to be severely stretched to fill the target. This, of course, is completely false, and it won’t change unless festival bookers and promoters take responsibility for rectifying it. It is far easier, however, for a booker to choose an act that they already have a working relationship with and that they know will draw a crowd, which accounts for all the repeat headliners and heritage acts topping festival bills across the world. Festival sponsors are also more likely to financially support something that is long-established, and in the case of music that corresponds almost exclusively to male and white. As a result, we are left with an old brigade of headliners which haven’t budged in years – The Killers, Kasabian, Kings of Leon, Foo Fighters, Muse, Coldplay. While these have certainly played an important role in musical history and deserve recognition for their broad appeal, it is a frankly boring prospect in 2018 to pay £150+ only to end up watching the same batch of dads in skinny jeans for the fourth time since you were 15. It’s no harm for festivals to choose a headliner that is a little left of center: some of the most memorable festival performances of recent years include Grace Jones at Electric Picnic 2015, Lana Del Rey the year after, and Adele at Glastonbury 2016. This year, Solange and Lorde are likely to deliver sets of a similar calibre.

The music industry, like most others, is run by men – they are the label executives, promoters, festival owners, costly songwriters, sound engineers and producers. Any effective change that is to be made cannot be done without their input and involvement in the debate: “Unlike most discussions about women in music”, Reed says, “50 per cent of our panellists – and our audience – were men; something that’s unusual, but essential if we want to change things from within, with input from those who currently hold the most power.” There are some signs of progress already, with Melvin Benn, Managing Director of Live Nation, the UK’s largest festival and event promoter, admitting that “Something needs to be done about gender equality in the music industry”, which, although eye-squintingly vague, is more than an improvement on Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s comment that women need to “step up”. Although the virtues and practical effectiveness of 50:50 quotas are debated and not guaranteed, we cannot dismiss the idea of progress just because it doesn’t present with foolproof methods.

Later this year, Keychange will present a manifesto at the European Parliament in Brussels. Aligning with the centenary of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, which gave (some) women in the UK the vote for the first time, this action represents something far more symbolic of the cause than a white rose, and a good deal less transient.

To find out more about the initiative and the PRS Foundation’s work on gender equality in music, visit: http://prsfoundation.com/2018/02/26/45-international-music-festivals-conferences-pledge-tackle-gender-inequality/

Image: Neon Tommy via. Wikimedia

By Ruth Murphy

Music Editor


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