Festival of shame

It's not just Glastonbury. The entire music industry is weighted against women-and a rebalancing act is long overdue

April 04, 2023
Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner playing in Lisbon last year. Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo
Arctic Monkeys frontman Alex Turner playing in Lisbon last year. Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Along with the softening hours and the pale flurries of blossom, this is the moment in the calendar when we begin to see that sure-fire harbinger of spring: the annual discussion of the number of women on the summer festival bills.

This year, the season was heralded by the announcement of all-male Glastonbury headliners: Arctic Monkeys, Guns ‘n’ Roses and Elton John. Other festivals, such as Latitude, All Points East, End of the Road and TRNSMT, all unveiled a similar absence of female artists in the top spots. And although many line-ups have yet to be revealed in full, it seems unlikely we will see an improvement on last year, when just 13 per cent of the acts headlining major UK festivals were women.

Where are the women in music? Before we continue, please enjoy some statistics: over the past 34 years, just 8 per cent of inductees into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame have been female. For the past two years, the top 10 highest-grossing tours have all been male. Over the last 10 years of Spotify, the most-streamed artists have also all been male. Last year, female artists made up just 11 per cent of the airplay on US country music stations. In February, the Brit Awards announced the first year of its gender-neutral Best Artist category. The shortlist was all male.

It’s hard to make sense of such figures. Not least because, when we think of some of the biggest stars of contemporary music, so many of them are female: Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Adele. It’s difficult to fathom country stations’ reluctance to play female artists when Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is the number one jukebox song of all time. Or to understand how Beyoncé can sell out a venue in 22 seconds, Taylor can crash Ticketmaster, Madonna can notch up 600,000 ticket sales, and still women wield so little power in the industry.

Glastonbury attributed the lack of headline-worthy female artists to a “pipeline” problem—record companies unwilling to sign and develop female acts, radio stations not playing music by female artists, and the fact that, despite recent efforts to recalibrate festival bills, it would still take several years for female artists to rise to main billing.

Much of this is true, and—more—the problem begins even before we reach the musicians. There is a dearth of women in record company roles, from CEOs to A&Rs, particularly in the UK. It’s hard not to draw a line between this palpable absence and the results of a 2019 report by Vick Bain of the F-List, an online directory of female and gender minority musicians, which found that of the 106 artists signed to British music publishers that year, 14 per cent were female, while of the 209 signed to record labels, 20 per cent were women.

This is not to suggest that women are more likely to sign and develop female acts, but that by normalising female presence and power in the industry, we expand ideas of what women can do, which subjects they can be knowledgeable about, what they should look like, how they must behave, and, ultimately, what kind of music they can make.

It never fails to delight me that there are more female music journalists than when I began writing on the subject 20 years ago. It’s only in recent years that radio stations have begun to recalibrate their programming, introducing a greater gender balance among their hosts, and allowing female presenters to present musical programmes for which they are authorities, rather than steering generic daytime shows. 

At festivals, too, change is happening. The Keychange pledge, which challenged events to achieve gender parity in their line-ups by 2022, saw 72 UK festivals enrol. Two thirds have achieved the goal. In 2017, Reading festival launched its Rebalance programme, which aimed to encourage more parity in music, not just in performers but in producers and engineers, granting them studio time, mentoring and slots on live bills. The festival has also made progress behind the scenes—32 per cent of its stage managers are female, compared to just 11 per cent in 2018. In 2021, Download Pilot Festival also contracted its first all-female stage crew. Programming music stages is a complicated process, beleaguered by touring schedules, exclusivity contracts and sometimes gargantuan fees, but a certain boldness in placing female artists higher up the bill is surely necessary.

This month sees the release of the debut album by Boygenius, the supergroup, of sorts, made up of three already successful female solo artists: Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus. The band’s name refers to the palpable confidence of boys and men who have spent their lives being feted, and their lyrics often nod to the position women are expected to take in music—“Always an angel, never a god,” runs the refrain of a recent single.

It’s an important point. If we want to see women thrive on outdoor stages, we first have to untangle them from our ideas of domesticity; if we want them to flourish as touring artists, we have to help them to roam. If we want to rebalance the music industry, we have to start by treating girls differently from the very earliest days of their lives. We have to encourage them to be loud and messy and unfiltered. To allow them take up space. To let them be gods.