As the slightly delayed 2021 festival season drew to a close, attendees had the chance to look back retrospectively on all the brilliant sets they experienced throughout the summer. But one thing many will notice upon reminiscing is just how few female acts they saw on larger stages.
At this year’s edition of Leeds Festival, there was a complete lack of female headliners. Including the opening Thursday night, the weekend featured 8 headliners (with Queens of the Stone Age unfortunately pulling out at the last minute due to travel restrictions), and despite the chance to have a more diverse line-up than in previous years, Festival Republic once again opted for a supposed safer option. Among the 8 headliners, not a single one of them had a female member. Though some could attempt to justify the lack of representation due to COVID restrictions preventing previously-booked acts from playing, the inclusion of Post Malone (an American Act) for the third consecutive event proves the need for change. Why book the same act that everyone saw last time, instead of fresh, new, more diverse talent?
Relying on coronavirus restrictions as an excuse not only doesn’t make sense, but completely disregards the brilliant female-led talent the U.K. is home to. Furthermore, this is Reading & Leeds – a festival which hasn’t seen a female-fronted headline act grace its main stage since Paramore in 2014. So it is doubtful that the organisers would have booked female acts as headliners, whether covid was here or not.
Finally happening months after its usual annual May date, Live at Leeds festival this year closed rather than opened festival season as it normally would. On October 16th, hundreds of acts played across the city in multiple venues. Though the festival is a great opportunity for smaller artists and new talent to introduce themselves to a new audience, female acts headlined only 3 of the 17 venues – a total of 17.6%, seeing a decline from 2019 which featured 19% female headliners. This aside, there were some excellent female-fronted acts playing on the day (the female-fronted Low Hummer put on an outstanding early afternoon set) that just weren’t given the prevalence that the male acts were. One look at the schedule on the day shows that two of the biggest-sized venues in Leeds, the O2 Academy (holding a total of 2,300 people in the stalls) and Leeds Beckett Students’ Union (holding 1,100), had no female acts performing at all. They were instead pushed down onto smaller stages, decreasing their chances of playing to a larger crowd and therefore increasing their popularity.
With influential popular acts such as The 1975 pledging only to play festivals with a diverse 50/50 line-up, it is clear that progress is not only needed, but would be easily achieved with the commitment of organisers. Looking at the charts, you can see the influence that women have on the music industry – artists such as Dua Lipa and Adele dominate, while upcoming indie acts such as beabadoobee and Rina Sawayama make waves and successfully sell out shows on their own while achieving immense critical acclaim for their works. This then begs the question: why are many of these acts absent from, or at best in low positions on, British festival line-ups? Music is supposed to be something inclusive, something that everyone can enjoy, so why isn’t this being represented in music events?
In a December 2015 interview with All Things Loud, Ellie Rowsell of Wolf Alice – who are themselves an incredibly successful major female-led band, racking up 3 Mercury Prize nominations across 3 consecutive albums – discussed her belief that ‘girls should be encouraged from a young age to get involved in learning instruments’. Her comment evokes the saddening truth that it is not unwillingness, but lack of encouragement in a male-dominated industry that causes not only modern festival line-ups’ absence of women, but the absence of women in the music industry as a whole.
The recent announcement of Billie Eilish as the first Glastonbury 2022 headliner has made it clear that progress is being made – but Glastonbury is well-renowned as one of the few diverse, forward-thinking British festivals. We, therefore, must continue to call on organisations such as Melvin Benn’s Festival Republic to allow female-fronted acts the opportunities they deserve by booking them as headliners for larger events, and creating equality rather than imbalance in line-ups. Maybe next year, as punters look back on the festival season of 2022, they will be grateful that event organisers allowed them to experience the sheer talent of women in music.