Education and Skills

Music festivals have a gender problem - here's how to fix it

Kylie Minogue performs on the Pyramid Stage during Glastonbury Festival in Somerset, Britain June 30, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Rock on. Image: REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Samantha Warren
Professor in Organisation Studies and HRM, and Departmental Research Lead, , University of Portsmouth
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By all accounts, Kylie Minogue was fabulous at Glastonbury this year. What she wasn’t though – contrary to promotional material – was a headline act. Unlike Stormzy, The Killers and The Cure, who all topped the bill on successive nights on the main Pyramid Stage, Kylie appeared in much less prominent spots on the festival line-up – similar to Janet Jackson, who had also been promoted as a headliner.

This controversy aside, Emily Eavis deserves credit for her efforts in getting women into 42% of slots across a four-day festival – a considerable increase since 2015 when women occupied only 14% of the line-up.

The push towards gender balanced line-ups, or so-called “50/50” pledges, is led by the PRS Keychange initiative which calls for equal numbers of male and female performers at high profile festivals and music events by 2022. Some 250 music organisations have already signed up and Primavera Sound, held in Barcelona in May 2019, was the first music festival to achieve a 50/50 gender balance.

But the move is controversial – which may seem surprising when we know that high-profile role models are an important part of the psychology of inspiring women to enter male-dominated occupations. Actively recruiting women into visible public positions should be welcomed by all, surely?

The problems begin when we look more closely at what happens when quotas are used to address gender inequality. The argument is that without legislation requiring organisations to appoint a set number of individuals from the minority group, change will not happen fast enough. The 2011 Davies Report, commissioned by the UK Government, calculated it would take 70 years for men and women to achieve equality on company boards if the status quo wasn’t challenged.

Yet these quotas can result in women’s recruitment to less influential positions. In countries where gender quotas for company boards are already mandatory, it is not uncommon to find women in non-executive positions where their power is limited – impression management rather than real change. We can see this happening at Glastonbury, too.

Entrenched advantage

Another criticism of diversity quotas is an assumption that choosing people because of their gender – whether to perform at a festival, or lead a company – means ability and talent matter less than getting enough of the underrepresented group to meet the target. This “tick box” view has damaging effects for everyone.

Sheryl Crow having some fun at Glastonbury, June 2019. EPA-EEE/Neil Hall
Image: The Conversation

Men feel aggrieved that they may have lost out unfairly, while women feel they have only been chosen because of their sex, and not their talent.

But filling quotas does not have to be at the expense of ensuring a top quality bill, providing there are sufficient numbers of men and women in the talent pools you’re drawing from. You set the barrier high, then choose equal numbers of men and women who can jump it.

We can apply this approach to ethnicity, sexuality, age – and any number of individual characteristics, too. There is also an argument that, if we are serious about addressing inequality, then the dominant group will (and should) necessarily lose its entrenched advantage.

Filling the talent pool

But this is where it gets interesting. Because in music, as with many other creative and tech industries, the talent pools are far from equally sized. A recent report from the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative studied 700 popular music songs released in the US between 2012 and 2016. Women made up 21.7% of artists, 12.3% of songwriters and only a tiny 2.1% of producers, suggesting that as creative roles become more techie, already low female participation rates fall sharply.

Quite a line-up: Glastonbury 2019.
Image: The Conversation

This is especially so in electronic music, which is the field I’m currently researching. Accurate figures on the numbers of female producers are hard to come by, but estimates sit between 5% and 10% of producers released by labels. I undertook a gender analysis of the tracks in the Beatport Top 100 one Sunday in May to test this. Sure enough, 91% of them were made by men. And of the nine tracks with women listed as an artist, it appeared only five of them were written and/or produced by a woman as opposed to “just” featuring a female vocalist. These are tiny proportions.

Have you read?

Driven by the digital revolution in music production, writing and producing the music that you play, not just performing it – is a vital part of being a credible artist. From my research, it is clear this is fast becoming the most important criteria in electronic scenes. Without your own catalogue of releases, you’ll struggle to get booked to play the mid-range festivals that are the grassroots of the industry.

It is these events that produce the next generation of A-listers that headline the major festivals. So even if women are great DJs and put on an amazing show, if they are not writing and producing their own music they will lack the reputational capital they need to be taken seriously and our pipeline of future female talent runs dry.

So 50/50 line-ups do provide a great opportunity for female artists, offering role models to inspire girls and women to pursue musical careers. But they also risk reinforcing difference through the divisive nature of quotas. That is not to say we should abandon the idea, but we also need longer term solutions to break down stereotypes about music/technology.

Initiatives such as Toolroom’s #WeAreListening project, Hospital Records’ Women in Drum and Bass Facebook group, the SheSaid.So mentoring network as well as educational projects such as Women in Sound on Sound are all examples of programmes that give women a leg up in music production so that they can compete for the top slots.

Offering safe spaces to learn, connect with other women for support, to network and get noticed: these are things that will create sustainable change for a more inclusive music industry of the future.

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Related topics:
Education and SkillsEquity, Diversity and InclusionIndustries in Depth
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