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BBC study finds only 13% of UK festival headliners are female

By | Published on Wednesday 25 May 2022

Live Music

A new study by the BBC has found that just 13% of headliners booked to play UK festivals this summer are a female solo artist or an all-female band.

Critics say that, despite efforts to shift the gender balance of festival line-ups in recent years, this shows that promoters are still not taking the issue seriously enough. Others argue that much has actually changed, especially when it comes to full festival line-ups, even if there is more to be done, especially when it comes to headliners.

According to the BBC, a study of the UK’s biggest music festivals found that 149 headline acts – or 74.5% – are male solo acts or all-male bands. Meanwhile, 24 headliners – or 12% – are bands featuring a mix of male and female musicians, with just one headline act identifying as non-binary.

It was partly in response to another BBC study in 2017 – which showed that 80% of festival headliners in the UK were male – that the PRS Foundation launched its Keychange initiative.

Since then, more than 300 festivals have signed a Keychange pledge to achieve a 50/50 gender balance on their line-ups by this summer. And while some have now reached that target – or are moving towards it – others still lag behind. And, clearly, any positive moves occurring lower down the festival line-ups are not really being reflected at the top.

In part, this is down to wider systemic issues in the music industry, Keychange Project Manager Francine Gorman tells the BBC: “Women and gender minorities have had access to far fewer opportunities than their male counterparts over the years, and therefore it does take a little bit of time to build artists to the status that they’d be able to take a headline spot”.

“I think the progress that has been made over the last couple of years is going to pay off”, she adds. “We are going to start seeing a lot more women and gender minority headliners across stages in the future. There does seem to be some myth flying around the live music industry that women artists don’t sell tickets, but I’m yet to see any evidence to support this. In fact, the evidence that I have seen is quite the contrary”.

One festival to meet the Keychange target is Standon Calling, although three of its four main headliners this year are all-male acts.

“When we signed up to Keychange back in 2018, we pledged that we would commit to ensuring 50/50 gender balance on our line-up by 2022”, says Standon Calling founder Alex Trenchard. “At the time this felt like a huge challenge, but we’re delighted to say that we’re on track to exceed that figure with 54% of acts on our 2022 line-up identifying as female or non-binary”.

“Our line-ups are stronger and more diverse than ever”, he adds. “We’re delighted to be leading the way amongst the industry, showing that gender balance in festivals in 2022 is both possible and a key component of curating an exciting line up”.

Responding to the latest BBC study, Paul Reed, CEO of the Association Of Independent Festivals, says: “While gender inequality in music is often easiest to see on festival line-up posters, this is a problem that exists right across the talent development pipeline, with festival main stages at the very end of that process”.

“It is an issue that the entire industry must take responsibility for”, he goes on. “There are a number of initiatives – including Keychange and The F List – that are having an impact here, [while] festivals such as Standon Calling and Strawberries & Cream [achieving] 50/50 line-ups … set a good example for others to follow”.

“It’s also really positive that our latest member demographic survey suggested that 49% of AIF festivals are run by promoters who identify as female, so we have come a long way in that regard”, he adds. “We hope that this kind of progress and continued efforts under the Keychange initiative will soon translate to greater representation on festival stages”.

It is true that festivals – with their very public line-up posters – are more in the spotlight when it comes to assessing gender balance. And it’s generally assumed (and sometimes contracted) that on those posters the names of headliners should be much more prominent, which means a festival that has a pretty well balanced line-up across the board might still seem to skew male at first glance.

As for why headliners still often skew male, it would be interesting to know how diverse the pool of available headline level acts is to start with. That likely differs from genre to genre, with those festivals that have gender balance at the top of the bill possibly benefiting from a more diverse pool of potential headliners to pick from.

Where that headliner pool is dominated by male artists, that poses some interesting questions. Why is that? What role does the wider music industry have in addressing any lack of diversity at that level? Will existing initiatives already bringing about more diverse line-ups lower down the bill ultimately increase the diversity of the headliner pool too? And if so, how quickly?

And should festivals be more adventurous in how they define headline level acts? Or in terms of which genre pools they book artists from? Or is a festival sector already facing significant economic challenges not really currently in a position to take such risks?

Either way, the debate continues, with the BBC’s latest study a timely reminder that – while progress has been made – plenty more still needs to be done to remove the barriers that prevent diversity across the wider music industry.