How many women have headlined the UK’s largest festivals?

how many women have headlined festivals
Kestra

Kestra

Last year, Lily Allen shared an image of Wireless Festival’s line-up to Twitter with all of the male acts performing erased, drawing attention to the overwhelming lack of diversity.

It instantly made the headlines. People were discussing how bad it was for Wireless to have booked just 3 female acts (one of which pulled out close to the festival), and it resulted in Wireless putting on another stage with only female acts.

Lily Allen’s actions had triggered a huge debate on the state of festivals, but what was maddening to me was that people were acting like they had only just noticed.

For as long as we have been going to festivals, women have been treated as an afterthought in their lineups. Sometimes to the point where it seemed festival bookers weren’t aware that women actually existed.

But am I just seeing the world through my feminist goggles and getting mad at nothing?

I decided to take three of the UK’s biggest festivals (that are still going) and look at their headlining acts over the last twenty years to see how many of those acts contained women. Not just solo acts, but bands that featured women too like The White Stripes, Arcade Fire and Paramore.

So, I dove into the history of Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and Download and… the results were depressing…


Female headline acts at Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and Download in the last twenty years

What you can see above is the total amount of headline acts that year (usually three a festival, but some years Glastonbury wasn’t on, and Download didn’t become Download until 2003), and the amount of them that featured women (shown in teal).

In the last twenty years, there were twelve years where the major UK festivals had no female headliners at all. Even in the eight where there were female acts, there was only one occasion where we had more than one female act across the three festivals.

What’s more, those female headliners never consisted of more than one woman. Between Reading & Leeds and Glastonbury there has been Beyoncé , Adele, Skunk Anansie, Paramore, The White Stripes and Arcade Fire, but Download…

Download didn’t have any.

I decided to delve a little further and try see if there were more women further down the lineup, so I took the entire main stages of these three festivals and tried to do the same.

How many of the acts featured on the main stage featured women?

Main Stage acts featuring women at Glastonbury Festival

It turns out that Glastonbury was by far the best festival for diversity. They never had a year where there weren’t women on the main stage, and they always had significantly more women than both Reading &  Leeds and Download put together. In fact, Reading & Leeds only had 65% the amount of female acts Glastonbury did, and Download only had 23%.

That says a lot, considering Glastonbury takes a fallow year every four to five years.

Overall, Glastonbury came out with an average of 5 female acts a year, averaging at just over 23 acts total on the main stage, meaning that 21% of acts performing on the main stage at Glastonbury contained women (I should also mention that I counted Angel Haze – an agender rapper – under the female count, not as a woman but more as an act containing no men). 

Whilst they had the best diversity compared to other festivals, female acts only ever managed to grab at most 1/3 of the spotlight. Not once was the balance skewed the other way.

Download on the other hand left a lot to be desired in regards to diversity, with four years in the past sixteen featuring no women at all on the main stage.

Main Stage Act at Download Festival Featuring women

When the main stage did feature women, it was usually only one band with a female member, although 2018 reached an all time high with three – that’s right, THREE! – acts: Marmozets, The Pink Slips and In This Moment.

Since Download’s inception in 2003, the festival has averaged only 1.2 female acts a year, with a total average of 25 acts a year on the main stage. In other words, barely 5% of their acts were women. Whilst this definitely says a lot about Download’s approach to creating diverse lineups, it says even more for rock and metal music as a whole…

On the surface, I thought Reading and Leeds was significantly better than Download. It’s true that you can say they averaged double the amount of female acts Download did, but that’s still only 2.8 a year for a festival that usually puts on the largest amount of artists on the main stage (that’s 27 on average).

Main Stage acts featuring women in the last 20 years a Reading and Leeds

Out of all three of the festivals, Reading and Leeds had put on the most acts in the last twenty years, but they had still only ever put on more than five female acts once. They went as far to put on a whole SIX female acts in 2007. Six! Feminism is done, ladies.

It’s important to note that within those numbers, I didn’t count Gorillaz as an act containing women because despite all our love for the lead guitarist Noodle, she is fictional and the band itself is comprised of Damon Albarn and Jamie Hewlett…

Not that the inclusion of Gorillaz would even make much of a difference. The evidence is overwhelmingly negative: major UK festivals are suffering from a severe from gender imbalance. 

What’s holding women back?

In 2018, 45 UK festivals pledged to achieve a 50:50 gender balance by 2022 with Keychange, including Standon Calling, Liverpool Sound City, Bluedot and Bestival. Three festivals that weren’t on that list?

Glastonbury, Reading & Leeds and Download Festival.

However, in 2017 Festival Republic – the promoter behind Reading & Leeds, Wireless, Download and more – launched ReBalance. Managing Director Melvin Benn had said that part of the problem of booking female performers for Wireless festival was that there were “insufficient women across the board that are strong ticket sellers”, and ReBalance was set up to give one week of studio recording time to female musicians each month throughout 2018, 2019 and 2020, pledging to give them a slot at a Festival Republic or Live Nation festival at the end of the year. In that way, ReBalance aims to help create more female acts that can be placed on festival lineups as a whole.

Is that enough of an excuse not to be going after more gender-balanced lineups already, however?

Surely, if we book more women in the second headlining slot, or even to top the bill on other stages, eventually they will become the kinds of “strong ticket sellers” that can become a festival headliner.

Little Simz, a rapper from London, curates her own festival, Wonderland, and manages to get 75% women on her stages, showing that there are female acts already out there ready to perform.

Whilst Wireless’s effort last year were appreciated, their decision to put on an all-female stage was a reaction. It also wasn’t necessarily the right way of doing it, a male stage and a female stage (hello non-binary and agender folks, I really hope one day people will remember you exist) doesn’t solve any problems of diversity. It promotes an attitude of seeing women as lesser than and unworthy of being on the main stage.

Instead, we need to be proactive. We need to make sure more women are on the lineup before those posters even get released to the public. We need to be conscious of how many female and non-binary acts are booked each festival, without falling victim to tokenism. Now, that doesn’t mean to say that you need a 50/50 ratio every time or the festival is cancelled, but we can’t keep putting on festivals with the same kind of gender balance we’ve witnessed over the past how-ever-many decades.

Something needs to change.

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