If you can’t join them, beat them
Conor Houston
16:27 18th May 2021

A recent Clash article by Lucy Harbron assessed how British lad culture affects our music scene. In particular, it focused on the continued failings of gender diversity on festival line-ups. Since the piece also focused on a particular demographic of people and their gig-going habits, said demographic naturally got all fed-up and shed tears into their Red Stripe. The backlash rages on, as it has for years now, and will continue to...Maybe we should leave them to it.

Working as a professional freelance musician, I’ve been a very lucky fly on the wall, witnessing some of the innermost-workings of the popular music industry, and I've witnessed firsthand the very real issue of gender diversity at festivals. Like all issues of feminism, it's a problem that has ripple effects that ultimately touch everyone. The problem though, as Lucy touched on in her article, is not as simple as to-book-women-or-not-to-book women. 

With each festival line-up announcement comes the same old complaints: people will Tweet festivals with long lists of female acts who could’ve been on their line-ups. But this works on the assumption that the artists have tried and failed to get on these festivals, or that they even wanted to play them in the first place. Managing an artist is incredibly complex, and we shouldn’t assume why x, y or x artist is not doing a festival when they really deserve to be. It’s probably not going to be on Lorde, Fleetwood Mac or Björk's agenda to play TRNSMT, is it? 

The idea of playing these festivals, too, can wildly differ from the reality. Women's experiences are often tinged with disappointment at how they’re treated and perceived in these environments. South London-based artist Hallworth has, over the years, been frequently placed on line-ups which otherwise consist of men, noting that, “I feel like I have to call it out, not to demonise the organisers, but just to acknowledge that it wasn’t something that should be considered normal”. 

Women yearn for these slots, and then are repeatedly let down once they’re there. In an ideal world, there’d be an environment where a diverse range of musicians actually felt welcome, but it seems increasingly obvious that these enviornments are beyond changing.

It’s often assumed that these festivals are unaware of the acts they’re neglecting, but they’re not that stupid. They always keep abreast of who’s currently knocking about in the music industry, but in truth are so wrapped up in their own business practices that it's too much effort to change. After a year of no live performances, and innumerable female rock/pop acts thriving and releasing brilliant work, surely this would be reflected in festival announcements? Of course not, because they’re pure business, ultimately concerned with money. With massive financial losses from 2020, and some lingering uncertainty about whether 2021 will even go ahead, what do they do? They get the artists they know will shift tickets. You get Liam, you get Ian, you get Gerry Turmeric, Flatfish and the Bottlebank. You don’t try to diversify; you avert risk. 

Being good at music has little to do with one’s chances of getting on a festival either. The counter argument is that if women made good music, they’d get on the line-ups. This is a massively incorrect and offensive assumption, if not a surprising one. If this was solely about excellency in music, you’d have the very best jazz musicians, the very best reggae, country, classical and metal on every line-up. But it’s not about that. This is about catering to those who enjoy a music most commonly purveyed by White British men. A specific demographic, but a large one. Seasoned session drummer Julianna Hopkins explains, “Being a woman doesn’t affect or lower my musical abilities and the very fact that people are so surprised to see a woman on drums proves that there’s a deep-rooted gender imbalance issue within the music industry itself”. 

As much as we poke fun, no one’s saying you’re not allowed to like The Courteeners or The Lathums or whoever’s popular at the minute. No one is saying that. If you legitimately enjoy music like this, you do not deserve to be mocked. People enjoy music for all kinds of reasons, and everyone has their taste. It's also okay that not every musician is interested in being progressive. Some just want to write indie bangers and have a laugh with the boys, and they’re well within their rights to do so. It’s just unfortunate that they get to hog the limelight, because no one ever made history by blending in with the wallpaper.

If your entire musical vocabulary consists of B Minor, a delay pedal and being a boy in a leather jacket, your chances of doing festivals massively increases. Without getting into the endless “What is good music?” debate, these festivals could be a quarter of the size, and the average standard of the line-up would rise considerably. Given how bitchy blokes in bands can be about their contemporaries, even they should agree on this. 

People should be concerned about this issue because it affects all genders and all demographics. The domineering nature of 'lad' bands and 'male troubadours' leaves less space for others to develop what they do or find an audience, irrespective of their gender, race or anything else. There’s comparatively little infrastructure or platform available for bands who don’t fit this mould. 

A common retort is, “start your own festival then, with all these female musicians you speak of”. Yeah, we’ll just do that then, shall we? Knock up a quick festival whilst our omelette is settling in the pan, easy peasy. This is not the responsibility of musicians, music-lovers, gig-goers, or journalists. It’s the responsibility of those with the money and the clout. The festival bosses; the promoters; the conglomerates. 

Encouragingly, there’s hard evidence that it’s absolutely possible to put a diverse lineup together. BBC 6 Music Festival, for example, doesn’t have a diversity issue. This year saw sets from Laura Marling, Poppy Ajudha, Black Country New Road, Nubya Garcia and Dry Cleaning, among others. A range of genres too – fancy that! It’s a cult concern when compared to Isle of Wight, Kendal Calling or Latitude, but it proves diversity is attainable. 

Replicating this diversity at brand new Reading & Leeds-scale festivals could well be the answer. Get those acts people list on Twitter, make it 50/50. There’s so clearly a demand for it...could it even top Glastonbury? People ought to focus their energies here instead, and leave the lads to scrap in a urinal trough over which Gallagher is better. Established festivals will not change any time soon because their business model is far too good. They obviously don’t care about being on the right side of history, and should therefore be left to gradually decompose in their own mud. If you can’t join them, beat them. That’d put them in their place.

Now, someone please finance this bloody thing, for the love of St. Vincent.

Photo: Zac Mahrouche