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Thinking About Gender And Festival Bookings

06/07/2015 23:03 BST | Updated 06/07/2016 10:59 BST

The current debates around gender bias in live music (specifically festival lineups) are important but people are focused too closely on the big names and headliners. I think we learn more looking at the smaller stages and events specifically aimed at 'emerging artists'. I've done two quick bits of number crunching in that area and found more optimistic results.

It's true, responses from festival managements feel badly clumsy and out-dated. But we ought to acknowledge their reality: just a tiny handful of bands and artists worldwide can headline big festivals. They're booked through a complex, confrontational process of individual negotiation (and at the back end of a long, often multi-decade, career of growth). In a fundamental way, the top of the bill at a big festival is the past. Booking it is capitalism at its rawest and we - as audience - almost never know what's really gone on behind the scenes to determine who plays.* 

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the top end of a big festival lineup is not the place to look, to learn anything real about gender (or ethnicity, or any other social balance) in the live music world. The place to look is: 1) much further down the bill and 2) at 'emerging artist' conferences like SXSW, CMJ and The Great Escape. 

If we focus on - and take our data from - the small slots, on smaller stages, where upcoming artists get their early breaks, we'll surely make far better assessments about not just biases but also the direction of travel of live music. Two clear reasons for this:

First, that's where the future is, down the bottom of the bill. It's where we build a picture of what the live diaspora will look like in the years to come.

Second, that's where bookers and agents don't solely book 'responsively' to maximise audience; there they have flexibility as gatekeepers to choose talents to nurture.

To that end, I've had a quick (strictly amateur) go at grabbing some data. First, I looked at the lineup of The Great Escape Festival 2015 and divvied up all the artists by gender, to the best of my ability. ** Across all acts performing, I found approximately 62% male, 18% female and 19% mixed. Nothing approaching equality BUT a far better stat than the big outdoor summer festivals, where the overall average is 85%+ male. This is important because The Great Escape (TGE) is specifically an event to showcase new artists to the industry and help them get the breakthrough deals.

It's worth noting that the 'mixed' category (any band containing members of more than one gender) is itself still vastly male dominated, with most bands including just one female member. Defining a 'band' as having 3+ members, I could find only five all-female bands at TGE: Jagaara, Pins, Baby Queens, Little May and M.o. (also worth mentioning Novella, which has four women and a male drummer and is led by an all-female core trio). Sorry if I missed any out, I was careful. But this points to an entirely different issue about how groups form in the first place, rather than how the live industry reacts to them.

This data also highlights an unrelated trend, maybe worth a separate article later; the collapse in numbers of conventional bands (again, of 3+ members, whatever the gender), versus duos and solo artists. The rise of pop, acoustic and electronica, versus rock and indie. By the way, TGE 2015's headliner balance was impressively equal-ish (even the biggest names at TGE are not world-dominators, they are themselves still breakthrough artists in a global sense): of the three headliners, one was Kate Tempest and another was Alabama Shakes. 

Another place to focus on is the BBC Introducing Stage (not to give anti-Beeb ranters ammunition), now ubiquitous at so many UK summer festivals. BBC Introducing specifically eliminates the coalface of the free market from the search for new talent, with its free-to-submit public entry system and empowerment of local BBC music experts to highlight talent in their region. It can sometimes feel like the UK live scene has outsourced their entire A&R process to the Beeb, or they've built a chainstore iteration of the good old 'new band stage'.

I actually like this a lot; and in theory the freedom from the bottom line enables focus on diversity and access, if they wish, with no perceived responsibility to bring audience numbers, as the BBC Introducing Stage is (A) booked by the BBC and (B) has a specific remit to introduce new talent. It is a system that locks out the confrontational agent/promoter relationship (or at least, pays lip service to doing so) and starts helping artists often before they have a 'team' behind them. Certainly BBC Introducing is a powerful key live gatekeeper for emerging artists, just ask Ed Sheeran and George Ezra. 

The BBC Introducing lineup of 25 acts at Glastonbury Festival 2015 had 25 artists and I made it 56% male acts. I appreciate it's just one lineup at one festival - but still, a big improvement on stats the debate has thrown out so far. Of the female artists, only one is an all-girl band, terrific Hastings punk sisters Maid Of Ace. Also it was noticeable the sheer weight of pop/hip hop/R&B versus conventional festival indie. That's changed as much as (perhaps in line with) the gender and ethnicity improvement.

If the BBC Introducing team is keeping decent statistics (or even raw lineup lists) from across everything they've organised over the past few years, there's some very useful data in there about how the live music diaspora is changing - and more importantly is going to change. A few months ago, someone online mentioned the BBC has records not just of bookings but of every act that ever submitted to BBC Introducing via the online entry system. They mentioned it in the context that they apparently know that the number of bands (as opposed to duos or solo acts) is in a state of collapse. As I said earlier, that's another article. 

For now, just imagine if we can compare gender, ethnicity, perhaps class, perhaps setting those against musical genre, of every single UK act submitting to BBC Introducing and measure how it is shifting over the past half-decade. I'd LOVE to get a nose at that hugely powerful data set. Maybe (hopefully) someone over there at Auntie is already doing something with it.  

I think, if a large festival still has an overall poor gender bias - but can demonstrate that at breakthrough level it offers a much better proportion of slots to acts that aren't entirely made up of white men, then it has a fairer defence that the broader issue is industry-wide, rather than endemic to its own booking policies.

**Please note, this was just me, working on my own, using the advertised lineup. I went through almost 400 billed artists, so I'm not claiming it's a perfect analysis. I reckon for a +/- 3% error rate. I also didn't include the Alternative Escape, which tends to be more rock-oriented, so might've skewed the male bias up more. I say "might". But it was just too many extra artists and far less clearly listed. 

*Agents and bookers fight tooth and nail over those lineups. They're not sitting down working out how to make themselves look progressive, their financial bottom lines are terrifying. We don't know why Taylor Swift didn't headline Glastonbury, or why she was billed (with reduced production) to go onstage before Foo Fighters at Radio 1's Big Weekend (to the point that Grohl himself pondered bemused onstage about the order). We don't know why Fleetwood Mac didn't end up doing Glasto, as rumoured. We don't know why, when Paramore headlined Reading and Leeds a couple of years ago, they had to co-headline with QOTSA, rather than getting the billing to themselves. We do know that at the height of her fame, Adele, for example, decided not to play festivals at all - to the huge, public chagrin of major promoters. We can make a vague analysis of why so few British artists gained enough long-term longevity in recent years to headline alongside the American legends. But it's just that: a vague analysis (hint: only poshos get a shot these days). Anyway I digress.