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The Reading and Leeds 2021 lineup gender imbalance is due to a lack of consideration for female talent rather than a lack of talented female artists.

The 2021 Reading and Leeds Festival lineup was recently announced and, 50 years after its establishment, we are still waiting for a bill which appropriately reflects the talented female artists which are unquestionably out there. The 2021 headline spots have been doubled to six, as there will be two main stages, and yet still no women feature in these slots. In fact, there have only been two headliners with female members since 2010, namely Arcade Fire in 2010 and Paramore in 2014. Do we have to wait another six years to see a woman feature in a headline act?

You might say that more women need to “pick up guitars” to get on a festival line-up, like TRNSMT boss Geoff Ellis after the Scottish festival itself came under fire. Yet, in 2019, Billie Eilish brought in the biggest crowd of the weekend, gathering more people than any of the other headliners: Foo Fighters, Twenty One Pilots, and The 1975. Eilish didn’t even make the main stage line-up originally but was moved there upon understanding the sheer enormity of fans her name could bring in; indicating an original underestimation of the teen superstar. The idea that the issue is a lack of musically talented female acts rather than a structural bias within the industry, which dates back decades, is laughable. It only takes a scroll through the Twitter responses to the Reading and Leeds line-up announcement to see countless examples of women fronted acts/artists who could have been chosen to headline and feature at this festival, or any of the festivals which continually fail to book them. To name just a few: Florence and The Machine, Lily Allen, Dua Lipa, Wolf Alice, Phoebe Bridgers, Lorde, Avril Lavigne, Lana Del Rey, Maggie Rogers, Lizzo, Haim, Christine and the Queens, PVRIS, Orla Gartland, Maisie Peters, The Ninth Wave… I could go on. 

For years, women have been tirelessly campaigning for more inclusive festival line-ups which truly represent the talented female and non-binary acts that are out there. The Instagram page @bookmorewomen posts festival line-ups without male acts, showing the extent to which the inherent misogyny of the music industry extends. Additionally, The Keychange Initiative, founded in 2015 by the PRS Foundation, was instigated with the intention of raising awareness about gender inequality at festivals. The movement features a powerful pledge encouraging festivals and music organisations to achieve total gender balance by 2022, which, according to Keychange, over 300 festivals and music companies have already signed. 

Of course, it is always encouraging to see any kind of progress towards change, but should we be expecting more from those artists who are benefitting from this sexism?

Following the announcement of the line-up for the 2020 Reading and Leeds Festival, which was later cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the same issues surrounding gender inequality were brought up, and calls were made for male acts to speak up and use their privilege to force the industry to change. The Guardian’s deputy music editor called for The 1975 to “add a condition to [their] rider that says [they]’ll only play festivals that commit to X% (ideally 50%!) acts that include women and non-binary performers.” Matty Healy, frontman of The 1975, responded:

“Take this as me signing this contract – I have agreed to some festivals already that may not adhere to this and I would never let fans down who already have tickets. But from now I will, and believe this is how male artists can be true allies.” Healy is right that male artists should be using their platform to bring about change in the industry, yet time and time again these same lopsided line-ups appear. I’m not saying the headliners announced aren’t great artists with their own right to be there, but the fact is there are plenty of female artists who have worked just as hard, if not harder, who have just as much of a catalogue of incredible music and who can pull just as great of an audience. The issue isn’t with a lack of female artists. Far from it, the issue is how female artists are taken less seriously in the industry, even when they’ve proven they have the power to bring in bigger crowds than the stages they’re relegated to (if added to the lineup at all.) Do I think there will be gender balance in festivals by 2022? Probably not. But I’d love to be proven wrong and see these festivals join us in the present day, where the main stage is not the Good Old Boys’ Club.


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