Where Are The Female Festival Headliners?

Last week, Wireless Festival announced the line-up for its 15th edition. The three-day event that takes place in Finsbury Park, London, will see Meek Mill, Skepta and A$AP Rocky headline their event. As wonderful as it is to have such big names on the poster – there’s one glaring flaw in the line-up. The headliners are all men. 

British singer Mahalia, who was nominated for the BRITs Critic’s Choice Award in 2018 for her R&B album, was also not impressed. She expressed her dissatisfaction over the festival’s choices on Twitter: “With all the female artists out there, y’all really made another dick fest line up ???? I’m tired”

She’s not wrong. Out of the 43 announced acts so far, only six of them are women-led acts – with zero headlining the event. That’s not even 14% of the festival. And this isn’t the first time Wireless’ line-up is so dominated by men. In fact, since the festival’s inception in 2005, there have only been two female headliners: Pink in 2010, and Rihanna in 2012.  That’s two slots out of 58 headlining slots over the past 15 years. That’s 3.4%. 

And it’s not just Wireless that has a distinct gender disparity problem. Kendal Calling, a festival that takes place in the Lake District, announced its headliners on the 29th of January. Out of 22 acts, only 5 of them were women or women-led bands.

In fact, it’s not just UK-based festivals either. In the Netherlands, WOO HAH! Festival – the biggest hip-hop festival it has to offer – only saw 5 female artists in a line-up of 68 artists overall, not even 6%. Pinkpop, the biggest pop-oriented festival in the Netherlands is also notoriously skewed towards male headliners and performers. In 2019, out of 100 acts – only 13 acts included a female member. And Coachella, perhaps the most famous festival of the United States of America, only had its fourth woman ever headlining the festival just last year. 

So the question remains – where are the women? Not just at Wireless Festival, but at festivals around the world? 

When asked, some festivals argue that their genre of music just doesn’t lend itself to the equal booking of both men and women-led acts. For example, hip-hop and urban is seen as a male-dominated music genre. However, the reality is that there is an absolute wealth of urban female artists to choose from nowadays, starting with Mahalia herself. And to name a few others, there’s Cardi B, Doja Cat, Solange, Stefflon Don, Megan Thee Stallion, Koffee, Kehlani, Joy Crookes, Jorja Smith, Princess Nokia, Rico Nasty, Little Simz, Kash Doll, DJ Jamz Supernova – the list goes on and on. 

To say there just aren’t enough ‘big names’ or ‘talented’ women in the game is a cheap and frankly false excuse. It’s reminiscent of the Grammy’s CEO arguing that if women wanted to win more awards or just nominations, they needed to ‘step up’. When in reality, the absence of women on these recognised stages – be it for award shows or for festivals – is just due to an enormous ‘blind spot’ within the music industry, regardless of genre. 

It’s because we’re so used to seeing men headline festivals, that we simply don’t even consider a woman doing it instead. That goes for our association with ‘rock gods’, as well as with ‘rappers’, or ‘grime artists’. And if it’s not their name that’s not big enough or recognisable enough, the argument sometimes is that the women don’t have the same ‘headlining experience’. This is, of course, a circular argument. How are they to gain any headlining experience, if they’re never given a headlining slot? 

It shows the importance of visibility and representation. Not just because there are just as many talented women as men out there that deserve to be on stage, but also because it reminds us how powerful that stage really is. Seeing yourself reflected on the line-up, amongst other performers and big names, serves as a huge source of inspiration for the next generation. It opens up the eyes of not just new aspiring artists, but also other bookers, festival programmers, and festival-goers. 

Some festivals have acknowledged that the lack of women on their posters is not for a lack of talent, but rather due to ingrained, subconscious misogyny. As such, showcase festivals like Eurosonic and Primavera Sounds have partnered up with an EU-funded initiative called “KeyChange”. They aim to see a 50/50 line-up by 2022 for as many festivals as possible. Some festivals might even implement a quota, to enforce gender parity. And while this might be easier to do for showcase festivals, where the focus is on smaller artists anyways, the same should also be applied to the larger headliners. 

There are so many women absolutely dominating the music game. Billie Eilish is breaking records left and right, Janelle Monae and Lizzo are innovating music with each fresh release and established names like Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Ariana Grande and Lady Gaga are continuously putting on the biggest shows for their huge fan bases. 

It’s not an excuse to say there are no women available, that there is no female talent – they are right there

It’s not an excuse to say women don’t have the experience when they are not being given the opportunity to garner experience. 

It’s not an excuse to say they won’t pull in the big crowds when festival organisers aren’t trying to change the current landscape.

So here’s a message to Wireless, and other festivals across the world: Don’t be lazy. Book women artists, and don’t just hide two or three women-led acts as some type of tokenism at the bottom of your poster. Give them the space to shine, and the headline that comes with it – because they have earned it, and as Mahalia said, we’re tired

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