Dear Mr. Benn: Gender Disparities in Music Festivals

I was just scrolling merrily down my Facebook newsfeed the other day when I stumbled across an NME article post. “Reading And Leeds Festivals boss: ‘Female bands are not sidelined at festivals’” read the headline, above a photo of Melvin Benn, head of Festival Republic – the biggest festival promoter in the UK.

The article explained Benn’s comments, made in a response to a 2014 study asserting the under-representation of female bands at UK music festivals. The “idea that that female bands are sidelined” is wrong, according to Mr. Benn. He continues by saying that the “historic lack of opportunity for young women to get into bands and to be in bands” no longer exists, replaced by an “abundance of opportunities”.

“Gone are the days where a band was four guys”, he states. “That’s gone now. It’s genuinely gone.”

If those last words didn’t convince anyone that his statement was entirely saving-face for the festivals he runs, then I don’t know what will.

It is not hard to dispute the “gone are the days of the male only bands” assertion. Almost every single one of the most prominent bands in the UK right now (bands, not solo artists) is an all male one. I would assume it is obvious to all that women are in the minority in rock and indie, and in festival slots, as much as Mr. Benn seems to think they are not. This 2014 article in The Telegraph gives us an excellent graph showing the disparity between male and female bands in festival slots. Last year Reading Festival, one of the events that Mr. Benn represents, had 55.81% of its slots filled by all male bands. Another quarter was male solo artists. If Mr. Benn’s obversations were based on his own festival, maybe he should take another look at his lineup posters.

But let us not focus just on that. Giving Benn the benefit of the doubt, we can assume that intentional sidelining of female bands doesn’t occur. Let us look at why there are so few women playing these festivals. The obvious, shortsighted answer?

“But there just aren’t that many good female bands and women in bands out there these days!”

That may be an easy response, but to whom is it directed? Who is at a fault for this? Women, apparently. Women just aren’t as good singers. Women also can’t play guitar as well. Ergo, women can’t headline successfully, and none are popular enough to do so.

Obviously, I’m speaking rhetorically here. I am not here to debate the merits of female musicians – that argument is tired out and it is clear that it is not so much a lack of competence or talent setting women back in the industry, but the industry itself: it’s often unwelcoming, toxic and discriminatory toward women. Get educated – women, both performers and consumers, face flack and harassment at record labels, music venues, gigs, and festivals.

Women, clearly more than men, are seen as more or less valuable based on their appearance – this is especially hurtful in music, an industry where image is so important. That is not to say all female musicians are stunning, or that looks are everything, but the premium put on on sex appeal and looks for performers is much more for women. Not to mention regular, old fashioned sexism – “Oh, she’s a girl, she can’t play guitar”. As adamant as we are that we are some sort of post-sexist society, that belief is just wishful thinking. People in power in the music industry, disproportionately older males, are much more likely to be sexist and misogynistic, and let this influence their decisions.

Want some on the grounds proof of all this? Check out the comments on the Facebook posting of the article detailing the Benn comments. “Maybe because most female led bands are shite” says an astute commentator, with 20 likes.

And lastly, there is the most horrible sort of treatment women receive – physical sexual harassment and abuse. Check out this NME blogs piece about groping at gigs with over a thousand Facebook shares. Clearly, this authors’ experiences are not unique, and neither are those of female performers.

So, next time someone says, “there aren’t any good girls in bands out there”, think about the implications of this statement. Consider the frequently unfriendly, discriminatory music industry. Why aren’t there more women in music these days? Quite simply, male and female musicians in indie and rock face completely different obstacles when breaking through, and on the road to headlining festivals. Neither different talent nor the industry are either entirely to blame for the issue, but the large obstacles women face are severely overlooked, as is their role in stopping women from advancing in music.

What can be done? Obviously, this all fits into the larger issue of breaking down the patriarchy and moving toward equality, but in simpler terms, the music industry (festival organizers, music labels, venues etc) needs to create safer, more equal spaces for women to create, release and perform. Because if a woman in a band can’t feel as comfortable, safe, or valued in the same industry where a man in the same position has no such issues, the lack of women in major festival slots will not change.

Are you listening, Mr. Benn?

Words by Nana Gongadze

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