Only 17% of headliners at the UK’s top festivals this year are female, Sky News analysis has found.
Women are seen as too much of a “risk” for the top slots because of a perception festivalgoers prefer watching men, as well as the pool of female talent still being too small, music industry experts say.
Industry figures also called on Glastonbury to do more to bridge the gender divide.
Across 104 festivals this summer, only a fifth (20%) of headline acts are fronted by women, compared with almost four-fifths (78%) by men and 2% by non-binary people.
At the biggest festivals, with over 30,000 capacity, this is even lower for women at one in six (17%).
And if you count the total number of performers on stage during headline slots, only one in 10 (11%) are women.
According to our research, while women are still behind men across the board, they are more popular with fans on YouTube, Google and the radio, than they are with festival promoters when booking headliners.
Meanwhile, the likes of Glastonbury, Isle of Wight Festival and Latitude don’t have a single female-fronted headliner on their main stages this year.
Glastonbury, which is releasing its final 2023 tickets, faced a backlash in March after it revealed the Arctic Monkeys, Guns n Roses and Sir Elton John will headline its famous Pyramid Stage this year.
Folk rocker, Cat Stevens, is also booked for the Sunday afternoon “legends” slot despite rumours Blondie was due to take it.
Organiser Emily Eavis said the female headliner they had planned, widely rumoured to be Taylor Swift, had to pull out due to a tour clash.
Women ‘too much of a risk’
Eve Horne is a producer, singer-songwriter and founder of Peak Music UK, which mentors female and non-binary artists and producers. She is also on UK Music’s Diversity Taskforce and is a board member of Moving The Needle, which works to improve female inclusion in the industry.
She says there was hope that the devastating impact of COVID would make industry bosses prioritise inclusion and diversity.
“If anything it did a 360 and went backwards,” she tells Sky News.
“Everyone started going for the money again and saying there’s too much risk in putting women as headliners.”
Eve claims promoters repeatedly tell her that festivalgoers of all genders prefer watching men perform more than women.
“It’s about money at the end of the day and we still have old white men gatekeeping the industry,” she adds.
John Rostron, chief executive of the Association of Independent Festivals, which represents 105 UK events, says the problem stems from there being a smaller pool of female artists for promoters to pick from.
“A headline slot might be the pinnacle of an artist’s live career.
“There are plenty of barriers for any artist to get there, but for women there are maybe triple the number of barriers, so the talent pool at the top is smaller.
“We have to wait for them to come up and then be open to booking them.”
The problem gets worse at larger festivals where big acts charge high fees and promoters have to meet those costs with ticket sales – and are also accountable to shareholders.
“You can’t say that a male band sells more tickets because they’re men,” he adds. “But you can say that they sell more tickets than another band when that’s been proven to be true.”
YouTubers and radio DJs choosing more women
Sky News looked at YouTube views and radio play to see how popular female-fronted artists are on those platforms. “Female-fronted” refers to acts with a female lead performer.
They were far better represented on both platforms than they were at the top of festival billboards.
On YouTube, in the 12 months to the end of March, female-fronted artists made up 35% of total music views, while their male counterparts were 65%. Non-binary-fronted acts were at fewer than 1%.
Almost half (24) of the 50 most searched for artists on Google in the same period were also female.
Both data sets suggest fans do want to consume female-fronted artists.
On the radio, they have averaged roughly a third (32%) of plays between 2019 and now, with male acts at just under two-thirds (65%) and non-binary at 3%.
So far in 2023, the gender balance has been almost equal, with female and male artists both at 48%, with the remainder non-binary.
Six of the top 10 songs played on the radio so far this year are by female solo artists including Miley Cyrus’s Flowers – the most popular song of 2023 so far.
Increases in non-binary representation are largely down to a small number of artists, such as Sam Smith and Olly Alexander.
At festivals there are signs of progress. Across all stages almost three in 10 (29%) acts are female-fronted – up by almost 2% on the five-year average.
But that progress isn’t reflected in headline slots.
‘Glastonbury can afford inclusion managers’
By contrast, the Mighty Hoopla, a 25,000-person festival in south London, has had no male-fronted headliners since 2018.
Olly Alexander headlined in 2018 and is returning this year.
It offers a “platform to LGBTQ+ performers” and ensures at least 50% of performers are female and non-binary across the whole line-up.
Cassie Leon, who heads-up inclusion for the festival, says with their audience, it’s “relatively easy” to commit to a diverse line-up.
“Part of queer culture is trying to uplift women as much as possible,” she adds.
Asked how other festivals should improve female representation, she says more staff should be hired specifically to promote inclusion.
“It’s everybody’s issue, from the agents to the festivals to the places finding the talent,” she says.
Specifically on Glastonbury, she adds: “If you can afford Elton John, you can afford inclusion managers.”
While Britain’s biggest festival might be less profit-focused than others, raising funds for charities and reportedly paying artists a fraction of their usual fees, smaller festivals still seem to do better at booking female-fronted headliners.
Jungle and drum and bass artist Nia Archives is headlining two indie festivals this year – We Out Here in Dorset and Outlook in Croatia – as well as playing at Glastonbury.
“It’s a hard one for me,” she says “because I know I’m being given those opportunities but also recognise that not everybody has those opportunities.”
Heavy metal and rock among worst offenders
Other than the Mighty Hoopla, no festival in our database has had more than a third female-fronted headline acts between 2018 and now.
Six have had none at all since then – Isle of Wight, Download, Kendal Calling, TRNSMT, Slam Dunk Festival and Bloodstock Open Air.
With half of the worst offenders coming under rock and heavy metal, John Rostron, of AIF, which represents Bloodstock Open Air, says things are “particularly difficult” across those genres as there is a “much smaller talent pool”.
Bloodstock’s festival director Adam Gregory shares his view.
“There is a shortage of female-fronted bands coming through the ranks,” he says, adding that headline slots are booked according to the “strongest available offering”.
John also points to the way some major festivals sign up artists exclusively – preventing them from playing other events.
“Someone playing third at Reading might be perfect to headline one of our smaller festivals, but they can’t. Both organisers and artists have a responsibility to say no to exclusives.”
There are groups trying to make a difference.
Not Bad For A Girl, a DJ collective based in Manchester and London, formed four years ago to “create a platform for female and non-binary DJs” – running their own events, performing at others, and on the radio.
They wear signature pink balaclavas in a bid to “eliminate conventional beauty standards” after members were denied opportunities on account of their gender.
Founder Martha Bolton says they actively support diverse talent, for example by “having two events and using one as a cash cow, so the other can promote an up-and-coming artist”.
She adds that big organisations like Glastonbury have a responsibility to set the standard for the industry.
“It needs to be the bigger people taking that jump for the rest of us who can’t afford the risk.”
There is no official regulator of the music industry in the UK, so no official means of accountability when it comes to gender diversity.
UK Music, which has its own diversity taskforce, acts as a trade union, and connects smaller associations that represent specific parts of the industry.
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Keychange is an EU-funded diversity programme that asks its 600 signatories (41% of which are festivals) to commit to at least 50% female inclusion. By the end of 2021, 64% of signatories had met the target.
But neither body is legally binding.
In an interview with The Guardian in March, Emily Eavis said Lizzo, who will perform just before Guns N Roses on the Pyramid Stage, could “totally headline” but the rock band were already booked.
She reiterated that female inclusion is “top of our agenda”, having committed to 50:50 representation in 2020 and secured more than half female and non-binary acts for 2023 so far.
In its diversity statement the festival says it is “working alongside experts in equality and anti-discrimination” on an internal review.
“We try our best and we obviously aim for 50:50. Some years, it’s more, some years, it’s less,” Eavis told the BBC earlier this year, adding it’s “looking like we’ve got two female headliners” for 2024.
But she added that despite being the biggest festival in the country, it is not just down to her to make change.
“We’re trying our best so the pipeline needs to be developed. This starts way back with the record companies, radio. I can shout as loud as I like but we need to get everyone on board.”
Sky News has contacted Glastonbury for further comment.