When I saw the figures of how many females were playing UK festivals this year, I was shocked. At the big six festivals – Isle Of Wight, Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds Festivals, V Festival and Bestival – solo female artists made up only 16 per cent of the total acts playing, compared with 24 per cent solo men. For all-female bands it was even worse – making up just 3.5 per cent of the total artists playing at the big six festivals, compared with 43 per cent for all-male bands.
It would be easy to blame the promoters and festival bookers for this, because it’s their job to book the bands. But we can’t just point the finger at them – they’re just finding the artists that appeal to their audience.
The problem’s not a lack of talent – there are plenty of great female artists around, like St Vincent, Warpaint, Savages and Deap Vally. But they’re not being seen as potential headliners or getting the exposure they deserve because of how people see women in music and the gender divide between different genres. In the mainstream pop world, there’s a seemingly endless number of successful female artists dominating the charts. Female festival headliners tend to be this end of the spectrum – artists like Beyoncé and Florence + The Machine. But that success hasn’t translated into the rock and alternative scene.
When I was growing up, I was lucky enough to have feminist female icons in groups like Bikini Kill, L7 and Hole, who inspired me to start a band. Seeing Björk headline festivals was amazing. But now, there are so few women in rock and alternative genres breaking through to play on festival stages. They’re not getting big enough to be noticed by young women who might see them as role models.
After 10 years of touring, I know how many hurdles there are when trying to be taken seriously as a woman in a rock band. It’s a male-dominated world and there’s still a huge stigma that girls can’t play their instruments properly. I still encounter people at venues who patronise me, or make me feel really small and abnormal for doing what I do. In the early stages, that can be really off-putting for newer female artists. You have to develop a thick skin.
This isn’t just a problem with festivals not booking enough women. We need to look at the way society as a whole looks at female artists. Many women performers don’t want to speak out about issues like the lack of women on festival bills because of the online abuse we get – a problem Chvrches’ Lauren Mayberry has written about. It takes guts to put yourself out there and you have to be bulletproof.
I always thought the best way to change things was by my actions; that me playing and being good enough to play on main stages at Reading and Leeds would help change people’s views and inspire people from all genders to start their own bands.
But I also realise that I was privileged that when I was growing up in the late ’80s and early ’90s because more female bands were speaking about these issues. So if people like me don’t talk about this stuff, how are the new generation of girls going to know to keep on fighting for equality? Festivals are always going to book acts that will help sell festival tickets and appeal to their audiences. But if us, the audience, still see women in rock bands as something of an oddity, that’s where the real problem lies.