Oh, man: why Reading and Leeds needs to overhaul its tradition of all-male headliners

A rewrite of gender representation at the top is long overdue

“The key thing about any festival is that you don’t stand still,” Melvin Benn, Festival Republic boss, told the BBC last year. “I’m very clear on that.”

So why have Benn and his Reading and Leeds Festival team signed off another imbalanced set of headliners? Revellers next year will see performances from Foo Fighters, Post Malone, Twenty One Pilots and The 1975. Theres’s no denying that these names are deserving of the festival top slots. But none of these acts have female or female-identifying members.

Festivals have to be “a reflection of what the public are listening to”, Benn said in response to backlash in February about the festival’s “worst ever” line up. Fall Out Boy, Kendrick Lamar and Kings Of Leon topped the bill in 2018 with many calling out the festival again for poor gender representation.

Benn has at points adhered to musical trends. Lamar, for instance, was the fourth biggest-selling artist of 2017. He joined a male-heavy top five, with Ed Sheeran, Drake, Taylor Swift and Eminem.

In the context of this year, however, countless female stars are helping lead the charge. Cardi B has beaten Beyonce’s ‘Lemonade’ record for the largest on-demand audio streaming week ever for an album by a woman (‘Invasion of Privacy’). Lady Gaga’s A Star Is Born soundtrack debuted at Number One on the Billboard 200, making her the only woman to have five Number One albums this decade. Florence + The Machine’s new album ‘High As Hope’ reached Number Two in the UK charts. Dua Lipa’s 2017 debut album is currently in the UK’s top 10 biggest-selling records of 2018. And Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’ recently broke Spotify’s streaming record as the fasted song to reach 100 million plays. Whether or not these artists would be the right fit for what was once, primarily, a rock festival would not be up for debate, but the success of Lamar last year showed that it’s an ever-evolving event. 

Thank U, Next

Ariana Grande

It’s galling that the Reading and Leeds announcement comes days after PRS launched its worldwide gender equality initiative. The 45 partners who’ve signed up to the project have pledged to create a 50:50 split of male/female acts at their festivals by 2022. Benn hasn’t signed Festival Republic up to the program, questioning whether it’s “the right way to go about” tackling the imbalance.

Instead, Benn helped launch a project this summer called ReBalance, which provides female artists with one week’s studio recording time over the next three years. The aim is to “create a bigger pool of female acts”, Benn told the BBC, so that festivals have a “greater choice” when it comes to booking their line-ups. A commendable effort, yes, but one that remedies an imagined problem that there’s a shortage of female artists. Lorde and Bjork, two huge pop and leftfield heavyweights who’ve released new records in the past 18 months, would be welcome additions. Choice is in abundance.

As The Independent notes, the startling fact is that by 2019 Reading and Leeds will have hosted just one female-fronted headline act in two decades. Paramore was the act in question, who in 2014 shared a headline slot with Queens of the Stone Age. Of course, we aren’t privy to the inner workings of festival procurement. Ariana, Cardi B, Gaga etc. may have turned down headline offers for 2019.

Read more: Why do these festivals need four years to get a gender balanced lineup?

The picture doesn’t look much better beyond the festival and beyond headliners. In 2012, The Times reported that of the acts booked for the main stages of leading festivals between 2007 and 2016, 83 percent were men. Of 1,785 listings, 1,338 were entirely male acts such as Coldplay, Foo Fighters and Kasabian.

Elsewhere, other recent UK festival headline announcements, such as Slam Dunk and All Points East, have only announced male headliners so far. In fairness, Reading and Leeds’ announcement of its first wave of acts does comprise a third of female acts. Billie Eilish, Hayley Kiyoko, Stefflon Don and Brody Dalle-fronted band The Distillers play next year – just not in those coveted top spots.

“You can’t keep drumming up the same acts and expect people to continue to come and see them,” Benn has said of Reading and Leeds’ bookings. The 1975, Post Malone and Twenty One Pilots might be newbies on the 2019 headline bill but Foo Fighters are not. They will have headlined the festival four times in 16 years, The Independent writes.

Foo Fighters, The 1975, Twenty One Pilots, Post Malone

Foo Fighters, The 1975, Twenty One Pilots, Post Malone

Interestingly, there’s been a noticeable lack of furore – at least on social media – over next year’s headliners in comparison to last year’s. Could this be because these acts align more closely with the guitar bands that Reading and Leeds has traditionally pedalled? Perhaps. But maybe people are too exhausted from complaining about the festival’s pattern of representation. Sadly, for Reading and Leeds, hosting all-male headliners has become the rule, not the exception.

Ticket sales might indicate to Festival Republic that they’re “doing the right thing”, Benn has said, but it’s high time that this blinkered attitude was put to bed. Music festivals should be more than commercial commodities. Festivals provide a space for fans to come together and feel inspired by the figures stood before them: figures who’ve worked extremely hard for the honour of headlining a festival. Why are female acts any less deserving? Without them being presented front and centre at a major British festival like Reading and Leeds, things simply won’t progress.

Festival Republic declined to comment on the 2019 Reading and Leeds Festival headliners when approached