Festival Females 2015: Where to see the women rock stars this summer

Even with male acts outnumbering female ones nine-to-one at the key summer events, it’s still possible to find the top female acts

Emily Mackay
Friday 13 March 2015 17:00
FKA Twigs performs during Pitchfork Music Festival  in Chicago, Illinois.
FKA Twigs performs during Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, Illinois.

As with flat-pack furniture, sometimes a visual aid is what’s needed to let you see what’s been lurking right under your nose. So it was for many music fans when, a couple of weeks ago, website Crack in the Road posted a doctored version of the Reading and Leeds festival line-up poster on Twitter, with all of the male-only acts removed.

There were nine names left. Out of 96. The gaping, lurid yellow holes were a horror, not least because they illuminated how easy it is to just stop noticing these things. But, this year, we’ve not been allowed to, thanks largely to the new wave of young, internet-savvy feminists who simply refuse to “calm down” over such issues as inequality and who, in more and more arenas of public life, are forcing people to re-examine the status quo. After the Reading and Leeds poster went up, similarly depressing images for T in the Park, Download and other major festivals soon appeared. There was a lot of blank space, and not the kind Taylor Swift would approve of.

Reading and Leeds festival boss Melvin Benn initially dismissed the row, telling Gigwise that, while there had historically been barriers to women joining bands or gaining success, there was “an abundance of opportunity now”. Later on, he clarified to NME: “The facts speak for themselves in terms of female acts that were available at that time… We can’t put a bill together based on gender, we can only put a bill together based on availability and appropriateness.” It was an argument echoed by many, male and female, across social media; that it should be about the quality of the music, not the gender of the performer that counted.

Australian singer and guitarist Courtney Barnett performs during the Rennes Trans Musicales music festival ( JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images)

But then, if your male-to-female balance is 9:1, haven’t you already put together a bill based on gender, like it or not? It’s just that when it’s the dominant gender, it’s all too easy not to see it that way.

The ludicrous idea that there just weren’t enough female artists or female-featuring acts out there was one that rankled with many. The artists who’ve generated most discussion and excitement in the past 12 months, from Madonna, Lorde, Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus to FKA Twigs, St Vincent, Björk and Sleater-Kinney, are women. So artist Phoebe Summers produced an imaginary line-up of only female artists or bands with women in them, which made a powerful point. With enough good, popular artists out there to easily fill a whole bill, are we really to believe that so many of them were busy that only a mere 10 per cent of the bill could be filled? And, moreover, that that’s been the situation for the past five decades?

The harsh truth, of course, is that people who book for large festivals are ticket-shifters first and foremost, not cultural curators or social subverters. If the status quo is that Foo Fighters sell, then Foo Fighters they will book. You will not get Björk to headline Reading and Leeds by shouting at Melvin Benn on social media (though you can, at least, make him aware there’s a demand out there to hear a different set of voices, so by all means keep doing it). Festivals are a much bigger business than they used to be in 1995, when Björk last headlined Reading, and the more money is involved, and the more big brands and business, the more incentives, bookers have to play it safe and protect investments. Sadly, we’re not in a world of fantasy festivals where you can just Photoshop a name on a poster. While festivals absolutely should adopt a degree of positive discrimination (history proves that if you leave it to meritocracy without intervention, little will change), it’s unlikely that the larger ones will, unless it’s in their financial favour.

Singer/musician St. Vincent performing at the American Express UNSTAGED Fashion with DVF at Spring Studios

So what can you do? Your part as a consumer: vote with your feet and give your money to the festivals that do make the effort: the more we prove that female headliners and female-heavy line-ups make money, the more the bookers will want a slice of it. There’s a market out there to support things like the Southbank Centre’s wonderful Women of the World festival of feminist talks, debates and performance or the worldwide Ladyfest festivals: the idea that there’s no market for a rock festival that’s at least something closer to a 50 per cent gender balance is just daft.

So maybe it’s time to put your festival money where your mouth is, Outraged@Tunbridge_Wells. To pass up another opportunity to see Dave Grohl and co grind out their nicest-guys-in-rock routine, and reward the festivals that are trying to make it better. Bestival has just announced a whole raft of female artists such as Kate Tempest, Charli XCX, Neneh Cherry and Lianne La Havas, curator Rob Da Bank pointedly noting: “Well whaddya know? There are shedloads of amazing people making some startlingly good music at the moment… from pop to left-field, soul to hip-hop and some ace DJs too, and look, lots of them are female! Whatever next?”

The boutique Festival No 6 in Portmeirion, Wales has managed to pull in big-name female acts like Grace Jones and Rae Morris alongside poet and rapper Kate Tempest. Field Day also has many female stage headliners, including Patti Smith, Savages and FKA Twigs; Green Man is headlined by St Vincent, while second headliner Hot Chip have a female drummer, and the next band down the bill, psychedelic crew Goat, are female-fronted. Latitude have Portishead, fronted by the wonderful Beth Gibbons, headlining one night, with Laura Marling and Lianne La Havas also on the main stage and many more female artists beyond that. If you feel like joining them in making music festivals less of a sausage-fest, here are some good places to start…

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Taylor Swift and Florence and the Machine

Radio 1’s Big Weekend, Norwich, 23-24 May

The phenomenal popularity of Taylor Swift and Florence and the Machine to draw interest makes a strong statement (Getty)

Most of the acts for Radio 1’s big pop weekend are still to be revealed but organisers led their announcements boldly with undoubtedly the most talked-about artist of the past 12 months, and one of British pop’s biggest recent global success stories. How well they maintain the balance remains to be seen, but having confidence in the phenomenal popularity of these two women to draw interest alone makes a strong statement.


Wilderness Festival, Cornbury Park, Oxfordshire, August 6-9 / Manchester International Festival, various venues, July 2-19

Icelandic singer Bjork is playing at this year's Wilderness Festival (Getty)

She headlined Reading back in 1995, but to catch Iceland’s art-pop doyenne this year, you can head to either Manchester’s multi-media arts festival, where FKA Twigs, Maxine Peake and Charlotte Rampling will also appear, or take in her headline slot in the more traditionally festy setting of Oxfordshire’s Wilderness, where you will also be able to catch the wonderful Róisín Murphy.

Green Man, Crickhowell, Brecon, 20-23 August

Anti-folk: Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett – whose music is ‘firmly in the slacker-rock tradition’

The Melbourne songwriter’s dry wit and droll lyrics, driven by rollicking lo-fi rock, charm all those who hear them: be among them at Green Man, a festival whose early folk focus has translated into a willingness to embrace female headliners even as it broadened its scope, from Joanna Newsom in 2010 to St Vincent this year.

Laura Marling

Latitude, Henham Park, Beccles, July 17-19

Laura Marling performing at The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge (Natasha Bright)

The 25-year-old singer-songwriter has morphed from fingerpicking new-folk figurehead to a more rocking teller of wild, wise stories, and a compelling performer now with five albums under her belt.

Patti Smith

Field Day, Victoria Park, London, June 6-7

Patti Smith performing on stage in Brussels (Getty)

It’s hard to overestimate the influence of punk poet and rock rebel Patti Smith on the female artists who came after her: her fearlessness, her refusal to be easily-pleasing, sold-out or written off continue to inspire. At Field Day, she’ll be performing her 1975 classic album Horses.

St Vincent

Green Man, Crickhowell, Brecon, 20-23 August

Annie Clarke of St Vincent (Getty)

Topping albums-of-the-year lists and scooping up Grammys and sundry other gongs, Annie Clark owned the year with her eponymous fourth album. She’s evolved hugely as a live performer too, with a subtle play of artifice and spontaneity.

Charli XCX

Bestival, Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight, September 10-13

Charli XCX performs on stage at the Capital Wintertime Ball (Getty)

The release, after much delay, of her divine second album Sucker proved that Charli XCX’s two colossal hits as a pop writer, Icona Pop’s “I Love It” and “Fancy”, her collaboration with Iggy Azalea, were no flukes. She brings a voice that’s been missing from blanded-out British pop for some time: real, bratty, fun, alive.

Neneh Cherry

Bestival, Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight, September 10-13

Neneh Cherry (Getty)

The release of her brilliantly weird and dark jazz-dance-punk album Blank Project sparked something of a critical reappraisal of the perennially under-appreciated Cherry: her varied career over several decades has seen her move through many styles and scenes, picking the best bits and making them into something idiosyncratically perfect.

FKA Twigs

Field Day, Victoria Park, London, June 6-7

FKA Twigs (Getty)

Tahliah Barnett’s debut LP1 was one of the most arresting hits the UK has produced in ages, and her unsettling visual presentations and multimedia approach mean she’s an artist to be reckoned with. She’s producing, in front of an audience, seven short films at Manchester International Festival in July, but if you want more of a straight-up set of her sensual art-pop, Field Day is the place to do it.


Bestival, Robin Hill Country Park, Isle of Wight, September 10-13

British singer 'Lonelady' performing in Bourges (Getty)

Mancunian songwriter Julie Campbell’s already electrifying punk-funk sound grew ever more danceable and vibrant on her recent album Hinterland: it just begs for a dance tent well past midnight.

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