Gender balance on Belgian festival stages: we're not quite there yet

It’s that time of year. Festival season. Festival goers around the world start making lists of the artists they want to see, prepare their travel and accommodation, and plan their outfits. But in recent years we’ve seen another recurring part of this preparation phase. We, the media and the music industry focus on the diversity of lineups and the different minorities being represented on stage.

This year, Coachella had only one female headliner; Ariana Grande was just the fourth female headliner in the festival’s 20 year history, after Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Björk. Bonnaroo booked just two female headliners in their 17 year history, and only three festivals reached gender parity last year, according to Pitchfork’s analysis. Even after getting called out by Halsey last year, Firefly went on and released this year’s lineup with, again, no female headliners. And glancing at the Twitter account Book More Women, which visualizes the gender balance on the posters itself, we’re not even convinced we’re going in the right direction.

Reading & Leeds festival’s lineup (19% female acts)

Reading & Leeds festival’s lineup (19% female acts)

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So, just like last year, we dove into Belgian lineups specifically and present you the numbers today. It took a few days of research, tallying up lineups, googling artists, but here we are. Without further ado, here’s how gender balanced our Belgian festivals are.

Disclaimer: we’ve added a few new festivals this year, whose numbers are available, but without comparison to last year. Three festivals (in grey) decided to pull the plug (one of them being last year’s ‘winner’ La Truite Magique) and two festivals (in red) haven’t announced any artists yet. The festivals marked yellow have incomplete lineups. All information was accurate on June 1st, 2019. For genres, locations and last year’s numbers, please consult our source document.

Update June 6th, 14:55: we’ve updated the research to include Horst Arts and Music Festival. Update June 7th, 19:05: we’ve updated the research again to include Brussels Summer Festival. Update June 20th, 10:28: we’ve updated the research to include the Sfinks Mixed line-up.  These changes have impacted the averages (13,40% all-female acts instead of 11,72% and 23,47% acts with at least one woman instead of 21,16%).

Update June 6th, 14:55: we’ve updated the research to include Horst Arts and Music Festival.
Update June 7th, 19:05: we’ve updated the research again to include Brussels Summer Festival.
Update June 20th, 10:28: we’ve updated the research to include the Sfinks Mixed line-up.

These changes have impacted the averages (13,40% all-female acts instead of 11,72% and 23,47% acts with at least one woman instead of 21,16%).

A few obvious conclusions can be made by looking at these numbers: on average, 2019 is bringing us more female musicians than last year. In 2018, 9,22% of acts were all-female and 16,50% of acts had at least one woman on stage. This year, the numbers rose to 11,72% and 21,16%. Festivals leading the way are Cactus Festival, Francofolies (just like last year), Esperanzah, Rock Werchter and Dranouter. Among the genres that increased their female talent the most was electronic music, which is surprising as this genre remains the most male-dominated. Festivals making the biggest leap are Jazz Middelheim, mainly thanks to double bass player Anneleen Boehme curating her own stage, and Elrow Town, programming not a single woman in 2018, now booking 18% female acts for their 2019 edition.

Update June 20th, 10:28: After Sfinks Mixed announced their line-up, we updated the list. Sfinks was top of the class last year, but hadn’t announced any artists yet at the time of publishing this article. With their line-up, we see a clear winner in all ways. Sfinks has the highest percentage of women on stage, both all-female acts and partly female acts. They’re also among the festivals who took the biggest leap forward, with an 18,55% increase compared to last year’s line-up.

The new top five is now: Sfinks Mixed, Cactus Festival, Francofolies, Brussels Summer Festival, Esperanzah.

Although these numbers seem hopeful, we urge you to see it from different perspectives. Yes, we are making strides, but almost 80% of acts on Belgian festival stages are all-male.

A final important thing we want to highlight: these numbers are a clear sign of the imbalance we’re facing in the music industry, but are not an argument for quota. We are aware of the European Keychange Initiative, where festivals strive for a 50-50% gender balance in 2022, and we support it, but the quota should not be the goal in itself. What we’re seeing is that imposed quota make for another imbalance; you might see more women on stages, but they get programmed as support acts, on the small stages or earlier hours of the day. That’s why it’s important to see these statistics in a context instead.

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A few months ago, we were part of a panel on imposed quota, organized by concert venue Ancienne Belgique and the University of Leuven. Two bookers among the panel members mentioned the challenges of booking more women. ‘Female artists are more expensive and harder to find’, they claimed. And ‘we have to work with what we’re being offered.’ We didn’t have a chance to respond in-depth to these claims back then, but we would like to address them now. Although we understand the difficulties of the music industry in general, we urge festival bookers to mirror the diversity of the world on their stages. When Coachella cofounder Paul Tollett was confronted with concerns about their gender imbalanced lineup, he said: “They were right.. There’s been more [women headliners] recently, and that should keep going. We shouldn’t be afraid to fix things. What’s bad is when you get defensive.” Adam Krefman, director of the Pitchfork Fest, told Grammy: “Just know that it is priority, it means a lot. It's not like an empty, sort of, "Yeah we'll do that by 2025," or whatever. It's also just not that hard to actually do.” And Marta Pallarès, part of the Primavera Sound festival, writes in her opinion piece for Loud and Quiet that getting to that 50-50 gender balance was easy, as this year brought more great music released by women and more visibility for female acts than ever before.

Getting to a diverse and inclusive music industry doesn’t happen overnight. Our festivals are not the only issue. We see a lack of representation in the charts, on record labels, in management, in music tech. And to change this, we will need all helping hands, in all disciplines, not in the least the proactive participation of our male allies. But, dear festival bookers, you are literally putting the spotlights on artists. You have more power and influence over the music industry than you think. By showing us a diverse festival stage, you might inspire not only an industry, but many next generations of great female singers, guitar players, DJ’s, drummers, producers, bass players. We ask you to use your position to rethink and reimagine a positive work environment that is both diverse and inclusive. Building better ways of working is something we collectively should be dedicated to, because we are stronger together.

Claïs Lemmens
#shesaidso