The search for diversity is meeting a barrier…

By now we must have lost count of how many festival announcement seasons have passed with a collective sigh. It’s always the same; a week of disappointed tweets, infographics that scratch out names to reveal a sad handful of women, arguments with some lad with a footballer as his profile picture telling you that women simply aren’t good enough to score a spot next to massive and extremely relevant acts like… The Script.

But something about this year feels different, the sigh sounds more like a scream as music fans have had enough of the one-bucket-hat-fits-all festival line-ups of the same white male names. Maybe it’s because surely an extra year of planning should’ve been long enough to do better, or maybe it’s the years’ worth of false statements of ally-ship promising more dedication to diversity and equality that came to nothing. But if Facebook comment sections full of locals tagging each other wasn’t clue enough, maybe it’s because we’re waking up to the fact that festivals aren’t for real music fans as lad culture has its claws firmly in the events.

You know the type well, existing in rooms with that Arctic Monkeys poster and sipping tea out of a Stone Roses mug. Their interest in music is a part-time thing, alternating between Stone Island and BOSS t-shirts depending on the club night. But once a year they’ll dust off their semi-ironic bum bag and head down to a field to chant ‘she’s a belter’. This I take no issue with, people are free to like what they like and they always seem to be having fun. But when they head home on the Monday and not go to another gig for a whole year while they restock their flair support, I take issue with why this one character seems to have so much monopoly over the festival scene.

You don’t need me to repeat the stale line-up of the UK’s biggest festivals, you can probably guess them anyway, featuring all the lad favourites like Courteeners, Lewis Capaldi and Liam Gallagher in big letters across them all. But in a year when women dominated the industry, taking over the Grammy’s rock category and storming album sales, the sinking feeling of disappointment we’ve come to know seems to have solidified into a realisation. Festivals are no longer a snapshot of the current music scene but are morphing more and more into nothing elaborate soundtrack to an exaggerated Saturday night at the pub.

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In the same way that your local might blast Oasis or turn on the football to draw the lads in, festivals do the same. Surrendering entirely to the buying power of people who will happily drop £200 on a Reading and Leeds ticket because they spend £0 on any other gigs, line-ups grow beiger and beiger each year to appease this growing crowd. As we look upon it outraged by the lack of diversity or inclusion of some of the year’s biggest acts, these mainstream festivals embed themselves deeper into the musical echo chamber of their new target audience.

But when you notice it, this one crowd seems to be everywhere, managing to smother almost every corner of the music industry without barely trying. From where I sit in Manchester, new labels push out another cookie-cutter all-male indie four–piece every week with a whole marketing team behind them, local businesses shut down and are replaced by bars financed by Liam Fray as a new watering hole for said bands, inner-city festivals are dominated by the same types of acts playing the same types of music; so is it any wonder that festivals are becoming so one-note?

When you put the pattern on a bigger scale, it serves as a frank reminder of exactly who runs the music industry and exactly who they run it for. While our at-home listening habits might be finally freeing themselves from their clutch, seeing more diversity in streams and stats, the live industry still has some catching up to do as they still prioritise the demographic of rowdy boys that are mistakenly treated as the backbone of the scene.

I say mistakenly because we all know the acts festival line-up leave out would sell tickets because they just do it elsewhere. Acts like Wolf Alice, Black Honey, and Phoebe Bridgers consistently sell-out tours, and that’s before we even consider possible headline acts like Dua Lipa or Lorde. And while festivals like TRNSMT or Isle of Wight are set on excluding them, they simply take their buzz elsewhere to festivals like All Points East.

More diverse fans would buy tickets if the line-up was more diverse, festivals wouldn’t have to rely so much on the money from the lad demographic if they didn’t only pander to them. We see success stories of big and beautiful varied festivals every year, exactly the reason why Glastonbury tickets are so hard to snap up; but so many of the UK’s major festivals have fallen victim to the easy option instead of practising the diversity they preach.

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And that’s why this year it’s all changed from disappointment into anger. We’ve had this same discussion every year for god knows how long, but if any year would be the year to change it, you would’ve thought it would be 2020. A year of mass social upheaval and louder than ever conversations around equality, all set against the background of a pandemic; a year as unprecedented as that should’ve been enough to change the precedent.

From the Black Lives Matter protests through to last month’s discussions around women’s safety and gender equality following Sarah Everard’s death, the industry has spent a year riding the wave of a series of promises to be better. Festivals and venues alike have promised greater diversity and safer spaces, so the same overwhelming white male line-up that seems custom made for the type of lads that would mock the term ‘safe space’ is an aggravating contradiction. And I guess the annoyance begs the question of whether female artists would even want to play events that repeated refuse to tackle toxic norms, alongside male acts that never think to speak up about it.

I think in order to loosen the claws of lad culture on music, it will take an inside man to speak out. So tightly in their bubble where they genuinely don’t think people like Clairo or beabadoobee are big enough to steal a spot from The Lathums, the lads can’t hear us out here. Seemingly backed up by the audacity of their icons, like Ian Brown’s inconsequential plan-demic Twitter feed, and with no one on their side visibly agreeing with the issue at hand, any conversation around inequality in festival line-ups is met with a gaggle of men ready to deem female acts unworthy and berate anyone that argues back.

A direct consequence of male indie musicians, on both a small town and a global scale, rarely giving support to their female peers, reinforcing the boys club of the genre; this is going to have to be an inside job fix. Because chances are hometown lads aren’t going to go looking for new female artists to support and start crying out to see them at TRNSMT, they need Lewis Capaldi to subtly diversify their bubble or bring the issue to their pub table.

Until festivals stop pandering to the lad demographic, or the lads start listening to some female voices, nothing is going to change. Gripping on with the same claws that are prying into local scenes and circle effect out of the production line of generic indie bands that seem to rise effortlessly with the help of Soccer AM and Scotts Menswear, lad music culture holds us back from diversifying the UK’s festival scene and visibly changing what music in the UK looks like. Still far too hooked on the image of fist-pumping lads in polo shirts whose faces are missed at any other gig, festivals need to diversify their target audience if they ever want to deliver on the diversity they keep promising.

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Words: Lucy Harbron

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