‘Make Diversity a Priority’ – Is the Mainstream music scene male biased?

Words: Iwan Hughes

With the voices of many young feminists prevailing in everyday life and on social media, it has been brought into question whether music is itself biased towards the male gender. Recent events, such as this year’s festival line-ups, have provided fuel to this fire as many are left to ponder whether they are being given a fair shot at fame or whether their gender is holding them back.

When the line-up for the Reading and Leeds festival was announced in February 2020 questions were asked among social media users due to the lack of female acts included. Out of the ninety-two acts on the line up, only twenty were female which equates to just over a fifth of the performers that will be on show over the August bank holiday. 

Members of the general public, like Twitter user Olly Brooks, commented on this saying ‘for festival gender bias to change male artists […] need to be proactive’. BBC Radio One DJ Annie Mac also tweeted her disapproval; she stated that she was ‘feeling so disheartened by this Reading and Leeds line up. A blatant lack of want to represent women’.

This follows on from five years previous, when the issue was first brought up within the festival. In 2015 only ten female artists appeared across the three days at the festivals leading to questions being asked of the head organiser, Melvin Benn. In response to questions of gender bias at his festival Benn responded, ‘this idea that female bands are side-lined as a suggestion is just not there. The truth is that there has been a historic lack of opportunity for young women to get into bands […] I think that’s disappeared now’. With this apparent disappearance an increase in female performers may have been expected, however an increase of ten in five years is arguably not enough. The question is what is the issue for festival organisers, like Melvin Benn, when it comes to selecting female artists? 

When looking at Nottingham’s local music scene, there appears to be no gender bias. A major night within Nottingham’s music culture is Monday nights at Rescue Room’s where they hold an ‘Open Mic Night’. This event has been running since 2009 and offers talented musicians from the local area the chance to arrive and perform to a usually full room of eager listeners. On its website, Rescue Rooms states it gives those with a ‘spontaneous desire to grab the mic’ an opportunity to perform and claims to have unearthed talent such as Nottingham born Jake Bugg, who has himself gone on to win ‘Best Solo Artist’ at the 2015 NME awards. Therefore, these nights have a great appeal to those eager to showcase their ability within Nottingham. Unlike the mainstream music industry, these nights are welcoming to all.

Women, like eighteen-year-old Nottingham born Katie Jennings-Dunn, find these nights important to expose audiences to her own work. Katie agrees there is male bias within the industry: ‘Yes I think there it is massively; I believe most mainstream female artists have to sexualise themselves to be seen and successful. They also must change their style and approach for the industry to maintain an interest in them, with males not so much. Almost in a way though females are set up to entertain or have some form of entertainment in their performance, males not so much.’ This sexualisation can perhaps be seen in some videos, for songs performed by male artists. One of the most infamous being Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ which includes naked women dancing provocatively around fully clothed men. The Guardian labelled  it ‘the most controversial song of the decade’ due to its sexualised lyrics and video. Is this discouraging those performing on the local scene to make the step into the mainstream? Or, are these artists unwilling to sexualise themselves so are being ignored by record labels?

‘Women in Music’, an organisation with a ‘mission to advance awareness, equality, diversity […] of women in musical arts’, released statistics that show a distinct male bias within the mainstream industry. These statistics state that there is a seventy to thirty percent divide between males and females within the mainstream scene, with this further being supported by only fifteen percent of American record labels being owned by a female. One male artist within the industry, Matthew Healy who leads the British Indie Pop band the 1975, has spoken out about this. In an interview with the Guardian, he pledged not to perform at any festivals where the gender balance is not equal. He stated ‘take this as me signing this contract – I have agreed to some festivals already that may not adhere to this and I would never let fans down who already have tickets. But from now I will and believe this is how male artists can be true allies.’

For female artists, this could provide hope; however, they now must wait to see if the action of the statement is taken. The next few years will provide interesting viewing within the music industry, and it will be seen if the promises being made to provide are equality are stuck to.

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