Gatekeepers

Chantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock FestivalChantel McGregor at the 2014 Cambridge Rock Festival, which prominently features female artists

The Guardian have run their fourth piece in as many weeks bemoaning the fact that the lineups of major festivals are too male-dominated.

Unfortunately while it does raise some valid points it ends with this awful paragraph that seems deliberately calculated to provoke a defensive reaction from male rock fans, especially when the proposed “solution” had been to add commercial pop acts like Taylor Swift or Katy Perry to the bill.

In a world where women are deconstructing pop music, club culture is booming with some of the most innovative sounds in years, and a new generation of hip-hop and rap stars are heralding a socio-political cultural revolution in America, the white, male rockist notion of what a music festival headliner should be begins to feel hopelessly archaic.

The use of the dated 1980s term “rockist” does rather imply the author didn’t actually like rock at all, and the whole thing smacked of Social Justice Warrior-style invasion of other people’s spaces. One of the authors did later clarify that that wasn’t what she meant and she did love rock after all, but by then the comments were swarmed with bellicose sexists. I even had to ask the moderators to remove one of my own comments that recommended and namechecked a female artist because I didn’t want her to become the subject of online harassment.

While there is undoubtably sexism across all levels in the music business, I still think one big problem is the way a very small number of gatekeepers get to filter all the music mainstream audiences get to hear. The problem is not just that those gatekeepers are disproportionately white and male but that so few people have a disproportionate amount of power.

Previous articles have spoken of “elite tastemakers” numbering as few as fifteen record label executives, radio programmers and magazine editors who get to decide almost everything Joe and Johanna public get to hear.

Commenter “Cathartic” writes of the influence of gatekeepers in metal, using the Download festival referenced in the piece as an example.

There are numerous metal bands with females in that are less commercially successful, which disproves the idea that women just like to watch, but its almost certain that if festivals gave newer acts (both male and female) more of a chance many would develop the fanbase needed to justify headline slots.

Its a Chicken/Egg situation largely. Download is extremely conservative about its line ups, most of the headliners and main stage acts are basically older American and British bands that have been around for decades, and they are not known for given the European bands a slot. The latest roadrunner signing will take preference over an established European band regardless of commercial appeal. 10 years later that band will have enough mid-afternoon slots that they would have to be really bad not to have turned that exposure into sales.

However elsewhere in Europe, Nightwish and Within Temptation are two examples of female fronted bands that will land headline slots in hard rock/metal festivals. Both would pull off a senior slot at download as well these days. Both those bands can pull off UK arena tours now, but it was Bloodstock that has pioneered these types of bands in the UK first. There is the audience out there.

There are plenty of female musicians – ratio is irrelevant – playing in smaller bands in genres which download claims to cater for. The question is why so few have been able to make the leap from small touring for petrol money to headliners. The reasons may be complex, but the reality is his festival (and other music industry big wigs) have acted as gatekeepers in the genre and adopted an extremely conservative booking policy that has meant download have never taken risks on helping the smaller bands reach a larger audience. His comments just portrayed an under ignorance of the genre he caters for. Reality is headliners may be the ones that sell tickets (and Nightwish and Within Temptation certainly could add ticket sales for download), but the mid-afternoon slots are far less risky to try something new and there are a whole host of bands with female musicians that get ignored. Many people at festivals find discovering new bands part of the reason for going to a festival anyway.

That hits the nail right on the head.

I do suspecr that one reason the grassroots progressive rock scene is more friendly towards female-led bands than the corporate indie-rock festival circuit is previsely because it isn’t so controlled by bean-counting gatekeepers.

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