A change is gonna come: why the fight for gender balance in the music industry matters

Ahead of Hidden Door's all-female opening night, we chat to Honeyblood's Stina Tweeddale, Dream Wife and Siobhan Wilson about representation and inspiring the next generation of women in music

The early months of the year usually consist of snow, the odd daffodil and then a mountain of Creme Eggs. But it's also around this time of year that the trickle of festival lineup rumours from previous months turn into full-blown announcements, and with this comes that fun annual game of 'spot the female act on the lineup'. You'll recognise this from the festival posters that appear all over social media, photoshopped with only women left on the bill, depressingly revealing just a handful of names. And you'll also be familiar with the yearly complaints about said lineups that come from both the press and the public, like a boring and joyless ritual where we're screaming into the void but nothing actually happens. That is until now, in 2018, where someone is finally listening.

The PRS Foundation's Keychange initiative seeks to eradicate male-dominated lineups, with 45 international music festivals and conferences already signed up to pledge towards a 50/50 gender balance by 2022. Some of the major festivals taking part include The Great Escape, Gilles Peterson's Worldwide Festival and Eurosonic Noorderslag. The first Scottish event to sign up to the initiative is annual music convention Wide Days, although it's important to note that they already achieved this balance at their 2017 conference. Likewise, there are many festivals and events that have been succeeding in their efforts to curate diverse lineups without the need for an initiative.

This year's opening night of Hidden Door is just one example, with an all-female lineup curated by The List featuring Nadine Shah, Dream Wife, Gwenno and Stina Tweeddale (Honeyblood). With this in mind, the 2022 timeline may seem rather extreme and unnecessary, but the fact of the matter is that the PRS Foundation's initiative is about more than reaching this 50/50 goal; it's about bringing like-minded programmers together for positive action while also opening up the discussion beyond the music industry.

'Representation is important in every field of music, to inspire a new generation of women, both on stage and in production'

L-R: Cat Myers and Stina Tweeddale (Honeyblood) / credit: Marieke Macklon
Dream Wife's Rakel Mjöll, Alice Go, and Bella Podpadec are in agreement about the potential good that could come from Keychange. 'Representation is important in every field of music, to inspire a new generation of women, both on stage and in production,' vocalist Rakel says. 'Mainly though, I want to see more diversity in the headline acts on the bills. Especially in the UK, it's a bit awkward that some of the festival bills that have been announced don't have one woman in bold on the posters. It's not just about booking acts of all genders for the festival, it's the headliners too. Where's Beyoncé, eh?'

'I was really shocked, but in a good way, that something was finally being implemented,' Stina Tweeddale explains, when asked about her thoughts on Keychange. 'The idea of "female" being a genre and that maybe one girlband is enough for a bill is so ingrained. It's something that we've dealt with for years and years, although Cat [Honeyblood's drummer] and I both realise that it has been getting better. It's obviously super positive and I'm happy because I didn't know if anything could be done, but the fact that festivals are on board is really encouraging.'

Honeyblood have played their fair share of festivals over the years but it was at last year's Reading and Leeds that they really recognised a marked difference in terms of the overall programming.

'That's one festival where you often hear bookers defending their choices because they book based on the audience and not on gender. But I did notice that last year was better than it had previously been. We were booked for the main stage, as were PVRIS and PINS. So I feel like maybe they had made an effort which is good but then, how much is enough effort?'

Stina's question is an important one to ponder, especially considering data from the PRS Foundation which shows that, in the UK in 2017, women made up 26% of the lineup in a sample of large music festivals and less than 10% of headliners in a survey conducted in the US. Inequalities within the music industry extend beyond the artists themselves to hiring policies, staff diversity and more.

'There's a festival in Iceland, where I'm from, called Iceland Airwaves,' says Rakel, 'and the past few years, they've done an excellent job in having the whole lineup diverse and equal. Also, they do so without telling anyone or advertising it. They just say they book the acts they're excited about – and that just happens to involve lots of women. I like that approach, it's all about normalising the conversation.'

For Stina, dissecting lineups and questioning the decisions behind the curation of events is crucial but it's not something that will happen naturally; it requires active effort.

'Eventually it will become second nature and it won't be a big deal,' she says, 'but at the moment, there's this awkward transition phase. When we started the band, it was a huge deal to be two girls in a band and now, it's just not. At the beginning, we were billed as a female band and now, no one would ever dream of billing us like that because, essentially, female is not a way to describe music. I always thought that was the strangest thing.'

Though they may seem simple, details like language, labelling and general attitude certainly contribute to the way in which women are able to occupy space in the music industry. From Stina's perspective, there's been a change in recent years but this has also been felt by her fellow musicians.

'When we started, and I know other people that have said this too, you wanted to downplay the fact that you were a woman to be accepted into the boys' club. You tried stupid stuff like, I made sure I had proper equipment and gear because if I had gear that made boys take me seriously, it would make them think of me as a proper musician. Which now, I know, is ridiculous especially when I think about people I know who are making phenomenal music. Babe are an example, and a good friend of mine Siobhan Wilson who's working on a new album which I've heard a bit of and it's great. It's more now that you're proud, and you're speaking in your lyrics and your performance about the female experience rather than downplaying it all the time. So it's maybe a bit more of a strength rather than a weakness which I think is super exciting, and not just for female listeners.'

'Representation is important in every field of music, to inspire a new generation of women, both on stage and in production'

Siobhan Wilson
Siobhan similarly speaks very highly of Stina, pointing to the overall mutual support and camaraderie that exists in the Scottish music industry. She agrees that there has been a shift in mentality of late and hopes to see this continue.

'It's really encouraging to hear that Hidden Door have made the decision to feature so many wonderful, talented groups for their opening evening,' she says, 'notably Stina from Honeyblood who is an example to all musicians and a force of nature in the Scottish music industry. There's a really exciting movement right now in Scotland of female singer-songwriters, bands and musicians. It would be amazing to see the 50/50 gender balance by 2022 in all festivals across the UK, as well as in music studios, rehearsals, on stage and behind the stage, too.'

When asked about the opening night of Hidden Door, Stina is ecstatic about the acts that she'll be sharing the bill with, and not just because they're all female. 'The lineup is completely badass! These are all artists who are doing incredible work. I listen to 6 Music every day and I know Gwenno's album was album of the day recently and Nadine Shah was on the Roundtable. These are actually people who are at the forefront of the business and are just artistically doing awesome stuff. And Dream Wife are absolutely killing it, what an amazing live band!'

The grunge-pop outfit are known for their unapologetically fierce and razor-sharp delivery, with shades of riot grrrl emanating from their self-titled debut. Like Stina, they're pretty happy to be part of this lineup, with Rakel adding, 'We're definitely excited to play Hidden Door and to have some good times at the festival! We're also really excited about seeing some new acts.'

Nadine Shah is a strong supporter of the Keychange initiative, having been announced as an ambassador alongside the likes of Shirley Manson, Emily Eavis and Imogen Heap. Gwenno, meanwhile, released an album just last month entirely in Cornish, with the goal of keeping the language and identity alive through music.

The Hidden Door gig will no doubt be a special one and not just because of the cracking all-female lineup, but because such an event and such a lineup is happening here in Edinburgh, a city that has faced some blows to its live music scene in the past year. As Stina notes, 'I started Honeyblood in Glasgow and Cat, she went to uni in Edinburgh and it was the first place she lived in Scotland. For us, we get called a Glasgow-based band but Edinburgh is pretty much where I learnt to love music, it's very important to me.'

Playing in the city may be bittersweet for the Edinburgh-native who has seen the recent struggles that live music has faced here, but Stina understands the significance of events like Hidden Door. 'I feel that events like this that are pulling in big artists who are doing wonderful things in their line of work is vital for the city,' she continues, 'and not just during the Festival. It's about showcasing the type of creativity and passion that is worth venturing out for all year round.'

Hidden Door Opening Night: Nadine Shah, Dream Wife, Gwenno, Stina Tweeddale (Honeyblood), Leith Theatre, Fri 25 May. Hidden Door takes place Fri 25 May–Sun 3 Jun. Siobhan Wilson, Reid Concert Hall, Edinburgh, Sat 28 Apr

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