Reading & Leeds Festival reveal lineup for 2021, but why the lack of female artists once again?

With six major headliners including Stormzy, Queens of the Stone Age, Disclosure, and Liam Gallagher, the British giant once again avoids the opportunity to level the playing field.
Posted: 1 September 2020 Words: Tom Curtis-Horsfall

With the Bank Holiday weekend just gone, and a distinct lack of Reading and Leeds-related fanfare so occupy our attentions, the iconic festival has revealed their lineup for next year including six major headliners in Stormzy, Liam Gallagher, Queens of the Stone Age, Catfish and the Bottlemen, Disclosure, and Post Malone

Due to our current, enforced festival fallow year, many festivals are ramping up anticipation for the 2021 festival season already by revealing their lineups early and maximising ticket sales, which is entirely understandable given the financial predicament said festivals find themselves in. Whilst the spotlight was firmly on the absence of both Reading and Leeds, Festival Republic managing director and R&L overlord Melvin Benn revealed: "We’re also going to reproduce the main stage twice. What was the second stage is going to be elevated to an equal stage with the same presentation. What that really allows us to do is book six acts that are headliners.”

Six headliners? Big news. An opportunity to remedy their heavily criticised, typical male-dominated lineup of yesteryear? Absolutely. Have they? Absolutely not.

Given the financial chaos most of the music industry finds itself in, you can see the perspective of curating a lineup consisting of entirely safe bets. Considering Reading and Leeds' demographic has shifted over the past decade to cater for all-but teenage tastes, however, with Covid destroying this year's festival season and with a year to re-assess, it could've been an ideal opportunity to level the playing field and leap into the future. Or at least the present. 

This is a common narrative and continual debate given some prominent festival's insistence of ignoring the call for gender balance. The organiser of straight-and-narrow indie festival TRNSMT, Geoff Ellis, rebutted claims of gender bias last November upon revealing their 2020 lineup stating: "We’d love there to be a higher representation of females but there isn’t, certainly on the acts we’re announcing today. We need to get more females picking up guitars, forming bands, playing in bands.” It's a huge cop out, given that nowadays festivals are ostensibly multi-genre, so could welcome acts from across the music, and gender spectrum. 

Off the top of my head, there's a glut of exceptional candidates that'd fit the bill; in 2019, Billie Eilish's main stage performance was the highest attended performance in the festival's history given her exponential rise to global stardom in the preceding year, so why not bump her up to headline status? Dua Lipa last played in 2018 and now is arguably the world's most commercially and critically acclaimed chart dweller, which would've made it some homecoming for the British icon. R&L festival-goers welcome rap and R&B artists with open arms, so Cardi B or Nicki Minaj could've done the job. Taylor Swift? Ariana Grande? Sod it, Lady Gaga? We're getting into pure pop territory here, but you catch my drift. Björk is perhaps beyond the festival's demographic these days, but having headlined previously, it could've been a welcome return to the festival's summit. 

Instead, what was announced was fairly predictable. Post Malone last headlined in 2019, Queens of the Stone Age (as good as they are) having previously co-headlined in 2014 are a safe pair of hands, Liam Gallagher is a bonafide British legend so fair play, Disclosure appeal to anyone who listens to BBC Radio 1, and Catfish and the Bottlemen are simply blandness personified. Stormzy feels like more of a progressive appointment, yet I sincerely doubt they would've taken the risk had Glastonbury not lead the way last year.

Further down the bill seems to be going in the right direction, but I can't see them meeting the Keychange initiative's promised 50/50 gender split by 2022 at this rate, where landmark festivals like Primavera Sound and Glastonbury Festival are at least making strides to combat this perpetual imbalance. 

Having already stated the lineup is carefully scheduled to avoid clashes between the two headliners on each day, alongside the sheer demand for tickets when festivals (hopefully) return, room for manoeuvre was slightly greater. But, as we've seen with Reading and Leeds for several years now, they just won't budge.

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