Brian Ferguson: Better show of female talent at 2016 festivals?

Eddi Reader. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

Eddi Reader. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

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It was a simple headline that caught my attention on my Facebook feed: “Has folk forgotten feminism?”

At first, I suspected it was an issue rearing its head in the wake of the announcement of the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards nominations, which are no strangers to controversy. I had pored over them myself earlier, looking out as ever for Scottish contenders in one of Britain’s most prestigious music awards.

Even though they have long been accused of being Anglo-centric and anti-Scottish, it was still a surprise at such poor representation from north of the Border in the main awards. Multi-instrumentalist Ross Ainslie, a founder member of the Treacherous Orchestra, was the only Scot to get a nomination in their own right. Only two others – Alasdair Roberts and Rachel Newton – are in with a shout of being honoured with their band The Furrow Collective.

By coincidence, Newton was both pictured and quoted in the article that caught my eye, which was being shared widely last week, despite being almost two years after it was originally published. There was clearly a great deal of interest in its suggestion that all-female acts and women were being discriminated against by festival organisers.

Another band of Newton’s, The Shee, were said to have fallen victim to a bizarre policy operated by an event that only wanted one all-female band in their line-up. Julie Fowlis, probably Scotland’s best-known Gaelic singer, reported a similar experience with what was described as a “high-profile festival”.

Having just emerged from three weeks of gigs at Celtic Connections, the very idea struck me as being something from a parallel universe. Siobhan Miller and Karine Polwart, masterminded and starred in two of the most high-profile concerts in the entire event.

Rachel Sermanni, Siobhan Wilson, Kathryn Joseph, Eddi Reader and Julie Fowlis all wowed audiences at the festival, where they can fill venues in their own right. And relatively new all-female acts, like Teen Canteen and Fara, who also appeared at Celtic Connections, are two of my current favourites – if I see them on the bill of an event, I am more likely to go.

Fowlis, KT Tunstall and Barbara Dickson also have pretty much top billing in festival line-ups around Scotland this summer.

Fascinating research published last year involving stripping away the names of male performers and groups from official posters found a disturbing lack of diversity in all kinds of festivals. Scotland’s biggest, T in the Park, appeared to be one of the worst culprits. At the time, T in the Park promoter Geoff Ellis gave a typically robust response, insisting that the festival – which has booked the likes of Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Jessie J and Rihanna – had long shed its image as a “big boozy mudbath” dominated by indie and rock bands.

Regardless, there does seem to be an underlying issue of a shortage of women-led bands and all-female groups emerging in Scotland and the UK – Chvrches and Honeyblood being two notable exceptions north of the Border. At a time when the global music scene is largely dominated by female solo artists, the continued domination of men in this country is odd.

With 85,000 T in the Park tickets a day to sell, securing the strongest possible line-up is likely to be much higher on the priority list than ensuring gender equality. But when the bulk of the festival line-up is unveiled at the end of this month it will be intriguing to see if the balance has shifted this year.

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