Whether it is KT Tunstall rocking an all-girl band, Chvrches frontwoman Lauren Mayberry tirelessly calling out misogyny in the music industry and beyond or even The Spice Girls reviving their astute Girl Power brand, there is no shortage of righteous female musicians colouring the pop landscape – rarely, however, headlining major commercial festivals and, in some of the more desperate cases, vastly underrepresented anywhere on the bill.
TRNSMT, which takes over Glasgow Green next weekend, and T in the Park in its time, have come under fire for their pedestrian, male-dominated bills, and this year’s line-up has been roundly criticised for its lack of imagination and diversity. But moves are afoot to address and redress the gender play gap.
In March, King Tut’s, the legendary Glasgow venue run by TRNSMT promoters Df Concerts, rebranded as Queen Tut’s to mark International Women’s Day, hosting up-and-coming acts and staging a forum to discuss the issues around gender inequality in music. Now they are taking that initiative to TRNSMT with the establishment of a dedicated Queen Tut’s Stage populated across the weekend by young female artists and groups from around Scotland, from Edinburgh indie poppers Swim School to Highland singer/songwriter Tamzene to Sharleen’s niece, Lauren Spiteri.
“We want to give these acts a platform to showcase their talent,” says Aarti Joshi, Df’s head of marketing and communications, “so that we can continue with the promise King Tut’s makes to all acts – to support their journey from grassroots to future festival headliners whenever possible.”
Df are damned if they do, however. The announcement of the Queen Tut’s Stage was greeted with understandable objections that female musicians are being corralled and ghetto-ised on a smaller stage.
“To be clear, we are not looking to segregate female talent at the festival,” says Joshi. “There are female performers on all our other stages at TRNSMT. Granted we are not necessarily where we’d like to be on balance this year, due to many factors – routing, availability, budget, sales – but it’s something we are working hard to even out and we know there is much work to be done before we get there.”
There is qualified support from those who would like to help them get there, not least advocacy network SWIM (Scottish Women Inventing Music), the brainchild of composer Hilary Brooks, which also launched on International Women’s Day.
SWIM will be on site at the Queen Tut’s Stage “to advocate for increased visibility of women in music onstage and backstage” because, as Brooks says, “you have to be in it to change it. Queen Tut’s could be seen as patronising but the decision was made that we would rather be part of fuelling the discussion with the promoters than not.”
It’s a discussion which is being echoed around Europe thanks to the Keychange initiative, instigated by the PRS (Performing Rights Society) Foundation, who are in a better position than most to inform on gender pay and play inequality in the music business. The Keychange pledge aims for gender-balanced bills on festivals by 2022. Scottish festivals, including Celtic Connections, Glasgow Jazz Festival, Hebcelt and Wide Days, have already signed up.
“Sometimes when you are trying to change a big picture, you need to go much further the other way,” says Brooks. “I think TRNSMT are going to have to get their finger out or they are going to be left behind soon. If they sign up to the Keychange pledge, that would make me very happy and we could all move forward together.”
Brooks also points to other initiatives such as Smirnoff’s Equalising Music campaign. Their Equalising Music Pledge to do one significant thing in 2019 to advance gender parity in the music industry has been endorsed by festival favourite Annie Mac.
The acts on the Queen Tut’s Stage are only too conscious of the need for such a drive. Becky Sikasa of Edinburgh/Cologne-based duo Lunir is drawn to Queen Tut’s because “the people who are behind it are women out to empower other women in the industry. If you are the only woman in the room, it can get intimidating. Some people have a lower expectation of your skillset. That’s been my struggle in the past, remembering you are just as much of a musician as the guys.”
Glasgow-based singer/songwriter Scarlett Randle, who plays the Queen Tut’s Stage on the opening day, points to “a subconscious bias that we’re not even aware of” and understands the criticisms of an all-female stage. “It’s maybe created more of an us-and-them situation,” she concedes. “For me, it’s more about breaking down that binary, and saying we’re all part of the same human race, but I really appreciate what Queen Tut’s are trying to achieve. I think it’s better to speak up than do nothing.” n
Lunir and Scarlett Randle play the Queen Tut’s Stage on 12 July. For more info on SWIM, visit www.scottishwomeninventingmusic.com