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We need to talk about the Electric Picnic headliners

Words: Eva O’Beirne

To nearly double the number of headliners for this year’s festival in Stradbally is great. The fact that only one of them is a female artist is not.

Electric Picnic has been a staple in Irish festival culture since 2004. But it needs to do more to promote female acts.

Don’t get me wrong, the overall line-up of the festival is relatively balanced in terms of representation. But it is the lack of awareness around Electric Picnic’s headlining acts that sticks out the most.

The festival previously came under fire for its ill-fated line-up in 2020. Although the festival was ultimately cancelled, organisers could have used the experience as a learning curve. For context, all headline acts scheduled for 2020 were male. Festival-goers would have seen Rage Against The Machine, Snow Patrol, The Chemical Brothers, Picture This and Lewis Capaldi in the prime slots, but no female equivalents. What makes matters worse is that roughly 20 per cent of the total line-up was female.

When you take a look at previous acts that have headlined EP, you start to see a familiar pattern arise. In 2019, one of five headline acts were female. In 2018, no female acts appeared on the top bill, the same as in 2017 and 2016. 2015 was notable as two out of five were female: Grace Jones and Florence and the Machine.

In 2017, the festival debuted a notable first. Electric Picnic hosted an all-female comedy stage….on Thursday night.

With a maximum audience of 5,000, this stage was only accessible to those who had early entry passes. The line-up itself came as a result of a chance meeting between Melvin Bragg and Emily O’Callaghan, a sometime stand-up who bemoaned the lack of women on the lineups at Electric Picnic.

Commenting in 2020 on the backlash due to gender inequality, Festival Republic managing director Melvin Benn said that there wasn’t “a gender balance ability” across all festivals that year. “We always book acts on the basis on what’s available, who’s touring, and their capacity to be a headliner,” he said.

“That’s always our position, and we won’t change that. We’re completely committed to bringing women through into all of the lineups, but there isn’t a gender balance ability across the headliners generally at the moment, and all festivals reflect that.”

But why can’t Ireland’s biggest festival be the standout? Saying something can’t be done because it isn’t normalised seems like a cop-out, a disservice to the talented women in the industry. Is it simply the case that Electric Picnic believes that women don’t appeal enough to Irish audiences? That women’s interests are simply not cool, and don’t deserve the headline slots?

To dismiss gender inequality as something that can’t be solved is an incredibly immature stance. You only have to look at Glastonbury to see that if festival organisers wanted female representation, they would get it.

In the wake of the Why Not Her reports from the past two years, it is surprising that Electric Picnic isn’t making a conscious effort to balance their headline acts. The campaign group, which was set up to advocate for more female acts on Irish radio released their first report in 2020 that revealed 85 per cent of acts in the top 100 Irish radio airplay chart were men.

Subsequent data has shown that some stations have improved their gender balance but others, like Today FM and FM104 has trailed behind when it comes to progress. For FM104, 100 per cent of their top 20 Irish artists this year are white men. For the past five years, the top five domestic artists played on the station have been white men.

It is delightful to see Irish female artists such as Lucy Blue, CMAT, Denise Chaila, Orla Gartland and more all appearing on this year’s lineup, but you have to ask – do they stand a chance of ever securing that top spot on the bill?

Admist the excitement of seeing festivals return, it can be easy to overlook the lack of female acts appearing on their line-ups. Representation is key to ensuring a diverse and thriving music industry. It would be nice for Electric Picic to set an example instead of following a supposed trend.

Elsewhere on District: Ulysses 2.2 announces St Patrick’s Day weekend installations and performances