Last year, after my return from the WOMAD festival, I did a gender audit to see what the percentage of female artists there were on the festival programme. I found that female artists made up just 13% of the programme, bands with both men and women 12% and the remaining 73% were male artists or all-male bands.
This year, I returned to the festival and was pleasantly surprised to find that there seemed to be more women on the bill than the year before. I decided to use the same methods to assess whether this was just a feeling and did the same audit. I counted the gender of the number of artists named in the programme – regardless of the gender mix of their band. I also included all male or all female bands, and bands that were of mixed gender. I was pleased to find that I was correct: there were more women than last year. This time, male artists or all male bands made up 60% of the bill, female artists or all female bands made up 20% and bands of mixed genders 20%.
Even though this was an improvement on last year, male artists still made up more than 50% of the bill. Is this good enough, I wonder? Or should we really expect a more even balance of genders at a festival as large as WOMAD?
Programming a festival like WOMAD must be a complicated affair. There needs to be a good mix of countries represented, a good mix of genres and a combination of well-known artists and emerging or lesser-known artists too. Should gender be brought into programming decisions too or is it already? Should programmers only focus on quality and popularity?
Looking at the placing of the bill, one thing does seem very striking to me. All of the headliner acts on the Open Air stage are either big name male stars (Baaba Maal, Alpha Blondy) or bands with only one or two female members (Gogol Bordello & Bellowhead). Looking at the other stages and it’s a similar story: Lau, Danyel Waro, Iarla O Lionaird, Le Trio Joubran, Bombino, Gaz Mayall, the headliners are overwhelmingly male.
Should there have been a better gender balance with the headliners, or is it harder to find female global superstars? And how much does it matter anyway? All the headliners I saw were amazing, and Alpha Blondy’s political messages were relevant to everyone.
How important is it to have women higher on the bill? After all, WOMAD is much more than the headliners. People discover music that they wouldn’t have heard otherwise. The all-female singing trio Ayarkhaan from the Arctic Circle drew a sizeable crowd on one of the smaller stages and impressed the audience (and me!) with their unusual singing and jews harp playing. The guitar duo, Rodrigo y Gabriela packed out the Siam Tent with one of the biggest crowds there all weekend. Spanish singer Amparo Sánchez got people dancing and enthusing on Sunday afternoon while The Boxettes (all female singing and beat boxing group) packed out the Big Red tent and blew away and audience perhaps less used that style of music. Does it really matter what time they played and where in the billing they were placed just so long as they were entertaining and appreciated?
As you can see, this year’s audit has left me with more questions than anything else. But one thing is clear to me, while it’s great to see a greater percentage of female artists (and mixed gender bands) on the bill, I still feel that there’s some way to go before equality in programming is fully achieved.