Reading and Leeds has a major problem at its heart. Why can the festival still not seem to book female headliners?

Following an enforced year off, Reading and Leeds festival have spent a fair few weeks teasing the public about the changes they’ve implemented for their 2021 edition. The main takeaway for fans has been the addition of a second main stage, emulating the likes of Barcelona’s Primavera Festival in having two alternating headliners on each stage for each night of the festival. With credit to the Reading and Leeds organisers, this is a fantastic idea and one not often seen at UK festivals; it has allowed for six headline spots to open up over three days. The festival’s major drawback, however, is that once again there is not a single woman in any of these slots.

This sort of problem is not unfamiliar. Year upon year, the same cycle takes place: the lineup is announced, there are no female headliners, there’s uproar…and then nothing changes. 2021 will be the seventh year in a row with an all-male cast of headlines. Back in 2014, Hayley Williams became the first and only woman thus far to headline the main stage when Paramore co-headlined with Queens of the Stone Age (who, incidentally, have been invited back for 2021). For a festival that has been running for 21 years in its current incarnation, there’s no argument to be had here – only boasting one female headliner in two decades is an abysmal feat from Reading and Leeds.

Since the initial lineup announcement last week, there have been excuses aplenty for the festival’s actions thrown around in the social media-sphere. “The festival wants quality over box-ticking!” cried Twitter indieheads. This really did baffle me; with double the amount of headline slots available, is it that much of a struggle to pick even one woman to top the bill? It’s not like we’re short of successful women who could easily take on the main stage. In truth, Reading and Leeds wouldn’t even have had to look further than their lineup poster; Charli XCX and Doja Cat, both of whom feature further down the bill, have had widespread commercial success over the past year (arguably more than Catfish and the Bottlemen or Queens of the Stone Age) and wouldn’t struggle to hold a crowd for a headline set. Billie Eilish last year drew the festival’s biggest ever crowd for a daytime slot, two months after being pushed up the bill at Glastonbury due to her soaring popularity. Elsewhere, Haim, Lana Del Rey, Christine & The Queens have also been suggested as viable headliners.

Curiously, just two years ago Reading and Leeds’ organiser Melvin Benn said that “you can’t just keep drumming up the same acts and expect people to continue to come and see them”. Despite this, half of 2021’s headliners – Queens of the Stone Age, Disclosure and Post Malone – have topped the bill in previous years. Post Malone has had more headline slots since 2019 than there have been female headliners. There is an innate problem somewhere within the organisation of Reading and Leeds, and it’s frustrating to see it go unaddressed each and every year despite the inevitable outrage.

Many festivals are now committing to a 50/50 gender split. PRS Foundation’s Keychange initiative launched in 2018, and 45 international festivals have since pledged to achieve a 50/50 gender split. Before its cancellation in March, there were whispers that the Sunday of this year’s Glastonbury Festival would be played only by female artists, whilst Emily Eavis publicly committed to making the festival more balanced in the coming years. Moreover, in February Matty Healy of The 1975 declared that he would only agree to play festivals with an equal gender balance. With so many festivals and big-name artists pledging for greater equality amongst festival lineups, why do Reading and Leeds consistently fall short? It’s not a great look for them, nor is it sustainable. As the industry continues to move forward and become more accessible for women and non-binary artists, there’s every chance that Reading and Leeds could take a major hit from their consistent failures.

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