Female artists are a major force in the music industry — so why do so few headline the big outdoor shows?

When Florence and the Machine were elevated last week to the top of the bill at the Glastonbury festival, a pressing concern in the music industry seemed to have been answered: here was a female performer headlining a major festival, appeasing critics who complained that British festivals were such a male-dominated zone.

But does the unexpected upgrade - after injury caused Foo Fighters to pull out - in fact underline a continuing failure in the vision of music promoters, who stand accused of believing that only big-name male rock stars can sell tickets in big numbers? After all, it is 16 years since a band with a female lead - Skunk Anansie - last took a headline spot on the Pyramid stage at Glastonbury.

Figures collated by the Observer this weekend suggest there is a way to go before women operate on a level festival field. Across Britain's major summer music events, only three predominantly female acts - apart from Florence and the Machine - are booked at the top of the bill. This compares with 50 acts of similar status that are male-led.

At festivals from the Isle of Wight to Latitude, Creamfields, V, Bestival, Reading and Leeds, T in the Park and Womad, the key female acts are Portishead, featuring singer and lyricist Beth Gibbons, Fleetwood Mac, featuring Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, and Patti Smith. Festivalgoers searching for another woman at the top of a bill must wait for August and the Green Man festival in the Brecon Beacons or Wilderness in Oxfordshire -- to see St Vincent or Bjork respectively.


The swift shift for Florence and the Machine, fronted by lead singer and songwriter Florence Welch, from supporting spot to main act on the Pyramid stage was occasioned by the broken ankle of a male artist. Dave Grohl, guitarist with Foo Fighters, fell off a stage in Sweden earlier this month and the band were forced to pull out. The choice of Welch's band as substitute is testament to the big following she has amassed since 2010 when her first album, Lungs, won a Brit Award.

Across Britain's bigger festivals, other popular woman performers are in evidence: a supporting tier of female stars this year includes Jessie Ware, Mary J Blige, Laura Marling, Lianne la Havas, Paloma Faith, Ellie Goulding, Lily Allen and Annie Mac.

There are also appearances to catch from Neneh Cherry, Suzanne Vega and Alabama Shakes, and a late-breaking signing for Latitude in the shape of Australian saxophonist Amy Dickson.

Promoters are wise to book women, according to campaigning group UK Music, which released a report last week showing how valuable live music is to the British tourist trade. Its study reveals that music tourism to Britain has increased by a third in the past three years.

"And it's certainly not all men coming to see big rock bands," Jo Dipple, UK Music's CEO, said this weekend. "Tourists would not be attending the smaller festivals in such big numbers if that was the case."

Dipple believes that, contrary to tradition, women performers are a strong draw for festival fans, whether they are travelling within Britain or from abroad.

"It is the whole festival experience people seem to want, with a mix of acts. Now, with the economy recovering, people are spending money on what they love most. And that is happening across the board, with music events."

Veteran music publicist Barbara Charone, who represents Madonna, Rufus Wainwright and Mark Ronson, is not surprised. "I think - hope - things are changing, but it's an uphill battle," she said.

"We've just started working with this wonderful band, Savages. They played Field Day the other week, alongside Patti Smith. When I first met them they told me how a New York Times review had run a photo with the caption 'female indie rock band', or something like that." The band reacted by posting the image on their website but altering the caption to read just "rock band".

"It got retweeted a lot and the New York Times had the good grace to change the caption to 'indie rock band'.

That reflects the problem in a nutshell. It shouldn't be about gender, but about music.

- Observer