Blog: Eddie Barcan

The Underneath the Stars’ festival programmer explains how the team behind this year’s music and arts event has been prioritising gender balance

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Achieving gender balance at music festivals has been high on the industry’s agenda in recent years, but many have struggled to meet the mark. Underneath the Stars, our boutique music and arts festival at Cinderhill Farm, Barnsley has achieved just that. This year’s festival has a 50-50 gender-balanced music split, plus an all-female headline bill featuring Imelda May, Kate Rusby and Suzanne Vega.

It feels like a bit of no-brainer. Half the audience at festivals are usually female. Why wouldn’t they want to see female artists on the stage? Why wouldn’t they want to see someone they can relate to? Why wouldn’t they want to see someone who looks a little like them, to inspire them? Half the great voices of all time are probably female.

It’s easy to select bands to appear on a stage. Let’s face it – there is plenty of choice and who wouldn’t want to play a festival? But getting just the right acts and just the right mix takes a lot more effort. Curating a bill of artists so that it appeals to an audience, introduces them to new styles and new names, has depth, quality and variety, is as important as securing those elusive headline names.

Balance includes a whole variety of factors, from mixing up the size, style and instrumentation of artists and where they come from to what they look and sound like. People want to see variety. People want something that they can relate to.

I have around 30 years experience in the festival industry, including programming the Avalon Stage at Glastonbury, headliners for Folk by Oak, HebCelt on the Isle of Lewis and Greenbelt. When it comes to my role as a programmer it’s always important to be conscious of balance and fine tuning when creating a musical bill for festivals. That’s why I used The F List to create Underneath the Stars’ music bill.

Kate Rusby is one of the all-female headline acts at this year’s Underneath the Stars festival

Listening to an interview on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, I first heard about the F List, talking about the bias that women faced at festivals. The F List is a directory of approximately 5,000 UK female and nonbinary musicians and bands that aims to improve diversity in the music industry and particularly festival line-ups, which was vital for Underneath the Stars’ music bill.

Working with Vicky Bain from the F List for Underneath the Stars, I was able to choose from more female artists, including securing the final headliner for this year’s event and creating an all-female headline bill.

I already had two female headliners and the best option for the third happened to be female. I wasn’t initially keen, as I wanted balance. However, then I thought, would the majority of other bookers worry if it had been the other way round and all the names had been male? Probably not. Would it have been unusual? No. Why was I hesitating? I look forward to the time when having so many female headliners isn’t so unusual.

We believe that every festival, of all sizes and genres, plays its part in the eco-system of the music industry and hope soon that the statistics, the campaigning and the female musicians talking about their experiences, and the barriers they have faced, will benefit the diversity of all our festival stages. Those values also extend to behind the scenes at Underneath the Stars, run by our festival director Emma Holling.

“We are a female-led team with a very strong female presence below this,” says Holling. “And we share this ethos across our wider Underneath the Stars family. From our volunteers to food and drink vendors, the family workshop activities and a gender-balanced line-of up of music artists, inclusivity is at the festival’s core. Let’s work together to remove gendered music genres, and improve representation at festivals.”

The festival’s bill feature an all-female headline day as well solo artists and all-female and female-led bands The Big Moon, This is the Kit, Billie Marten, Davina and the Vagabonds, Lanterns on the Lake, Azure Ryder, Iona Lane, Hannah Williams and the Affirmations, Trousdale and Kinnaris Quintet. Our boutique festival provides vital opportunities for upcoming female artists, as well as a creating a small and beautiful venue for established artists who prefer more intimate gigs.

I can’t wait for people to come and enjoy it with us.

Underneath the Stars returns to Cinderhill Farm, Barnsley for its eighth year from 29 – 31 July. Weekend tickets are still available to buy via their website: https://underneaththestarsfest.co.uk/tickets/

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