WIDE AWAKE: should all festivals sign up to equal gender lineups?

Following Caroline Polachek's first headline show at Wide Awake 2023, TicketSwap investigates

  • Ben Jolley, TicketSwap Contributor
  • śr., 21 cze 2023
  • OpinionReviews

CREDIT: @garryjonesphotography

“This line-up is my dream bill – it looks like what music I listen to,” Caroline Polachek pronounces to 25,000 festival-goers. We're half-way through her staggering bill-topping performance at Wide Awake festival in East London.

The staging. The entrance. The outfit. The vocals. The alt-pop hero brings to life track after track from her new album Desire, I Want To Turn Into You (which will very likely top album of the year lists) and its impeccable predecessor Pang – regularly leaving the crowd spellbound.

Right from the tropical opener ‘Welcome To My Island’ to the flamenco-inflected ‘Billions’, the audience tries to match her otherworldly octaves. ‘Ocean Of Tears’ sounds heavenly in the open air and a perfect half moon forms as she dedicates an emotional rendition of ‘I Believe’ to her friend, the late pop innovator SOPHIE; the hopeful lyric “I don’t know, but I believe, we’ll get another day together” leaves a lump in the throat… It’s a poignant moment, and the standout set of the day.

It was also, somehow, her first ever festival headline slot. Considering she’s currently considered a visionary capable of overhauling pop, with a string of critically acclaimed albums and collaborations under her belt, the crowd left Brockwell Park with just one question: why isn’t she headlining more festivals?

But, with festival line-ups constantly being slammed for their lack of diversity, is it any wonder that seriously talented female and non-binary artists are waiting too long for their chance at the top of the bill? 

You only need to look at the fact that just 13% of UK festival headliners in 2022 were women, or hear the incredulous cries of Annie Mac and other industry folk, weary of the status quo. That’s not to say things haven’t begun to improve more recently – on a grassroots level, at least. Radio broadcasters, for example, are chipping away at the problem. Take UK broadcaster Jaguar, who uses her BBC Introducing Dance show to platform women, non-binary and trans artists. But we need to move faster.

What Wide Awake does differently

Disappointingly male-dominated line-ups have never been the case with Wide Awake. As the East London festival’s name suggests, the team behind this “celebration of independent music and counterculture” is fully aware of the criticisms that bigger (and often more corporate) festivals face.

Since launching in 2021, the festival has been vocal about overhauling the current situation when it comes to skewed gender representation on line-ups. Keen to prove just how transformative independent festivals can be in pushing things forward (Primavera and We Love Green also strived towards a similar goal), they joined 600 festivals and companies around the world who signed the Keychange Pledge, including Standon Calling, EFG London Jazz Festival and Eurosonic Noorderslag.

The aim? To achieve at least 50 per cent representation of women and gender-expansive people in their line-ups, behind the scenes crew and staff.

CREDIT: Luke Dyson

Taking these steps clearly paid off. Wide Awake delivered a line-up that you would struggle to find anywhere else in the UK, let alone London, with a bold, mostly-underground, post-genre programme. A donk edit of Cascada’s ‘Evacuate The Dancefloor’ soundtracked the wait before Black Country, New Road’s set (delayed thanks to DJ/live act BĘÃTFÓØT. And, rather than tucking women and non-binary people away on their own (often small, often pastel coloured) stage, women dominated the entire day.

There was Shygirl, who wielded a glitter-covered microphone and, surrounded by small floor mirrors, owned the main stage with her proudly sexual club-pop. There was avant-punk Nuha Ruby Ra, who launched her unnervingly apocalyptic set with a trumpeted rallying call before informing the audience “we must all rise” during protest-ready screamer ‘Rise’.

There was the compelling French electronic artist Coucou Chloe, whose otherworldly industrial sounds filled the marquee as she stalked the stage in a ruffled gown. There was Polish DJ VTSS’ pummeling techno, LA alt-rocker Blondshell, Mura Masa-collaborator Gretel Hanyln, and Jockstrap’s fusion of classical instrumentation, near-operatic vocals and rave-starting beats. Crowd surfing. Mosh pits. Anthem singalongs. Equity.

CREDIT: Luke Dyson

Inclusion beyond line-ups

And the attention to detail didn’t stop at the curation of acts. It’s not often you get the chance to learn how to intervene in an anti-immigration raid on a festival site – nor train to be an active bystander, or get a free tattoo from a climate change action group. But Wide Awake makes that possible, with a thoughtful roster of socially conscious pop-ups (Lewisham Anti-Raids, Level Up, Hate Zine, Music Declares Emergency, ACORN Lambeth, Shelter and Fossil Free London). 

Beyond the music and activities, things felt incredibly inclusive and safe on the ground. The atmosphere breathed acceptance; with consideration paid to trans and non-binary attendees across the festival facilities, and festival-goers encouraged to be themselves and wear whatever they wished. This ethos resulted in a crowd representing many ways to be a fan; from genre to gender, where older punks in band t-shirts rubbed shoulders with edgy twenty-somethings.

Those in the audience were similarly pleased. Reflecting on her day, music journalist Susan Hansen said that Wide Awake’s “significant contribution to changing things felt genuine; it wasn’t just a token gesture”. Another attendee, Eliot, agreed: “I think Wide Awake is honestly one of the best festivals we’ve got,” they said, “mainly thanks to the diversity of the line-up which still manages to feel cohesive in its left-of-centreness”.

They both agreed that the balanced line-up also meant for a welcoming and inclusive community of fans on the ground, with Eliot commenting that it was “less laddish” than other festivals they’d attended, attributing this at least partly to the line-up. “Having bands and performers with big queer followings, like Caroline Polachek and Shygirl, definitely makes a difference in the feel of the day,” they added. 

Which brings us back to the question of diversity and inclusion pledges. Because yes, Wide Awake’s 2023 success demonstrates exactly what can be achieved when line-ups reflect the actual spread of talent across the gender spectrum.

But the festival should also be heralded as an example of what should happen after signing up to that pledge. When a festival takes the steps to protect, inspire and include the attendees it tempts in with headliners like Polachek. When it continues, year after year, to find new ways to include underrepresented talent and fans. When it does the quiet work behind-the-scenes and on the ground to push for a future where, one day, we won’t even notice that a festival has an inclusive line-up. Because that’s progress.

4 more festivals for open minded fans

Music fan at Sziget

WHOLE Festival

Jul 28 – 31 Ferropolis, Gräfenhainichen, Germany

Secret Garden Party

Jul 20 – 23 Abbots Ripton, Huntingdon, United Kingdom

Milkshake Festival

Jul 28 – 30, Westerpark Amsterdam, Netherlands

Amapola Festival

Jul 21 – 23, Bois Des Charmes, Gazeran, France

Edited by Kate Pasola

Przeczytaj nasze inne posty na blogu

Ponad 6000 partnerów

Zostań partnerem
Defqon LogoEventix LogoSziget LogoAncienne Belgique LogoDGTL LogoCercle LogoDefqon LogoEventix LogoSziget LogoAncienne Belgique LogoDGTL LogoCercle Logo