Folkroom and Gender

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Phew. Look at that title. Heavy stuff, right out of the gate. But here’s the thing: a couple of years ago a friend of ours asked about what the gender split was like amongst acts playing Folkroom gigs. Immediately, we were curious too. We wanted to create an environment where women are given just as much opportunity and representation as men – hell, it’s even in our manifesto. But we’d never actually done the maths before. Like a lot of men – and, let’s be clear here, Folkroom is run by two men, Ben and Stephen, and acts are almost exclusively booked by the latter – we’d assumed that wanting to create an equal society was as good as actively making sure it’s happening.

So we did the maths for our friend. Then, partly because we felt it was an interesting question, and partly because we were pretty comfortable with the results, we posted them on Twitter. Roughly a year later, we remembered this question, and did the maths again to make sure we were still doing fine, and hadn’t accidentally booked nothing but Welsh male voice choirs for the entire year. Today we made our final booking for 2017 and decided to do the maths again. Here’s a brief look at the results over the past three years:

2015
Total acts: 73
Male-led acts: 39
Female-led acts: 34

2016
Total acts: 148
Male-led acts: 80
Female-led acts: 68

2017
Total acts: 125
Male-led acts: 69
Female-led acts: 56

So what can we learn from this, apart from that Folkroom got super busy in 2016? Firstly, we can see that though Folkroom has consistently featured more male-led acts than female-led*, we’re actually doing pretty well in terms of the split. In 2015, 46.5% of our acts were female-led. In 2016, this number was 45.9% and this year we’ve managed 44.8%. This isn’t terrible, if you consider the Guardian recently took a single day – Oct 12th, 2017 – and did the maths on every single gig in Britain. On that day, two thirds of the acts were comprised entirely of men – solo acts, or all-male bands. Comparatively, only 9% of the acts were comprised of entirely female members. That’s atrocious.

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But the trend is still there. We’ve not had any year in which female acts have outweighed the male, and in the last three years the gender disparity has actually grown slightly. This was a disheartening realisation when we did our calculations earlier. But it’s also exactly why we’ve continued to do this for the last three years. It would have been easy to look at the numbers at the end of 2015, to have patted ourselves on the back and to have assumed the work was more or less done. It isn’t, though – and we know that we have to continue working hard to create a more balanced community in part because – and this really shouldn’t surprise anyone – it’s the right thing to do, and in part because we know that most other promoters aren’t doing this.

Music, despite what you might have assumed had you gone out gigging on October 12th, is not exclusively a boy’s game. But men still have the absurd advantage in the field. Increasingly, we’re hearing stories that call this fact out, such as the growing tide of articles each summer that compare the number of male and female headline acts at festivals. These articles only exist, though, because the disparity is still very much an issue. We need to hold promoters to account for this, because there really isn’t any excuse not to have a balanced line-up. There are very few genres where ‘most of the acts we can choose from are male’ is a genuinely true statement, and in those genres where that might be true it should be down to those in positions of power (booking agents, label A&Rs, promoters, etc) to ask why that is the case, and to work to address it.

When we posted this year’s results on Twitter earlier, our friends at Big Comfy Bookshop immediately replied with interest, and decided to do their own maths. As it happens, they’ve actually had more female acts than male play over the last year. We weren’t too surprised, actually. A promoter that is keen and interested in finding out whether they are offering ample opportunities for women is probably the sort of promoter who is already likely to be doing just that. The real problem is that a lot of promoters aren’t so balanced in their approach, and have very little interest in changing their process. There will be a few who know what they’re doing, book almost entirely male acts and will continue to do so regardless. And there will be those who read an article like this and know that they have a wide disparity at their gigs, but will not want to take the blame for that.

It’s easy, as a promoter, to want to make issues of such import and sensitivity as gender someone else’s problem. There are a lot of reasons that one can give for booking more male acts than female:

There just aren’t as many decent female acts out there.
I booked a woman, but she cancelled, so I replaced her with a male act.
I only book based on quality, so if an act plays my gig it isn’t about gender, but talent.
Booking women because they’re women isn’t fair to the talented male acts.

But ultimately this is all nonsense. There are plenty of talented female acts out there –¬†though it’s true that they often aren’t as visible as the male acts. Perhaps this is because they’re offered less gigs and as such have less opportunity to make their name. If you booked a female act and she cancelled, why not try and replace her with another female act? You aren’t Wile E. Coyote, trying a sledgehammer because the anvil didn’t work out. One woman cancelled on your gig, not her entire gender. Buy another anvil.

Worst of all is any argument that attempts to make the problem one of talent – it fuels the lie that men make better musicians than women. That’s not how gender works. Men aren’t better guitarists, singers, drummers. In an equal world, there would be nothing to hold women back from being just as influential and prominent in music as men. But if they aren’t even getting gigs, how can they be expected to break the expectations the talent lie puts upon them.

Of course, you know all this already. Or at least, a good 50% of you do. It doesn’t take a male music promoter to tell women how unbalanced the world is, and how few opportunities it affords women. Unfortunately, though, for reasons that are no doubt intricately woven with all of the above, the overwhelming majority of promoters are men. And men do need to be told, time and time again, about the difficulties women face in creative industries (and everywhere else). Hell, we have to tell ourselves – that’s why we keep repeating this process each year. Knowing what we now know, we can better plan for Folkroom in 2018 – we can actively seek out more great female artists both online, and by asking the huge community of musicians who work with us on a regular basis. We’ve already seen hugely talented women use Folkroom as a platform to collaborate and boost one another – now it’s our opportunity to have them recommend new artists to us. As it is, there’s still a need for improvement at the Folkroom gigs. But being conscious of this need is, in itself, a significant improvement on having no awareness at all.

Remember that, and think of a promoter whose gigs you’ve been to. Consider asking them the question we’ve asked ourselves. And promoters: once you have done the maths, consider sharing your results. If you don’t want to share them, ask why that is. And if it’s because you’re booking a lot more men than you are women, ask yourself why that really is.

 

*We wanted to hold ourselves to the highest possible standards, and so split the acts into two very starkly divided groups. It’s an in-exact art, but one that really pushes us to consider what we can do to improve the opportunities for women in Folkroom. If we¬†were to re-do our maths to calculate how many acts at Folkroom featured men in any capacity (musician, backing vocalist) and how many featured women in the same forms, the balance is significantly closer, with men featuring in 62.4% of the acts who have played Folkroom in 2017, and women featuring in exactly 60%.
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