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Why is it still OK for Reading and Leeds Festival to have no female headliner?

Reading and Leeds Festival have announced mass changes for next year’s event, alterations which will see six headliners grace the festival over two main stages. However, one thing that hasn’t changed is the lack of a female headliner, even with twice as many acts topping the bill.

Over the last 21 years of the festival’s history, there has only been one headline set from a female-fronted group which was Paramore in 2014, a band who co-headlined alongside Queens of The Stone Age — with the latter sent to headline the festival once more next summer. For comparison, Post Malone will have had more headline sets at the iconic twin festival since 2019 than there has been by women in over the last two decades, a topic which raises severe question marks.

While it is, of course, nothing personal against Post Malone, a musician who is undoubtedly one of the biggest artists in the world, but he has enjoyed prominent slots at the festival in 2018 as well as a headline spot in 2019 and, on reflection, it feels unnecessary to book the rapper yet again rather than giving the opportunity to others. Take, for example, an act like Haim who are still yet to headline a major UK festival despite bagging yet another chart-topping album earlier this June on this side of the Atlantic.

“The key thing about any festival is that you don’t stand still,” Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn said all the way back in February 2018, before adding: “You can’t keep drumming up the same acts and expect people to continue to come and see them.”

Benn has made a major change to the line-up this year, pushing the addition of the second main stage in a total revamping of the festival’s format. However, the decision to book the same act for the prestigious headline slot the festival on the last two occasions seemingly goes back on his own words. The idea of having six headliners is a welcomed decision, one that should have allowed Benn to roll the dice with at least one of the choices but, in all honesty, all of them feel very safe picks.

The Festival Republic boss also claimed on Monday to NME that “every one of them is a first-time headliner” at Reading & Leeds which, tragically, isn’t true at all with Disclosure, Queens of the Stone Age and Post Malone all headlining within the last few years.

Stormzy, it’s safe to say, has earned his right to headline any festival in the world after his masterclass at Glastonbury last year and the same can be said for Liam Gallagher who is a hard booking to turn down. Catfish & The Bottlemen, a homegrown band that appeared on the BBC Introducing Stage back in 2013, exhibit that their path to becoming headliners is one that proves it is possible for young artists to graduate all the way to the top—but whether female-fronted acts believe they have that same access to climb the ladder is another question.

The Welsh indie band have headlined a number of festivals since 2016 such as TRNSMT, Y Not, Tramlines, Kendal Calling and All Points East, all shows which have more than proved their pedigree as festival headliners. Catfish are undoubtedly deserving of the position as one of this years six headliners, but the shame still remains that likes of Billie Eilish, Haim, Phoebe Bridgers, or Lana Del Rey (to name just a few of the world’s most famous female musicians) are still all waiting in the wings for their opportunity to headline events with the gravitas of Reading & Leeds.

Queens of the Stone Age are veterans of the festival and will undoubtedly put on a hell of a show but this latest booking will mark their third appearance at Reading & Leeds since 2014 and, if anything, adds insult to injury to the female artists searching for a deserved big stage opportunity. Coupled with that fact that the Josh Homme-fronted band has only released 2017’s Villains in that past seven years, whilst a plethora of more relevant female artists continue to work prolifically with little reward.

While it is perfectly conceivable that the festival organisers may have attempted to secure a female-fronted act to headline next year’s summer event, the stark truth remains that they simply did not do enough. With music festivals such as Primavera Sound committing to a 50/50 gender split on their line-ups, Reading and Leeds Festival continues to fall behind the times.

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