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As music festivals boom, a push to include women gathers steam

When Beyonce headlines Coachella, she will stand out not only for her eagerly awaited return to the stage -- she will be one of the few women to headline a major music festival
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

With the festival scene booming across the Western world, driven in no small part by millennial-generation women, female representation is lagging behind -- an imbalance that has become especially glaring in the age of the #MeToo movement for gender equality.

Men alone are the top-of-the-bill headliners for many of the best-known pop events this year, including Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo in the United States and Reading and Leeds in Britain. It was also the case at 2017's Glastonbury festival that is taking a regularly scheduled break this year.

Male dominance persists not only among headliners. Indie rock bible Pitchfork, compiling the nearly 1,000 performers booked for 23 leading US and Canadian festivals last year, found that merely 14 percent of artists were female, with another 12 percent of acts either comprising both men and women or not identifying in binary gender terms.

Some link the low female representation to the broader nature of the music industry where men historically have called the shots and the phallocentric motto of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll shaped the culture.

Music fans attend day 2 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (Weekend 1) at the Empire Polo Club on April 16, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images for Coachella)

"I think now there are a lot more female acts that really deserve to be booked, so I think what's possibly happened is the structures haven't kept up with the change in talent," said Vanessa Reed, the CEO of PRS Foundation, the British charitable fund that leads the Keychange initiative to address the gender imbalance at festivals.

Under the Keychange campaign, some 60 festivals in Europe and North America have pledged at least 50 percent representation for women by 2022.

The festivals include the BBC Proms -- the premier classical event that will meet the goal by ensuring 50 percent of performed works come from female composers -- as well as Midem, the prominent industry networking event in southern France.

But many of the major-name festivals have balked, a reluctance that Reed attributed to their concerns about finding enough female performers at the right times.

Festivals have enjoyed rapid growth in the past five years, becoming both vital sources of revenue for musicians and rite-of-passage experiences for many young people in developed countries.

A Nielsen report found that roughly half of US festival goers in 2015 were millennials with women forming the narrow majority.

TV personality Paris Hilton attends day 1 of the 2015 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival (Weekend 1) at the Empire Polo Club on April 10, 2015 in Indio, California. (Photo by Matt Cowan/Getty Images for Coachella)

Reed said that festivals' transformative value for young people made it all the more important to ensure diversity among performers, including in gender.

"If you can't see yourself on stage, then you're never going to aspire to be a musician or get involved in a creative industry. It's really important to make sure to promote role models of all backgrounds," she said.

The spotlight on festivals comes amid an uproar over the dearth of female winners at the latest Grammys.

Neil Portnow, the head of the Recording Academy which administers the awards, inadvertently inflamed the controversy when he told reporters that women needed to "step up" if they wanted more recognition.

Leading female alternative rocker Kim Deal, who is the frontwoman of The Breeders and formerly the bassist of The Pixies, told AFP in a recent interview that festivals have not tried hard enough to book women.

Music fan attends day 3 of the 2016 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival at the Empire Polo Club on April 17, 2016 in Indio, California. (Photo by Mike Windle/Getty Images for Coachella)

"Just because you don't find woman bands in festivals this year doesn't mean there aren't any women in bands. They're just not getting invited," she said.

One event that will have only female headliners this year is the two-day FYF Fest in Los Angeles, with Janet Jackson and Florence and the Machine.

The lineup comes a year after the festival's founder was accused of sexual misconduct, leading promoter Goldenvoice -- which also runs Coachella -- to sever ties with him.

Coachella, which takes place in the desert of southern California over two consecutive weekends with identical lineups, has managed to stay highly lucrative, attracting celebrity fashionistas and consistently booking attention-grabbing headliners.

Beyonce's sets Saturday and again on April 21 mark her first live appearances since the pop superstar gave birth last year to twins with her husband Jay-Z.

Coachella's other headliners are rap titan Eminem and R&B sensation The Weeknd, both fresh from releasing new music.