Primavera Sound's diverse 2019 line-up shames most UK festivals

With Primavera Sound's recently announced 2019 line-up, The New Normal is here, and it's time for the UK – and indie rock dudes – to catch up

Feature by Stephen Butchard | 07 Dec 2018
  • The New Normal at Primavera Sound 2019: Erykah Badu, Robyn, Janelle Monáe

Barcelona festival Primavera Sound is renowned for its strong line-ups, and on Wednesday evening they announced the bill for next year with three words: “The New Normal”. The event is no stranger to extravagant marketing campaigns or a catchy slogan, but those cryptic words represent the boldest act Primavera Sound has made since moving to Parc Del Forum: this years line-up of nearly 230 acts has an equal gender split for the first time in the festival's history.

That’s a declaration in itself but the festival’s goals go beyond just filling a quota. Writing in an accompanying statement, the festival proclaim that gender barriers and pigeonholing should be dismantled, that all stages, schedules and proposals should be provocative, and that the music of the new generations should be embraced while respecting their indie rock roots. To answer the question of “why now?”, they simply write: “because we should have done it ages ago”. The statement was poised not just as a proud boast of their woke credentials, but as a challenge to the entire festival industry, cheekily writing “we challenge your algorithms” in their video announcement.

The line-up remains an eclectic, impressive showcase of modern music with the change. Big hitters include neo-soul legend Erykah Badu, the surprise return of Stereolab, pop royalty Robyn, Janelle Monáe, and indie icon Liz Phair. You can go see Carly Rae Jepsen on the same day as noise experimentalist Yves Tumor and London jazz ensemble Sons of Kemet – each act given equal weight on the bill. No algorithm could have made that decision.

If The New Normal is here, then UK festivals have a lot of catching up to do in terms of equality, eclecticism and uniqueness. No UK festival of this size has achieved anything close to an equal gender split. The last Glastonbury in 2017 featured all male headliners, while Reading and Leeds have hosted just one female-fronted headliner in the last two decades – that was Paramore back in 2014 in a co-headline slot with Queens of the Stone Age.

A report by the BBC found that in the past ten years, eight out of ten top slots were occupied by all-male acts across more than 600 headline appearances at 14 major festivals. And a quarter of all headline slots were taken up by the same 20 acts. The two largest Scottish festivals (TRNSMT and Summer Sessions), are also two of the worst performing in terms of gender equality. Both focus on indie and rock acts that can pull a huge crowd (Arctic Monkeys, Liam Gallagher and The Killers among this year's TRNSMT headliners; Foo Fighters, The 1975 and The Cure take top bill at next year's Summer Sessions). This seems to suggest UK festival promoters don't deem any female artists – barring Paloma Faith, who was the sole female headliner of any of the big festivals last year – capable of pulling those same crowds.  

But the problem goes beyond the gender identity of the top cards. Over two-thirds of acts playing at the 14 biggest festivals will have played another UK festival in the past three years. Reading and Leeds is one of the worst offenders, recycling many of its acts from previous years in the bill. Foo Fighters will perform for the fourth time in 16 years, just two years after headlining Glastonbury. Bastille and Post Malone play yet again after a set last year.

From a business standpoint, this is perhaps understandable. What these acts offer, in theory, is a safe, bankable line-up. Relying on those who have headlined a festival before ensures that there is already a hypothetical crowd willing to pay money to see those acts. Reading and Leeds boss Melvin Benn seems to ascribe to this theory, telling the BBC he planned to create a “bigger pool of female acts” after facing criticism last year, offering 36 female artists a week’s studio recording time over the next three years. This implies that in the mind of one of our biggest festival influencers, no female currently touring is fit to headline.

Primavera Sound gloriously counters this argument with its 2019 bill. They frame the zeitgeist as not middle-aged white men holding guitars, but as a diverse collection of genres, genders and influences. And that is because white men with guitars haven’t been the cultural zeitgeist in years. After the announcement on Wednesday, the festival’s poster was criticised by a minority of people (mostly middle-aged men), who were disappointed because they didn’t feel represented. That is because festivals have been over-representing them for years. The New Normal is a step towards true representation, an acknowledgement that former indie rock staples like Foo Fighters and Kasabian aren’t as relevant as they used to be. What’s more, it posits itself as a pop party – a diverse celebration of all types of music, and optimism in our musical future. Until UK festivals and its fans accept this, they will remain the Old Normal.


Primavera Sound 2019 will take place in Barcelona, 30 May-1 Jun 
Tickets are available at primaverasound.com