Women In Music

The Pandemic Brought Touring to a Halt — But These U.K. Initiatives Didn't Stop

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2019 Outside Lands Music And Arts Festival in San Francisco.

In 2018, the global gender equity initiative Keychange announced a landmark pledge calling for 50% representation of women and gender minorities in the live industry, both on and offstage, by 2022 — and over 100 festivals around the world signed on. Cut to two years later, and the coronavirus pandemic brought the live industry to a screeching halt just as festival season was about to start. At around the same time, the United Kingdom-based Music Venue Trust had just completed its second Fightback:Grassroots Promoter program — which preps young women and gender minorities to become independent venue promoters — when all those venues temporarily closed their doors.

Both initiatives had emerged as leaders at a time when frustration with the lack of gender equity in the live sector (particularly on festival lineups) had hit a peak. Major companies joined them: In the summer of 2018, the Live Nation Women Fund — a global early-stage funder of female-founded live-music businesses — launched; the following year, Live Nation Urban kicked off Femme It Forward, a women-led concert/event series. But in the midst of the pandemic, they have faced disparate fortunes. As Keychange has strengthened its efforts and managed growth, Fightback has, much like the indie venues it focuses on, struggled to stay the course.

Keychange (which is supported by the United Kingdom’s leading creative funder, PRS Foundation) started out with a mission to help women and gender minorities “find new audiences and opportunities Europe-wide and, hopefully, eventually, globally,” says project manager Maxie Gedge, and festivals were “the most public entry point.” Keychange now has over 375 pledgers from over 40 countries — many from outside the festival sphere, including trade organization board members, radio station programmers, management agencies, orchestras and conservatories. This year, it welcomed Canada as an official country partner, naming Tegan and Sara ambassadors in November.

And Keychange didn’t just maintain momentum in 2020 — Gedge says 95% of its pledgers are still on track to hit their gender equity mark by 2022. Already, festivals including MUTEK Montreal and Iceland Airwaves have “achieved their pledge and beyond,” even while pivoting to livestreaming. “Once you start programming with that consciousness,” she says, “there is no other way you can think about survival.”

Music Venue Trust’s Fightback:Grassroots Promoter program (also supported by PRS Foundation) has a tougher road ahead. Its second class of 25 promoters-in-training, who completed the program in February, face an uncertain future with no clear timeline for when spaces (including the 900 grassroots venues MVT works with — a number that skyrocketed during the pandemic) can safely reopen. According to a Live Music Industry Venues and Entertainment report, revenue is estimated to drop 81% in the United Kingdom by the end of 2020, compared with 2019. While MVT strategic director Beverley Whitrick considered repositioning promoter training for livestreaming, she notes that “in our experience, most streaming of live music doesn’t make enough money to even cover the cost of organizing it.”

There’s still some reason for optimism — UK Music’s annual diversity report showed the industry getting closer than ever to gender parity in 2020. So for now, Fightback is prioritizing what could help young women most post-pandemic: educating them about the financial side of the live industry and encouraging them to maintain industry relationships while they wait. “You’ve got to make sure that when things do return, you’re swift to say, ‘Hey, I’m here. Is there anything that I can do?’ ” says Whitrick. “It’s easy to become demoralized, but if you didn’t get to [break into the industry] in 2020, don’t assume you’re not going to do it. All the things you learned — don’t forget how to do them.”

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.