Written by Marina Blore
(Director, Fit The Bill Ltd – Promoters and Producers of festivals, theatre shows & live events)
“Are you mad? There isn’t enough British talent. It’s all about Nashville.”
That’s what many said when we announced plans to launch The British Country Music Festival, the first event to primarily focus on home-grown country and Americana artists. As our venue of choice, we secured the spectacular, indoor Winter Gardens entertainment complex in the UK’s best loved seaside resort; Blackpool.
We knew the talent was out there. Having curated and promoted the highly successful Folk On The Dock in Liverpool for three years, attracting around 90,000 people to Royal Albert Dock, which was a mix of free and ticketed events, we could see how the genre boundaries were merging between folk, country, Americana and roots music. Our line-up under the banner of folk back in 2016/2017/2018 included Robert Vincent, Wildwood Kin and Megan O’Neill, all now leading names in the UK country music scene.
Whilst headliners are the positioning names and main ticket sale drivers for a festival, discovering and supporting emerging talent has always been what excites us as promoters. We signed up and committed to the Keychange initiative for The British Country Music Festival and the cynics once again said that country music is male dominated and it would be a challenge to achieve the required 50:50 male to female gender balance by 2022. Certainly in the States, male talent continues to dominate the charts, award ceremonies and high profile events, but as Dylan said: “The times they are a changin’.”
“We achieved 61% female to male balance in our first year of programming The British Country Music Festival”
I could wax lyrical about how difficult it was and how we had to shoehorn three female headliners in to the programme, but the fact is, it was easy. In the UK, the country music scene is not short of female talent. Ward Thomas, Catherine McGrath, Twinnie, The Adelaides, Honey Ryder, Laura Oakes and Beth Rowley all performed at the festival. There are many more, all making their mark both in the UK and in America. Yola, The Shires and Twinnie continue to go from strength to strength and Nashville is welcoming them with open arms.
The Apply to Play invitation on our website www.britishcountrymusicfestival.com is attracting amazing new talent, although from the hundreds that submit an application, there is definitely a female bias. One of our major challenges is representing ethnic diversity and that is entirely due to virtually no applications from black, Asian or ethnic minorities in this genre. This is an area we are keen to explore and understand why there are so few country artists from these backgrounds. Are there any opportunities for us to reach out to talent that may not be aware of the application process? The 50:50 gender balance and representation of ethnic minorities is also an area for some agents and artist managers to be more aware of when signing up new talent. Additionally, there is a lack of female technicians and production staff working at many festivals and again this is an area that as an industry we must look to address the balance, although all our stage management and artist liaison team last year were all female.
Keychange is a great initiative for making promoters more aware of how they curate a festival and to keep that balance in mind during the programming process. However, this year we are keen to ensure that we are nearer the 50:50 mark, to ensure that we don’t tip too far in either direction.
We listen to every application, two songs for each artist and YouTube footage when provided. We highlight our preferred artists, then look at the balance of male to females on our programme. But to be honest, last year we made no changes to our initial wish list. We didn’t have to. At the end of the day, it has always been that the best and most relevant talent gets the gig, whatever their gender, whilst maintaining a reasonable balance. However, going forward we must remain fair that females don’t dominate, simply because we are trying to be politically correct.
What we can say is that UK country and Americana music is going from strength to strength and for the first time, we genuinely have songwriters who are creating lyrics relevant to British values and experiences. The UK now has its own country sound and we would encourage more male artists to submit their material. Surely, country music is the perfect vehicle for all musicians to write from the heart and bare their souls through lyrics and music, three chords and the truth?
In conclusion, I am sure that there is enough talent in all genres to create a balanced programme for our festivals. However, for the sake of music in general, it’s hugely important that we maintain and support our small live music venues to allow new artists to hone their craft and performance skills and it is equally important for headliners to share their experiences with emerging talent and to provide help and advice where they can.
For genres like rock or grime, it may be harder to achieve that 50:50 balance, so we must find ways of opening channels for women and providing platforms and professional support, but I am delighted that British women are leading the march and flying the flag for UK country and Americana music.