With a woefully conservative 2021 line up...

These are dark, dark times for live music. The COVID-19 pandemic has essentially wiped out the 2020 calendar, with everyone from the biggest, most historic festival down to your local county gala being forced to pull their activities.

It’s a time for bold thinking, a time for organisers to grapple with these challenges and produce something different and distinct. The new announcement from Reading and Leeds, however, represents a huge step backwards.

Fundamentally, the festival’s failure – yet again – to book a female headliner represents a dereliction of duty, pulling a coach and horses through their commitment to modernise. Taking 2020 out, founder Melvin Benn recently spoke to NME about what fans can expect from next summer’s event: twin main stages, testing on site, and a total of six headliners.

Indeed, in a sly side-swipe at Glastonbury the festival boss commented: “We’re more about looking forwards than back...”

While a reference to Billie Eilish and her show-stopping main stage set last year produced the following observation: “Someone recently asked me about innovation, and the music industry never stands still so it’s innovative all the time. It’s the artists who keep moving us forwards.”

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The end results, though, have been less than impressive. It’s a cavalcade of ‘already seen ‘em’ and ‘why were they booked?’ on social media, with Stormzy’s elevation to Reading and Leeds headliner the sole bright spark on an announcement that includes the inexorable Catfish and the Bottlemen, dance giants Disclosure, an off-cycle Liam Gallagher, Queens Of The Stone Age, and – astonishing – Post Malone’s third (third!) headline slot.

Fans vented their anger on social media. Matthew Cooper labelled it “Sausage Fest 2021” while Chris Williams said simply “God that’s fucking grim...” Sophie Williams asked the question many were asking themselves, commenting: “How can you double the headline acts to SIX and still have NO women?”

It’s an issue that has followed Reading and Leeds for some time. While other major festivals signed up to the Keychange initiative to promote line ups with a 50/50 gender split, they did not. Just look at Primvera – equal gender parity in their booking policy is now so inherent they actually avoid pointing it out. Year after year, however, the same Reading and Leeds controversies are ignited; year after year, the same platitudes and empty observations are offered by organisers.

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The ongoing nightmare that is 2020, however, makes this feel a little different. If promoters want fans to come out and spend money, they’re going to have to work a little harder. After 12 months indoors, music lovers will be itching to get out and see something exciting – this line up will no doubt have them double bolting the entrance.

It’s easy to see where this creative conservatism, this play-it-safe attitude comes from. Live music as a whole has been demolished by COVID-19 – there are already huge job losses, and the upcoming end of the furlough scheme will undoubtedly mean that many more are to come. In all, Ticketmaster’s second quarter income dropped by 98% leading to an eye-watering $500 million trans-Atlantic cost-cutting scheme. It’s a tough time for a lot of people, and safe bets must look increasingly tempting.

The UK’s first socially distanced venue has already opened in Gosforth Park, Newcastle – the Virgin Money Unity Arena – allowing thousands of fans to safely absorb live music. A daring attempt to find a solution for these colossal issues, it’s been coupled with staid line ups, leaning heavily on male indie faves – a home town show from Sam Fender, a headline date from Two Door Cinema Club, and a night with Albion guitar thumpers The Libertines.

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The shows to date have been successful, but it’d doubtful how this will work as a long-term proposition. Anything new, anything even remotely left of centre is pushed to the margins, while female identifying artists are scarcely given a look in. It’s a bleak depiction of creativity, one that seems to bring in a profit but is wildly out of sync with the landscape of UK music as a whole.

It’s against this backdrop that the Reading and Leeds announcement should be seen. Six headliners, all male, representing severely entrenched mindsets that were long since out-dated before the first case of coronavirus was confirmed on these shores. It feels like a festival cutting the ground out from under its feet, failing to find a way to creatively engage with a future that remains split between tantalising possibility and dystopian failure.

The live music industry can’t simply expect to move into the New Normal without addressing the fundamental fault-lines that have dogged it for over a decade now. This new announcement from Reading and Leeds feels like an industry equivalent of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. An international brand leader in a time of crisis, they must do better.

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Reading and Leeds 2021 takes place between August 27th - 29th.

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