In the 1970s and 80s, dance music was born from minorities – the LGBTQ+ communities and Black and Brown people in Chicago, New York and Detroit – as a means of escapism and freedom from a world that was not built for them. The disfranchised created a microcosm to express themselves and feel safe. If you look at top-tier DJs and festival lineups in the UK in 2022, however, this doesn’t add up. Calvin Harris, Fatboy Slim, David Guetta – white men dominate the modern electronic scene, mirroring the world we live in, and those not part of the canon face many challenges.
My report, Progressing Gender Representation in UK Dance Music, is a deep dive into the gender disparity among artists within the UK electronic music scene. The seeds of the report were sown during the pandemic, when I became a DJ with no gigs. In a period of reflection, inspired by the Black Lives Matter protests, I questioned what I really wanted from my career.
I found my purpose. On my BBC Radio 1 shows, championing minorities was already a priority, but I wanted to do more to make UK dance music a more equal place for the next generation. In 2020, I launched Future1000 with Virtuoso, a free, online initiative where women, trans and non-binary people aged 12 to 18 can learn to DJ, in an accessible way. While researching the report I couldn’t find many official resources with data about gender in dance music, so the Jaguar Foundation was born and we decided to create our own research and provide solutions to gender inequality.
Through interviews with UK dance music artists, industry heavyweights, and those already lobbying for change in this area, we put together a strong narrative around what the challenges are, and what we can do to accelerate existing progress. This was backed up by plenty of data analysis, looking at festival lineups, radio airplay and the gender of ticket buyers at club nights.
The findings show a lack of diversity in dance music’s live ecosystem, both on lineups and behind the scenes, and how women and – even more so – trans and non-binary people fall victim to not fitting into the “boys’ club”. For me, the most shocking results were linked to more mainstream representation. When we analysed data from the Official Charts Company, just 5% of dance songs were made exclusively by women and non-binary artists. On radio – and this breaks my heart – it was 1%. And regarding electronic festival lineups in 2022, we found that only 28% of the artists are female or non-binary; at larger festivals that shrinks to 15%. How many of those women or non-binary people are the headliners? Hardly any – just look at major festival lineups this summer, where big male headliners still dominate.
One solution we provide in the report is that of the inclusivity rider: a booking contract clause stating that the artist will only play on a lineup if there is least one other woman, trans or non-binary person, or a person of colour, playing alongside them. If everyone had one, especially dominant male DJs, we would see accelerated change. The big male DJs would still get booked, but the lineup becomes more diverse. Diverse lineups lead to diverse audiences; stats show that ticket buyers reflect who’s on the bill.
An inclusivity rider is also important when it comes to safety for women and non-binary people. As a DJ, you’re travelling around at unsociable hours, often alone. Not everyone has a tour manager, booking agent or someone to accompany them. I’ve been in situations where I’ve felt uncomfortable when travelling. I know a DJ whose drink was spiked in the green room at their own show. In the report, DJ Ifeoluwa talks about being punched in a club. They reported it to the bouncer who did nothing. Many of the women and non-binary DJs we spoke to experienced having men jump into the booth and start playing with their mixers. Now some of these artists have a safety clause in their contract stating that no one can be behind the decks during their set.
There are other challenges for women and non-binary people too, such as the added pressure of how they look. Too often I’ve read comments referring to the success of some women DJs being down to their attractiveness. I have friends who dress androgynously when they DJ – or do anything front-facing – because they’re afraid to oversexualise themselves and be judged. During a DJ live stream my friend didn’t wear a bra and all the comments were about her nipples, rather than her performance. It negatively affected her mental health and confidence. It’s exhausting to have to battle through all this every day. When I did my first Boiler Room session this year, I was so nervous – not about the gig, but about what trolls were going to say in the comments.
I hope that Progressing Gender Representation in UK Dance Music becomes a launch pad to make positive change. I would love for CEOs of record labels, venues, or booking agencies to read it and start to question everything, especially the male gatekeepers in our industry. Ask yourself: are the acts on my roster diverse? Am I doing enough to welcome minorities? Are the women and non-binary colleagues being treated with respect? I need you to really look inside, acknowledge the findings, start again if you have to, and do the work.
So let’s keep talking, and keep progressing. Let’s open minds, and let’s open doors to those who have previously felt isolated. I hope that women, trans and non-binary people feel empowered by this report, but know that this is just the beginning. I will keep building the data, keep reviewing and keep pushing for what everyone deserves: equality. By the end of my career, in years to come, I’d like for this report not to be needed any more.