Column | The Girls of Sweden

Laura Mvula

Sweden is often touted as the most feminist of all countries, a veritable bastion of gender equality in all areas. Sweden also happens to be one of the most successful exporters of popular music on a per capita basis (yes, even in the post-ABBA era). But what does the music scene look like?

A not-so-equal scene
There are plenty of successful female performers and bands in Sweden, and this column will showcase some of them in the next six months. But I thought I’d start by taking a more general look at the Swedish music scene, and unfortunately (though not unexpectedly), coming fourth in the world in gender equality doesn’t appear to translate into an equal scene.

In fact, the numbers are rather grim. Ladyfest Malmö, the Swedish branch of the world-encompassing Ladyfest concept, looked at the 2011 and 2012 bands booked for the major festivals of Sweden and the club scenes in Malmö, and found that they were overwhelmingly male. On their website, they were careful to point out that they didn’t do this to scapegoat any of the festivals or the club arrangers, but in order to start a discussion. And start a discussion they did.

“We only book quality acts”
The basis for their statistical review was the following idea: a band consisting of more than 50% women counts as a majority-female act, a band with two women and two men counts as a 50/50 act, and a solo artist who is a woman also counts as a female act regardless of the gender of her touring band.

In 2011, they looked at four of Sweden’s major festivals and the number of female acts booked ranged between 12.3% and 21%. That is, the booked acts were between 79% and 88% male. In 2012, the numbers were very similar, and their project began to get a lot of media coverage. One of the festival bookers, working for the Emmaboda Festival, then said the following about equality on the festival stages:

“We only book quality acts. No, we don’t bother with disabled people or cripples or anything like that. We book what we like and what works. We create a party for ourselves. We’re not interested in this at all. Honestly, I don’t think anyone is. It’s not our job to look at this.”

Why is it important?
As Ladyfest put it: ”There’s something wrong when the people on stage in Sweden are between 80 and 90% male.” These numbers hold true for club stages as well. And the world’s fourth most equal country and third largest music exporter, the home of songwriters who pen hits for Britney Spears and One Direction alike, can definitely do better.

Stockholm Music and Arts, a new festival that booked Patti Smith, Bjork, Emmylou Harris and Fatoumata Diawara, was one of the very few festivals where the number of female acts surpassed 50% (they numbered 75%) and it was also one of the most successful Swedish festivals of 2012. It was loved by critics and audience alike, and its visitors numbered both the very young and those much older than the usual festival-going crowd. This year, they booked Regina Spektor, First Aid Kit, Prince and the girls are darling Laura Mvula, and are close to sold out already (the tickets have only been out for a week). Theirs is evidently a recipe for both success and quality.

And their case makes it so simple: we can do better (and certainly without booking subpar acts), and the scene will only be better for it.

Vendela Engblom

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