Beyond the sparkly outfits, the boyband crushes and the culturally appropriated headwear, music is a man’s world, even on the modern festival circuit. Recent research found that 86% of performers at UK festivals were men and behind the scenes, in the music industry at large, the makeup of the workforce tells a similar story.
Change is coming, but slowly; no one is more aware of that fact than Emma Edgar, a 35-year-old tour manager who has worked in the industry for 16 years. This summer she’ll be flexing her skills at Download festival, the UK’s biggest rock event with an attendance of 100,000 per year. When she's not doing festivals Emma is on arena tours, looking after some of the world’s biggest bands; her CV includes some of the biggest names, from Placebo to Everything Everything.
It’s a role that demands stamina, determination and the patience of a total saint. Emma has seen it all, from wild groupies to dead animal parts (more on that later). Not many people can say that dealing with armies of superfans is all in a day’s work.
Emma began her career as a concert promoter, doing time with one of the biggest in the business for the first 13 years of her career. Back in the day when she was a newbie making tea, the industry was particularly male-dominated. “I can see that changing now,” she tells Refinery29, “But in those days it was always very noticeable when… people were women.”
Over the last 20 years, music tastes have changed, too. And as more labels have backed female bands, so the tour crews have become more diverse. “It’s brought up a greater opportunity for women to be hired,” says Emma, “I don’t know if it’s a reflection of the change in society and the move towards equality, or if it’s down to the women who went in there and trail-blazed, but it’s there now.”
What’s really whipped the industry into shape, is streaming services. “Everyone has to be professional,” reflects Emma. “It’s not the groupie, cocaine, champagne vibe anymore.”
The risk of an entire industry collapsing and money no longer being spent on albums has given everyone from music moguls to temperamental lead singers a very, very good reason to get their act together. “Touring became an incredibly important part of their income,” she explains, “It stopped being some party boys club and became very professional.”
And with professionalism comes accountability. Yet while this shift may account for more women entering the industry, that’s not to say it’s all downhill, once you’ve got your foot in the door. “It was harder to get opportunities at the beginning,” reflects Emma. “It’s going in there, showing what you can do and almost leaving the fact that you’re female aside.”
As in most high-intensity work environments, getting the job done comes before your gender. Men and women share sleeping quarters – often in close proximity on a tour bus – and that’s an unusual environment for anyone. As Emma puts it: “You can’t be a princess on tour. You have to just get in there, do what you need to do and go home.”
Lack of personal space aside, there are of course other challenges posed by working with high-profile musicians. Everything from egos to viral stomach bugs can make or break a gig and it takes, as Emma puts it, the skills usually required of a UN peacekeeper to manage a successful tour.
“That’s the hardest part of the job,” she elaborates. “It’s not just managing people on a good day, it’s managing people when they’re homesick, or when something’s gone wrong. Sometimes you have to know when to leave it alone. Everybody has their moment when they just need to go and have a walk and not be around anybody.”
Living with work colleagues and all the glorious imperfections of humanity, in a bus that’s barely 11x3 metres, would be enough to put most people off. Not Emma. “I love people-watching and seeing how they interact; it’s like watching little monkeys, sometimes,” she says fondly. “For me it’s that challenge of trying to bring everyone together and staying on track.”
And it’s not just your immediate entourage that needs looking after but hordes of screaming fans, too. Teenage pop fans are, naturally, the most challenging to cope with. “They’re very inventive and very keen,” says Emma. “They’ll find different ways to find you. It can be quite terrifying when you wake up and tumble out of the bus and people just start screaming at you.”
Despite their fondness for mosh pits, rock fans are a little more relaxed. That’s not to say they don’t have the same passion, though. “I was with another band in Russia once when someone gave us half a sheep’s head,” Emma says. “They had carried it throughout the whole gig. It was sweet… but we didn’t really know what to do with it.”
It’s these rock fans that Emma will face at Download this summer, although the headline acts – Aerosmith and Biffy Clyro, to name a couple – are not reputed for their fondness of decapitated mammals. Fortunately.