Interview: Celebrating International Women’s Day with Jenny Cotter and Dannika Webber (Download Festival)

Women have had a notably tough time in the music industry over the years but things have been changing for the better more recently. As a part of this progress large events are now seeing more women take to the stage than ever before. Importantly that increased representation isn’t only happening front of house. Jenny Cotter and Dannika Webber are hugely respected members of the Download Festival booking team. They have helped to reshape the legendary event making it fighting fit for the coming years. Gary Trueman chatted to Jenny and Dannika about their experiences, achievements and their thoughts on which women might one day headline the festival.

As a woman what does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Jenny Cotter: I think on a basic level, it’s a day that allows the support and energy of communities and the media to zero in on, and be focused on, issues women face every other day of the year. Through that focus and attention on this (wide) topic, I think the opportunity presents itself for progress and improvement for those facing inequality.

Dannika Webber: IWD is just a good excuse to highlight what great things women are doing all year round, and what obstacles they might be facing in different areas of their lives.

What role can men play in helping women?

Jenny Cotter: I think men should be leaders, rather than helpers, in encouraging gender equality across their communities (both personal and professional). I also think it’s important to be outspoken in holding other men accountable for any behaviours which stem from gender prejudice.

Do you have any stories you’d like to share where you feel you were held back or treated badly simply because of your gender?

Jenny Cotter: I often used to find myself feeling uncomfortable around event security. Even with the correct accreditation for whatever my role was at the time, being young and female, I felt like I was unwelcome backstage and somewhat perceived as having ‘blagged’ myself a pass or maybe trying my luck, hoping to meet someone famous. That feeling has decreased as my professional confidence has grown, but I think the narrative around ‘fan-girls’ and ‘groupies’ has been quite detrimental to women in music.

Dannika Webber: I used to sing in a band (all female); we were once kicked out of a soundcheck by the sound tech as he thought we were the other band’s girlfriends – we’ve all heard lots of stories like that, though I hope that doesn’t happen anymore.

What are your greatest achievements to date and what else is on your radar that you are yet to accomplish?

Jenny Cotter: I guess in the broad sense, my overall involvement in the Download team is my greatest achievement to date. It’s a role that I couldn’t have imagined having, and the way I’ve managed to organically grow into it has been a real pinch me moment, even years down the line. The magnitude of the festival, size-wise, but more so in terms of importance to music fans, as well as the range and calibre of acts we get to work with is exhilarating and a total privilege. More specifically however, I really feel most proud of two milestones. The first is what Dannika and I have done with the campsite entertainment. We inherited a part of the festival that was largely undervalued and in need of some TLC. Being tasked with turning it into District X and what it is now, over the course of the last couple of years, has given us incredible trust and freedom to make it an area that is re-energised and exciting again (hopefully for the fans too!). The second is being part of delivering Download Pilot. The dedication and speed that it took to get this event up and running was borderline heroic from all those involved, especially within the wider context of how the pandemic impacted the industry as a whole and individuals specifically. It really did feel like a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel – and I will forever be so proud that we (Download) were chosen to lead the way to reopening festivals safely. The call I got from Kam telling me it was happening was one of the best I ever received. Yet to accomplish? My plans are not so well formed just yet, just get through this summer first!

Dannika Webber: Finally getting The Used booked on Download Festival; yet to achieve – getting Avril Lavigne to play Download Festival.

Let’s talk a bit about your role in Download Festival. How did you land that job and how are you treated by the rest of the team?

Jenny Cotter: I had been working at alternative PR companies for a while, and knew I wanted to make the move over to live music. I applied for a Promoter Assistant role at Live Nation and managed to secure the role. That was actually 6 years ago this month interestingly. Through working in touring with Kam Haq, who is also in the DL booking team, I was quite naturally brought into Download meetings as so many of the bands that we were working on for touring were also the bands that were always being considered for the festival. It turned out to be a really positive atmosphere for growth within the role and the team were very accommodating of me making as much of the role as I wanted to. Every year my list of responsibilities and the level of influence I had within the booking meetings grew. Andy Copping has treated me like a core member of the team from the beginning, with absolute trust and respect for what I bring to the table, and with their support I plan to continue to make the most of it.

Dannika Webber: I was already working for Live Nation within Andy Copping’s team, looking after the promoter representatives that we send out on all of our tours. Andy called me one day to ask if I wanted to join the Download Team (shortly before we found out about the Download Pilot) which was a very quick yes from me, as it’s a festival and scene I’ve loved and lived in since being a teenager. Andy, Kam and Sean (Download bookers) have always encouraged us to speak up, they value our input and they support us in our progression with all things Download and beyond.

The festival has managed to book a lot of female artists over the years, notably more than the two solitary women that played its predecessor Monsters Of Rock. Do you think that this shows progress is being made?

Jenny Cotter: Absolutely. I think diverse booking teams, better opportunities for female musicians, growing support from audiences for a more balanced line up, and awareness of why a lack of representation is harmful to the industry as a whole has all played a part in where we are now.

Dannika Webber: Yes, I think it also shows progress is being made in the wider scene by labels and such, as well as what is happening on streaming platforms and social media. This all has an effect on what is popular, what is selling tickets and ultimately reflects what makes sense for us to book for Download.

Quite a substantial part of the bill for 2024 is made up of women, and it’s obvious that they are there on merit and as a part of a natural booking process. Did you have a hand in any of the women playing this year and if so who?

Dannika Webber: Yes, we put forward and vouch for lots of artists on the bill, many of them female – Babymetal, Scene Queen, Hanabie, Kelsy Karter, Vukovi, RØRY, Charlotte Sands, Pinkshift, Royal & The Serpent, Alt Blk Era,  Calva Louise – and there are so many more that the whole team are delighted to have as part of the festival this year.

Do you think we’ll get a woman headlining solo or within a band any time soon?  If so who do you think are making the right noises and progressing towards that point?

Jenny Cotter: I think it’s inevitable! Acts like Halestorm selling out Wembley Arena makes it undeniable that bands with women are hitting the same markers as any other band tipped for Download headliner success. Evanescence are another band that I think have long been ready to play that top slot, and their performance at DL23 proved that – anyone who was there will remember that clearly. Hayley Williams is another performer who would totally own that headline slot, and I know we’d be delighted to get Paramore on a line up.

Dannika Webber: We hope so – we’d love Paramore, and we think the Evanescence set last year proves that they could do it too. The crowd was so big, it was almost a struggle to catch a glimpse of Amy! The setlist and performance was incredible.

Which women in music or outside of it have inspired you the most and in what way?

Dannika Webber: So many – I grew up listening to Kelly Clarkson then Avril Lavigne then Amy Lee and Hayley Williams; all of these women really led me into the rock scene more and more as the years went on and led me to this point, having a career in an industry I love.

Jenny Cotter: Too many to name really – we are spoilt for choice! One that stands out though is Sarika Rice, part of the team at Desertfest. She is someone who came up in the industry with me, and who is a powerhouse of the independent festival scene. The way that festival has grown under her tenure has been monumental. I know first-hand how much her unending work ethic has been key to cementing the London event in the alternative music calendar, and most excitingly, her involvement in taking the festival over to America is something I admire so much. She is the sort of person that you want in your corner –  because she wants you to succeed as much as she wants success herself, and that is hard to find.

Interview by Gary Trueman