Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Trapped in a Loop: The State of the Festival Headliner

Ah, festival season. The period between June and early September across the UK and Europe where practically every single artist known in the world, and then some, descend to various fields across the continent, where large Big Tops, vast metal constructs, and crowds raging from the small to the indescribably huge await them and their songs. Music festivals have been a cultural cornerstone for half a century, and are arguably even larger than ever.

Festivals are a wonderful place, if you don't mind appalling weather, dodgy sleeping patterns and the one drunk Northerner wearing nothing but an inflatable rubber duck ring and latex horse head. It's often a chance for the fan to see several of their favourite artists playing their favourite hits in one day, or over a weekend, for a substantially-reduced cost than it would be to see them all individually. But they are also a great place to discover new music. As a personal example, I'd never given Sheffield metallers Bring Me the Horizon any real time of day before I saw them sub-headline Leeds Festival in 2015, playing under thrash veterans Metallica. They produced an electrifying live show and their new material was distinctly against the grain of their older work from the album There Is a Hell, Believe Me I've Seen It. There Is a Heaven, Let's Keep It a Secret, incorporating a more mainstream pop-rock template. Their fifth record released in the aftermath, That's the Spirit, was a contender for my album of the year, and I will be seeing them step up to the big time on the standard touring circuit when they play Manchester Arena in November.

Oli Sykes of Bring Me the Horizon, live at Reading 2015. Courtesy of  Reading Festival.
But Bring Me the Horizon also help to exemplify the issues that plague the festival circuit, namely the coveted position of headliner. Critics and detractors often like to point out that the larger festivals in Britain are reluctant to promote up and coming acts in favour of traditionally tried-and-tested artists who have been topping festival bills for considerably time. Many smaller festivals, owing to their capacities and demographics, are often headlined by acts who are one the rise, such as End of the Road, but the big six British music festivals - Glastonbury, Reading and Leeds, T in the Park, V, Download and the Isle of Wight - seem to have a perpetual reluctance combined to give fresh talent a chance.

They will of course argue against this strongly, and festival promoters have an obligation to make their business model a success - regular headline acts such as Kasabian and The Killers remain some of the biggest bands in the business and draw in huge crowds. But taking a chance on a new artist is a rarer occurrence. To return to Bring Me the Horizon, there were strong hopes after superb sales for That's the Spirit (since certified Gold and still selling at a reasonable pace in the current market), that they would make the logical step up on the back of their Reading and Leeds billing to headline at Download, the country's premier metal and hard rock weekender. Instead, Castle Donington's annual bash announced three headliners who had all played since 2012, two of them together in 2013 - Rammstein, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. They are one of the strongest trio of headliners you could get on paper - but there's a distinctly stale feeling about it when Bring Me the Horizon outsold Rammstein and Sabbath's last efforts with comfortable aplomb (Maiden's sixteenth record The Book of Souls, ended up being the biggest hard rock/metal album of the year but even then That's the Spirit was snapping at its heels). Sabbath are admittedly on their farewell tour, making them a prime booking for Download - but with a huge album and deep enough back catalogue (five albums worth now), there's no logical reason why Bring Me the Horizon shouldn't have gotten the gig ahead of either Rammstein or Maiden if going on sales, of both albums and tickets in the instance of the former.

T in the Park is an prime offender for stale bookings. In 2010, they gave Kasabian their first major UK headline slot, a nice example of a promoted band. But in the five festivals since, they have topped the bill another two times. That's three headline gigs over six festivals. A sixth of all headline bookings at T in the Park since the turn of the decade are accounted for purely by Kasabian. It's ridiculous. They may put on a very good live show, yes, but plenty of bands have been snapping at the heels of headline slots for years. Elbow, The Script, The Black Keys. Of those three, online the latter have found any luck - a 2015 slot at the Isle of Wight, a festival than runs a strange gamut in pure nostalgia (their 2012 lineup of Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and Pearl Jam was ridiculously strong, but not exactly modern). These festivals appear to be trapped in a perpetual time loop, of the same dozen acts or so filling the upper tiers of  bills - Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys, The Killers, Metallica, Coldplay, the list goes on.

Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, live at Reading in 2011. Courtesy of NME.
There are flaws in this circuit too - after all, how do you decide when an artist is ready to take the step into the headline position? Mumford and Sons topped the Glastonbury bill in 2013 on the back of two massive albums - but two albums alone wasn't enough to convince a festival crowd they were ready. Their 2015 Reading and Leeds headline slot, with a third album under their belt, was better received, and it's possessing this depth of catalogue that is a key factor in deciding who headlines. As a general rule, three hit albums is enough, no matter your remaining releases. Biffy Clyro have released six albums but the first three didn't particularly trouble the charts. Then Puzzle, Only Revolutions and Opposites all became mainstream hits and they were rewarded with Reading and Leeds, T and Isle of Wight slots on the campaign trail. Ditto the now departed My Chemical Romance, whose first album sunk without trace but whose remaining three records took them to a Reading and Leeds slot in 2011.

There was a general outcry over Florence and the Machine's lack of a headline slot at Glastonbury Festival last year - an unfortunate accident to Dave Grohl took the Foo Fighters' show out of the equation and, again with three hit albums, Welch and co stepped up to steal the festival (owing to middling sets perhaps from the much-hyped Kanye West and the last minute headliners of The Who). It seems that three records is as good a justification as any for a new headline act but even then, there's always going to be veterans. Coldplay have just been announced to top the Sunday night at Glastonbury, their fourth time headlining the festival. It's a strong booking fiscally, yes, and similar to Sabbath at Download, comes as part of a rumoured farewell tour. Elsewhere, it's a mixed bag. The Isle of Wight Festival has conjured up two previous headliners for a co-headline jaunt on the Friday in Stereophonics and Faithless, whilst the camp-as-a-row-of-tents Adam Lambert will burst across the stage with Queen another night. T in the Park has nailed on the resurgent Stone Roses, who after an initial run of reunion dates (including T in 2012) appeared to have gone into hibernation. Reading and Leeds has tapped the heritage alt-funk of Red Hot Chili Peppers, but have also given Foals a co-headline slot with Disclosure (most of the outcry for this is that Foals could probably do it without the need for Disclosure, whose second album dropped down the charts faster than a stock market crash). V Festival is yet to drop anyone, though rumours are pointing to The Killers - again, for the third time in five years. Bestival has soundly tapped Major Lazer to headline - but they've also got The Cure back, albeit five years since they last played. There's a definite cycle going on, with perhaps only one new act breaking through to the top of the pile each year.

Coldplay, live in concert in 2015. Courtesy of AP.
Of course, the only way for artists to get there is to dominate commercially too, and in the current climate of the harts, that's easier said than done. Acts who are either not-festival friendly or too early in their career to possess a depth of catalogue are the ones with the big albums - Adele, Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith. It is difficult for promoters to look at the figures and make these gambles on the uninitiated. But there are plenty waiting for their chance and already able to acquit themselves at the highest level. In fact, it is unfair to say that no new blood is coming through. Reading and Leeds have given debuts to Queens of the Stone Age, Paramore, Biffy Clyro and now Foals and Disclosure in the past three years. The Isle of Wight edged up the Black Keys. Download put on Avenged Sevenfold. But for many, it's veterans of the scene. Green Day, Eminem, The Prodigy, Noel Gallagher in some shape or form, Coldplay, ruddy Kasabian again. How long before we can truly look at the biggest festivals and say that offer something entirely new? That, may be a long time coming.

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