WORDS: TOM HALL
If critical acclaim and mass appeal are the ingredients for a credible headliner, it’s easy to sympathise with those who bemoan the lack of blockbuster acts today. The issue godes some festival bosses into a venomous rage. Others, frankly, don’t give a damn.
Access recently caught up with British icons, Harvey Goldsmith CBE and Wayne Hemingway MBE, two important figures in British culture and events. Their opinions on festival headliners, however, were polarised.
Goldsmith, who last year pioneered the inaugural On Blackheath festival, said that there is a dearth of quality headliners emerging in the music industry and it is a problem for the event industry’s progression. Hemingway, however, said our current eclectic and fragmented culture should be celebrated.
Despite the obvious observation that there are simply far more festivals in 2015, it seems self evident that fewer bands have emerged in the past decade who unite the masses as well as please the critics. So, are televisual ‘talent’ competitions and glossy corporatisation to blame, and is there any escape from a future of bombast and autotune?
The Sixties is much trumped as popular music’s golden era, and according to ex-booking agent of The Doors and Grateful Dead manager Richard Loren, the spirit of the era, that fostered some of the greatest genius’ of the modern age, is sorely missed.
Loren continues: “The Top 30 had Hendrix, Joplin, Otis, The Doors, Dylan, The Stones, The Who, Cream, Pink Floyd [he continues for a while longer, but you get the point] and we took it for granted. It was an immense concentration of cultural energies. The seeds of anti-war and civil rights were planted and the movements united the people. We shared love, compassion, hope.”
Loren says that the 80’s “yuppie culture”, a homogenised corporate media and the techno-trance of the Internet Age have all impacted on creating a demise in mass art and culture, shrinking the number of credible headliner acts. “Kids now are stuck in a screen trance, they’re not looking to the future, they’re trying to make money and are engulfed by fear. There’s a sense of “oh my God what am I going to do?”. College is not an answer anymore,” he adds.
Bestival’s ‘Summer of Love’ theme, applauded by Loren, meanwhile, is an attempt to create positivity in the face of global catastrophe, a nod to the Sixties spirit that’s acknowledged by founder Rob da Bank. He says the theme is a positive reaction to all the bad news and downright evil going on in the world. “We’re not just talking about bell-bottomed hippies with flowers in their hair, or red-jeaned ravers circumnavigating the M25. It’s deeper and wider, and even longer than that. It’s about positivity, peace and love, and bananas not guns. We want all people, all sexes, all ages, all cultures to come together and to share the good times, to celebrate the simple joy of unity, to feel the unparalleled pleasures of dancing shoulder to shoulder with wonderful strangers and loving every second,” he adds.
Hemingway, whose event franchise is called Vintage, is clearly a man who also draws on the past for inspiration, however, he says that quality and permanence is his passion and the modern age has bought about wealth of opportunities for niche artists to thrive commercially.
“What Vintage is about is creating something that will last and stand the test of time. Are The Beatles retro or are they permanent? They’re permanent in our minds.There are people as big
grossing [commercially], like Radiohead, who are a world band, but they’ve managed to stay out of the mass media spotlight. They are still underground and leftfield, but because of the scale of access to music now you can stay leftfield and remain mass market.”
He adds that the Sixties’ clean-cut scene would have downgraded Radiohead into being a niche prog rock band. “They’re not commercial enough to be on Saturday night TV, like The Kinks and The Beatles were. There was not the social media construction to get them out there. You can be cool now and not sellout. It’s an amazing time.”
Despite the clear advantages now enjoyed by internet-savvy bands, the hunger for a churn of acts that will sell big ticket numbers is real and Full Fat’s director Dan Walsh says its needs to be addressed. “The reality is there is no shortage of excellent bands that could be the headliners of the future, the issue is who is going to be the one to invest the time and money in developing the act to get them to headliner level?”
Walsh says the demise of the ‘A&R man’ is partly to blame: “As record sales have declined over the last decade, so too have development budgets. Meanwhile the live industry has been booming, in particular the festival market”.
So the question is should the live sector shoulder more of the responsibility for developing the headliners of the future?
Walsh continues: “We have been seeing live promoters starting to take some risks with artists and booking them for their first headline slot at a major festival, such as Stuart Galbraith booking Biffy Clyro as the Saturday night Sonisphere headliner in 2011, and I think this will happen more and more as promoters are forced to work harder to sell their tickets. And that is ultimately, what it comes down to, selling tickets.“
Such a movement could be revolutionised, according to Loren, if the the likes of Pandora and Spotify focus on helping local talent pools break away from the stifling record industry by transmitting local gigs in a consumer-friendly format. “I can think of a wealth of great, credible acts that deserve greater attention: Ed Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros, Lake Street Dive, The Milk Carton Kids and anyone who plays an instrument because they love it,” Loren continues.
Walsh adds that the issue of headliners has nothing to do with the critics, per se, it’s about whether a band has the ability to sell the number of tickets required to justify the fee. “If agents priced their artists more realistically live events and festivals wouldn’t have to take such a risk on whether the act will sell tickets and they would be more likely to invest in the artist’s development. As it is, with artist fees being so high, the promoter needs to sell X percentage more tickets to justify the fee and the maths currently isn’t working,” he adds.
Others, like 5000 director Andy Inglis, agree it is a numbers game, but stress that many creative thinking festivals do-away with the headliner problem altogether. “A headliner that works for Pukkelpop isn’t necessarily going to work for Pohoda. Dour Festival don’t give much of a f*** about headliners in the modern sense of the word, and they do fine. Fusion don’t release their bill until you walk through the gate when the festival opens. They’ve been selling out on that basis since 1979. The headline in the local newspaper when I booked Kings of Leon at Quart Festival, Norway, in 2008? ‘Unknown Band to Headline Quart’. Go figure.”
Anton Lockwood, promotions director, No Tomorrow festival/DHP Family, meanwhile, remembers going to Reading in the mid-Eighties when there were 20,000 people there and a headliner who could gig at Brixton Academy.
“Now it’s two sites, totalling around 110,000 people and the headliners do multiple O2s or stadiums,” he adds. “And yes there aren’t that many of those enormous acts, it’s not a surprise, and not going to change as there won’t ever be loads of acts at that level. It’s true that it shifts by genre – there
Disclosure, Rudimental et al are emerging from the electronic/dance scene to be able to headline 50,000 people events – but the total number of big acts hasn’t changed so much. And it’s why smaller events with programming relevant to a particular market have emerged in the last few years – because the enormo-fests are at saturation.”
There’s nothing wrong with niche, but there is a problem with quality of presentation, adds Inglis. “There doesn’t need to be a revolution in anything, other than in customer service and production (in the UK). The audience will decide what kind of festivals survive and which collapse, and bookers would do well to get to know their audience intimately.”
However, he warns: “Be aware that, thanks to the conveyor belt of death we’re all in, their audience will change every year as people have kids, acquire mortgages, emigrate, lose their hearing in an industrial accident, die, go to prison or get bored of either your particular festival, or festivals in general.”
Hemingway concurs about taste dictating the events landscape, but urges engagement, support and patience: “If a creative or cultural project fails, then so be it. Those that are worthy will stand the test of time, but young, creative talent will always need nurturing.”
What’s in the crystal ball then? Inglis is at a loss. “In 2002 there was no Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, iTunes, Spotify, Skype or smartphones, and only 13 per cent of the UK had high speed broadband. The way people exist now is radically different and it’s not going back to the way it was in 2012, never mind 1965.”
With a music industry struggling with revenues and blistering technological change, there’s certainly a greater reliance on saccharine acts to make a quick buck. However, change is the only certainty in life, and if the commercial behemoth embraces the Internet’s potential, perhaps local, credible talent will triumph en masse.
Certainly, for the hardcore festival fan, a line-up of boyband members crooning over-vibratoed covers is a fate worse than death, but we live in a time where every genre has its own burgeoning scene, even if there’s 100, not 100,000 watching.
While that doesn’t exonerate festival bosses from taking a punt on new talent, it does guarantee there is a rich event landscape ready for the next Beatles, Radiohead, or even One Direction, if you’re that way inclined.