The world’s top music acts are fought over by festival organisers, but are they the surest route to a sell-out event?

Yaw Owusu, music curator, Liverpool International Music Festival

There’s no escaping the fact – festivals need big names to draw in the punters. That need can become quite intense – as we are very much in the era of over-priced ‘headline’ artists and bands, omnipotent agents and jaded audiences. There won’t be a festival curator, booker or owner, who doesn’t lament the process of pitching for and securing this top tier talent as they wonder whether the current situation is even sustainable and whether their festival will be able to win out. With festival goers expecting big names to match the big price for tickets, this is is not a walk in the park for many of us, as we fight off festival exclusivity clauses and try to dig in the well of ‘decreasing real headline talent’. Oh, did I mention the bullish promoter conglomerates? (That’s another story).

Naturally, the aim for small to medium festivals like LIMF is to strive to build such a solid reputation that people come for more than just a headliner. After all, they could just go to a regular concert of said artist. I think we strive to have people fall in love with the vibe of the festival, the peripheral elements and relative unknown and new. However we would be crazy to ever underestimate the importance and pull of a safe bet to entertain the masses, garner attention and help position our festivals.

In 2015, as part of Liverpool International Music Festival, we had a series of Commissions were we attempted to focus primarily on theme and context. Suffice to say as great as the concept were and the promise of experiencing a world first, the tickets moved slow. That is until we added the recognisable and respected headliner and ditched to theme led narrative. Then the ticket sales soared. In retrospect, the night was a huge success – primarily because of the theme, narrative and vibe – but I can’t lie, that headliner led over 70 per cent of the people to purchase tickets to the event. Lesson learned.

Lee Denny, director, Neverworld (formerly LeeFest) and Camp Wildfire

There is no single answer to this question; it entirely depends on the individual festival’s strategy. For someone like V Festival big name artists are vital, because they have built their brand around delivering some of the biggest names in the world to their fans. On the other end of the spectrum, for a truly unique event like Camp Wildfire, the question of ‘who is playing’ is rarely asked, because we have built the brand around delivering quality new activities, experiences and artists for attendees to discover. Interestingly our new creative direction for LeeFest (now called Neverworld) straddles a bit of both; we’re using bigger names to assist us with growing our audience, but we are retaining them by delivering a unique experience.