How important are those killer line-ups and headliners to festivals fighting for dominance in a crowded market? Emma Hudson investigates.

The US east coast is locked in a never-ending polar vortex. Britain is enduring floods the likes of which haven’t been seen since the days of Noah. It’s not exactly festival season.

But Access All Areas is nothing if not optimistic – and there’s something to be said for willing better weather into existence with thoughts of a warm sun and ice cold Bulmers in front of a massive stage.

It’s a crucial time for festival organisers as they announce their first confirmed headliners and open up the first round of ticket sales. These early sales can be the difference between a festival actually taking place or, as Hop Farm learned last summer, closing down.

And what sells tickets? Almost all the organisers who spoke to Access – with one big exception – said it was down to their line-ups.

“It is completely key,” said Y Not Festival’s Simon Mawbey. “Without the line-up you don’t have a festival.”

“The only way to get punters to part with their cold hard cash is if your line-up is better than [other festivals],” said We Are FSTVL organiser Reece Miller.

Happy to provide percentages, Snowbombing founder Gareth Cooper said: “The line-up is 80 per cent important to getting sales.”

“Without doubt the line-up is the most important element,” agreed 2000trees festival director James Scarlett. “Telling people we have a beautiful site or amazing food and drink doesn’t attract them to come – the bands are the hook.”

Only Glastonbury, perhaps unsurprisingly, downplayed the connection between the festival’s line-up and ticket sales. “We sell all our tickets in an hour in October, before anyone’s even heard of a line-up,” Michael Eavis told Access.

Eavis hit explicitly on something that all festival organisers hope for but that Glastonbury, almost uniquely, can rely on: an audience that returns in huge numbers year after year.

“We’re in a strong position and long may we maintain that,” Eavis said. “We sell tickets starting on 4 October and we haven’t even thought of a line-up by then. People are buying on past records and assuming that [each year] is going to be as good as it has been.”

It’s a cushy position, but one that Glastonbury has spent decades building to. Not every festival has reached those heights yet – a fact that We Are FSTVL, which debuted in 2013, is keenly aware of.

“No one knew us from Adam [last year],” said Miller. “The brand had zero value.” Unable and unwilling to sell ‘early-bird’ tickets before their inaugural festival’s line-up was in place, organisers set about on a hard-core grassroots marketing campaign. “We’ll market every blade of grass until the tickets are sold,” Miller said. “That aggressive attitude to marketing is not adopted by every show that’s out there. We do what we’ve got to do.”

Their tactics paid off twofold: not only did We Are FSTVL attract 15,000 punters to Essex for the one-day festival, but they also won Best New Festival at the UK Festival Awards in December 2013.

Snowbombing, which has been running for 15 years, may not be in the comfortable position of Glastonbury, but it’s also certainly not as precariously situated as newer or smaller festivals like We Are FSTVL, Festival No. 6 and 2000trees. Snowbombing sells half its tickets before the line-up is announced – but with the caveat that customers don’t have to actually pay their £125 deposit until the end of February, when the first headliners are announced.

It puts pressure on them to deliver a consistently stellar line-up, Cooper said. “About 60 per cent of the people that have been before will come back regardless [of the line-up] because of the experiences, the people they meet and the atmosphere. It shows that people trust us.”

Surely there must be some customers who bow out once the line-up is announced, though. “About 3-5 per cent do,” Cooper conceded. “If the line-up is [not good], that happens. Social media is so reactive. If you don’t improve your line-up, you’re going to get slammed down. As soon as you have a bad year or a bad experience, it’s hard to get back up off of that. You’ve got to get better every year.”

Indie-rock festival 2000trees, though it won Best Grassroots Festival at the 2013 UK Festival Awards, still struggles every year to make the most of their budget. “Our annual [line-up] budget is £70,000 – about 20 per cent of the total budget,” Scarlett told Access. “This takes a lot of juggling to make it work as it’s significantly smaller than a lot of comparable festivals.”

Scarlett’s greatest frustration in booking a line-up each year is dealing with the agents and managers surrounding bands. “The process for booking headliners is frustrating,” he said. “The main challenge is the joy of dealing with booking agents. They’re not the most polite to indie promoters such as myself and you need a thick skin at times.”

Agents, Scarlett said, try to maximise the fee and billing for their acts. It’s a constant push and pull with Scarlett trying to stay within budget and agents trying to get as much money as possible for the bands they represent. Ever the optimist, Scarlett keeps his spirits up throughout.

“It’s not easy,” he admits, “but we always get there eventually.”

While few festival organisers were willing to give out their actual budget for booking line-ups – 2000trees being a welcome exception – most confirmed that it usually added up to about 35 per cent of their festivals’ total price tag.

Stretching that 35 per cent to a full line-up, usually consisting of at least 90 acts, is a tricky balancing act. “You have to get it right for the right price,” said Snowbombing’s Cooper. “You can book the best line-up ever but if your event is going to go bankrupt it’s been stupid.”

We Are FSTVL’s Miller has seen his budget go up because of his festival’s inaugural success. “We’ve gone from one day to two days and for the talent you can’t put the same artists on both days,” he said. The festival’s success and recognition has also meant that suppliers, agents and vendors are “charging through the nose”, in Miller’s words, because they assume We Are FSTVL now has a bottomless budget.

For all the festivals, the pressure of living up to the previous year weighs heavier on organisers than even their tight budgets.

Festival No. 6, heading into its third year, is getting a taste of what older festivals experience every year. “Many people who came the first two years have already booked for this year,” said festival director Bradley Thompson. “Those people now trust Festival No. 6 to deliver a line-up that’s going to delight and surprise, and we want to make sure we deliver that and more.”

Even Glastonbury’s Eavis said there’s significant stress involved in trying to top last year. “We have to maintain,” he said. “Everyone’s working so hard to get it down and every day there’s more pressure. We’re pushing the boat out – it’s not a doddle.”

Many organisers told Access that there’s a ‘We could have done that better’ moment every year.

“You say it every year in some capacity,” Y Not’s Mawbey said. “Otherwise there would be no way of improving. The whole process is really tricky and can be lengthy and frustrating, with a lot of dead-ends. There are always things could be made better.”

“I don’t think there is a promoter in the world that doesn’t [say that],” agreed Secret Garden Party’s Fred Fellowes.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the customers. Organisers can book a line-up they feel is strong only to see it rejected by the rabid festivalgoers. “Every year you chase artists to perform and for various reasons – touring cycle, other commitments, or other festivals – you can’t present certain acts,” said Wireless Festival’s Steve Homer. “The final decision is with the customer and if they don’t feel like it’s good enough, they simply won’t go.”

We Are FSTVL, hoping for a second successful year, has a laid back approach as it heads into full festival season.

“We just hope that the punters who appear enjoy the show as much as we enjoy putting it together,” Miller shrugged.


This was first published in the March issue of AAA. Any comments? Email Emma Hudson