Jim Carroll

Music, Life and everything else

Who are the festival headliners of tomorrow?

Probably the festival headliners of today, if you listen to what some promoters have to say

Thu, Feb 20, 2014, 09:38


You’ll find some interesting insights into the future of the festival promotion game in Lisa Wright’s interviews with three festival bookers for Noisey. Wright spoke to the people who make the decisions about who gets to play at the Isle of Wight, Reading/Leeds and Beacons festival. As she says herself in the introduction, “their answers were both really invigorating and mind-blowingly depressing”.

The latter probably applies to what veteran Solo Agency booker, promoter and agent John Giddings from the Isle of Wight festival had to said about who he expects to be headlining festivals in the years to come. “There are only a limited number of acts in the world that can headline the Isle of Wight festival”, he notes. “The music industry isn’t building new headliners. In twenty years time you’ll still see the likes of Coldplay or Muse headlining festivals.”

If that thought makes you cry into your cornflakes, the other bookers, Ash Kollakowski from Beacons and John Mac from Reading/Leeds were slightly more upbeat in their assessments. Kollakowski mentined competition from European festival who could compete on price and weather (it’s good to know that Irish music fans flocking to Primavera is not the only foreign invasion to give promoters sleepless nights), while Mac sees Foals and Disclosure as potential headliners in the future.

While Giddings’ views may not be good news at first blush – unless you’re a Coldplay fan – it’s worth parsing them a little. Look at the nominations for best band at last night’s Brits awards, for instance. We know that One Direction are capable of doing a Garth Brooks right now, but they’re unlikely to feature at an Isle of Wight or Reading unless hell freezes over sometime soon due to climate change. Could we see Arctic Monkeys, Bastille, Rudimental or Disclosure as acts who could draw 40,000 in their own stead to a festival? What about the wave of recent breakthroughs from the across the Atlantic like Arcade Fire? The more you think about it, the more you realise that there are plenty of possibles out there.

But there are still two outstanding issues regarding potential future festival headliners, one of which Giddings voices and the other which he and his peers never will. The first is the fact that the music industry isn’t building new headliners any more. Changes in how the music business operate are nothing new and there has certainly not been any shift by the live side to replace the record side when it comes to developing new acts and spending the time, patience and largesse to turn them into festival headliners.

Many may have believed when these changes first began to take shape that the live side would step into the breach when the record industry ran out of money and road, but more astute observers never bought that one for a moment. It was always – always – the record side of the house who took the time to turn debut album acts into long-term artists. The fact that there’s less and less big acts emerging has as much to do with the live side’s inability to see beyond short-term profit and loss as it has to do with the record industry’s diminished balance sheets. If the live side are worried about the lack of headliners, they kind of only have themselves to blame – they can’t just leave it to the record labels anymore.

The second issue is if we really believe people will still want to go to festival like Isle of Wight, Primavera, Electric Picnic, Reading etc 20 years from now. While festivals have been a part of the music industry infrastructure since the Sixties, there have been plenty of ups and downs during this time. We had the likes of Lisdoonvarna and Feile in the past in Ireland to pull audiences and build profile, but it was only the arrival of Witnness in 2000 and the Electric Picnic in 2004 which accelerated both supply and demand – and indeed, both of those took a few years to get going.

Who’s to say that the current situation where we have over 100 music festivals here every summer will continue for another decade, never mind 20 years? Music festivals are hardly going to buck the trends which apply to everything from media to technology to industry and remain immune to the slings and arrows of change in trends and fashions. There will always be a demand for the actual acts – you can probably expect to see Coldplay playing 10 nights in the WhatsAppBook Grand Canal Theatre in 2034 – but it remains to be seen if there’s still a thrill to be had from watching them play in a muddy, windy field in the middle of a typical Irish summer.