The problem with the Big Mac festival sector in 2015
As promoters limber up for the summer season, how come so much of the festival and live music sectors have become so homogeneous?
For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to get around to writing a post here about the live music scene and the upcoming festival season. It’s something which has been on my mind and usually, I could rattle a post off here, list who’s playing at which event and get it out of my system. But the motivation to do so was just not there. Every time I had a ponder about festivals particularly, I just could not could not get over the initial feeling of “meh” so I went off and wrote about something else instead. Like festivals coming up with the innovative idea of getting bands to pay to play and then running a mile from the mess.
Then, in the last 48 hours, two things happened which sort of made me realise I was not alone in these thoughts. The first was my nephew whose post-Leaving Cert celebration plans (weeks of them by the sound of things) was going to involve going to the Reading Festival. That was, until he and his friends saw the line-up, reckoned it was totally boring and Reading was off the list. The second was this piece by Ryan Bassil. The headline, for once, sums up things: what the fuck is going on with this year’s festival line-ups?
Looking at the names who have already been announced for various bills here, in the UK and in Europe, the same names dominate the lists from mainstream festival to mainstream festival. There will always be outliers and exceptions but we’re talking about the bigger, mainstream fests here, the ones with the big advertising and marketing budgets to get in your face. Every festival which takes place on a few acres of green grass wants to be Glastonbury but none of them take the same chances or have the same freedoms (we’ll come back to Michael Eavis’ pleasuredome later).
It doesn’t matter which of these festivals you and your social network go to this summer because chances are the same acts will be bumping from one to the next in their luxurious tour buses. It’s great for the acts and their agents – festivals ensure a bumper pay-day with no need to do much promo or take much of a risk – but it means that the punter is ill-served with the same stodgy diet of safe, palatable, middle-of-the-road acts no matter where you look. Yeah, Mumford & Sons.
Anyone who has read OTR over the years will know that we’ve made many predictions over the years about the live music sector. One is that they’ll eventually run out of new headliners. This definitely seems to be the case this season with the same acts who’ve featured at various times over the last decade back at the sharp end of bills again. This means that the acts who were headliners last summer can take a breather and return in 2016 or 2017. It’s the same acts shuffled again and again when it comes to those at the top of the festival posters. It’s a miracle of repackaging and rebundling rather than something genuinely new and different.
The other prediction is that at a time of retrenchment in the recorded music sector, the live music sector were not going to be the ones to look to for serious talent development. Yes, they’ll point to how Ed Sheeran has made his mark by live shows, but he has a very serious team behind him to ensure his records get airplay, his records are bought (I know, weird, right?) and his records are streamed. You can’t have one without the other and the record side continues to have the upper hand when it comes to talent development expertise. If you disagree with this, simply tell me the name of one act in the upper echelons of the European touring circuit this summer who has relied 100% on a live music promoter to build their profile. The record side has had to come back from the dead to show ‘em how it’s done.
But perhaps change really does take a long time to come. In recent weeks. there’s been a lot of attention paid to former AEG chief Rob Hallett’s new Robomagic venture. Per Billboard, the company will have a few different sides, including “a boutique operation” utilizing a global network of independent promoters to produce domestic and global tours for “some of the biggest artists in the world” and “an investment arm which will offer both emerging and established artists finance to develop their business, including recording costs, whilst retaining the rights to their music”.
So far so not-very-interesting but, given the current statis in the sector, it’s Robomagic’s research and development side which makes you pay a little attention. “In addition to working with established and A-list talent, Robomagic will also look to forge 360 degree deals with emerging artists ‘acting as a guide for both young talented artistes and executives through the jungle that has grown up around the industry in recent years’.” Hallett obviously intends to turn his words into action because his first hire was promoter Bonita McKinney, whose roel will be to “seek out and sign up the music stars of the future and develop the careers of artists at the start of their musical journey”.
Many will watch Hallett’s journey with interest. Here’s a lad who has fought in the live music trenches for years, yet who decided to do things differently at a time when most of his peers are buying country cottages, getting chubby and leveraging their company’s financial muscle to take over the festivals they’re in competition with. When you’ve large entertainment entities turning the mainstream festival circuit into a rake of drive-in McDonalds with homogeneity the way of the walk, you need someone – anyone – who knows you can’t keep serving the same Big-Mac-and-fries all the time. Maybe this will be Hallett, maybe it won’t, but at least, he’s having a go and doing so very much on his own terms.
It’s telling that the daddy of ‘em all when it comes to summer beanos in big fields is back to being an independent going concern and is thriving as a result. Glastonbury may have flirted with the Big Mac brigade for a time in the past, but it went back to its roots a few years ago and it’s fair to sat that the festival has grown bigger and better since re-attaining independence. Of course, the festival’s reputation has been a long-term thing and every act worth their salt wants to play the event, but it’s not resting on its laurels. At the recent Eurosonic festival, Silver Hayes’ dance area booker and programmer Malcolm Haynes was one of those on a panel talking about programming a festival. He talked about how the pressure to put on a great bill is always there, even though the festival is 100 per cent sold out. No danger there of a cookie-cutter bill with the same safe names as on the Big Mac circuit.
Of course, it has to be noted that there are other festivals besides Glastonbury which can remain independent and succeed such as, for example, the well regarded Festival No 6 in Portmeirion. But independent events which operate beyond the reach of the Big Mac operators face huge problems and competition and don’t have the safety net of being able to call on a well-heeled sugar-daddy to bail them out so it’s a miracle in many cases that the events can take place year in and year out. It’s much easier when you’re a Big Mac operator because it’s your corporation’s balance sheet rather than your own money which is on the line.
The future of the festival sector really comes down to the punters. Will the audiences put up with the acts on the same bills over and over again? Will the collective experience of getting it together in a field compensate for the fact that you’re seeing Hozier or Metallica or Foo Fighters sing the same songs in the same order for the umpteenth time? We know that the mainstream will always flock to the bigger events – because that’s how the mainstream works – but the question remains about the future viability and sustainability of what is rapidly becoming a very conservative, risk-averse and unadventurous sector. A Big Mac is fine once in a while, but you wouldn’t want to be relying on them for sustenance all the time.