Saturday, 22 February 2014

Why are festival headliners getting older?

A while ago a friend observed that the headliner acts at major festivals are getting older and older, with his theory being that 'there are no new acts good enough to be headliners these days'. Initially I disbelieve him, thinking it was "things were better in my days" type thinking, so I set forth to see what was actually happening. Mostly because my theory is that there are plenty of great, acts out there who can do just as well as the more established groups, both in terms of musical quality/ability and performance giving.

I selected Reading and Download/Monster Of Rock as my data set, mostly because they have been running the longest and partly because they have consistently aim for a similar audience through all their years (if you discount Reading's origins as a Jazz festival, which Reading has). Glastonbury has been running for a comparable length of time but its audience has changed dramatically, going from being a drugged-up hippy-fest to a drugged-up middle-class-fest through its promotion by the BBC (but that's another story). They have also been relatively consistent since the start of the 80's, which is when recent musical history starts in the minds of most of my chums/people likely to read this blog. So, over the course of several hours, I went over all the headlining acts (as defined by the Festival, and counting 2nd and 3rd stages) and compared the year the headliners performed against the year of their first album release (as the actual starting year of many bands is a contested issue). After crunching through the data I came to the all important truth: Darren Douglas was right.


No two ways about it, the headlining bands are getting older. So why, when there are so many good new bands, is this happening? It is counter intuitive to the whole 'joy and power of youth' element that rock has always espoused. Why did two musical events, aimed at different demographics in the market ( in broad terms Reading is more 18-25 whilst Download is more 21+), end up having a similar trend? From a bit of research, and from talking to some 'industry insiders', I came the following conclusions:

The growth of festival audiences has changed who can headline

Both of the events listed have grown in size since the 80's, so where as you could previously have had a headlining act that could attract a couple thousand people you now need someone that pull in the tens of thousands. Both events have 90,000+ tickets for sale and the headliner acts are still the main draw, so to cover that many tickets you need a band with a proven track record who can regularly sell out venues like the O2 Arena (which only holds 23,000 so its 'multiple nights' rather than 'one off show' territory). These kinds of acts are not that common, to give you an idea I've been able to find four rock acts currently billed to play +15,000 venues this year.
Additionally many headliners are booked two or even three years in advance now, to ensure that they will attend the event. A 5 year old band might still be together in 3 years time but its not as likely as one that's been going for 15+. This means you need a band that you know will still be together by the time the festival comes around, so reliable and seasoned acts are less of a gamble on that front. 

It also gets worse when you find out that record sales are one of the factors involved when calculating the size of a band, something that not all new bands are focused on in the new media age, which leads to the next issue.

The new media has reduced bands ability to headline

Previously if a band could get championed by MTV, Kerrang, Melody Maker, or NME they had a decent chance of success, and potential headliner status. This was due to their being a very narrow amount of information that could be transmitted, for example if you were into alternative rock in the 90's you had a two two-hour shows a week on TV in which to actually listen to new stuff being released, meaning that each band had a far larger mindshare to play with (around an 80th a week) where as now you can happily hit youtube and watch 3360 completely new videos of alternative rock if you wish. This is good in many ways, because more people can find music they really like, but is also bad in some as there is no central path or 'gatekeeper' that can result in a band getting big. You also have a lack of major co-defined movements in rock: the 80's had NOBHM and thrash, the 90's had Alternative and Nu-Metal, whilst the 00's had an outbreak of minority interests like the varying forms of extreme and noise. Diversification has become the rule, rather than focus or exemplar bands.

The medium-to-big sized bands scene has shrunk, whilst the small-to-medium has exploded. From a festival viewpoint this means you are more likely to get to play at one of them with a smaller audience, however its going to be harder to get the critical mass needed to headline. Bands starting now are in a 'post-headliner' world, to a great degree, where diversification has taken over the market. As stated previously many of them are actually good enough to headline, it's just that they will never be able to get the kick needed to get that big. This is further complicated by headlining keeping the older acts big, you may not go to a festival to see the headliner but you are very likely to end up watching them which will help perpetual their bigness. All of this is reducing the chance of a smaller act picking up new audience, and keeping them away from the headliner spot. And even if a small band lucked out and got that slot would it actually do them that much good?

Not everyone will want to headline a festival

The idea of headlining a festival is a lovely one, but the reality of it is quite different. To begin with there is the simple pressure of putting on an hour and a half show, but you soon have to add in the fact that everyone is watching. If you go out there and don't perform perfectly word is going to get around very quickly, and very publicly, around both the fans and the industry. Doesn't have to be a major thing, doesn't even have to be your fault, but if it goes wrong you'll be remembered for it and never be able to get rid of that history. This will impact record sales, PR opportunities, and booking opportunities. From what I have had explained to me that pressure alone has caused internationally renowned acts to give a 'thanks, but no thanks' response when offered the headline. Much better to go second or third, especially when you realise that unlike an arena performance: This crowd is not "your crowd".

If you can sell out the big three arenas in the UK that means around 60,000 people in the UK want to spend money to see you live. If all of them turn up to see you headline a major festival that means that only 1 in 3 of the audience may not actually give that much of a damn about you. One in three is a lot of people that you have to convert to your side, so you have to be damn confident that a large section of the crowd isn't going to go from 'disinterested' to 'outright hostile' on you. It could mean them walking home early (embarrassing) to a being booed all the way through to a 'Reading Salute' of projectiles being thrown onto the stage. Not something that everyone would be interested in having to face, regardless of the prestige or money, when they are used to a positive home-field audience.

There could be other reasons as well, for example families now going to events so organisers having to find more cross-age-group appealing acts or the lack of major co-defined movements in rock during the 00's resulting in a lack of big enough exemplar bands for particular scenes. However hopefully the above goes someway to explaining why it's not just a case of 'no good new bands' and more of a changing market that has made it far harder for a new band to get to the top.

If anyone has thoughts on this one I would very much like to hear them by the way, so please post up whatever you may have. Also the raw data is available if anyone else wants to have a play with it.
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