Are UK festival headliners monotonous?

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Photo by Andrew Noel

ABOUT three years ago, I read an article in Q Magazine regarding festival headliners. The article complained that there were four primary acts that dominated the big UK festivals, and that newer acts weren’t getting the opportunities. Those big acts were Muse, Kings of Leon, Arctic Monkeys and The Killers. Now, in 2014, as we enter the festival season, let’s review some of the biggest festivals in the UK, and see if there has been any change.

There are 6 of the most prominent, typical ‘rock’ festivals in the UK. These are Glastonbury, Reading/Leeds, Isle of Wight, Latitude, T in the Park and Bestival. Despite all slotting comfortably into the bracket of ‘rock’, each has their own speciality, providing a diverse range of headliners. For example: Bestival this year will have Outkast, Chic, Foals and Beck as their headliners, a rather disparate bunch, while Reading and Leeds instead focus on the more traditional rock side, with Queens of the Stone Age, Paramore, Arctic Monkeys and Blink 182 headlining. The difference between the line ups of these two particular festivals doesn’t end there. Bestival has a history of varied and colourful headliners; last year featured Fatboy Slim, Snoop Dogg and Elton John, and the year before Florence and the Machine, New Order and Stevie Wonder. In fact, in the history of Bestival, no one act has headlined more than once. Reading and Leeds however have a slightly more closed off view. Blink 182 headlined 4 years ago, and Arctic Monkeys 5. Despite bumping Queens and Paramore up to the status of headliner, they’re hardly new, both being festival regulars. Since 2000, Foo Fighters have headlined 3 times, and names such as Green Day, Guns N’ Roses and Muse pop up a couple of times each. Sure, these are good, big, festival headliner bands, but Reading/Leeds being the festivals they are; surely they could get any band they wanted? Why play it so safe? Admittedly, it’s much bigger than Bestival, but that hasn’t stopped others…

This leads me nicely on to Glastonbury. Surely Glastonbury can remedy the lack of diversity at Reading/Leeds? The festival famously has a tradition for its headliners: the current rock act, the older rock act, and the alternative act, although this year’s line up of Arcade Fire, Metallica and Kasabian leads me to wonder which one is which. This in itself produces some interesting combinations (David Bowie, Travis and The Chemical Brothers anyone?) Of course, like Reading/Leeds, there have been reoccurring acts in recent years, namely Coldplay and Arctic Monkeys, but you won’t find many familiar names, or indeed many recurring genres. Glastonbury is one of the only festivals where one year Beyonce will headline, and another Metallica. Glastonbury’s rep for new acts continues, as this year all the headliners have never headlined before. But Glasto isn’t the only festival to bring in the new acts.

The music press are always seemingly rooted for new acts to headline festivals, and who can blame them? Especially after the occasional monotony of Reading and Leeds. This year sees Two Door Cinema Club, Blur’s Damon Albarn and The Black Keys take well deserved headline slots, with last year having Foals headline their first festival. What’s good about Latitude is it’s the right size for a band like Foals or The Black Keys to have their first headline slot, and preps them for the likes of Reading and Glastonbury. This gives Latitude a good diversity of acts, such as Kraftwerk and Bon Iver.

Back to the big festivals, we are left with two quite different events. Up in Scotland, T in the Park has, in more recent times, abandoned its indie roots in place of something more poppy. This year they have Biffy Clyro, an act that haunts a few festivals, electronic monolith Calvin Harris, one might argue hardly a deserving headliner, and Arctic Monkeys, one of the big names you’d expect. The thing with T in the Park is not that their headliners aren’t diverse, but are just… boring. A rock festival that is in the process of turning into a pop festival has some pretty standard names for headliners: The Killers, Mumford and Sons, Biffy Clyro and Snow Patrol to name a few. The festival seems to play it very safe when selecting their top names; there aren’t any surprises. But if what you’re presenting attracts an audience, why bother?

Finally, we can look at the Isle of Wight Festival. This festival obviously has a special legacy, and was revived in 2002. Since then, the headliners often echo the classic rock genre of that past era, with a sprinkling of modern music. Acts such as Bon Jovi, The Stone Roses, Paul McCartney and The Rolling Stones have made appearances as well as more modern rock acts like The Strokes, Muse and Kasabian. This year the festival was headlined by Biffy Clyro, Calvin Harris, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Kings of Leon. It’s nice to see that the old acts are still prevalent at the Isle of Wight Festival while bringing in relevant rock acts that work well with the oldies. Despite bringing in acts such as Calvin Harris, we can hope that the festival remains in its niche market of classic rock and garage rock acts, providing a healthy alternative to Bestival, Reading, and even Glasto.

From looking at ‘The Big Six’ of British ‘Rock’ music festivals, each are doing varying degrees to create a diverse variety of entertainment. It’s pleasant to see an ever changing rooster of headliners from a festival, especially when bands that wouldn’t usually get the chance are pushed up to the top spot. Unfortunately there is still some predictability in the big UK rock festivals, perhaps not quite as much as posited in the Q article all those years ago, but to the stage where one fails to be surprised at the picks of some festivals. But, hey, it’s progress; perhaps one day every festival’s headliners will be a total mixed bag?

 

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1 Response

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