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Is Glastonbury really running out of headliners?


Controversy around the Glastonbury line-up, given the vagaries of the British weather, is an even more reliable feature of the festival calendar than photographs of mud dwelling festival-goers. This year, Norman Cook, one of the festival’s stalwarts, has said that it is “running out of headliners”. His comments echo a growing concern about the lack of artists of a suitable stature to command the attention of a large, diverse festival crowd.
Some genuine structural issues lie at the heart of this. Despite the seasonal media focus on the likes of Glastonbury – and more broadly on headliners and major events – the live music sector can be seen as an “ecology”. There’s a degree of interdependence across venues and performance spaces of different sizes and types.
This pertains to Cook’s worry, in that problems at the grassroots will be felt higher up the economic ladder if there aren’t enough spaces for the up-and-coming acts to cut their teeth on the live circuit and hone their craft. The grassroots circuit, in the face of gentrification and economic uncertainty, is subject to considerable challenges.
The Music Venue Trust’s 2016 report to the London mayor’s office, for instance, spoke of a “chasm” between grassroots gigs and the upper end of the market – it identified stagnating prices at the bottom and a spate of closures putting pressure on the system.
There’s some evidence that the work of the Music Venue Trust and others is starting to bear fruit, not least in bringing the situation to the attention of policymakers, with the creation of a Night Czar for London and the challenges for venues starting to appear in party manifestos. Nevertheless, questions about where the Radioheads and U2s of tomorrow will emerge from seem apt.

Beyond the green fields

The economics of festivals themselves are also significant. Glastonbury, as one of the financial and cultural keystones of the festival season, seems secure. But the market is increasingly crowed and competitive. Higher production costs – and the fact that touring and ticket sales have largely overshadowed recording revenues for top-tier acts – add to the squeeze on the long-term sustainability of the circuit. Spotify’s chief economist Will Page has noted the rising average age of headline acts at major festivals since the mid 1990s.
Not Fade Away: Rolling Stones headlining Glastonbury in 2013. Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images
But the “festival” itself is something of a moveable feast – and the market adapts. It’s increasingly more about packaging and selling a broader experience than just a series of live sets and, for green field camping festivals like Glastonbury, a sense of escapism from the quotidian. The festival market also includes city-based showcase events, such as Brighton’s Great Escape or Liverpool’s Sound City, with a very different dynamic and a greater emphasis on breaking new bands and, indeed, supporting local venues.
Radiohead have headlined the Pyramid stage three times. Yui Mok/PA Archive/PA Images
A wider understanding of what constitutes a festival also helps to shine a light on some other underlying issues in the live music sector as a whole. There has been a good deal of criticism in recent years, for instance, of the unequal gender balance in festival line-ups.
Other recent controversies have also centred on Glastonbury headliners that didn’t match the typical rock behemoths of the kind listed by Norman Cook. There’s no question that the likes of BeyoncéJay Z and Kanye West are a huge draw – but their presence at the top of the bill still sparked complaints from those whose concern was less about the stature of the act, and more about what counted as an appropriate genre focus for Glastonbury.

Can only get better

A broader generic view – and less of a narrow focus on the headliners – allows for cautious optimism on this front. Musician and writer Chris TT, for instance, has noted that the gender disparity is less acute lower down the bill, particularly on BBC Introducing Stages – a common feature of major festivals now. This is, of course, no cause for complacency. But it’s worth noting that as well as new acts, this is also where new genres start to break through.
Dizzee Rascal, a taste of diversity to come? Anthony Devlin/PA Archive/PA Images
More generally, as popular music evolves and changes, it’s also the case that the next “big thing” tends not to look like the last one. The rise of dance music – and the difference between, say, a Grime act and a rock band – attest to the fluidity of what attracts a live audience. This applies to both the acts and the market. Festival attendance, for instance, is now increasingly linked to tourism, both for those coming to the UK and British travellers abroad.
The fact that Glastonbury has managed to weather debates about the suitability of hip-hop or pop acts on the Pyramid stage speaks to a certain amount of creative, as well as financial resilience. Obviously, it’s in a stronger position than the many smaller festivals – but their proliferation suggests the potential to respond to demand and cater for emerging niches.
There is, then, a genuine need to nurture the grassroots, and no respite for festivals from the ever-present possibility of midsummer rain. But thinking beyond what the “headliner” has looked like in the past suggests that rumours of its demise may be misplaced.

Disclosure statement

Adam Behr receives funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council

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