Feature: The Death of the Festival Headliner

So, another year of festivals completed. Having attended Reading along with a host of smaller local festivals, and having read about and seen the TV coverage of Glastonbury, I was left with the feeling that maybe the notion of the true ‘headliner’ at such events has had its day – either that or maybe this just wasn’t the year for it.

I’ll start with Reading as thats the biggest festival I attended this year, with the three headliners being Guns ‘n’ Roses, Arcade Fire and Blink-182.

On first inspection, only one of these leapt out a bona fide show stopper, which to me is what being headliner is all about; something that will draw people in whether the casual music listener or the die-hard fan, and that was Guns ‘n’ Roses. And, despite all the stories surrounding the band that really should be known as ‘Axl & Co’, things had seemed promising, with reports of a very talented group of musicians playing a bunch of undeniably classic songs, along with some stuff from the recent album Chinese Democracy.

Sadly when the band eventually hit the stage (an hour and half late – thanks Axl!), though the music was there, it was one of the most heartless displays of rock ‘n’ roll I have ever witnessed. This was just compounded by the crowd’s reaction; hearing 80,000 people boo is quite a sound, and sadly many, myself included, were left majorly dissatisfied by the Friday headliners.

So, I thought to myself, that wasn’t so good, but Blink-182 should be a fun, upbeat crowd-pleaser on Sunday.

Maybe I came to this show with rose-tinted specs having attended my first Reading festival in 2000 with the express purpose of seeing Blink, but I don’t think my disappointment can be put down solely to fanciful memories.

While bassist Mark and drummer Travis were both on fine form, the band and the show were let down disastrously by Tom De Longe. Whether he was actually out of his tree, or just acting it, was unclear. And it really didn’t matter, as either way his performance was abysmal. It felt like watching a member of an under-rehearsed teenage band playing their first show. Maybe this was intended as charm to remind us they were a ‘punk’ band in their heyday, but if it was, it sadly didn’t work.

So another headliner and another disappointment.

Hailing from Montreal, Quebec, Canada, and with only three albums and no hit singles under their collective belts, Arcade Fire were to me (and seemingly to themselves) an unlikely choice of headliner, no matter how special their music can be. And so it was with interest but no real sense of fandom that I found a good spot to watch what turned out to be one of the most consistently interesting and musically accomplished sets of the weekend.

They may not have had the joie d’vivre of Frank Turner (my festival highlight) or the intensity of Atari Teenage Riot, or the supposed credibility of Bad Religion, but nonetheless Arcade Fire were captivating, gripping and consistently interesting (though I’m unsure such a large stage is their natural home, maybe a space like Brixton or Hammersmith would suit them better, but with an arena tour imminent they seem beyond that now). They were without at doubt the best of the three so-called ‘headliners’ of the weekend.

I’ve already mentioned Frank Turner and Atari Teenage Riot, two of my personal highlights of the weekend, but it seemed to me that the real gems of the festival were to be found either much earlier in the day, or on the much smaller stages.

While it’s true that this is where the new and exciting bands are often found, the case seemed to be made stronger at Reading this year with NoFX, The King Blues, Gogol Bordello and Weezer, amongst others, all putting in performances of immense strength that out-did Guns ‘n’ Roses and Blink-182 in every way. In fact I heard many people say that Weezer should have either headlined, or swapped with Paramore on the Sunday evening, their performance was so strong.

So was this something exclusive to Reading? When I began thinking about it, my thoughts instantly shot to Glastonbury and the headliners there. One was perfectly in place – this time, rather than a relatively new act doing something interesting like Arcade Fire, it was a true legend of the art – Stevie Wonder. In my eyes there is no place for this man but the top of the bill. But the other two headliners, Muse and Gorrillaz didn’t, to me, seem to fit as true headliners.

Now don’t get me wrong, both are great acts, and I very much enjoy their music, but to me a headliner in front of upwards of 100,000 people should be something truly special, which Stevie certainly is.

Ok, so Glastonbury lost U2 thanks to Bono’s back injury, and while I’m not their biggest fan, they have the heritage and place in rock to be a headliner. But nonetheless I was struck by how it seemed that the best things to see (other than Stevie) were playing elsewhere and earlier in the days.

If i had to find to a cause for this I would put it down to the way we ingest and discover music and how that has changed. In the past, the majority of people listened to what the shops sold, so you were guaranteed that a few acts would have the massive fan base necessary to pull off the headline slot, and also this would be built up over many many years, hence why Stevie and (for better or worse) U2 strike me as headliners.

Now however, we are much freer to discover new and interesting music ourselves, whether it be legally or illegally, which has spread the dedicated music listeners thinner, and this, it seems to me, has caused record companies and the media to push newer bands to the top faster, but before they become real ‘headliners’.

So this spread of interest and listening seems to be having what I think is a good effect and allowing more interesting stuff to stand up next to the classics and legends that are still out there. But at the same time, we seem to have lost the notion of a true ‘headliner’ from big festivals like this in many ways.

It’s all development, good or bad, and I just wonder where this will go – will the big festivals have to take an approach more like Warped Tour where it’s all up for grabs? I’d like to see it!


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