How are the Headline Acts at the Top UK Festivals Booked?

What goes on behind closed doors as bookers slug it out for the best headliners.

|
Feb 17 2014, 11:48am

We’re currently in the early stages of the festival line-up announcements, with enough high profile slots still to be confirmed that everyone can still save their overdraft, deludedly convincing themselves that the last Reading & Leeds headline announcement will totally definitely be Prince. But - save for the amazing booking of Outkast to top the bill at Bestival and the majority of the Wireless line-up - there have been few surprises across the rest of the board. Again.

Though the UK circuit seems to have largely emerged from the reunion conveyor belt of the last few years (I swear if The Stone Roses even so much as headline the Kendal Village Fete I will stand stony-faced in the front row, holding up disparaging album reviews of Second Coming, just to psych them out), this year’s line ups seem to be a pretty homogenized group. Whereas the likes of Primavera and the Pitchfork Festival consistently put on discerning, cohesive bills that take risks, festivals in the UK tend to play it mind-numbingly safe. Blink-182 are headlining Reading for the second time in a handful of years, despite having released nothing on note in the interim. Arctic Monkeys are back for Reading too, having headlined Glastonbury the year before, Coachella the years before that, V Festival the year before that and Reading again two years before that.

I spoke to the head bookers of three UK festivals about how bands are actually booked and why there seems to be gridlock for booking new headliners. The festivals I spoke to were: Reading & Leeds - an annual Lord Of The Flies reanactment performed by Ketamine-addled school leavers, Isle of Wight - which still markets itself as a UK Woodstock despite booking Calvin Harris and Beacons - a reasonably new 7,500 capacity weekender in Yorkshire. Their answers were both really invigorating and mind-blowingly depressing.

ISLE OF WIGHT

Photo by Malcolm Murdoch

Here’s a sobering excerpt from my conversation with Isle of Wight CEO, John Giddings:

Noisey: How far in advance do you start booking the year ahead?
John: We start before this year’s festival takes place. It’s an ongoing task because big groups - and only big groups can headline the event because I’ve made the level of expectation so high now, it’s like a noose for my own neck – those groups plan two or three years in advance.

Does planning that far ahead mean that you have to choose the safe option?
There are only a limited number of acts in the world that can headline the Isle of Wight festival. The music industry isn’t building new headliners. In twenty years time you'll still see the likes of Coldplay or Muse headlining festivals. You’re competing against Leeds, Reading and V. Glastonbury don’t pay any money because they’ve got the BBC coverage so they’re in the perfect position. We’re all just jealous of them.

How do you go about competing for bands at that level?
Well, our festival was the Woodstock of Europe. Jimi Hendrix played there, so did Bob Dylan, and it was a famous name because of them. It’s got an environment and an atmosphere that’s different from other places.

Do you genuinely think it still has that atmosphere? You booked Bon Jovi last year… Can you still afford to take risks with the line-up?
I think we take lots of risks. This year so far we’ve got Chloe Howl.

I’m not sure booking a major label breakthrough act is that much of a risk really. You’ve got Biffy Clyro headlining this year who did their first headline slot at Reading & Leeds last year. Would you have booked them if someone hadn’t road-tested them first?
No.

Do you not feel like you should take that responsibility too?
No.

It’s going to get to a pretty tragic point pretty soon if everyone thinks like that…
I won’t be alive then.

Can’t wait until I’m 45 and an aged Coldplay are still cracking out the glowing wristbands the world over.

READING AND LEEDS

Photo by Anis Ali

Jon Mac is in charge of booking Reading and Leeds festival – one of the biggest and most high profile events of the season. He was a welcome relief after Giddings, and pretty much as you’d expect someone booking an event of this size to be. He explained how booking headliners was a juggling act between trying to preempt which albums would do well (the festival often get records months in advance to help with this) and staying loyal to bands that have risen through their ranks. “A lot of decisions are based on how important the act is for your festival” he explains. “A lot of the time it’s bands we’ve been working with from the beginning, who’ve played one of our baby stages and graduated up, like Frank Turner or Bring Me The Horizon or Jake Bugg. They’ve all grown up with the festival and that’s important to us; we’re hoping to give those acts their first headline slot in the near future.” Reading & Leeds gave Biffy Clyro – one of the few bands to step up to headline status in recent years - their first top slot last year, he says, because he was “really impressed with how much radio support they got for a band of their size. And while they have a solid fanbase, there are a lot of people who aren’t hardcore fans, but would like to see them at a festival.”

We also talked about whether, with so many festivals out there, he thought a big event could afford to be even slightly niche (R&L, after all, used to be famed for having "rock day"). “It’s a bit of a balance. It gives me great pleasure to book acts like Action Bronson, who a lot of people haven’t heard of but who can blow an audience away live,” he explained. “And when we book slightly more commercial acts it still fits within our ethos of not being mainstream. Even Chase & Status who we booked last year, they’re an act that are very radio friendly but they’re also amazing producers, really creative people and really important in music.” He went on to big up Foals and Disclosure as acts he could see headlining in the future as well as telling us that the festival would rather cuts its balls off than have a burlesque tent (or thereabouts) and that its "music only" policy is one of the reasons that bands are drawn to playing the event.

BEACONS

Photo by Christopher Bethell

Thankfully, events like Beacons are still taking risks and booking acts like Danny Brown and Fucked Up. One of their head honchos, Ash Kollakowski, told us a bunch of annecdotes about picking up draw for Danny and how it was really difficult to cater for Beyonce’s sister because there are only three pork pie shops in Yorkshire. We asked him to make us a step-by-step sort of guide on how to run a festival.

Know exactly who and what you’re aiming for

Every year we get three or four really big bands, the kind of size that would headline the NME stage at Reading and Leeds. They really want to play the festival because they think the line up is cool. It’s hard to say no, but you have to. We’ve turned down more bigger bands than smaller bands, because we feel they don’t fit the festival. We don’t want a crowd who are chanting for one band and then go and see Hookworms and moan because they don’t know who the fuck they are.

Think broadly

I don’t think people can afford to [have a vague, MOR line up] anymore, because so many people are going abroad to places like Croatia and their line ups are so solid. They’re gonna be taking tickets off the rainy, big festivals that charge £200 in England. A lot of the music at UK festivals is safe music for white people. If you go to the festivals in America, you get Nas on with Arcade Fire. No one mixes it up like that in England.

Be cohesive

We want a headliner who’ll appeal to the same people who’ll watch the bands on at midday in the afternoon. The first bands need to be just as interesting as the last, and there needs to be some connection between them all. It’s all six degrees of separation.

It also helps if you actually know a bit about music

Everything is so accessible now that the music we’re listening to now might not be exciting come August. What we do is try and predict how people’s tastes will change. The few subcultures that are left, the skate kids and the hardcore kids - if you listen to those people, then they’re usually well over a year ahead of everyone else. If you’re a music fan, then you can generally trust your instincts and hopefully you shouldn’t end up steering yourself in the wrong direction.

And if all else fails, then at least you can always get an Easyjet to some summer soiree in Poland for about 80 quid, right?

Follow Lisa on Twitter: @LisaAnneWright

Read more like this:

The Biggest WTFs From The Coachella Announcement

Who is Going to Headline Our Festivals in Five Years Time?