For me, the highlight of Netflix’s Fyre Festival documentary wasn’t the guy who destroyed all the tents around his own so he wouldn't have any neighbours, nor the Evian scene (although, lol). It was when 22-year-old Samuel Krost, hired to book the line-up but obviously and hopelessly out of his depth, was speaking to an agent on the phone. Eyes glazed over, he paused and murmured, exasperatedly: “I mean, it’s just a font size”.
Oh Sammy, my sweet, naive friend. To the untrained eye, festival posters – with the MASSIVE MEGASTAR HEADLINE names at the top getting slowly smaller until you get to the microscopic, barely readable acts at the bottom – may seem to follow a fairly straightforward pattern. But there's art, science and thought, not to mention diplomacy, that goes into the arrangement of the 50 or 60 performers that you see.
This obsession over position and font size may seem ridiculous, but there are some very real reasons why the acts and the agents who represent them place so much importance on these posters. An act's position at one festival could affect where they’re billed on the next poster. It can also influence things that are a little nebulous, like the buzz around the act, to the extremely tangible matter of future ticket prices and the future fees they can charge promoters. All this makes the days and hours before a festival announcement a tense time: a time when egos and deadlines collide.
To that end, we thought we’d speak to some of these festival bookers to understand the complex, contentious, and tricky negotiations that go into agreeing the order of the acts for their festival, the artwork for the poster and, of course, that all important font size. One booker was told by their team to simply say “no comment.’ For some, like Adam at The Great Escape in Brighton, things have gone relatively smoothly. Four other festival bookers were willing to speak, but three of them wanted to remain anonymous – we’ve called them Festival Booker X, Y and, er, Z. Here’s what they all had to say:
“We've had years where we've made artists names less legible in order to move them up a line.”
“We look at a mix of things to decide the order: who is the biggest ticket seller in London or the region, who is the most important act to our audience, how much the act are being paid, who has the biggest buzz at the moment, who is on the rise and what slots they're playing at the festival itself.
We've had requests to increase the kerning on the poster so an artist with a short name takes up as much space as an artist with a longer name. We've had years where we've made artist’s names less legible in order to move them up a line. We've also had agents claim other artists won't mind being moved down in order to accommodate their artist being higher.”
Festival Booker Y, London
“It was someone’s job to switch the names on social media between left and right each day.”
“We just do it A to Z and it makes life a lot easier because we’re not having to go to agents and say we want to position this person here or this agent is saying this artist has to have headline billing... So even if agents push back and say they have to have headline billing we say ‘Sorry, that’s just the way it goes’ and 99% of the time they’re fine with that.
For most of the acts I’ve worked and work with, we’re fortunate that it’s all about who they’re playing with rather than their position. We don’t really have a headliner and that was a deliberate decision because we weren’t trying to draw everyone to one show – the whole ethos is that it’s all equal. There’s no ‘one’ big show.
Before we announce, artwork has to go to agents. If you’re putting out artwork with 50 names on, it takes time to get feedback from everybody. You need to make the
people, the big hitters who you’re working with on a regular basis, happy. Sometimes things have been lost in translation and they say ‘You didn’t say you were going to do this’, but it’s always fine, you always get to work things out.
At an old place I worked at a long time ago, two big acts were on the same bill and the agents involved couldn’t agree who would be the headliner and it was ridiculous so we gave them dual headliner status. But that wasn’t enough either so it was – no word of a lie – someone’s job to switch the names on social media between left and right each day. It was ridiculous.”
Festival Booker Z, London
Watch: How to Plan a Music Festival with 88rising
“The Great Escape is a discovery event so we’re able to lead with acts that people haven’t heard of”
“As a new music event, we try to avoid this conversation at all costs. Booking 500 artists is hard enough without trying to work out the hierarchy. If this conversation does come up and looks like a sticking point we can look at other ways to give artists additional exposure as most of our artwork is kept in alphabetical order.”
“When I’m selecting our 25 artists for our launch videos I try and make sure we have a mix of genres and countries represented rather than leading with the acts that are worth the most tickets. The Great Escape is a discovery event so we’re able to lead with acts that people haven’t heard of. Our audience trust us to introduce them to some of the best new music around.
“We make sure all artists have personalised artwork for them to share via socials. This gets signed off by the agent, manager or act - I totally get the importance of artwork positioning for acts. It’s just a nightmare I try and avoid at all costs.”
Adam Ryan, The Great Escape
“I nearly cried when I found out that the two artists in question actually shared a manager”
“Beyond the headliners, we don’t agree billing (ie. the placement of the artist on the poster) in advance. Which is kind of ludicrous when you think about the headaches it causes further down the line. But I guess for both of us, the job is to get the artist booked on the festival and we don’t want to open a can of worms at that point…
What would make sense would be if [booking] was based on the act’s recent ticket sales in the region. But that gets thrown firmly out of the window when you’re dealing with an artist who’s risen to dizzy heights very quickly versus an iconic band who’ve been around for decades, and whose stock might have fallen a little but they’re refusing to accept it.
Only a handful of artists actually have an approval clause in their contract. But I’ve learnt to save myself last minute headaches and just send it out to the biggest egos, sorry, AGENTS, as soon as possible. It’s preferable to spend a few days going back and forth over the billing and getting re-approval in a relaxed manner, rather than having just minutes to decide whether your entire carefully thought-out, expensive and meticulous marketing campaign should be scrapped and re-planned because someone doesn’t like how they look on a poster.
Then again, that does happen. We’ve had requests to produce two versions of the artwork with two different headliners in the first spot – which ‘flip’ between one another on the website and social media announcements. There was also the time when two artists were arguing over the billing as normal, with both refusing to be printed after the other. But I nearly cried when I found out that the two artists in question actually shared a manager. They were literally arguing with themselves! Occasionally I’ve been in the middle of an argument between two artists who simply don’t like each other and both want to be perceived as bigger than the other.
I should add that agents are just doing the best job that they can/should for their artists. Perception is so important for musicians and where they’re billed on a poster can subtly affect things from the future ticket prices they charge their fans to the future fees they charge promoters.”
Festival booker X, London
“If you’ve been transparent when you’re booking, there should be fewer disagreements at this stage”
“Usually you and the agent will have a similar idea of the status of the artist relative to the rest of the line-up as a whole, as part of preliminary discussions which would then inform the offer made. The tricky part is dealing with artists who believe that they should receive higher billing than artists you see as equally or more heavily weighted.
In terms of their billing, the concept of the artist’s status is semi-quantifiable – you can use metrics like market specific streams, headline sales etc. The saleability of an artist is obviously a big factor but certainly not everything when it comes to billing. Higher prestige or niche artists might receive higher billing than their standalone headline value, for instance, but it’s all about the overall ‘curation’ and how they factor into the overall concept of your event.
When it comes to overall festival artwork, ultimately, it’s the promoter’s concept so you wouldn’t actively look for ‘sign off’ for the design but, for actual billing placement, artists further up the bill would usually want to okay their billing on artwork. But, usually, if you’ve been transparent when you’re booking there should be fewer disagreements at this stage.”
Chris Tyler, Liverpool Music Week Festival Manager
You can find Danny on Twitter.