The music festival was born out of the human desire to be free, to experience innovative and groundbreaking music while bathing in the detritus of cow shit, paper cup towers, and licked-clean baggies. The first one launched in Reading in 1961 and for a couple of decades, things were great. Festivals booked bands that promised to rip audiences a new asshole; there were a lot of photos of people fighting in the mud; and a deodorant-branded car wash for humans was not yet reality. Festivals “rocked”.
These days though, the festival landscape has changed. In the 90s, things started to mutate as line-ups moved from catering to specific niche audiences - The Levellers and Youssou N'Dour at Glastonbury; The Ramones, The Cramps and Nirvana at Reading; Jimi Hendrix, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell at Isle of Wight - to booking the biggest rock bands of the day, whoever they may be. That's why you had a stretch where Travis, The Darkness and the Stereophonics were classed as headline material.
Soon the beer companies were involved, every dickhead you knew from school professed to having had a “life-changing experience” at Creamfields, and the line-ups became infected with ennui. With an overwhelming amount of people and money poured into a never-ending calendar of events, and not enough new bands to cover them, the festival bubble began to burst. Every line-up became the same.
In order to combat the lack of new, exciting, headline-worthy bands, festival bosses started to turn away from the rock’n’roll that had served them well and began to look into other avenues. Hip-hop came first. In 2008, Jay Z headlined Glastonbury, the following year Eminem took the top spot at T in the Park, and before you knew it Kanye West was walking across a crane into Coachella 2010. Like rock, though, you can count the amount of headline worthy hip-hop acts on one-hand: the three aforementioned greats, Drake, Kanye and maybe, at a push, Nas doing Illmatic in full.
Festival bosses then turned their eye to other arenas: superstar pop and big name reunions. Between the years of 2010 and 2014, Beyonce headlined Glastonbury; The Libertines reformed for Reading; Blur and the Stone Roses put their differences aside to dip their hands in the pockets of all the big festivals; and Katy Perry, Justin Timberlake, and Pharrell played T in the Park.
But by last year even the pop-acts were running dry and the good bands had already reformed, meaning festivals looked even further afield to secure a name to set them apart – like Glastonbury’s booking of Metallica last June. Roll around to the current day and we’re left with a bunch of major festivals attempting to exist in a state of flux, but not doing a very good job of it. Just take a look at the festival headliners that have been announced so far this year:
Reading: Metallica and Mumford & Sons.
T in the Park: The Libertines
Isle of Wight: The Black Keys, Fleetwood Mac, The Prodigy
Granted, the line-ups are no longer the same. The days of Kasabian, Arctic Monkeys and Muse road-blocking every event are clearly behind us and festivals are attempting to change, in some way. But all this represents is repetition painted in a new patter; a blatant shuffling of their limited packs. Metallica and Mumford are now headlining Reading when both headlined Glastonbury in the past two years, and more importantly: neither of them have released a single shred of new music since then. T in the Park are simply munching on Reading and Hyde Park’s seconds by booking The Libertines. And Isle of Wight's big money capture of Fleetwood Mac might have felt a lot more special if they hadn't been touring in the UK for the last two years.
The problem is, festivals are rapidly running out of ways to deal with what is become a notable lack of headliner material out there. Having dashed down the cul-de-sacs of rap, pop, metal, yesteryear and reunions for the last decade and a half, they continue to find themselves back at square one 12 months later. When, in fact, the time could have been better spent bringing through their own new headline material by taking clever risks on their second stages - giving acts like Lorde, Kendrick, Jungle or FKA Twigs the chance to prove their live worth to a massive UK audience, with a view to giving them even bigger opportunities further down the line. Instead, what you’re seeing is the same headline pot being drawn from again and again, until one festival, like Glastonbury, takes the punt on adding a new one - like with Kings Of Leon, Mumford, Jay Z, or Beyonce - and everyone else follows suit the next year.
If there’s one thing to be gained from line ups becoming ever more dry, repetitive and confusing, it’s this: the less important festivals, the ones that sprang up in the boom of Carling and Lynx sponsorship, will one day keel over and die. As each year goes by, ticket prices increase, and festivals fails to cater to an audience that continually complains about shit line-ups, you’re going to see more festivals fall off the map. You’re seeing it already with delayed line-up announcements, tickets no longer selling out in record speed, and some events vastly underselling to the point of closure.
On paper, this looks shit but in reality, it’s great. If there are less festivals, more acts will become available. Bookers also won’t feel the need to compete with each other by replicating previous year’s line-up. It’s a chance to get back to Ground Zero where events like Bestival - who continually sell out and offer exciting line-ups - will succeed and flourish. Basically what I'm saying is: Kendal Calling, I give you about five more years.
You can find Ryan Bassil on Twitter: @RyanBassil