Photo via Instagram
Wireless has – or at least had until Drake dropped out at the last minute – arguably the best line-up this Summer. Alongside Yeezy and Drake, they had OutKast. ScHoolboy Q, YG, Chance the Rapper, Earl Sweatshirt, and A$AP Ferg were all on the bill. Pharrell Williams played his only festival date in England. The line-up was a hip-hop head’s wet dream; the sort of thing most British people would never get to experience unless they finally sorted out their shit and booked a flight to America. I couldn’t wait to arrive.
Wireless has always been great at booking. Previous headliners have inlcuded Daft Punk, LCD Soundsystem and Pulp while last year’s festival saw sets from Justin Timberlake, JAY Z, Frank Ocean, and A Tribe Called Quest. But it’s also been seen as the corporate cash cow of the festival scene: heavy on sponsorship and light on vibes. But this year seemed like it was going to be different. It has a new home in Finsbury Park (rather than a carpark outside the Olympic park) and it's no longer sponsored by Yahoo. Combine that with the fucking incredible line-up and I was convinced Wireless could actually be the hip-hop festival the UK needs. I went with an open mind, but left with a closed one.
Wireless is a prime example of how UK festivals are becoming less connected to the music industry and forming stronger connections with the "experience" industry. The same people who will give you a day out at the races or let you fly in a hot air balloon.
The festival is split into two arenas: the everyone-is-allowed here area and the VIP area. The everyone-is-allowed here area includes all the normal festival things – a main-stage, a medium sized stage, a smaller stage, toilets, that sort of thing. The VIP area – which anyone can attend provided they’ve paid the extra overhead - is basically a field with some politically dubious street performers (midget boxing anyone?) and two bars where cocktail pitchers start at £100. It’s set-up as an exclusive area but mostly it’s a playground for Very Imaginary Players to take #festival Instagram photos.
Because the festival had no top-line sponsor this year, it felt like they had pulled all stops to make as much money as possible. Not only was there a VIP area, but - like the Libertines in Hyde Park - you had to pay extra to stand within viewable distance of the stage. Wireless is an extremely diverse festival but it’s really depressing that, if you’re actually there to enjoy the music, you’ve got to pay extra to get the full experience.
Of course most of the people who had access to that area weren't that bothered about what was going on on stage - as long as they’re able to send a Snapchat with a household artist in the background. Glastonbury encourages the audience to dive headfirst into the experience – Wireless wants you to pay for the idea of one. And then it wants you to sell it back to your friends.
Photo via Instagram
Kanye’s set – and the negative response that it received - is a great example of this. A group of people around me spent the entire time demanding that Kanye play “Bound 2” – which is obviously a brilliant song but not the only Kanye West song I want to hear. His speech – which has happened at almost every show, during “Runaway”, for a year and a half – was followed up with extreme vitriol. “Play a fucking song”, “Fuck Kanye West”, “You’re ruining Wireless”, “SHUT THE FUCK UP YOU FUCKING PRICK”, people shouted all around me. A festival isn’t the best place for Kanye to embark on a long-winded - albeit motivational - speech but what did the crowd expect? This is a Kanye West show and a Kanye West show includes a speech. Besides – he played a 22-song set. No one was short-changed.
This isn't a rant about brands and sponsorship, I don’t mind walking past a Pepsi Max bar in order to get an all-star hip-hop cast in London for a weekend. It’s the rest of the festival that lets it down – the VIP area, the indifference to the music (one group sat down for most of Kanye’s set, with their backs to him, taking pictures on their phones), and the over-crowding – three things that have come about because of a firm focus on the bottom line.
It’s a shame because the artists that played were actually great. Unlike last year – when giant Yahoo logos flashed up in the middle of Frank Ocean’s set – almost everyone we watched put on an incredible set devoid of commercial interruption or personal hiccups. OutKast were incredible; I watched Giorgio Moroder play to about 200 people; Pharrell looked even more beautiful than I had remembered.
Wireless has the potential - with the increasingly amazing quality of acts that it pulls in - to be one of the best festivals in the UK. It’s definitely in the running as the UK’s number one “urban” music festival. But not yet. They've booked the bands, now they need to make a festival.
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanBassil