Where Have All the Festival Headliners Gone?
Last week, the UK’s two biggest music festivals announced their first headliners for 2019. Everybody’s favourite grime artist Stormzy was unveiled as Glastonbury’s first headliner, while The 1975, Post Malone, Twenty One Pilots and Foo Fighters were announced for Reading and Leeds. But while we’re not suggesting any of the artists are unworthy of the headlining slots – we’ll leave that to your 16 year old cousin on Twitter – the announcement does beg the question; “Where have all the megastars gone?”
OK, we’re not the Centre for Fiscal Studies – let’s get that clear – but a quick straw poll down the pub of varying aged (21-35), above average music fans revealed that 90% of us couldn’t name a single song for Post Malone or Twenty One Pilots, and most of us could only name Stormzy’s ‘Big For Your Boots’. This got us thinking about festivals and the music industry as a whole. Has our free access to all music changed the game?
We’re not for one minute claiming that our pub chat is in any way evidence of a lack of popularity; The 1975’s absurdly long-titled I Like It When You Sleep, for You Are So Beautiful yet So Unaware of It, for example, has sold 500,000 equivalent units in the US alone since its release, while Post Malone’s most recent album, Beerbongs & Bentleys, was streamed 78,744,000 times globally on Spotify within 24 hours of its release. They’re… well, huge numbers. But is the lack of genuine guitar-based megastars headlining, which we’ve more or less been accustomed too since the mid-90s, indicative of a shift in music habits?
Are Tastes in Genre Shifting?
Festival headline acts have been changing for a decade or so. In 2008, Noel Gallagher famously panned Worthy Farm’s inclusion of Jay-Z, asking where the festival’s “tradition of guitar music” had gone. While Noel clearly forgot about the likes of Bjork, The Chemical Brothers and Moby, there was a wider point. Since Jay-Z responded to Noel with a ‘Wonderwall’ cover on the Pyramid Stage, Kayne West has headlined in Somerset, as have pop acts like Adele, Ed Sheeran and Beyoncé. So why do Hip-Hop and Pop acts seem to be getting more love than ever?
Simply put, Hip-Hop and Pop appeal to the masses more than any other genre. While Rock still sells more records than any other genre baring Pop, the likes of Hip-Hop and Dance are far more likely to be played on commercial radio and used in TV shows.
In the UK, for example, despite figures suggesting physical purchases and digital downloads are declining, the Grime scene is thriving. Sales of physical Grime albums grew by a mammoth 109% in 2017, while digital downloads also rose by 51%. High profile collaborations are helping too; Stormzy alone has featured on tracks with Ed Sheeran, Little Mix and Linkin Park, reflecting the genre’s crossover appeal.
The Decline of the Guitar Supergroup
The only guitar-based supergroup to be announced for 2019 so far is the Foo Fighters. This will be the fourth time that they’ll be taking the top slot at Reading and Leeds since 2002. Not only that, they headlined Glastonbury last year too. They’re clearly sought after and it could be argued that’s because they’re one of the few genuine rock acts still making music regularly today. You could also throw in a crowd-splitting Coldplay and Muse into that mix too; which is why both have now headlined Glasto four- and three-times, respectively. Incidentally, Muse have also played the main slot at Reading thrice.
A quick looks at the odds on who’ll be joining Stormzy in Somerset brings up plenty of the usual suspects with The Cure and Paul McCartney odds-on favourites, both of whom have headlined the Pyramid before. The only newbies near the top of the list are Madonna and Kylie. Yes, out and out pop acts.
Maybe the question shouldn’t be about “megastars”. After all, nobody could possibly question the influence and size of Madonna. Maybe the question should be more about “megastar guitar bands” and what we think a festival/headliner should be. Because as far as we can tell, no guitar band has crossed the fame stratosphere since Arctic Monkeys and possibly Kings of Leon who then went rubbish. Mumford & Sons and Arcade Fire have both headlined too but not without some serious eyebrows raised.
Does Glastonbury Make the Band?
There is, however, the argument that Glastonbury can be the making of a band and not the other way round. Radiohead’s set in 1997 was their first headline slot and is justifiably regarded as one of the greatest in the festival’s history, while you could argue Arctic Monkeys’ 2013 slot and even more recently Florence and the Machine’s performance propelled them into a whole other realm of stardom.
Despite some years of the old guard (2009 saw Bruce Springsteen, Blur and Neil Young headline), it’s clear Glastonbury has been evolving since 2008 and will continue to do so. In an age where everyone’s taste are amply catered for, ‘popularity’ is now more subjective than ever. And who knows, maybe after his set your dad might well go to HMV and buy a Stormzy record? Or at the very least stream it.