Are Festival Headliners A Thing of The Past?

With the chaos caused by the cancellation of the Stones (Mick’s heart) and then Fleetwood Mac (Stevie’s flu), the Jazz Fest rounded up Widespread Panic, a great band, but one that probably wasn’t on anybody’s wish list that I know (see results of our poll last week).

As Baby Boomers and Gen Xers age, so do the bands that have been our faves for all these years. So how is the booming festival scene going to change? How will it impact the music industry?

Here’s an opinion from music industry insider and blogger Bob Lefsetz:

We’re gonna run out of headliners.

I was looking at the ad for the Governors Ball, and once I got below the row of headliners, everyone was a nobody, or close to it. So you’d go to the festival to see the headliners. Can Tyler, The Creator really draw? Is Lil Wayne a bit long in the tooth? Brockhampton a top-liner? I don’t think so.

That’s Friday. On Saturday, you’ve got Florence + The Machine, Major Lazer and the 1975. The 1975 have not broken through in the U.S., however good they might be, Major Lazer is a great act, but their drawing power..?, and Florence + The Machine put out their first album in 2009, ten years ago, and then the landscape was totally different, now it’s fractured.
As for Sunday, the Strokes are has-beens, albeit from New York, Nas is a cipher and SZA is not a headliner.

Used to be the music of headliners was known by everybody, they might not like it, but they knew it. Today, no. Even amongst the younger generation these festivals appeal to. There is no MTV. Radio is not key, especially amongst this demo, you’re deep in your silo, there’s a good chance none of these headliners at the Governors Ball appeal to you. As for the undercard…pay all that money to see nobodies? I don’t think so.

Yes, live business is good. Because it provides an experience you cannot get online.

But despite all this hoopla about recorded music revenues bouncing back, the truth is no one dominates like they used to, despite the inane articles talking about Ariana Grande and others breaking “Billboard” records. Hell, even “Billboard” has no idea what it is anymore. With a dearth of industry advertising, it appeals to the hoi polloi. But the writing is so poor, does anybody get past the headlines? Used to be wannabes read “Billboard” and dreamed, now they’re’ better off reading “Pollstar” to find out what’s really going on.

But chances are they’re doing neither, they’re busy trying to become stars themselves. And they might not be playing music, they might try to become influencers.
And this is another thing the media gets wrong. They think that there’s one chart of popularity and it rules and we still care about actors. No, in today’s world authenticity is everything, and actors are inherently inauthentic, they play roles, who cares what they eat for lunch?

You’re better off following the Kardashians. They’re true to themselves and richer.

So, if you go the festival to hang and show off, headliners are not so important. But at this price, is the festival the best place to do that?

My point being we may see shrinkage. As it is, festivals are falling by the wayside. So, you end up with Coachella, Outside Lands, Lollapalooza and maybe ACL. After that… Hell, is Bonnaroo bouncing back this year purely because of Phish, a thirty year old act?

If you made it before the internet era, before it all blew apart, everybody’s aware of you, even if it’s just knowledge of your name and genre, like Phish. But go to the undercard on these festivals and most acts are unknown by everybody but the promoter. There’s not much there to appeal to you. And as time passes by, and the old acts die or fade away, who is going to replace them…NOBODY! No one has that kind of mindshare.

Rich Greenfield tweeted that “Grey’s Anatomy” pulled a 1.5 amongst the target demo, 18-49. That’s not even 2 million people! And sure, more watched it via DVR, but the point is even a show that made it before the great disintegration is viewed by a tiny sliver of Americans today. We’re all in our own niches. Meaning, one act may be able to do sold out business in arenas with a rabid fanbase, but that does not mean they have national mindshare. Hell, Ghost sold out the Forum in L.A. Heard of them? Believe me, only their fans and some insiders have.

So, I’m not saying that live business will crater, but I am saying that festivals will feel the hit. As we go on, there will be fewer and fewer headliners, no matter how good they might be, most of the public will not know them. Sure, there can be individuals holding their own festival, and theme festivals, but after that…

Well, maybe if the festival itself is a great experience irrelevant of the acts, but how many qualify as that?

We live in a changing world. Who cares about the increase of recording revenue. The media and the recording industry have been wrong ever since Napster.
According to the “Wall Street Journal,” Apple Music has 28 million paying subscribers in the U.S. and Spotify 26 million. Together, that’s 54 million in a country of just over 300 million. That’s pretty damn good. And didn’t we hear for years that no one was gonna pay for music anymore? What b.s. and lack of insight that demonstrated.

And it used to be that most people bought one CD a year. Now, they’ve got the entire history of recorded music at their fingertips, so this means more is listened to and it benefits niches. Forget what piece of the financial pie you end up with from the streaming service, there are many ways to monetize an audience, with live gigs and merchandise and…

But we’ve got a ton of cottage industry acts and a bunch of theatre acts only known by their fans and superstars who are not. The big acts today are playing minor league ball compared to the hitmakers of yesterday, they’re just not reaching as many people!

So when you see festival lineups and scratch your head, wondering about the draw, know that you’re not the only one, most everybody feels this way, youngsters too. It’s not the same value proposition it once was. So you’ve got to really love standing in the mud or sun or both, or you’re waiting to buy a ticket for the act that you really love at the building near you.

Or excising yourself from the scene entirely, turned off by ticket prices and the bad experience. That’s right, to a great degree live music is now a luxury item. Bars have canned music or dj’s and the clubs went out of business. So most people think twice about going. The business is evolving, and you’ve got to see around corners, or be left behind.

  • johnny

    Great article Jan..
    .That’s why music magazines like OffBEAT and radio stations like, WWOZ are more important than ever getting the word out about Independent music to the world…
    Thank you for keeping the magazine tangible in the digital era.
    Sincerely,
    Johnny Angel
    bandleader, The Swingin’ Demons / Helldorado
    New Orleans, Lou easy easy anna.

  • Reaganite

    Three words: French Quarter Festival. FTW.

    • jjazznola

      Not many headliners there either.

  • jjazznola

    When Coachella started booking acts like Beyonce you knew something was up. They had run out of old rock bands that would get back together.

  • noladiva

    Jazz Fest went on the decline once it distanced itself from its Louisana culture and base. It’s nowhere near affordable for locals and so the targeted audience are the more monied, more elitist type fans. And booking these old ass rock acts is guaranteed to bring failure and disappointment. I think they like many other festivals, need to re-visit their identity, purpose, appeal and audience. That’s why the Essence festival is so popular. They know the formula that works best. Plus, the Fairgrounds location is wrought with issues—-mud, anyone, Parking, anyone, Lines, anyone??

  • Will Semons

    Widespread Panic has been a mainstay of Jazz Fest for YEARS. This is not a “new” band or a band that needs Jazz Fest to burgeon their career. They’ve been around for 30 years and are widely recognized as one of the greats in the musical world for their musicianship and audience following. They are not the Stones or Fleetwood Mac, but they aren’t “Panic at the Disco”. Jazz Fest put themselves into this position by giving the Rolling Stones their own day and tacked on additional expenses because of who they are.

  • PeazantBoy

    litter everywhere, incessant yammering and/or phone-gazing, crappy sound…..no thanx

  • G E. Guido

    I think the days of the 3, 4, 5 day Mega Festival are, for the most part, over. The only purpose of these festivals like Coachella are a big party – get drunk, get high, maybe hook up and be able to say that you were there. The listening audience is so fragmented that it’s not likely that fans of one genre will get enough of something they’re interested in to pay what it costs to go to a mega-festival simply on the merits of the music. Do many Metallica fans want to see Beyonce? Do Beyonce fans want to see The Killers? And if you are going to really see/hear the music, well, you really can’t. Despite the advances in audio and video technology the bands are still specks on a stage. You can watch the show on the big screen, which is almost like being there…or almost like watching tv. And from any distance from the stage the music is background music, not loud or immediate enough to interfere with your partying or hooking up.

    The future of festivals is small festivals devoted to one genre such as the Buku Festival. It caters to one specific music genre and it’s fans. Most likely attendees have at least a passing knowledge of most of the bands on the bill. Many festivals are succeeding in catering to fans of one music genre, whether it be rockabilly, country, metal, edm or whatever, in a smaller more intimate space than a football stadium or race track.