Are foreign acts good for the British festival scene?

By thetinyempire on 11 October 2010

Without resorting to shaving off his hair, handing out badly produced pamphlets to school children and smelling of, "too many right-wing meetings," Alex Fahey asks: are foreign acts good for the British festival scene?

At this year's Reading Festival, Ryan Jarman declared, "the UK do festivals better than any other countries […] they feel a lot more like going to war," and while the ink of the Great Battle of 2010 is not yet dry, you can be assured that the generals will be scouring their contact lists already in the hope of enlisting an army of bands to out-gun (or should that be out-axe) their rival festivals.

But who is winning the war? With a wider scope of talent being imported from overseas, fans will believe it's them and as long as festivals sell-out the organisers will be more than pleased too. But what are the costs?  Certainly there are financial implications; heavyweight artillery isn't cheap and it may be argued that it can stifle the budget of a festival, its line-up's strength-in-depth and ultimately as it filters downwards, there will be rising costs for its attendees.

It now become the case that flying in successful foreign acts is now a necessity, but why is this?  Are their UK counterparts are unwilling, over-booked or not established enough to stake a claim for a headline slot at any of Britain's larger festivals?

On the ground there is a lot of work being done to promote new acts.  Festivals are awash with fresh-faced bands filling smaller stages or even competition winners impressing enough to open proceedings at the more major events. This works well for the festivals that are able to fill stages and tents for small fees than they would pay established artists. It also works well for the bands - they get the audience and exposure they wouldn't by playing in the George And Dragon. Festival-goers are happy with the situation too; ticket-buyers go to festivals because of their love of music and add to that the thrill of finding a favourite new band: there can't be much complaint.

British musicians are also getting a leg up from the BBC Introducing stage; such is its popularity that it has now become part of the festival landscape, allowing fresh UK acts a platform on which to not only perform but launch their career too. It has been well documented that Florence and The Machine cut her festival teeth on the BBC Introducing stage and as her career has sky-rocketed, so has her billing, resulting in a headline slot at this year's Latitude festival.

But without taking anything away from Florence, it seems quite a feat for an artist who is only one album into their career. So where are the established British acts?

The larger festival's forums will be awash with rumours for next year's festival season but who will crop up? Radiohead? Muse? Coldplay? Arctic Monkeys? Elbow? A re-formed Pulp are a rumour currently circulating the Glastonbury forums, proof that retrospect is a continuing theme in bringing big name British bands back to the stage in order to pull crowds.

For the last few years Glastonbury has approached acts that reside away from British soils in order to fill headline slots. In 2003, Michael Eavis invited Moby and R.E.M. to headline at Pilton and it was the first time that non-UK acts had been outnumbered in the headline slots.

Radiohead were the only UK headliner that year, and deservedly so, with a five-album back catalogue and the sixth being toured but apart from the constant rumour roster of Radiohead, Oasis, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney (Coldplay and Muse gravitated into this orbit later on) there was potentially no other UK band big enough to fill that slot.

Glastonbury organiser Emily Eavis notes when deciding on headliner; live performance rules over the back catalogue. "The thing is, you don't need a good album. You need to be able to play a really good live set. We're not bothered about how many records you've sold."

Michael Eavis says for Glastonbury, "You can't give £1m or £2m for a headliner, it doesn't work like that, because we wouldn't have anything to spend on the fields further away," but the headliners still remain the biggest draw for punters. Jay-Z's now infamous inclusion on the 2008 Glastonbury bill led to the festival not selling out in advance for the first time in 15 years.

Other festivals, who can afford the luxury of paying big to tempt global stars aren't always guaranteed the show the money warrants. This was evident at Reading where, although not a headliner, even Britain's most erstwhile performers, The Libertines demonstrated the professional performance befitting of their fee when compared to the ineptitude and pomposity of Guns N' Roses.

Reading though must get the credit where it is due with Arcade Fire performing an immaculate, though under-attended set and Blink 182 showing that foreign acts have both the draw and the show to back it up with.

Only six of the last 15 acts to headline the festival have been home-grown talent and two of those, Franz Ferdinand and Arctic Monkeys, had only just launched into their third albums. Instead Reading has often fostered foreign, namely American acts, in order to run with its heavier aesthetic.

Diversity is the fabric of the best of the British festivals and Reading, as a theme, choose to demonstrate this through nationality as opposed to musical diversity, with Sunday dance night of course acknowledged.

If performance counts, how many albums should an act release before headlining a festival? Which British acts do you think should headline the big UK festivals next year? Do you think foreign acts are broadening the festival scene or stifling it?

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