Festivals aren't on their way out - they're just at a crossroads
Chris Eustace responds to Michael Eavis' comments
Coming on the same weekend as the sold-out T In The Park and Sonisphere, it seems a
bit odd, but is there trouble on the horizon? Eavis also mentions
"WOMAD and Latitude not selling out" - although to be fair the latter is, according to The Guardian, only 1,000 tickets
away. The article also claims that Hop Farm (which managed to snare Prince's first ever UK festival slot,
remember) only sold 20,000 of its 50,000 allocation, and that Reading
& Leeds has up to 40% of its tickets still available. So is there something to it?
Perhaps Eavis is referring to the big festivals. While smaller and mid-size festivals that try to compete with the big boys can fall by the wayside quickly, standing or falling or whoever they manage to book to headline that year, festivals like Bestival, Green Man and End Of The Road have flourished by carving their own niche, and attempting to offer the supposedly jaded punter something different. Kendal Calling, Creamfields and Parklife seem to have done well in the last couple of years as well.
When the Glastonbury boss laments the possibility that “people have seen it all before”, is he referring to the big boys, who all rely heavily on rock/indie bands to provide the headline acts? With the commercial side of the genre currently in the doldrums, precious few new bill-topping bands are emerging.
Eavis revealed that Glastonbury 2008, the only one in recent times not to sell out in advance, before eventually doing so on it's opening day, cost £22m, and “nearly went bankrupt”, claiming that “we sell out only because we get huge headliners." But how many acts of that calibre are available at one time?
Of the newer festival headliners to emerge in the last decade - Foo Fighters, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, The Killers, Kings Of Leon and Coldplay - every one of them has headlined at a UK festival at least twice in the last six years, more often than not doing, say, Reading one year, then V the next, so perhaps punters are indeed fatigued by the same old bands.
The rise of the internet has been blamed for the downturn in record sales, and arguably, for now at least, the ability for an act to become “global”, as people listening on the internet can devour music, but still not know who's Number One in the charts. Perhaps this is why when promoters attempt to promote new bands to headliner status, like Kings Of Leon at Glasto '07, Arcade Fire at R&L last year - or My Chemical Romance this - the bands are derided for not being “big enough”. Though day tickets for two of the three days at Reading 2011 have already sold out.
It's simply much harder these days to have a hit with the kind of reach that older acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers or even Coldplay had. Plus, with record labels encroaching on bands' live earnings – traditionally the only way most bands make any money – festival bookings are becoming like trying to sign a footballer, with exorbitant figures banded about for the acts that can still sell out stadiums. Someone's got to subsidise that price tag, and if the promoter is to make any profit, it ends up going onto the ticket price.
With people chasing recession-busting bargains, cheap flights have made it cheaper to head to Lisbon to see the likes of the Arctics, The Strokes and Elbow – in fact a return flight and a ticket to some of Europe's biggest festivals will still see change from £200.
That's probably R&L's main problem this year (and I say that as a fan, having bought a ticket before the line-up came out) – while one more Green Day/Chili Peppers-type mega-band may have sold it out as normal, its younger fanbase simply can't afford the ticket price this time around, although the instalment plan is a good idea that should stay in place regardless of whether it returns to selling out in a couple of hours next year or not.
That it hasn't this year is probably a blessing in disguise in many ways, and having learned a few lessons, R&L will hopefully emerge stronger. It's not exactly a bad line-up, The Strokes and Pulp double-header and Muse doing ‘Origin Of Symmetry’, for example, will surely be superb. It just needs something to call its own next time.
Rather than doom-mongering, Michael Eavis' comments should be seen as a bit of wake-up call for the big boys not to be complacent. The man himself may not have too much to worry about – with the huge coverage and interest in his festival – not to mention the hike in record sales for Glastonbury acts the week after the event – will see the big acts continue to flock there.
For the rest, the future may involve keeping an eye on not letting prices get too high, and more “bands of the moment” headlining than the rock dinosaurs. This might get dangerous – for every Strokes or Arcade Fire at the peak of their powers or getting Coldplay or KOL at the exact point they ascend to the big league, you might have people scratching their heads over why The Darkness once headlined on one album. But at least it won't be predictable.