Paint It Grey: How festival headliners are getting older, and why it matters

Note before you start reading: this is just over 3000 words long. It takes between 10-15 minutes to read. It’s best enjoyed with a cup of tea, a comfy chair and your favourite music playing softly in the background. Read on…

The Rolling Stones in 2012. Copyright Jonathan Bayer. Reproduced under Creative Commons.
The Rolling Stones in 2012. Copyright Jonathan Bayer

When Keith Richards starts up his distinctive riff on (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction at Glastonbury Festival tonight, he will be playing to a crowd on average just under half his age. He is 70 this year.

The Rolling Stones are the latest in a procession of ageing rockers to grace the Pyramid Stage. Stevie Wonder, who rounded off  Glastonbury’s fortieth birthday celebrations in 2010, made his debut as a precocious 12-year-old nine years before the first music-lovers descended on Worthy Farm. The triumph of baby boomer era rock came the year before, when headliners Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen and Blur had 95 years of experience between them.

The data confirms a definite shift towards older bands at major British music festivals. The average Glastonbury headliner between 2008 and this year released their first album 12 years before stepping on to the Pyramid Stage. The average for the previous five editions was six years, and the five before them was seven. At the Reading and Leeds festivals, the average age has gone up from six years from 1995 to 2001 to 16 years from 2008 to 2013. Green Day and Eminem, two of this year’s headliners, have been going since before some of this year’s crowd were even born.

How Glastonbury headliners are getting older. Click here for the full interactive graphic
How Glastonbury headliners are getting older. Click here for the full interactive graphic

Your new favourite band

The digitization of music, through both legitimate music services such as Spotify and illegal downloading and file-sharing, has opened most of the world’s supply of recorded music to a new generation. With gigabytes of music at our fingertips, why is it that the old guard are still topping the bills?

According to James Scarlett, one of the organisers of 2000trees, a music festival in Gloucestershire that focuses on new music, this access is precisely the point.

“Music is so accessible for free now, so people jump on a daily or weekly basis from one favourite band to the next,” he says.

Digital music gives the consumer more choice – you can skip from Abba to Jay-Z in one click – but it makes it harder for new artists to attract a devoted following that can translate into a sizeable festival crowd. Consequently they struggle to move up the bills of major festivals. The irony is that the increased choice on our computers has led to less choice on stage.

“I do think that means that the bigger rock acts are not actually coming through. They don’t get that obsession that people used to have with Green Day or Nirvana or back further with Metallica,” Mr Scarlett says.

Both legal digital music services and file-sharing programs have “unbundled” music. Before iTunes and Spotify, making a playlist of your favourite music was beyond the reach of almost everyone except club DJs and radio presenters. CD players and tape recorders could only play one record at a time. With Spotify you can create infinite combinations of your favourite music.

“I’m in my thirties and when I was young I used to get obsessed with a band and you’d listen to them for months and months,” James says.

Spotify offers the option to rank an artist’s songs by popularity. With over 24 million active users, it has a vast repository of data on users’ listening habits. Ranking an artist by song popularity will read like a Greatest Hits compilation. That is perfect for the casual consumer, but makes it hard for organisers to feel confident that 20,000 fans will turn up to a festival performance for a relatively new band.

Bob Dylan: on the road since 1985. Copyright: Xavier Badosa
Bob Dylan: on the road. Copyright: Xavier Badosa

Never ending tours

When Bob Dylan played to a crowd at Concord Pavilion in California in June 1988, no one there could have known that he would still be on tour 15 years later. Dylan has toured more or less continuously on the “Never Ending Tour” since according to fan website Still on the Road.

With a reported net worth of $80 million, it is unlikely Dylan does it for the money. However for many acts large and small, being on the road constantly is now a way to make up for lost CD and digital music sales.

“Headliners are making less money from recorded music. Their live performances are their way to compensate for that,” says Helienne Lindvall, a musician and journalist at The Guardian.

The scale of illegal file-sharing is well-known but worth restating. In the first half of 2012 British internet users shared 40 million songs and albums illegally. Supporters of file-sharing argue that not every download equals a lost sale, but Channel 4 News reported the yearly value of Britons’ illegal downloads at £250 million.

The drain on revenue from recorded music has affected all bands that formed before, during and since the digitization of music around the turn of the century.

“In the Nineties someone like Green Day would make enough money selling albums and not have to play concerts non-stop every year,” says Dan Rogers, from the live music tracking website Songkick.

“Nowadays there is a huge supply of bands ready to play because even these legacy acts are still doing 20, 30 or 50 concerts a year. You see some bands that do 150 dates every year,” he says.

Chris Williams, a singer-songwriter from the Isle of Wight, agrees:

“When you take a look further back in the history of music, when you get to the old festivals like Woodstock and the original Isle of Wight festival, there weren’t nearly as many gigs as there are now.

“If you wanted to listen to music you couldn’t just turn your laptop on and go on YouTube or Spotify. You could put on a festival in a field, book some current acts and not have to worry about booking massive older acts,” he says.

Acts such as Chris have to compete against other bands on tour, such as the Rolling Stones, who have been able to build up enormous fan bases through recorded music over decades.

“Their only UK festival show”

A search on eFestivals for festivals this summer reveals over 600 matches. As the number of festivals rises and choice multiplies, the pressure on organisers to stand out in a crowded market becomes more and more intense.

“They want to have a line-up that is unique but also appears heavyweight,” says Alex Trenchard, who founded the 5000-capacity Standon Calling festival in Hertfordshire.

According to Mr Trenchard, this can make it tempting for organisers to pay a premium for an exclusive appearance at their event.

“Larger festivals pay particularly for exclusive appearances. Perhaps what that says is that there’s a lack of acts around at the moment that pack the punch of Blur or the Rolling Stones.” he says.

“I don’t know how much they charge but I can imagine it’s in the thousands of pounds,” says Paul Robins from Exile music festival.

“They’ve obviously got to make that back with the fanbase so they know these big bands are almost guaranteed to sell out because lots of people still want to go and see them.”

Beginners’ luck

As the old guard continue to tour and headline, this means that new artists who are lucky enough to get a record deal are under more pressure to impress on their debut album.

“There is less money to nurture new artists. Labels will give less time to artists to develop,” says Mr Trenchard.

“If your first album flops, that’s it, whereas in the past you might have had a crack at a second album that could have been the making of you.”

There are exceptions to this rule. In 2011 Elbow were on the Pyramid Stage just before Coldplay, the Saturday headliner. It was only with the release of their fourth album The Seldom Seen Kid that they began to achieve mainstream success. The National, a band from Brooklyn, New York that specialise in melancholy rock, are another band that have taken time to draw large crowds.

Many of the world’s top festival draws had unremarkable first albums. Radiohead’s first album Pablo Honey contains fan favourite Creep, but little else from their debut is still played. Their third album, OK Computer represented a musical leap forward for the band and regularly appears at or near the top of “best albums” lists. Eminem, who headlines Reading and Leeds this year, released Infinite, his debut LP, in 1996. It flopped, but his next album The Slim Shady LP achieved mainstream success.

Unusually this year’s Glastonbury has two headliners from the post-Napster era, the Arctic Monkeys and Mumford & Sons, but crucially both these artists achieved worldwide success with their first albums. Whatever You Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not, by the Sheffield band, became the fastest selling debut album in British history when it came out in 2006. Simon Mumford’s group has sold over one million British copies of their 2009 debut Sigh No More.

How the ticket price has risen at Glastonbury. For the full interactive graphic, click here.
How the ticket price has risen at Glastonbury. For the full interactive graphic, click here.

Glastonbury, or a week in Lanzarote?

Trying to get into a major British festival offers the clearest sense of the business behind them. The first Glastonbury festival in 1970 cost £1, £13.09 at 2012 prices, which got you into Worthy Farm with free milk. Now festivals have walls to keep out gatecrashers and some, such as Glastonbury, require you to register before you can try to buy a ticket.

The prices have rocketed. In 1983 a Glastonbury ticket would have cost £34.29, adjusted for inflation. In 1993, that had nearly trebled to £100.05. In the intervening twenty years it has doubled again. A Reading and Leeds ticket would have cost £107.88 in 1997, now it is £202.50, an 88 per cent increase.

According to a survey cited in MSN Money, 32 per cent of music fans do not attend as many music festivals as they did in the past. 58 per cent said the rising costs were a reason for staying away.

Festival-goers don’t just have to worry about the ticket prices themselves. Gigwise reported that the average cost of going to a weekend festival was £423.07, factoring in the ticket, travel, food and drink and other costs. The average Glastonbury goer is now 36 years and six months old.

However, Dan Rogers disputes the idea that young people are spending less on live music.

“I suspect that a lot of people have decided against higher cost activities. Rather than going for a week’s holiday in Lanzarote, they have decided to go to Glastonbury instead,” he says.

Meet the BBC Introducing stage

One opportunity for people to meet new bands is on the special stages that feature young talent. The best known of these is the BBC Introducing stage at festivals such as Glastonbury and Reading and Leeds. T in the Park has a similar stage called T-Break. Household names such as Florence and the Machine and Ed Sheeran have played on BBC Introducing stages.

Artists that want to play these stages send demos to the organisers. If they are deemed good enough, they will get a slot.

“In terms of moving up the circuit it was absolutely fantastic,” says Laurie Collett Donald from Discopolis, an electronic band from Edinburgh who played on the stage at Reading and Leeds in 2011.

“That was our first English show. Reading was outside, quite late at night. People have to walk past the BBC Introducing Stage to go to other stages. A lot of people stopped and it ended up that we played to quite a lot of people,” he says.

Radio presenters and record labels keep an eye and an ear focused on the Introducing stages, Mr Collett Donald explains.

Rob McCleary, from Spotlight Kid, a Nottingham-based guitar band, was on the same stage at Glastonbury that year.

“Straight away people were getting in touch. We were fortunate to get on the Red Button. It might not seem like much but the fact that we got on the Red Button meant that we were on television.

“A booking agent saw us on there. He got in touch pretty much straight afterwards. He said he saw our performance and asked whether we would like to join our booking agency. That was a big deal for us because that meant we could go on tour,” he says.

However, a slot on the Introducing stage is not a guarantee of further success. Mr McCleary tells me that since 2011, his band’s agent has struggled to get them on to more festivals because to save time, festival organisers tend to go through the bigger agents.

“Listening in your car music”

“They have to try and meet all these different diverse needs. These bland, middle-of-the-road headlining bands are going to fit because they’re so popular. It’s listening in your car music,” Mr McCleary contends.

Glastonbury Festival requires you to buy a ticket before any of the major acts are announced.

“How can people be bothered about the music if they’re buying tickets for a festival before they have even announced the line-up?

“To be fair, at Glastonbury we had an amazing opportunity through the BBC Introducing stage. They do want to support local and up-and-coming bands,” he says.

Who's going to fill this place in 10 years time? Copyright: Martin Pettitt
Who’s going to fill this place in 10 years time? Copyright: Martin Pettitt

Revelling – in nostalgia?

How much does it matter that bands like Spotlight Kid struggle with the downward pressure exerted by the heritage acts at the top of festival bills? The best way festival-goers could oppose ageing line-ups is by staying away or going elsewhere to smaller festivals that tend to have younger line-ups. This does not seem to be happening, so what is the problem?

“I think it’s worrying that younger people can’t afford to go. Particularly rock acts need to be exposed to younger audiences otherwise the younger audiences aren’t really going to take to them,” says Ms Lindvall.

“Acts such as the Arctic Monkeys cut their teeth playing earlier slots. Slowly they have moved down the line to become a headliner but if the audience is going to be in their forties or fifties then you are not creating a new generation of fans.”

Bands that haven’t “cut their teeth” further down the bills are unlikely to have the clout to persuade organisers that they will draw the requisite number of fans. That leaves a smaller pool of headliner-calibre bands with little variety.

“It’s a really interesting problem for the likes of Live Nation and O2,” says Mr Rogers, from Songkick.

“Who are they going to put in these stadiums in 10 years’ time? There isn’t going to be anyone. Once Coldplay and Madonna retire, who is going to play in the stadiums?”

“I think the UK could do better. Whenever I look at a line-up now I’m not surprised,” says Mr Collett Donald.

Dance your troubles away

Not all genres of music festivals are necessarily seeing this trend towards middle-aged acts.

The traditional production of a rock album and going on tour will require three to five members, their instruments, possibly session musicians and production teams.

As the money to sustain that model slips away, nimbler single-person dance acts with fewer overheads are faring well.

“If you’re a dance act it’s much cheaper to make your record,” says Ms Lindvall.

“That scene is so much more accessible to new acts than rock music. That’s why you look at these festivals and the younger acts tend to be Disclosure and similar acts that are mainly DJs with featured artists.”

Double agents

Furthermore, the barriers to starting a festival are low. As we have seen, there is an oversupply of bands in the market ready to perform. Promotion can be inexpensive with a savvy online and social media strategy.

“Concert promoters in general get quite squeezed. A lot of the time they are just in the background. Festivals are a way for promoters to develop their own brand,” says Mr Rogers.

“A lot of promoters went out and tried to build strong brands such as the Big Chill or End of the Road. A lot of the people who go to those festivals go because of the festival not because of who is headlining. That puts more power into the promoters’ hands; it gives them some leverage over the acts.”

This bubble burst when the recession hit, as organisers simply could not pay the bills in a crowded market. Sonisphere was one high-profile festival that was cancelled last year, with organisers of sister editions abroad blaming “a weak economy”.

The sun sets on a day at Glastonbury. Image: Paddy McFadden
The sun sets on a day at Glastonbury. Image: Paddy McFadden

Thinking big and small

With artists touring into their sixties and beyond, festival organisers have a bewildering array of potential acts to choose from. With these established acts available and pressure to offer a unique line-up, it is clear that major organisers are increasingly going with familiar favourites.

How, then, can a festival thrive in such a market? Glastonbury, V Festival and T in the Park have to appeal to as many different genres as possible. In the last few years pop and hip hop acts have featured more and more prominently at Glastonbury, culminating in Jay-Z’s acclaimed headline appearance in 2008, followed by his wife Beyoncé three years later. These festivals must appeal to as broad a spectrum as feasible to pay the bills.

Other festivals are doing the opposite: finding a niche and making themselves attractive to a niche market.

“There are four or five hundred festivals out there and I don’t see any point in trying to compete with them all so we try and do something a bit different,” says James Scarlett of 2000trees.

“Once you get bigger you lose that intimate experience,” says Alex Trenchard from Standon Calling.

“The best gig may happen on a stage with thousands of people watching but the best musical experience could happen in a little wood in a corner that you stumble upon.”

Small festival owners “run their business as ‘super-fans’ whereas the big guys run their festivals as a business,” says Dan Rogers from Songkick.

“The ones who are doing well are very in touch with their customers. The reason they are in touch with their customers is because they are similar to their own customers. They are putting on festivals that they would want to go to, not festivals that they think will make the most money.”

As the sun sets on a long June Saturday afternoon with your favourite band playing to an adoring crowd, it is easy to forget that festivals have to make money. Moreover, they are trying to make money in a music industry whose business model has been fundamentally disrupted. Promoting new bands is a commercially risky business. But the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen can’t keep headlining festivals for ever. New artists will have to take their place. There will be no shortage of takers, but there may be a shortage of bands with enough hits to draw the big crowds.