Co-Headliners: The end of UK festivals as we know them?

Are Co-Headliners at festivals causing the downfall of the UK festival industry? In The Music Radar UK’s first feature article, Ben Standring looks at whether the continuing trend of festivals using co-headliners in the line up is freshening or destructing the UK festival market.

Festivals are without doubt one of the most important parts in the music industry for artists and fans alike. A 2015 study concluded that roughly fourteen million people in the UK planned on attending at least one festival that year and 30% of those would attend more than one. People get drawn to festivals each year and the line up of such an event can make or break the turnout. For most festival goers, the decision to go to a specific festival can rest on who the headliners are.  Putting up three big headliners can almost guarantee that a festival will sellout. However recent line ups suggest a change to the norm, with the increased introduction of co-headliners – a trend which could have an enormous impact on the UK festival industry.

We first caught sight of this trend when T in the Park introduced Blur and Snow Patrol as co-headliners on the first night of the festival in 2009. Both bands at the time were at such a height in their careers, it resulted in great success.

Using co-headliners that are both incredibly popular with the crowd proves an effective way of boosting the line-up. It gives crowds the belief that they are getting more for their ticket with an extra headliner. T in the Park then again used co-headliners to prove how line ups can be enhanced with two world conquering artists – Coldplay and Beyonce headlining the Saturday night that year. Reading and Leeds followed this formula, also in 2011, with The Strokes, a band at full world domination following the release of fourth album Angles, co-headlining with Sheffield Brit pop giants Pulp. With the addition of Muse and My Chemical Romance as the other two headliners, 2011 proved to be one of the most successful years for the festival despite the torrential weather. Isle of Wight Festival additionally used the format in 2015 to give them one of the best line ups they have had in a long time. Rave giants The Prodigy and blues rock The Black Keys combined alongside Blur and Fleetwood Mac to give the line up of that summer.

reading-2014
Reading 2014 paved the way for new headliners in the future like QOTSA and Paramore

The progression for an artist to headliner status used to be a long, drawn out process with organisers having to work out if the promotion of an artist to headliner would be popular with crowds. The use of co-headliners has gotten rid of this, allowing organisers to feel more comfortable taking risks as they can put two artists in the space that they would normally have one. Before the use of co-headliners, there was an insufficient amount of headliners, leading to frustrated crowds as the same bands were recycled around festivals every few years. The headliner deficit has been stopped a little more with festivals like Reading and Leeds using co-headline status to promote artists to the top of the line up. Bands like Queens of The Stone Age, Paramore, Fall Out Boy and Foals have finally been given the chance to top the line up, all of which have had multiple successes as artists and have deserved the promotion to the top. If Reading and Leeds hadn’t used this format, I doubt these bands would have been chosen to top a line up made of three headliners. Reading and Leeds used this format perfectly in 2014 with Queens of the Stone Age and Paramore co-headlining together, giving two deserving bands the step up in the space of one slot. Foals’ incredible headline show in 2016 at Reading showed the festival circuit just how good they are at the very top and it wouldn’t be a surprise now to see them headlining on their own at the other major UK festivals in the future.

 

This format has clearly proven a positive for the UK festival scene, but there are some deep flaws which could have negative consequences for everyone. The co-headliner format over time could lead to an increased weakness of UK festival lineups. Organisers can choose to pick two smaller artists over one big artist to headline one night of the festival, meaning crowds miss out on some of the biggest artists in the world. The success of Isle of Wight Festival in 2015 led to an apparent change in the line up of the festival from then on. The use of a popular band (The Black Keys) followed by a major dance artist (The Prodigy) brought an incredible end to the Friday night of the festival. In 2016, they decided to follow this format with Stereophonics and Faithless closing the Friday night. Whilst both artists were popular in their time, it is questionable as to whether either were on a similar scale of popularity as the co-headliners of the previous year. Festival goers seemed to agree with this thought, which led to decreased sales and a number of other problems which followed for the festival in 2016. Whether 2017 co-headliners Run-DMC and David Guetta prove a similar fate, will be seen next year but I applaud the fact the festival has used one of their headline slots to bring over one of the most important groups in the history of rap to the UK.

Reading and Leeds also could be said to have used this format as a way of not having to pay out for another major headliner in 2016. Using not one but two sets of co-headliners, the festival essentially used 5 “headliners” to hide the fact only one major act (Red Hot Chilli Peppers) was booked that year. The use of dance-duo Disclosure as a co-headliner on the Friday night before Foals’ set could be said to be one of the worst headliner decisions made by a festival in recent years. Playing at a festival notoriously known for Rock and Indie / Alternative music, it makes little sense that a dance-duo, with only two albums and most of their biggest songs falling on the pop side of the music spectrum, should headline the main stage at the festival.

A more theoretical flaw to the co-headliner system is the blindingly obvious fact that only one artist can actually headline a festival. A headliner closes a festival and unless both artists are performing on stage at the same time, one artist will have to play under the other, thus rendering “co-headline” status pointless in reality and only existing on paper. The exception to this is when Reading and Leeds let one co-headliner top the Reading bill and one top the Leeds bill in 2014.

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Did Fall Out Boy actually headline Reading & Leeds in 2016?

However the festival in 2016 proved exactly how using this system can confuse festival fans. With two sets of co-headliners, organisers switched who was topping the bill at each site with Foals topping Reading and Disclosure topping Leeds. However they chose not to do this with the other set of co-headliners. Biffy Clyro played above Fall Out Boy at both sites, making many question whether there was a point of Fall Out Boy being co-headliners. The fact that Biffy Clyro were made co-headliners instead of headliners alone is incredibly confusing as well, having headlined Reading alone in 2013, and topping the bill at Isle of Wight Festival and T in the Park in 2014. Looking at these headline slots, it makes little sense as to why they were made co-headliners in 2016.

 

The co-headliner format has not been used a lot in European festivals and the growing popularity of festivals in Europe could therefore be linked to the fact that they have one strong headliner for each day of the festival. The co-headliner format started out strong with its ability to freshen up the headliner deficit but there is increased worry that it will now start to decrease the popularity of the major festivals in the UK, if they don’t attract the bigger artists. Glastonbury is currently the only major UK festival not to follow this growing trend but if this changes then the traditional three day, three headliner format of festivals will truly have gone with unknown consequences for the future.

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