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Fewer headliners, stronger sales: EU festival preview

Ahead of Europe’s summer festival season, IQ speaks to seven festival organisers and promoters to see what this year has in store

By Anna Grace on 08 May 2019

EU festival preview

Down the Rabbit Hole

image © Bart Heemskerk

Festivals across Europe are hoping to ride off the high temperatures and high spirits of last summer for another successful festival season, as sales shape up well and the strength of newer talent bolsters event bills.

“We sold out more than two months earlier than last year,” Lowlands festival director Eric van Eerdenburg tells IQ. “There was a huge demand on tickets after we sold out too.” Van Eerdenburg puts the swift sell-out down to the success of last year, saying he is confident this year’s festival will live up to expectations.

The “exceptionally great summer” of 2018 has also helped to boost sales for powerhouse German promoter FKP Scorpio, with chief executive Stephan Thanscheidt noting that festivals are selling better than last year. The promoter notes that “fantastic line-ups” are another contributor to this success.

Elsewhere in Europe, Denmark’s Roskilde festival expects another sell-out year, Montreux Jazz Festival sales are on a par with previous years – despite an increasingly tough Swiss market – and Serbia’s Exit festival has sold 15% more tickets than at the same time last year.

However, ticket sales are only part of the story, as obtaining headline acts has not proved so straightforward for many this summer. “It’s been a big challenge for us this year to book big acts,” admits Down the Rabbit Hole director Ide Koffeman.

Koffeman points out that this is not so much an issue for more future-focused festivals such as Down the Rabbit Hole, but for fellow Mojo festival Pinkpop, which “depends on all the big names”, it has been a bit more of a struggle.

Mojo’s Lowlands has faced problems with procuring its line-up. Prodigy cancelled their slot following the sad passing of frontman Keith Flint, whereas Vince Staples, Courtney Barnett and Clairo confirmed and later cancelled “for no valid reason”.

“The whole process of announcing acts, and agreeing on a line-up poster is becoming a mission impossible,” says van Eerdenburg.

“The whole process of announcing acts, and agreeing on a line-up poster is becoming a mission impossible”

Roskilde head of programming Anders Wahrén also encountered some obstacles when confirming headliners. “Negotiations have drawn out because of the lack of headliners in some territories, but we have been patient and – we think – rewarded in the end,” says Wahrén.

Indeed, the rate of artist development and the strength of young acts are earmarked as a great positive of this year’s festival season. “It’s an opportunity for a great number of up-and-coming acts to headline big festivals,” explains Paléo festival’s Dany Hassenstein.

“These young artists are really keen to play live, it’s a massive part of their identity,” says Mojo’s Koffeman, naming Billie Eilish as one act in particular to have grown massively since being booked.

Despite the seeming lack of top shelf acts on tour, FKP Scorpio’s Thanscheidt is looking forward to presenting line-ups consisting of a mix of “legendary acts like the Cure, Foo Fighters and Mumford and Sons” alongside popular national acts and “very interesting new bands”.

Festivalgoers can also expect to see a growing number of urban artists on stages this year. Exit has dedicated a whole new stage to hip-hop, as the festivals focuses “on the millenials and their own taste in music”.

This sentiment is echoed elsewhere. “It is clear that urban is king”, says Roskilde’s Wahrén, identifying hip-hop and rap as the dominant genres among young festivalgoers.

Another point of discussion has been the attempt to increase female presence on festival stages. Yet, despite the growing presence of initiatives such as Keychange, organisers are struggling to produce gender-balanced line-ups.

“If we had the opportunity to book as many female stars [as males] we would, but it’s not always the case”

“Right now, we notice that we cannot find as many great female artists in the musical genres we mainly present, as we would like to,” says Thanscheidt. “We are trying to help change this status quo by supporting female talent wherever we can, through our festivals, tours and concerts.”

Montreux Jazz Festival chief executive Mathieu Jaton stresses the need to work on the “full chain”, focusing on the development of female artists from an earlier stage, both in the recording studio and the live arena. “If we had the opportunity to book as many female stars [as males] we would, but it’s not always the case”, he explains.

Exit festival’s Bojana Kozomora also highlights the need to initiate change “among the younger generations”, whereas Wahrén talks of the importance of looking for role models when booking artists. Janelle Monáe and Rosalía serve as female role models at this year’s Down the Rabbit Hole. “We do as much as we can,” says Koffeman, “but we have to be successful too.”

Sustainability is another key issue for 2019 festivals. “The plastic discussion took up a lot of our time,” says Lowlands’ van Eerdenburg, who states that the reusable PET plastic cups favoured by many brands are “no solution to any environmental issue”, given the miles covered transporting them to washing sites.

In an increasingly saturated and globalised market, Jaton speaks of the challenge of standing out from the crowd, whilst maintaining an event’s original spirit. “You need to build a story. It’s about the whole experience and what you’re giving to the audience after the show,” states Jaton.

“A bill-driven concept is not enough anymore”, says Paléo’s Hassenstein and, for Mojo, it’s all about developing the artist-fan interaction. This year’s Down the Rabbit Hole will feature a live studio on site to offer a more personal view of the artist.

After all, says Koffeman, festivals are about much more than “just the stage and the beer” nowadays.


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