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ILMC 36: Festival heads discuss headliner drought

"Major artists have less of a financial incentive to play festivals since the headline touring business is more rewarding than ever"

By Lisa Henderson on 28 Feb 2024

Research examines fastest-growing festivals

European festival organisers came together at ILMC 36 to discuss the sector’s biggest challenges, including the lack of available headliners.

Cindy Castillo, Mad Cool (ES), Jim King, AEG Presents (UK), Jess Phillips, Untitled Group (AU), Jan Quiel, Wacken Open Air (DE) and Annika Hintz, Superbloom (DE) took the stage for Festival Forum: Headline Topics, moderated by UTA’s Jules De Lattre.

“The challenge across all my UK business has been the availability of headline talent,” said King. “When they’re prepared to confirm, how we can get that show announced and then the sales window that we’re dealing with. The shows we’re putting up are selling very strongly. The demand is there, it’s supply that’s an issue.”

Castillo added: “The most difficult thing this year has definitely been booking headliners and being able to deliver a good lineup. The time between sending our first offer and getting a headliner confirmed was the longest period ever. This is due to many circumstances: the cost, production, dates, not wanting to tour, saturation of the market.”

“The demand is there, it’s supply that’s an issue”

De Lattre suggested the lack of headliners was partly down to the boom in arena and stadium tours.

“Major artists have less of a financial incentive to play festivals since the headline touring business is more rewarding than ever,” he said. “You’ve got higher income on a headlining tour, you’ve got better routes and full control of your production.”

King added: “More acts need to tour festivals and that’s the most urgent issue we have to address.”

Phillips, from Australian promoter Untitled Group, added that it’s not just the availability of headliners that’s an issue but the “astronomical” cost of bringing them to her country. “The problem with that is our breakeven just skyrockets,” she said.

Phillips believes this is the reason why festival cancellations in Australia are mounting: “What we’ve seen recently is festivals putting all their money into securing a good headliner and then collapsing eight days after going on sale because they can tell from that they’re not going to get anywhere near that breakeven.”

“We worry too much about ticket price and not enough about the value of the ticket”

While rising costs are still an ongoing concern in the sector, panellists said they were determined to find solutions.

“There are bits and pieces to cover those costs,” said Jan Quiel. “We’ve been doing VIP packages and making a little extra on glamping, which we only started doing a couple of years ago.”

Castillo adds: “The only possible solution is to get creative about it and face new challenges with new solutions. We can’t control the situation because it’s a world thing, not a local thing.”

King argued that festival organisers should be “concentrating more on value than they do on cost”.

“We need to convince people that going to a festival will be just as much of an enriching experience as going on holiday”

“The first natural reaction when costs go up is to have less – less stages and smaller production,” he said. “If you reduce the value, you reduce the experience and then you’re on a downward spiral. I think if you look at the most successful festivals, they’re actually adding more value to the ticket. We worry too much about ticket price and not enough about the value of the ticket.”

“That doesn’t address the attrition rate, which is always going to be high. There will be more shows that fail because the barrier to entry, financially, is so high and the risk point is so high. I think it’s devastating. But that’s the direction of travel. I think it’s very difficult to change.”

Phillips agreed, adding that the value of a festival needs to match that of a holiday: “It can’t just be a stage and a hotdog stand, fans need to see an immersive experience. We need to convince people that going to a festival will be just as much of an enriching experience as going on holiday or spending your money on something else.

“We project the message that live music is just one element of our festivals and that there are many other activities. We want to deliver a whole other world, like a holiday destination. And that’s what we’re seeing is the most successful outcome.”

 


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