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Top promoters tackle the new headliner debate

Leading UK promoters have spoken out on the live industry’s success rate at developing fresh stadium and festival headliners.

The new headliner question has been a perennial debate in the touring business over the past decade, amid claims of an over-reliance on heritage artists. Yet despite legends including Elton John, KISS, Aerosmith, Ozzy Osbourne and the Eagles all retiring from the road, the pipeline appears to be as healthy as it has been in decades.

The summer of 2023 has witnessed open air spectaculars by an abundance of stars still in their 20s and early 30s such as Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Ed Sheeran, Billie Eilish, Burna Boy, The 1975, Arctic Monkeys, Wizkid, The Weeknd, Blackpink, Sam Fender and Bad Bunny, and AEG’s European Festivals chief Jim King is buoyed by the state of play.

“It’s a very interesting question because it comes up a lot,” he tells IQ. “But as I remind everybody: some of the biggest shows this year have been with young, contemporary artists, or certainly will be in the next 12 months.”

Blockbuster tours by Taylor Swift ($300.8 million), Harry Styles ($124m) and Ed Sheeran ($105.3m) all hit the nine-figure mark in H1 2023, with Swift’s Eras Tour on target to become the first concert tour in history to net more than US$1 billion, and Styles recently wrapped Love On Tour generating close to $600m overall.

“Harry Styles could probably still be playing Wembley now if they had the availability”

Only this week, meanwhile, it was announced that The Weeknd pulled in over 1.6 million fans to the European leg of his After Hours Til Dawn Tour. The Canadian shattered Wembley Stadium’s record for sales with a traditional concert set up with the stage at one end with 87,000 tickets sold, having also set a new attendance record for London Stadium after drawing 160,000 fans over two nights in July.

In Milan, the 33-year-old sold over 159,000 tickets, making him the first artist to sell out two nights at Ippodromo La Maura, with his shows in Paris marking the biggest sales for Stade de France this year, totalling to 151,000 across the two dates. His shows in Nice, France sold 70,000 tickets across two shows – the highest in the city’s history.

“We talk our supply chain of new headliners down so often, with other artists sadly no longer with us or retiring,” says King. “But if you look at this great run of stadium shows, there has been no bigger act in London this summer than The Weeknd, with two London Stadiums and a Wembley Stadium.

“Harry Styles could probably still be playing Wembley now if they had the availability. His quality as an artist is unquestionable, not just in terms of his music, but his live performances. Taylor Swift will set records next year, no doubt, as she continues to in North America, and Ed Sheeran continues to do so as well – and those are just the easy ones off the top of your head.”

King oversees the 65,000-cap BST Hyde Park in London, which this year featured seasoned headliners Guns N’ Roses, Take That, Billy Joel, Pink and Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, plus contemporary superstars Blackpink and Lana Del Rey.

“Stadium business in the UK has never been stronger”

“The process of developing artists to that level has clearly changed since the 1970s, but most of the cultural industries have changed in some ways since then as well,” he adds. “I don’t feel any lack of optimism about the future – Lana Del Rey could have sold 100,000 tickets in London this summer if she’d have wanted to, such is the love and appreciation of where she is in her career. So I think the industry is in far better shape than people say.

“Stadium business in the UK has never been stronger. Trying to get avails for stadiums in the UK at the moment is beyond a challenge, and we know from The O2 and our other venues that live music is extremely strong – and that’s because of the quality of the artists. When quality sits in place, demand will follow.”

This weekend’s Reading & Leeds Festival (cap. 90,000 & 75,000, respectively) will be headlined by British artists Sam Fender, Foals and The 1975 (subbing for Lewis Capaldi), as well as Billie Eilish, The Killers and Imagine Dragons from the US, and Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn is confident the UK is still developing enough headline talent in relation to its American counterparts.

“Two out of the three Glastonbury headliners [Elton John/Arctic Monkeys] were UK acts, three out of six at Reading and Leeds are UK acts, three out of the three at Latitude [Pulp/Paolo Nutini/George Ezra] were UK acts, three out of the three at Wilderness [Chemical Brothers/Fatboy Slim] were UK acts, well one’s French albeit UK-based [Christine & The Queens],” Benn tells Music Week.

“If you look across festivals as a whole, there are more UK headliners than US headliners. Wireless [Playboy Carti/Travis Scott/D-Block Europe] has a greater propensity of US artists than UK artists because of the nature of the music. But if I was to look across all of the festival headline positions, the UK is very much the strongest generator of headliners.”

“There’s a fresh pipeline of talent coming through, which is needed”

Superstruct-backed UK festival promoter From the Fields booked Nile Rodgers & Chic, Kasabian, Blossoms and Royal Blood to headline its 40,000-cap Kendal Calling and Roisin Murphy, Pavement and Grace Jones for the 25,000-cap Bluedot.

“I’ve always struggled finding the headliners,” company MD and co-founder Andy Smith tells IQ. “I’ve always been the boy who cried wolf thinking that this is the year we won’t be able to find anyone. I remember back in 2011, the festival had completely sold out and we couldn’t find a Sunday night headliner. and that was two months of sheer panic, but eventually Alex Hardee came through and we got Calvin Harris so it worked out in the end. But it’s always difficult. If it wasn’t difficult, everyone would be doing it, but we always come through.

“I’d say it’s as difficult as it’s ever been. But this year, we had one of our strongest, most varied bills and it’s great to see newer acts taking our headline slot. Blossoms have played a number of times at the festival, but this was their first time on the main stage and they were headlining it and they did a great job. Royal Blood, again, had never played at Kendal before. So there’s a fresh pipeline of talent coming through, which is needed.”

Speaking earlier this year, Live Nation boss Michael Rapino praised the emergence of younger headliners such as Bad Bunny, Karol G, Rosalia, Blackpink, BTS and Billie Eilish.

“Six of the top 10 artists were younger artists,” he said. “There’s just a host of great new talent every year coming up, filling the pipe. We didn’t know Luke Combs was going to be selling stadiums out this year, two years ago. We had no idea Bad Bunny was going to be the largest selling artist last year.

“We’re also seeing this encouraging new supply strategy where for many years, it was all about US or UK-based artists that filled the charts and fill the stadium and most other talent was domestic… Now, you can see artists coming from Latin America and Korea and becoming global superstars.”

The debate will take centre stage at this year’s International Festival Forum (IFF) as part of the Headliners: The Winner Takes it All panel from 10am on Thursday 28 September, which will be chaired by WME agent Andy Duggan. Click here for more details.


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From the Fields’ Andy Smith breaks down ’23 season

From the Fields co-founder and MD Andy Smith has reflected on the mixed fortunes of the UK promoter’s Kendal Calling and Bluedot festivals this summer in a new interview with IQ.

Held in Lowther Deer Park in the Lake District from 27-30 July, the 40,000-cap Kendal Calling sold out for the 17th successive year, headlined by Nile Rodgers & Chic, Kasabian, Blossoms and Royal Blood.

“It’s been a phenomenal year,” Smith tells IQ. “It’s been a hard year, but it’s definitely been worth it.”

The goodwill generated from this year’s festival has helped it break its first-day sales record for the second successive year, with more than 40% of tickets for next year’s edition, set for 1-4 August 2024, snapped up yesterday.

“We’ve got a very eager and passionate audience,” Smith tells IQ. “People love the festival – it’s as simple as that. We’ve got a very strong, loyal audience who come every year and they know that it sells out every year – 17 years in a row – so they just want to know that they have a ticket and then not think about it again until we announce the line-up, at which point they get all excited again. I wish I was that organised!”

In another positive development, the festival saw a greater uptake for its Thursday opening night attractions this year, which helped ease traffic issues over the weekend.

“It’s normally a three-day camping ticket with the addition of a Thursday night for traffic measures, trying to reduce the amount of cars arriving at once,” explains Smith. “With Scouting For Girls and Chic & Nile Rodgers, we had about 60% of the audience coming in early, which resolved the traffic issues, so that was a great success.”

“Every year we seem to have record amounts of rainfall, and this July is no exception with it being 40% above the norm”

The site’s infrastructure also held up well against the expected weather challenges – with the help of some novel tactics from organisers.

“Every year we seem to have record amounts of rainfall, and this July is no exception with it being 40% above the norm,” says Smith. “It normally turns into quite a mud bath, but we managed to avoid that this year despite having our fair share of rain.

“One of the things we did, which we’d never done before, is we didn’t cut the grass,” he continues. “People turned up and thought we were mad because the grass was up to their knees in places, but there was a theory behind it and it was twofold. Firstly, for the immediate enjoyment of the customers – once you’ve had 10,000 people walk across any high land, it isn’t knee-high anymore and you end up with a carpet below you. That meant that, even after 10 hours of rain on Saturday night, the fields were green and they still were 12 hours later.

“Secondly, from a sustainability [perspective], when you mow 2,000 acres of grass, you turn it all into silage, which goes straight to the cows and into the atmosphere as methane, which is no good. But when you trample it into the ground, it stays there. It’s like a carbon sink, so that was very good for our sustainability policies and very good for the environment and for customers.”

From the Fields’ 25,000-cap science and music event Bluedot was not so lucky in its battle against the elements, however. Taking place at Jodrell Bank Observatory, Cheshire, between 20-23 July with artists including Pavement, Roisin Murphy, Leftfield and Max Richter. But it was forced to cancel Sunday day tickets due to extreme weather conditions after an “unprecedented amount of rainfall” rendered the day ticket holder car park, pick-up and drop-off point and entrances “impassable”.

“It was a shame we had to refund day ticket holders on the Sunday, but it just wouldn’t have been fair to drag them in and out of the car park”

“That a was a very tricky production,” concedes Smith. “We had more rain there than we’ve ever had before, but we had an audience that was prepared for it: they know to wear cagoules, they know to wear the right shoes and they know to bring some spares. With certain shows, you get audiences who are more or less prepared and Bluedot’s 100% saw it coming.

“When we knew [adverse weather] was inevitable, we got an extra 1,500m of trackway down – I think they got 130 tons of wood chip from our local [supplier] – and a number of other measures that were put out throughout the weekend, which ensured the show could go on. Considering the amount of rain, it was very impressive work by the site crew and by the management to keep it going.

“It was a shame we had to refund day ticket holders on the Sunday, but it just wouldn’t have been fair to drag them in and out of the car park. But for everybody on site, it’s strange – the audience seems to come together a lot more in times of adversity. So whilst one may not have expected it to be so well received, looking at the socials afterwards, it seems to have been one of the best we’ve had yet, if not the best, which is just phenomenal.”

Returning to Kendal Calling’s Leave Nothing But Memories sustainability programme, From the Fields launched new game Flappy Tent to raise awareness of the impact of festival-goers leaving tents behind and commissioned local band The Lancashire Hotpots to write a song about the issue.

“Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better, and surveying Kendal Calling site on the Monday morning in 2019 was very depressing,” says Smith. “Then we had the two years off, and then last year pretty much everybody took their tents away. It went from being an uncountable mess down to about 284 tents.

“I was very worried this year, because it rained a lot. But by the initial count, it’s looking like we’ve done the same as last year, which I actually think is really good. Through all these initiatives, I think the message has got through.”

Kendal Calling and Bluedot have been backed by Superstruct Entertainment since 2019 and 2022, respectively.

“We’ve got support where we need it,” adds Smith. “We’ve always had great team but there’s that extra level that’s very refreshing, especially when you’re days into a festival and it’s quite tiring. It’s great to have somebody on the end of the phone who’s got a fresh mind and fresh pair of eyes. Nothing’s changed unless it’s been needed and we find their level of support so refreshing. It’s a wonderful partnership.”


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