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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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