I like to play this game with festival lineups, where I see how far I can down the list until I run out of bands I recognize. The older I get, the shorter the distance I am able to go and the more I feel just a tad bit disconnected from the popular music driving today’s live space.
Looking at the lineups of the big festivals in the last few days — Coachella, BottleRock, Governors Ball and Bonnaroo — it’s not hard to get the feeling that a lot of the billings look and feel the same. While there is no one artist playing all four festivals, each has some headliners that neither I nor most casual music fans know much about.
That can make us focus on the similarities in the lineups of current festivals and those from last year, but the story of which bands make which posters tells us a lot about where the festival industry and what trends are influencing this year’s lineups. Here’s four things we can learn from the first four festivals to announce their talent.
Most Headliners Haven’t Been to the Market in a While
To me, the most interesting lineup is Governors Ball with a hip-hop heavy lineup that feels similar to Coachella, but really deserves a closer look. On first glance, artists like Tyler, the Creator, who just headlined Camp Flognaw in Los Angeles over the summer, and Lil Wayne who performed at Rolling Loud in the Bay Area and Los Angeles, plus Firefly and Austin City Limits, seem a little bit predictable because we saw them so much last year.
Sure they’ve played over the globe last year, but Tyler hasn’t played New York since 2017, while Lil Wayne hasn’t been in the market since 2015. Combine that with acts that haven’t played much in the U.S. in the last two years at all like The Strokes or Major Lazer, and it becomes a bit easier to understand the booking philosophy — it’s less about finding acts that are unique to the festival landscape and more about connecting with artists who have been away from the market for a year or two, tapping into pent up fan demand and hopefully selling more tickets.
Coachella Still Leads the Pack, But Not By As Much
When it comes to festival season, Coachella sets the tone for the rest of the pack. It’s the first to announce, it’s the biggest (250,000 people over two weekends) and it has one of the most restrictive radius clauses, preventing artists on the lineup from playing any competing festival in North America from December to May (which is not prime festival season, but still it’s very restrictive).
It’s also the least transparent festival — AEG-owned Goldenvoice does zero press for the event. Most festivals hire PR firms to coordinate complex embargo press release strategies when announcing their lineups with dozens of media partners — Coachella just sends out a tweet. The festival stopped releasing ticket sales data last year (in 2017 it grossed $114 million making it the first fest to hit the nine-figure mark).
While that opaqueness has helped the festival in the past, it actually hurt the festival when Kanye West dropped off the bill 24 hours before the lineup was announced. Goldenvoice, being a wall of silence, never explained the change to the public and while West’s replacement with Tame Impala seems to work, Goldenvoice has put zero effort into explaining what happened and it’s credibility has taken a hit as a result.
Goldenvoice also seems to be backing off another strict radius clause requirement that Coachella bands can’t publicize tour stops on the West Coast before the Coachella lineup is announced. Ariana Grande, who closes both Sunday nights of the festivals, will be in the middle of a Live Nation arena tour that begins its West Coast leg the same week Coachella starts and includes two Staples Center headline shows only two weeks after Coachella wraps April 21. It’s extremely rare for Goldenvoice to allow an artist on a Live Nation tour to break its radius clause, but Goldenvoice made an exception for Ariana and booking agents will likely seize on the exception in future negotiations.
The Field is Less Headliner Driven
Don’t expect the big stadium acts like Beyonce, U2, Dead & Co or Eminem to hit the festival circuit this year.
Many big marquee acts are either taking the year off or doing their own headline tours, which is forcing festivals to dig deeper and come up with a compelling story to attract fans to their events.
“It’s about investing in the guts of the lineup, understanding the full scale of the music and building out the brand and experience,” one festival promoter told Amplify, saying they were happy the most expensive acts avoided the festival space this season.
“We’re not being extorted this year,” the promoter said. Is that a trend going forward, or are we simply in an off year? It’s probably an exception our sources tells us — artists aren’t going to stop wanting huge paydays and could be back at it again in 2020.
Festivals With Stories Are More Compelling This Year
While events like Firefly and Lollapalooza are really driven by album cycles and what’s popular in music, festivals with a story to tell are going to stand out in the crowded field this year and break through some of the clutter.
BottleRock in Napa Valley is an event with the best hospitality offering in the festival space, and a great story to tell — three friends bought the festival out of bankruptcy in 2014, turned it around and sold a majority stake to Live Nation in 2017. With its culinary stage combining artists and celebrity chefs and its focus on food and wine, BottleRock has a really compelling fan offering that goes beyond the lineup with acts that help tell the story of BottleRock.
Are Imagine Dragons, Neil Young and Mumford and Sons the most music-centric lineup of the year? No, of course not but they really appeal to BottleRock’s fan demographic (older, more affluent) and share a sound that really lends itself to the festival’s ambitious pairing of music, food and wine into a singular experience. Dave Graham and his team have found a lineup that really works for them and instead of trying to land the next Soundcloud rapper or European DJ, have found a lane to tell their story with the acts they’ve booked.