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Festival headliners – don’t just sit there, do something! – Emma Webster


This week’s blog post is a brief one about festival headliners and what makes for an ‘ideal’ way to close the main stage each day. 

I recently returned from a splendid weekend at a small festival – lots of smiling people, nice weather, good music, and hot fresh doughnuts.  My one gripe was with the headline acts – who shall not be named – neither of which appeared to be ‘ideal’ as headliners.  I will now (briefly) consider why.

Friday’s headliner used a large backdrop on which to project moving images, which proved very necessary as both the movement of the musicians and their positioning on stage was very static (the lead singer was sitting down for the entire gig), and there was no audience interaction whatsoever (that I saw).  The crowd was sparse and I was able to get to the very front ridiculously easily for a headline gig (the implication being that the headline act should be so popular and/or so adept at attracting passers-by – Siren-like – that I should be anywhere near the front). Not so, however.  Saturday’s night’s offering was slightly better in terms of attendance, but little better in terms of entertainment and putting on a good show.  The lead singer – whom I had seen rip Glasgow’s King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut apart in 2009 – was again fairly static (no lighting trusses low down enough for him to swing from this time) and barely spoke to the crowd.  I ended up leaving early for both bands’ sets, bored as much by the lack of stage craft as by the music.

All of this implies that there is a certain expectation on headliners to behave a certain way, and some of these ways are as follows:-

1.  Don’t play new songs – the audience want the hits;

2.  Do interact with the crowd – a brief ‘this one’s the third track off the second album’ a la Saturday’s headliner is simply not good enough;

3.  Do move around the stage a little – it’s a big cathedral-like space and no matter how many snazzy lighting effects there are, it’s very very dull if you just stand or sit in the same position for the entire set;

4.  Do plan your setlist so that it has dynamic range.

Booking headliners must be a tricky tightrope for festival bookers to traverse, however.  They have a finite budget with which to pay a headline band who will a) attract the punters (unless it’s Glastonbury), b) reflect the sensibility of the festival (demographically, generically, ethically, etc.), and c) signpost the status of the festival to the music industries (if you’re booking The Rolling Stones, you’re probably doing OK, for example).  Unfortunately, the complaints I heard at last weekend’s festival were that it seemed as if the bookers had dropped the ball this year and booked headline bands that they wanted to see rather than who would give a good performance.  One festival-goer complained to me that it was the third time she had seen Friday’s band headlining a festival and that she wished bookers would stop booking them as a headline band, because they simply ‘weren’t headliners’!

What does make for a good festival headliner, then?  Do get in touch with your thoughts!

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4 thoughts on “Festival headliners – don’t just sit there, do something! – Emma Webster

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  1. Can’t speak for that one – but the question of what makes for a good ‘headliner’ versus other attributes of a good live act has occurred to me in the past. I saw Primal Scream at OFF Festival in Poland a couple of years ago. Thoroughly enjoyed it – as did the crowd- although it was part of their ‘Screamadelica anniversary’ tour. Lots of popular songs on the album of course, but I did wonder if it was an ideal ‘festival set’ – although obviousy better than at Glasonbury 2005 where he insulted the crowd throughout the set while the band noodled away.

  2. One thing that I should have added is that the headliner is but one part of the festival as a whole. In addition, as Simon Frith points out: “what is valuable for the festival audience is not the live performance of a particular group for its particular fans, but ‘live performance’ as a kind of abstract ideal. 2006’s T in the Park, for example, was sold out within minutes of the tickets going on sale (on the Web), at which time no acts had been announced” (2007, p. 9).* Even if a festival headliner does not deliver the goods – admittedly subjective anyway -the festival experience is not all about the headliner.

    * Frith, S. (2007) Live Music Matters. Scottish Music Review, 1 (1), pp. 1-17.”

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