Festival season is now an all-year-round business. With ruthless competition laying waste to even prime players such as Sonisphere and Global Gathering this year, many a booking team have clambered to announce their artists as early as possible, making sure that their clientèle don’t have the chance to hatch plans with a rival event. At the beginning of February we already know the entire top half of Download’s line up, the marquee acts for Wireless and two headliners for Reading and Leeds. Yet, as more and more line ups are unveiled and the summer begins to take shape, the majors are beginning to appear bloated, overpriced and frankly, rather dull.
With Glastonbury remaining the only festival in the UK where ticket day is a mad, blind rush rather than a peaceful amble on to the event’s website, coupled with a concern over a lack of new blood at the summit of posters, festivals are trying hard to diversify. While it’s good to see bookers take risks, the struggle for headliners with a USP has made some line ups look like a pallid mess. This year Download has booked Slipknot, who appeal primarily to black hoodie-wearing pubescents, Muse, who appeal to lanky physics students and KISS, who haven’t appealed to anyone since 1983. There is a similar situation at Reading and Leeds, with the musical gulf between Mumfords and Metallica near equal to The Script and Slayer. In an attempt to cater to everyone these events instead end up catering to no one in particular, they are met by universal shrugs and ratings of 6/10.
The same cannot be said for many of the smaller festivals this summer. Events such as ArcTanGent, headlined this year by post-rock futurists 65daysofstatic and mathcore icons The Dillinger Escape Plan, know their audience well and with pinpoint accuracy. Likewise, Green Man and End of the Road feature a curation which tempts from the bottom of the bill straight to the top, giving punters a greater sense of value. Though the acts on offer may not be to everyone’s tastes, to certain niches these events satisfy without compromise; they can see Sleaford Mods without having to walk past Nina Nesbitt, they can enjoy And So I Watch You from Afar without running the risk of accidentally hearing Fearless Vampire Killers from another tent. With enough of these line-up-centric small festivals enticing enough different demographics, they could really leave a dent in the major festival market.
Another issue that major festivals are running into, in particular Reading and Leeds, is in a desperate bid to stay as relevant as humanly possible many credible acts are being thrown by the wayside. If you aren’t a stadium band or surrounded by hype then the door to major festivals seems shut and locked; any kind of artist belonging in the middle ground is ignored or at best unappreciated. However, this leaves an incredibly healthy pool of acts which smaller festivals are more than happy to pick from. It was only this week that Basement Jaxx were announced for both Truck and Victorious Festival; while they may not be as popular as in their early-noughties heyday they still played the O2 last year and ‘Where’s Your Head At’ will still sound fantastic when munted in a field. Artists with devoted and sizeable fanbases are being passed up in favour of cheaper bookings who have the possibility of drawing crowds, but not a certainty. For example, in their latest batch of acts, Reading and Leeds decided to announce Welsh startups Pretty Vicious, who have currently only played 3 gigs. It’s always good to support new talent, however when you’re paying £200+ for a ticket you hardly want half of the acts to have played the Joiners in the previous six months.
This leads on to one of the most obvious but also one of the most pressing differences between small and major festivals; the price. Even mid-range events such as Kendal Calling, which last year was headlined by Suede, Frank Turner and Example, have weekend tickets costing half that of major festivals and have far more attention placed in to the atmosphere. Day tickets for Victorious Festival in Portsmouth, featuring The Flaming Lips, Tinie Tempah, Basement Jaxx to name a few, currently cost only £18, less than a quarter of the price of a day ticket for Download or Reading and Leeds. Southampton’s own Common People festival, offering performances from the likes of Fatboy Slim, De La Soul, Clean Bandit and many more, costs £27.50 for a day and £50 for the weekend if you’re a student. For the cost of one ticket to a major festival you could go to Truck, Common People and Victorious Festival for the weekend and still have £40 spare; sure, a lot of the names may not be as big as the ones you may see at Download, Isle of Wight Festival or Reading and Leeds, but this year more than ever that distinction has become a lot less defined.
While the majors have been busy squabbling with each other to fight for their supremacy, the little guys have slowly taken advantage of the fall out. This summer may very well be the time that they enter the ring.