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Reeperbahn Campus: How important are headliners to festivals?

By | Published on Thursday 23 September 2010

It’s a commonly asked question in festival circles: just how reliant is a major music event on the acts that top its bill for pulling in the crowds and flogging tickets?

The holy grail for every promoter, of course, is to build a ‘brand’ for their festival that attracts sell-out crowds oblivious of line-up. Glastonbury used to be presented as an example of such a festival brand, though its ticket sales wobble in 2009 possibly tarnished its reputation in that regard. But with pretty much every festival promoter lamenting the ever increasing fee demands made each season by top-level talent – and/or their agents – do some festivals have brands that can succeed without A-list headliners in place? 

This was one of the questions posed to the festival panel at the Reeperbahn Campus Conference in Hamburg today, with festival directors from across Europe on hand to answer. Their conclusion – “yes but not really”, I reckon.

“There are other ways to create interest in a festival other than paying big money to big headliners”, advised Christof Huber of Switzerland’s OpenAir St Gallen festival and the pan-European festivals organisation Yourope.

“I think festivals often fail to make enough capital out of their smaller bands who collectively possess a big fanbase” he continued. “In the internet age, with blogs and social media, that kind of activity is easier. And then there are creative ways to stand out. For example, I do admire the All Tomorrows Parties guest curator concept. But it’s about balance”.

Agreeing with the ‘balance’ thing was Eric van Eerdenburgh of the Dutch festival Lowlands, who had already told the Reeperbahn audience that his festival sold out this year before any line-up information had even been announced.

“Yes the atmosphere of your event is very important” he told us, but, he conceded “line up, including headliners, is, nevertheless, very important. Part of your brand – the thing that helps you sell out all your tickets in a few days – is your reputation for delivering a good line-up. People trust you to deliver, so buy tickets without knowing who you’ve got. But if you failed to deliver one year, you’d see your ticket sales hit the next”.

So, if headliners – while only part of the mix – are nevertheless very important, how can middle-sized and smaller boutique festivals continue to compete amid ever rising fee demands from the A-listers? The room looked to Rob Challace, director of the UK’s Summer Sundae festival, but better known as an agent with London agency Coda.

“If you’re a small event but with a good brand, be upfront with agents” he advised. “I tell them from the start what my budget is, and stress the event can’t happen if I don’t keep my artist costs within that budget. If you’ve got a great event that is a pleasure to play, many agents and artists will be willing to work with you. And if not, don’t book them, move on to someone else”.

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