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Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Spring 2014 Power Rankings

on April 24, 2014, 1:29am
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Photo by Heather Kaplan

Welcome to Festival Outlook, a new supplemental column that will provide more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, Michael Roffman, Alex Young, and Frank Mojica break down this year’s top 10 festival headliners so far and discuss the pros and cons for each act. We think of this as a SportsCenter for festival addicts.

Michael Roffman (MR): A few weeks back, Frank and I pieced together our Spring Power Rankings for North American music festivals, and it proved quite a success — despite being one of the more polarizing articles in recent memory. (Who knew so many of you went to bat for Jack Johnson?) Now we’re back with the same mindset, only for a major component of any music festival: the headliners.

Already this year has been revolutionary for the festival industry, especially given OutKast’s blanket deal to headline just about every popular North American music festival. It’s a move that seems quite transparent, or perhaps an exploitation to the obvious fact that most banner acts, especially large-scale reunions, tend to appear everywhere anyhow. Frank and Alex, you two debated this model in an earlier inclusion of Festival Outlook, ultimately concluding that OutKast’s deal was a further example of the industry in flux.

That’s something I think we should bring up again now that Andre and Big Boi have put their Coachella duties behind them. Did this work out? Or do you think it’s a forgotten watermark we’ll have to hear again and again all summer, sort of like Postal Service? Does it even matter at this point, given that so many festivals (Lollapalooza, Sasquatch!, etc.) have sold out already?

outkast5 2 Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Spring 2014 Power Rankings

Photo by Ted Maider

Alex Young (AY): I think the jury is still out on the “OutKast model” or whatever you want to call it. After the duo’s Coachella weekend one performance received a less than lukewarm response, I’m sure some of the other festivals that had booked them started to question whether it was actually a good idea. Fortunately, Andre and Big Boi seemed to right the ship during weekend two by cutting off some of setlist’s excess meat and actually facing the audience.

But again, I think it’s too early to judge. Coachella was going to sell out no matter what, so I don’t think it’s the best case study. What will be interesting to see is how middle-tier festivals such as Firefly, Big Guava, and Pemberton do ticket-wise with OutKast atop the bill. As of yet, none of these festivals have sold out.

What we can gather from OutKast’s Coachella performance, however, is that they are definitely a niche headliner, in the sense that the audience was relatively unfamiliar with their catalog. Even more so than I initially thought. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder whether these festivals were blinded by the idea of having “OutKast” top the lineup despite the duo’s waning commercial appeal. And what I fear is that a few more so-so performances could turn off those festival-goers who are only familiar with “Hey Ya” and “B.O.B.”, leading to smaller crowds and Andre to lose the little interest that he currently has in this reunion tour.

Frank Mojica (FM): In regards to OutKast, I wonder if the response to their Coachella comeback will discourage people from coming out for them at other festivals. Sure, they addressed some problems on weekend two, but that wasn’t the performance everyone watched on the webcast. Headliners may no longer matter at fests like Coachella, but they still do at a lot of these newer, mid-level festivals.

bligedisclosure large Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Spring 2014 Power RankingsMR: That’s true. I feel at this point the only reason Coachella books legacy headliners at all is Paul Tollett’s affinity for them. As some writers pointed out, they could have booked Disclosure, Calvin Harris, and Skrillex as the main headliners and sold out. That’s not the case for the mid-tier festivals, as you both pointed out, and I agree that the jury is still out. Coachella hosts a unique crowd, whereas the crowds at, say, Firefly, Counterpoint, and Hangout will no doubt appreciate the veterans a little more. Still, it’s depressing to see the changing of the guard at Coachella, even though few acts can compete with the allure of Disclosure… or any popular electronic act these days. Their sets promise a youthful air of danger and promiscuity that just won’t be found with the veterans. But hey, that’s another discussion altogether — or is it?

If we look at all the lineups this year, the veterans still take precedence. Tom Petty, Lionel Richie, Eminem, Kraftwerk, etc. They all have their years behind them, and I guess the question now is: How old does an act need to be to headline a festival? Does longevity even matter? Why do they get seniority over acts that are currently selling triple what they do both on and off stage? I feel that’s an important discussion that could potentially change the way promoters book a variety of festivals. Even a festival like Bonnaroo. You know, we act disappointed Lollapalooza didn’t book someone like Pearl Jam, or grab The Replacements, both favorites in my book, but look at their audiences in recent memory. I’m willing to bet that Calvin Harris, Skrillex, Lorde, and Zedd have nearly twice the size of the crowds that flock to Kings of Leon, OutKast, or Arctic Monkeys. So, why do they book ‘em?

Is it to retain an identity? Lollapalooza has long shied away from its ’90s origins. In fact, I would argue that booking Lorde, Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and Zedd is more in line with their roots than the booking of Eminem, Kings of Leon, or Arctic Monkeys. These young acts are legitimately thriving in their respective scenes, capturing the spirit and identity of a generation. In a way, the headliners are a collection of niche commodities, and really, who are they supposed to appease? I’m sorry for ranting, but this is something that’s been on my mind for months now, and with ACL’s recent announcement, I only have more questions.

katyperry01 Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Spring 2014 Power Rankings

AY: It’s definitely a fair question, and I think we’re starting to see that reality play out in Coachella and Lollapalooza’s shift toward more Top 40 acts. Will there ever be a day where these festivals book a lineup equivalent to a the iHeartRadio Festival, with Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and deadmau5 billed as the top three headliners?

There is still a certain cache to booking legacy acts like the Kraftwerk and OutKasts of the world, but they don’t move tickets like the aforementioned. What will be interesting to see, however, is whether these festivals are willing to shed their loyalty to underground and alternative music in favor of a total mainstream vibe. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Coachella is no longer your older brother’s festival. The days of Portishead and Bjork topping the lineup are long gone. Major EDM and Pop acts dominated this year’s bill, and I no doubt believe that’ll continue to be the case when you hear about the low turnouts for acts like The Replacements, The Knife, and Pet Shop Boys.

I also think it’s worth noting that these newer acts are no longer cheap. Skrillex and Calvin Harris boast million-dollar price tags, and as their popularity grows, those numbers will only increase. So, it’s not like the festivals are saving money by booking these acts.

FM: Is it only a matter of time before Pitbull headlines Coachella and Lollapalooza? Maybe. My question is what happened to all the people that used to flock to festivals for the likes of Bjork and Portishead?

pitchfork 2014 lineup

AY: Where will those people go? ATP, Pitchfork, and Primavera Sound. But these festivals will never have the dollars to book big, mammoth rock acts. That’s unless said acts start lowering their asking price, which I don’t see since there’s still demand in arena tours and what not.

I think we’re going to get to a point where the major festivals veer more toward Top 40 Pop, and the indie, niche festivals remain just that. There will be no in between, unfortunately.

MR: All terrifying points. But I don’t think Top 40 will ever fully take over these festivals. As you said Alex, most of these acts do come with incredibly high price tags, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Lollapalooza eventually gives the upper-tier hype acts the coveted headline banner, instead, and that would save them money. That’s why I think Governors Ball got it right this year with their choices. Really, OutKast is the only legacy act serving as one of their headliners, and it’s still one of the hottest festivals (if not the hottest) of the summer.

Anyways, judging from the posters and lineups this year, who are some current headliners giving these festivals the most bang for their buck? Mind you, that includes festivalgoers, too. The first name that comes to mind is Arcade Fire. I haven’t had a chance to see them yet on this run, but every review I’ve read — including yours, Frank — pegs them as a must-see celebration, and I can only imagine they’ve upped their already impressive onstage game. They also played it smart by agreeing to very few festivals.

Photo by Jo McCaughey

RSD_TMR_2014013FM: When I first went to Coachella, LCD Soundsystem had maybe a dozen people watching because they were on at the same time as Pixies. Even the Sahara was light in attendance at the time. Funny how things change.

Yes, I saw Arcade Fire at Coachella, and it was glorious. Still, I feel like I am missing out because I couldn’t also go the second weekend. Debbie Harry and Paft Dunk… they sure know how to make each Coachella appearance a memorable, unique one. I can’t wait to see them again at Primavera Sound. Speaking of which, that lineup blows any of ours out of the water, and it is a national disgrace that we apparently can’t have such an event here.

Kanye West has both the hits and the current cultural relevance to dominate at both Outside Lands and Bonnaroo. Whatever it costs to book him, they will get back easily. Jack White is possibly the only guitarist that the current crop of festivalgoers still revere as a deity. Just say his name and people pay attention.

MR: I wait patiently for the day Kurt Vile has that power. Ha. No, you’re right. Kanye and Jack White are two of the summer’s hottest commodities outside of Win Butler & Co. — and for two reasons. Kanye could very well have another album out, while White should have a complete overhaul of his infamous live set back in 2012. Actually, Kanye could have a new stage setup, too. As you two discussed previously, whatever happens at Bonnaroo is a mystery. Either he dives head first into a stripped-down hits medley, as he recently did on Late Night with Seth Meyers, or he risks the stage setup again with his Yeezus configuration. Whatever happens will get eyes and ears there.

Photo by Jonathan Fritz

Julian-Casablancas-Jonathan-FritzWhat about the one-offs? Elton John, Foo Fighters, The Strokes, Kraftwerk? I feel like that gives an added umph to any lineup. For one, we don’t know what the hell is going on with Dave Grohl’s camp. Odds are we won’t hear any new material at Firefly, but it’s still a possibility. It might be The Strokes’ last gig in ages, although, judging from Julian Casablancas’ recent performances, who knows how that’ll end up. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk are hauling around a 3D live show for Christ’s sake, and Elton John, well… yeah. I don’t know. What do you guys think about these acts? Legacy aside, do they serve as an apt headliner? Or will they prove snooze-worthy at the festivals?

AY: Don’t get me wrong. As doom and gloom as I am about the future of music festivals, there’s a lot to like about this year. Kraftwerk is an exciting and unique booking for Moogfest; it’s just a shame they didn’t work out for Sasquatch! Foo Fighters will always hold a special place in my heart for their performance at Lollapalooza in 2011. I think the idea of seeing The Strokes together again is certainly intriguing, but I do worry it’s merely a cash grab. And what more can you say about Elton John that hasn’t already been said? He’ll provide a fitting send-off to Bonnaroovians come Sunday night.

Many of us, including yours truly, have bitched and moaned about the increasing “sameness” of these festival lineups, and that certainly holds true in 2014. I would argue, however, that this is one of the better years for headliners in recent memory.

moogfest 2014

MR: Possibly. With the exception of Arcade Fire, OutKast, and Jack White, most of the headliners this summer are recycled from acts around last year. It’s almost like we’re in a transition, especially since so many of our top choices here have yet to release their respective working projects. Kanye’s tinkering the follow-up to Yeezus (hopefully), Jack White only recently began his album cycle, Foo Fighters are still halfway through their album, and we haven’t heard a thing off Tom Petty’s comeback record.

What I would argue, instead, is that this year’s mid-tier might be the festival season’s best since, possibly, 2010. Every festival, no matter the headliner, is fully stocked with a bevy of talent that have either offered promising albums thus far (tUnE-yArDs, Cloud Nothings) or haven’t been around in awhile (Spoon, Interpol). Come to think of it, festival season isn’t too shabby for 2014 if you don’t plan on attacking one each month.

Clearly, I think we have an idea on who some of our favorite headliners are this year. But as with our festivals, these are all subject to change come summer or fall or late winter when we’re tallying up our year-end votes. That goes especially for the one-offs that may or may not be a total bust; right now, they’re quite the exception to the rule.

So, shall we?

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Kristian
July 12, 2014 at 5:14 pm

hahahaa festivals in north america apperently sucked this year, 5/10 hipster points

goodellisruiningtheleague
May 20, 2014 at 3:46 pm

“AY: It’s certainly strange that outside Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, the Heartbreakers don’t really get the headlining slots they so rightful deserve.”

They headlined Saturday night last year at firefly fest

Anonymous
May 4, 2014 at 9:00 am

Why don’t you even mention locken?

Me
April 26, 2014 at 7:03 pm

The Strokes

Gul Dern
April 24, 2014 at 11:46 pm

I love st vincent and arcade fire

Mickey Au Grec
April 24, 2014 at 9:47 pm

‘The days of Portishead and Bjork topping the lineup are long gone’!!! HAH! Er, I think that’s absolutely a defensible statement! Love it. And I kind of miss Portishead, might have to put some on now… Actually I just blasted through the piece, that caught my eye. Will ponder at greater length…

Anonymous
April 24, 2014 at 4:58 pm

neutral milk hotel and beck are up there as well

KOB
April 24, 2014 at 12:18 pm

What is the definition of legacy act? How is Primavera’s lineup demonstrably better than Bonnaroo?

Anonymous
April 24, 2014 at 10:00 am

Good list, agree with many points like the Kurt Vile having potential one. I would add The National as a band that is maybe not quite at headliner status for the huge festivals, but does really well when given extra time and is in the exact same boat as Queens and St. Vincent in that regard. I think May Sasquatch! really nailed excellent headliners this year with National, QOTSA and Outkast given the budget they work with compared to the fests with 3-4 times the people in attendance and artist budget. Your points about the mid tier being excellent this year holds true with many festivals, would be an interesting topic for the future to write about balancing budget for headliners vs. subs and mid tier acts. Will 8 biggish names draw more than 3 massive ones etc? Anyways good read, would love more content cut from this cloth.

Anonymous
April 24, 2014 at 12:42 pm

I’ll second all your points, especially regarding the National. They’re one of the best live bands out now and the way they amp up their studio material for live audiences is incredible. Hearing those live codas to Humiliation and Squalor Victoria rank among my favorite concert moments of any show I’ve seen this far.

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