Exclusive Features
Anniversaries, Cover Stories, Editorials,
Interviews, Lists, and Comprehensive Rankings

Top 10 Music Festivals and Headliners in North America: Spring 2015 Power Rankings

view all

Welcome to Festival Outlook, a supplemental column that provides more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, our staff updates our seasonal power rankings with regards to North America’s top music festivals and headliners. Rest assured, things have changed since this past winter.

Michael Roffman (MR): We’re halfway through the year, summer is within arm’s reach, and you can almost smell Live Nation’s Bonnaroo. Since our last seasonal rankings, so much has changed in the festival landscape for North America. We’ve received over a dozen new lineups, Coachella finished both of its weekends and already announced next year’s dates, while Riot Fest Chicago has a new home in Douglas Park, and Drake’s arguably considered the worst headliner. I think it’s safe to say that we have plenty of things to talk about.

Let’s start off with what we’ve already seen. Since I’ve been staring mostly at celluloid these days, I’ve only been able to attend two festivals so far this year. Austin’s South by Southwest and Atlanta’s third incarnation of Shaky Knees. The former was notable substantial for skimming off some of the corporate fat and focusing on younger acts like Tobias Jesso, Jr. and Natalie Prass or thriving scenes like PC Music. The latter introduced some greenery and was rewarded with iconic sets by The Strokes and Tame Impala.

But that’s what I’ve seen. Judging from our festival reviews, however, it would appear that the scene continues to shift in new and mercurial ways. Some of it’s good for fresh, would-be franchises, and some of it’s not-so-good for weathered banners. Because I can speculate for hours on what’s to come and what’s gone wrong and why the corporatization of the festival scene will inevitably collapse it … I’ll hand off the mic to anyone willing to toss in their two cents.

FANS AT NOEL GALLAGHER - Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

Nina Corcoran (NC): We’re only in June and already it feels like festivals are toppling over one another. Boston’s three-day Boston Calling may feel like a backyard BBQ, but their headliners — Beck, My Morning Jacket, and Pixies — worked the stages so they felt like a much larger platform. It seems like a lot of our favorite festivals early on, be it Shaky Knees or Austin Psych Fest, pack a big punch despite having shorter scrolls. If the festival scene is going to keep growing, then clinging on to smaller festivals like these is what will keep it afloat. They’re just large enough to capture big names on the stages but small enough to dodge the zombie-like woes of major corporations dominating them.

Even though it’s got a shorter scroll than other festivals, Boston Calling had more female acts this spring in a single day than other festivals have on their whole lineups. The gender inequality on bills has been pretty staggering this year (although it’s never that pretty in general). St. Vincent, MØ, Tove Lo, Marina and the Diamonds, and more had the crowds moving far more than “bigger” names like Gerard Way or even Run the Jewels.

This past weekend, I got the chance to go to Primavera Sound in Barcelona, Spain. Seeing their setup, lineup, and crowds lends itself to an interesting perspective on American festivals and the various directions which we can grow in. For one, everyone there is more focused on the music and less focused on trends. There’s just as big of a crowd for Sunn O))) as there is for a local opener right when the gates open. Carrying an appreciation for both the names you recognize and the ones you may very well fall in love with if you give them the chance is crucial, but few festivals spend time trying to hype up their opening acts. Or, to play the other card, maybe the blame falls on the attendees.

That said, we were talking last time about how good a lot of these undercards are — and how some are more exciting than the headliners themselves. Has that proven to be the case at festivals you’ve attended so far?

BonnarooSunrise-AmandaKoellner

Photo by Amanda Koellner

Ben Kaye (BK): Let’s not start calling it “Live Nation’s Bonnaroo” just yet — give us one more year before we start sending that shiver down our spines. Like you allude to there, Nina, this season sort of crept up on me. I don’t know if it’s my still-fresh full-time status here or what, but all of a sudden I peeled my eyes away from the screen, and I was at Boston Calling. Not a bad way to ease into things, though, with an undercard from Sharon Van Etten to Tenacious D and three completely knock-out headlining sets.

While I could ooze with jealousy over Mike’s Shaky Knees experience — with a lineup that still looks incredible even after it’s passed — and Nina’s journey to Primavera and the European festival experience, I’d rather look ahead to Governors Ball this weekend. If there’s a bill that best demonstrates the undercard beats headliner dynamic, it’s probably this one. Drake’s proven to be shrugsville, The Black Keys were tired headliners two years ago, and I’m more excited for how many people Deadmau5 will pull away from Ryan Adams than the big-eared DJ himself, but then you’ve got Kate Tempest, who just tore up Sasquatch!; Future Islands, who even after all the hype are still a super exciting live act; the NYC return of Ratatat and Björk; The Districts; Royal Blood; Weird freakin’ Al. Drake can stink up the stage all he wants, I’m seeing Weird freakin’ Al this weekend.

Still, give me a My Morning Jacket set any day, any festival.

But for all the headline griping we’ve done, there have been some wildcards announced lately that definitely were incredible surprises. Frank Ocean’s back, guys. Headlining a festival with Morrissey, at that. (Hope Franky likes vegan tacos.) And if someone told you three months ago that we’d see bills topped by Missy Elliott and Roger Waters, you would’ve patted that poor, benighted soul’s shoulder and given a little “tsk tsk.” And now you’d look like an a-hole. ‘Cause those are real things.

Primavera Sound 2015

Photo by Adam Kivel

Nick LeTellier (NL): Like Ben said, at this point I feel Live Nation’s acquisition of Bonnaroo is a positive thing and will allow for some long overdue improvements to The Farm such as more permanent infrastructure and the addition of viewing screens at This, That, and The Other tents. The identity of other Live Nation festivals like Sasquatch! and Voodoo Experience haven’t changed since being acquired, and I don’t foresee it happening at Bonnaroo — though I’d hate to be proven wrong.

I too am especially jealous of Nina’s Primavera adventures as I often find myself identifying more with the European music festival landscape when it comes to their lineups and far more musically educated audiences. However, my own 2015 festival experience has been quite the whirlwind as I frequently forget festivals that I’ve attended just weeks ago. So far I’ve been fortunate enough to attend Big Ears, Coachella, Beale Street Music Festival, Shaky Knees, and Movement Detroit — with the latter I feel being one of the most underrated music festivals in North America. Maybe it’s the fact that I just turned 30, but I am no longer impressed by gimmicks such as excessive pyro and the absurdly large stage productions found at most electronic dance festivals these days. The folks at Paxahau do an impressive job at making the music their number-one priority while bringing some of the best names in underground dance music to the forefront in the city where techno was born.

To touch on the headliner topic, I can’t help but be disappointed with the pool of acts that seem to be topping most festivals this year. The biggest hip-hop headliners have proven to be a bust after watching Drake fall flat at Coachella and Kendrick Lamar refuse to add tracks from To Pimp a Butterfly to his setlist. Then you’ve got the mainstay rock headliners like Jack White, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, The Black Keys, and Imagine Dragons who we’ve all seen one too many times, forcing us to lose any enthusiasm over their name appearing on a lineup. Personally, it’s the exclusive and out-of-left-field headliners that have me most excited. Acts like Billy Joel (Bonnaroo), Björk (Governors Ball), Missy Elliott (Pemberton), Frank Ocean (FYF), Duran Duran (Life Is Beautiful), and AC/DC (Coachella). And as Ben expressed, who would have guessed Newport Folk Fest would lock down Roger Waters during such a dull year? Major hat tip to those guys for snagging what I believe to be the most universally appreciated headliner of any music festival so far this summer. Though, I’m still anxiously awaiting the return of Portishead or The Prodigy to a North American festival stage.

All in all, I feel 2015 will be the breakout year for those acts teetering on the edge of major music festival headliner status such as Tame Impala, The Strokes, Florence + The Machine, The Weeknd, My Morning Jacket, and Modest Mouse.

VampireWeekend2-AmandaKoellner-bonnaroo2014

Photo by Amanda Koellner

Carson O’Shoney (CO): Some of those bands and others like them have been teetering on the edge for a while now. Weren’t Vampire Weekend supposed to be major headliners by now? Didn’t everyone expect MMJ to eventually headline Bonnaroo’s Sunday night? The Strokes have already headlined Lollapalooza, but the goodwill they earned from their return has come down (no pun intended) since their clunker of a last album. What happens when bands cross over to the other side, only to be left behind?

Phoenix headlined Coachella just two years ago, but unless their next album does much better than Bankrupt!, I can’t see them maintaining that status. Like The Strokes, I see them going down a bit on their next festival go-round. Sure, these kinds of bands make great small-to-mid level festival headliners, but I can’t see any of them knocking on the door of an unopposed Bonnaroo slot any time soon.There aren’t any mega-fests left to announce this year, so the Florences and Weeknds of the world have already settled into their sub-headliner status.

Maybe by this time next year, some of them will elevate into that next level, but they will need some hit songs along the way. They could take the Black Keys route of just releasing the same album every year until the songs become ubiquitous and festivals have no choice but to let them headline. Or maybe one of their new albums will become a new classic, spawning hit after hit to the point that they reach that level before they even have a chance to release another album. We’ll call that the Kendrick route. Hopefully they don’t take a note from him and actually play the songs from said album, should that happen.

Bottom line: Some of these bands will have to break out at some point. We’ll run out of legacy acts before too long, and someone has to be there to replace them on top of festival posters.

As for me, I’m finding myself much more drawn to the small, niche festivals as of late than the gigantic majors lately. Sure, I’m still going to my ninth Bonnaroo next week, but I really just wish Mountain Oasis/Moogfest would come back. Big Ears is still the only festival I’ve made it to so far this year, but it was such a wonderfully unique experience that I would be okay if every festival I attended was of that size and scale. Sure I’d be missing out on the big bands that no one wants to pay outrageous prices to see on their own, but as I enter my 10th year of attending festivals, all the majors seem to blend together and have the same lineup with small variations every year. Every once in a while one of them will impress me – especially some of the European fests – but these days the smaller the fest and the more focused the lineup, the more interested I am. Is that just me?

1008_governorsball_Phoenix_060614.dh

Photo by David Brendan Hall

Philip Cosores (PC): I dunno, I’m not really on board with all the pessimism. Sure, My Morning Jacket and Phoenix aren’t really the major festival headliners we thought they could be, but that doesn’t mean a lot of other options aren’t out there. I disagree that the next time Vampire Weekend releases an album or The Strokes now aren’t big stage anchors, plus acts like Arctic Monkeys, Queens of the Stone Age, and Arcade Fire all probably commanding top billings their next time around.

I went to Rock in Rio this year, and while the festival did have issues with its undercard and by getting enough worthwhile names on a bill, its headliners, including Metallica, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars, were all pretty solid top-of-the-card features. And maybe more pop acts is the way to go. Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, and Rihanna are just a handful of names that haven’t been much utilized by major festivals, nor have acts like U2 or Van Halen.

Basically, there are tons of options, and the best festivals will be the ones that continually respond to other lineups and deliver something that is creative and unique. That’s why Coachella always sells and why other fests go out of business. It is survival of the fittest.

Photo by Philip Cosores

23-MetallicaDerek Staples (DS): I am totally onboard with your sentiments, Carson. Having battled through the crowds for years at Coachella, Bonnaroo, Ultra, and Lollapalooza, there is just something so phenomenally rewarding about leisurely walking toward the front of a stage at a mid-size or niche festival. I know that Billy Joel is going to offer an inspired set to close out Bonnaroo 2015, but as someone who would likely be taking it all in 100 yards away from the stage, I would rather just catch the replay on YouTube — or whatever streaming partner they will utilize this year. I mean, how many times have we collectively missed a set just because the venue/park was too packed to find a route between stages? If I ever did desire to see one of these major pop names, I would happily trade in the festival experience for an air-conditioned building and a comfortable cushioned seat.

Festival season is a time for discovery, and some of these major names (and their lofty guarantees) could very well be siphoning resources that would otherwise go to less-established talent. To Philip’s point about Rock in Rio, is it possible that booking Metallica, Taylor Swift, and Bruno Mars impacted the ability to sure up its undercard? That festival is historically sponsorship heavy, and those names undoubtedly helped bring in some major brands, and reluctant festivalgoers, but did it establish a definable character during its first year in the States? Too many lineups in 2015 just remind me of lazily-curated radio station events from the ’90s. So, even though my passions lie in the dance music culture (shout out to another amazing Movement: Detroit), I am much more likely to explore smaller, better curated festivals like Boston Calling or Levitation than blow my eardrums at Lolla’s Perry Stage. Even during SXSW, I found myself exploring the far reaches of Sixth Street to find some under-appreciated talents.

Five months ago, I was worried what detrimental impact Live Nation might have on the broader festival landscape — most notably that kids spending all their cash on one festival wouldn’t be able to afford smaller, independent venue performances. As the year has progressed, and smaller festivals have drawn decent-sized crowds, I am far less concerned. Let the new festival revelers and those that love large-scale events partake in the Big Four. As others, like Carson and I, age out of this chaos, there are numerous options that cater to a more refined taste.

Lana-Del-Rey-New-Song-Live

Photo by Nathan Dainty

MR: Philip, I’ve got your back. I’m actually somewhat impressed by the headliners in 2015. I spent most of last year calling for a graduation of acts like Lana Del Rey or Kendrick Lamar or Disclosure or Lorde, and this year seems to have made good on that. The problem is, as you suggested, there’s still such a lack of depth to the genres being given top billing. Allow me to be cynical for just a minute: rock ‘n’ roll doesn’t cut it anymore. It does if you’re a veteran or the rare buzz-worthy rock act like Tame Impala, but it’s slowly become a niche genre that hardly accounts for the majority. There should be more pop at festivals. There should be more hip-hop at festivals. These are two of the most thriving communities in music right now, and they’re typically relegated to mid-tier status or ignored altogether. Granted, a number of artists prefer their own tours and run a hefty fee — Taylor Swift, for example — but it’s hard to believe that the Big Four can’t work something out, especially considering Derek’s point on sponsorships.

Just look at Lollapalooza. Their most exciting lineup of the last decade dates way back to 2010, when they snagged a healthy, young roster that included Lady Gaga, Arcade Fire, The Strokes, and Phoenix with the oldest headliners being Soundgarden or Green Day. It was a lineup that clearly captured the times, and the booking of Gaga was then considered novel by many in the festival community. Yet five years later, they’ve failed to replicate that ingenuity. (To be fair, Calvin Harris was a bold step in the right direction, even if those dwelling in the rock camps scoffed and stomped their Viking feet.) They’ve since passed on so many contenders: three Super Bowl stars (Beyoncé, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry) and a more obvious get in pop icon Rihanna, who not only was 2014’s most talked about cameo but also “alternative” enough to fit the archaic branding that veterans still like to use to paint Lollapalooza into a corner. Don’t get me wrong, singing along with McCartney in Grant Park will be phenomenal, but how is that so different than his Wrigley Field appearances a few years back? Or his Coachella or Bonnaroo sets?

katyperrybachrodt22 Top 10 Music Festivals and Headliners in North America: Spring 2015 Power Rankings

Photo by Gretchen Bachdrodt

But we’ve discussed this problem in various topics. To go back to the more positive side of things, and expand upon what Derek was discussing, we do have a number of “Big Four Jr.” festivals offering young acts a chance in the spotlight. Sasquatch! still catches my eye for leasing out their headlining space to the aforementioned Lana Del Rey and Kendrick Lamar. And while Lamar disappointed some by not playing anything off, well, this year’s greatest album, he still puts on one of the best hip-hop shows you can find today. If we’re looking ahead, though, a festival like FYF does it even better by devoting one night to a future icon (Ocean) and the other to a celebrated legend (Morrissey), both being varied and inventive offerings. It also helps that their undercard is primarily devoted to the best and the brightest in today’s cultural landscape, a facet that has this writer beyond stoked about this year’s Pitchfork lineup.

But really, maybe it’s time to start thinking about the next crop of artists who are currently in the same situation that Lana or Kendrick was this time last year. Personally, I can’t shut up about Tame Impala’s Shaky Knees set, which gave me acid flashbacks to past Radiohead performances. They arrived on stage with the authority of a seasoned veteran, and if they play this next album right, they should be topping most festivals come April 2016. One could argue the same for A$AP Rocky, whose album has been making the rounds critically and commercially, and whose appearance in this month’s comedy Dope could conceivably make him even more of a “superstar.” Let’s also not forget about the great Alabama Shakes, although they were headlining smaller festivals as early as last year.

Anyone else come to mind?

TAME IMPALA.2  - Debi Del Grande

Photo by Debi Del Grande

NC: There’s money to be bet on Tame Impala growing into full-on headliner shoes by the end of this year. If Currents plays out the way it looks like it will, Kevin Parker is a smart man. Tame Impala have a multi-genre appeal, splicing classic rock and psychedelic stylings with (now) disco-lite electronics, much of which takes form in easy-to-follow, feel-good melodies. They formed a cult following from the beginning, and by now, with critics, college kids, and parents alike (my mother keeps Lonerism tucked away in the car door) supporting them, that cult begins to grow. Their friendly allure solidifies their mainstay as festival performers. Tame Impala never take themselves too seriously when it comes to fame, but when they’re behind the board or rehearsing in the practice room, they’re almost too serious, where Parker obsesses over minute production details in an effort to perfect their sound.

Being wedded to your sound like that, or anything you’re passionate about, eventually results in someone who is, well, really good at their craft. There are other hardworking acts that are on the brink of breaking. As Mike said, A$AP Rocky is on a major incline this month with the new album and Dope in his back pocket. St. Vincent, ScHoolboy Q, or Charli XCX are slaying their material at their own entertaining live shows, which could propel them forward. Run the Jewels could very well inch their way up there, too. Then there’s Ratatat, the videogame-esque electronic duo who fell silent for just long enough to return with enough swagger this summer to grow even larger. Their set at Primavera had one of the largest crowds of the entire festival, and come the end, I felt like I had just witnessed an unrelenting trance of epic solos and enthusiastic musicianship as effortlessly cool as the likes of Beck.

TheBlackKeys-BenKaye-BrooklynBarclaysCenter-17

Photo by Ben Kaye

We can only hope other artists will do the same. Taking The Black Keys route — churning out album after album of generic material, even within your own playing field, is a disservice to the self as much as it is to the fans. Put out something that’s worth listening to from start to finish. It’s what makes for an engaging, intriguing, and enjoyable experience. When your output is full of enough life to keep you, as the musician, continually invested and invigorated at your own shows, then you’re doing it right. Tame Impala are one of several doing that so far this year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Ratatat and Run the Jewels follow suit.

The best part are the names we’ve forgotten about. There’s a never-ending handful of artists in hiding, waiting to reveal the material they’ve been working on. Battles are sitting on a box of gooey math-rock material, Titus Andronicus has an entire rock opera being pressed to wax, and Beirut is finally ready to let the horns back out to play. There are artists who we can expect to climb the ranks, but the best part of festivals are the tour de forces who were overshadowed in the sign-up process but pull ahead during the real race. Any bets you want to place before the gun goes off?

PC: I kind of feel like The Black Keys are getting an unfair shake in this conversation. Aren’t we just, like, two albums removed from their critical and commercial breakthrough, Brothers? But that aside, I’m also feeling a division among people who are very much still into the festival experience and some who are over it in general. I don’t look forward to the day that I am complaining about crowds, wishing to watch the YouTube stream instead of maybe a slightly worse view in person. That takes away from the experience of being out in the world, in a cool setting, with other actual human beings.

Brock_Caldwell_Swans-12

Photo by Brock Caldwell

I think it is also interesting to see what attracts small audiences and what attracts big audiences at festivals. At Coachella, acts like Swans and Drive Like Jehu and even Belle and Sebastian failed to draw, and that kind of hurt the vibes of the performances. But others with small crowds, like Ryan Adams, played totally fine. It seems like a double-edged sword, where you want the vibe at acts you like to reflect what makes the artist feel comfortable. Some acts you want to be close for, and others play fine when just dancing in a giant herd of people. I guess my point is that bigger isn’t always better, but sometimes it is, and vice versa.

DS: A festival for every (sub)culture. Just take Chicago alone. If one is not up for the scale of Lollapalooza, Pitchfork, North Coast, the Blues Festival, Neon Marshmallow, and Mamby Beach all offer their own unique experience. More than size, lineup, location, or cost, being able to create this connection with a fanbase ultimately determines success and longevity. As far removed as Bonnaroo has gotten from some of its more jam-centric roots, its ability to continually engage and respond to its base has ensured its continued growth outside of a major metropolitan area. Twelve years ago, would a Pretty Lights ’80s SuperJam have worked on the farm? Probably not, but it is going to be epic in 2015! And Miami has proven multiple times that bringing some massive names to a major international city doesn’t guarantee any amount of ticket sales.

With Miami and electronica on the mind, this dialogue has pretty much avoided EDM outside of UK garage sensations Disclosure. And I understand why; it has really been the same few names (deadmau5, Skrillex, Diplo, Bassnectar) that continue to cross over into the top-tier festivals. Most of the world was hoping Daft Punk would finally make their way back, but at least the Chemical Brothers will be showing up to a few fests in 2015. Also playing HARD LA is Porter Robinson, and as he pushes the boundaries both visually and stylistically, I envision him headlining a number of major events come 2016 and 2017. To echo Nina, Ratatat has the ability to entertain nearly any festival crowd — as they displayed at Coachella’s Sahara Tent this past year as well — and with an increasing amount of collaborations under their belts, Run the Jewels and co. would absolutely crush a main stage at peak time.

wavves carlo_0065

Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

BK: My trying to speak on EDM would be like my trying to speak on the NBA championships, and nobody wants to hear that. I will say that, despite his ubiquity and the mixed opinions he brings, I’ve grown a bit impressed and intrigued by deadmau5’s Bonnaroo booking. He’s going to be the first true late-night headliner, the first EDM act to play the What Stage, and you just know he’s going to bring something interesting. That’s Bonnaroo showing that they’re continually moving forward, adapting to their audience, and willing to spread the wealth at the top of their bill. In fact, with their top bill of Mumford and Sons, Billy Joel, deadmau5, and Kendrick, they’re almost checking off all the requirements we’ve talked about here. All they’d need is Beyoncé, and you’ve got every base covered.

(As a tried-and-true Bonnaroovian, I could spend a good length of time debating exactly what’s happening with the Kendrick-deadmau5 scheduling — who’s the actual headliner? Is there a “true” headliner at all that day? This is for a different thread, though.)

I think everyone’s actually echoing each other from other sides of the canyon here. We’ve got people calling for the rise of niche festivals on one side, and folks beating the drums of the rising stars on the other. What we all seem to be asking for is for young guns to rise. We want a new crop of headliners and new festivals for them to headline. Look, we love the old guard — Bonnaroo, keep on rolling. Arcade Fire, can’t wait to see you back up there. But we’re also looking forward to what comes next, and that just seems extremely reasonable to me. It’s a typical response that has just been inflated over recent years because of a generally perceived staleness in major festivals and their bookings. On the plus side, I think the big guns are responding to those sentiments, and they’re starting to take bigger and better risks. Growing pains happen, sure, like Philip said with Coachella and acts like Drive Like Jehu. But like he also said, the best events with the best curation are the ones that are going to rise to the top.

What’s great, and what I think we’ve hit on with all these differing opinions, is this doesn’t mean we can’t have a ton of coexistence. I love how Governors Ball has grown recently, and I look forward to Bonnaroo more and more every day. At the same time, give me Newport Folk Festival any day of the week. And I may never hang at Movement with Derek, but I know he’s going to have an incredible time there. I’m so proud and impressed with Boston Calling’s success, and I can’t wait for the day I finally get out to Sasquatch! All those fests offer such different experiences, and they all have their merits. I’ve heard a lot of pessimism about the “scene” in rest years, but I think if we cut through the thicket of this discussion, there’s a lot to look forward to in the rest of 2015 and even reason to be excited about next year.

MR: Well…

Click ahead to read the spring power rankings for our top 10 North American music festivals and headliners of 2015.

view all
6 comments