At the beginning of last week, the general public really didn’t have much idea what the 2018 music festival landscape would look like, besides that Beyonce would headline Coachella. Now in just the second week of January, the 2018 prospects look particularly bleak. For years, writers have preached of a festival bubble bursting, so much so that it seemed like it was happening in real time. But in 2018, it seems even worse than a loud pop. Maybe this is how festivals end, not with a bang but a whimper.
Six of America’s big, well-established, multi-genre festivals have already announced their lineups for 2018: Alabama’s Hangout, California’s Coachella, New York’s Governors Ball, Boston’s (obvs) Boston Calling, Georgia’s Shaky Knees, and Tennessee’s Bonnaroo. Among those, Eminem is headlining four of the events, and is the top-billed headliner at all of those but Coachella. Shady’s bona fides don’t need to be stated, but the fact remains that he’s supporting what is generally regarded as a bad album and is only four years removed from his last run of tours and festival headlining appearances. That’s only slightly longer out of the spotlight than Jack White, who was last headlining festivals in 2015 and has returned to top three of these posters this year. If anything, White holds more luster because at least he represents unheard music from 2018. At the time of the scheduled performances, the hope is that White will be at the height of his 2018 relevance.
Among these six festivals, there are 12 total headliners: Em, White, Bey, The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Queens Of The Stone Age, The National, Muse, The Killers, The Chainsmokers, and Kendrick Lamar. Of those, only Em, White, and Bey are unique to 2018, as all of the others toured last year, most of them extensively. So if looking at these top lines has caused a general sigh or groan from music fans, it’s for a reason.
If you think this is the way it has always been, well, that simply isn’t the case. In 2017, the same six festivals offered up 15 total headliners (16 if you include Beyonce’s canceled Coachella set): Radiohead, Beyonce/Lady Gaga, Kendrick Lamar, Tool, Chance The Rapper, Phoenix, Childish Gambino, Mumford & Sons, The xx, LCD Soundsystem, U2, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Weeknd, Twenty One Pilots, and Frank Ocean. And if you go back the two previous years, you have 18 and 17 unique artists headlining those same six festivals.
– 2016: The Weeknd, Calvin Harris, Florence + The Machine, LCD Soundsystem, Guns N Roses, The Strokes, The Killers, Kanye West, Beck, Sia, Disclosure, Robyn, Odesza, My Morning Jacket, Jane’s Addiction, Pearl Jam, Dead & Co, and J Cole (18 total artists)
– 2015: Foo Fighters, Zac Brown Band, Beck, AC/DC, Jack White, Drake, The Black Keys, Florence + The Machine, Deadmau5, Pixies, My Morning Jacket, The Strokes, The Avett Brothers, Wilco, Billy Joel, Mumford & Sons, and Kendrick Lamar (17 total artists)
It’s easy to want to put the blame for the lack of creativity in these festival bills on the wave of larger concert promoting corporations that have swooped in and purchased stakes in many of these events, and that is certainly part of the story. Goldenvoice (part of AEG) is involved in both Coachella and Hangout, while Live Nation owns a controlling stake in both Bonnaroo and Governors Ball. When a company owns numerous festivals in markets across the country, often it makes sense to book artists for several at a lower rate, improving their bottom line at the risk of losing its individuality.