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What 'The New Normal' Means for the Future of Festivals


In the days leading up to the eagerly anticipated unveiling of their lineup for another year, Primavera Sound tantalised fans with a series of images and posts that had something in common – the phrase 'The New Normal'.

Hugely respected players in the global festival scene, when Primavera Sound talk, people listen. And when the big reveal finally came, rumours of an updated approach to lineup curation were proved to be true.

The New Normal is, in fact, a statement of intent from the Barcelona festival.

On one, fairly self-contained level it is an indication that the organisers of Primavera Sound are further extending their purview in terms of the musical styles with which they want their festival to be identified. Mainstream hip hop, pop, Latin trap, R&B, electronic music and even reggaeton hold as much weight on the lineup as the 'traditional' sounds of indie and alternative music most readily associated with the Primavera Sound brand. 

The tongue-in-cheek inclusion of a baseball cap sporting the phrase 'Ex-Indie' in the festival's latest line of limited edition merch was a pleasingly self-aware nod to this change; reassurance that they know exactly what is going on, and a very minor provocation of those bemoaning this year's lineup.

But looking beyond the walls of the Barcelona festival itself – and the styles of music you can expect to see therein – this statement also has the potential to facilitate and encourage change on an industry-wide scale.

The possible implications are essentially twofold, and intrinsically linked.

First, it points towards a reduced reliance on 'traditional' headliners – long-running, established acts, predominantly from the rock world, that are seen as the right fit for the biggest stages. Acts like Muse, The Killers, Foo Fighters or Arctic Monkeys who have proven time and again that they can get the job done. 

Bands of this ilk will still have a role to play, and rightly so. Their fanbases are huge, and as Arctic Monkeys proved in 2018 they are still more than capable of releasing music worthy of their elevated status. But perhaps there is greater space for a new type of headliner to emerge.

Obviously it has been decades now since festivals began to draw from other musical styles, with rap giants and superstar DJs increasingly a fixture. But there's opportunity for this to go further.

Many will fervently disagree with me, but I would much rather see a considerately curated lineup without immediately recognised headliners, populated with an eclectic mix of acts that has strength from top to bottom, than one with three huge names at the top and an underwhelming or safe selection below.

If this new approach means eschewing ideas that every major festival needs three or four global superstars topping the bill (to the possible detriment of the overall programming), then I fully support that.

Headliners will always be the touchstone for a specific year, but too often they are the be-all-and-end-all of people's judgement of what a festival has to offer, when in reality they rarely constitute more than a few hours of the entire experience.

As such, populating the lineup with a diverse and exciting mix of names and giving high billings to acts who may not yet have proven themselves as headliners in the traditional sense not only offers something new, but it is also a healthy way of developing artists and broadening the pool of acts deemed worthy of headline status.

Every year, certain groups are keen to bemoan the fact that we're running out of headliners. This way, rather than the same acts taking it in turn time after time, new names enter the conversation for who could sit atop posters for years to come.

Obviously, wholesale change in attitudes is highly unlikely. After all, it has been more than a decade since Jay Z headlined Glastonbury, and yet there is still a fairly widespread attitude in some quarters that hip hop doesn't belong at the top of festival bills. Though anyone lucky enough to see Kendrick Lamar's latest tour shows, for example, knows full well that the live hip hop experience has the potential to offer something truly incredible.

Equally, few major festivals (if any) could get away with forgoing 'headliners' entirely. Fans will still want to go the festival that secures the big names. If Radiohead, for example, choose to play a limited number of festivals one summer, organisers would be foolish not to try to get them on board.

But perhaps, and hopefully, attitudes about which kinds of acts are worthy of taking those top spots on the poster can begin to change.

The second implication, however, is more significant, and the effects could and absolutely should be more wide-reaching. With the New Normal, Primavera Sound have offered a lineup that offers equal gender representation.

It doesn't seem like it should be a contentious issue. But lo, we live in a world where the mere suggestion that everyone ought to be treated equally (and that they aren't at present) seems to met with derision, resistance, and general obtuseness.

Women and non-binary acts have, for a long time, not been seen on lineups with anywhere close to the frequency of their male counterparts. Obviously, the market dictates booking policies and festivals have to consider which acts will most likely shift tickets for them; but even taking that into consideration, this disparity has been vast, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.

Early in 2018, the PRS Foundation launched a campaign called Keychange which has, among its aims, a pledge for 50:50 gender balance on festival lineups by 2022. A number of festivals signed up to this initiative, including Bestival, Way Out West, BIME and Iceland Airwaves, who in 2018 notably delivered on their promise with a gender balanced lineup.

The campaign, and the issue it is seeking to address, got particular coverage following observations made about the lack of women on the Wireless Festival lineup.
 

 

The reaction from the festival organisers in this instance was to add a women-only stage, celebrating diverse and exciting female talent. It was actually a good idea, and a nice touch. But the horse had long-since bolted as they shut that particular stable door.

Rather than being reactionary, festivals should factor in these considerations from the very outset of the booking process. After all, building a lineup should be about so much more than just plucking a selection of acts that people like. It should reflect the festival's identity, both musically and in relation to the values that they want to communicate to their fans.

These decisions should, of course, be based on merit – as detractors of such initiatives are quick to point out. But to suggest that there's anything close to a scarcity of women and non-binary acts in music that are deserving, willing, and capable of performing on the biggest stages is frankly ridiculous.

So with their lineup for 2019, Primavera Sound have delivered on that promise embodied by the Keychange initiative, three years before the suggested target date. In doing so, they have sent a message to other major festivals: it can be done, it can be done well, and it can be done now.  

Playing devil's advocate for a moment, there is a chance that this move from Primavera Sound was a case of the tail wagging the dog. That is to say, the festival reacted creatively to the current situation that has seemingly made this year a difficult one when it comes to finding traditional headliners. For whatever reason – tour schedules, album releases, indefinite hiatuses – it definitely seems like 2019 is a year in which festivals are having to be inventive with who they book to top their bill. Either that, or settle for acts that risk leaving some fans a little uninspired or underwhelmed.

Equally, a real cynic would be inclined to say that 'The New Normal' was created after the fact, when it became apparent that it would be easier to secure a greater number of 'second tier' acts than a handful of established headliners.

But against my normal cynical nature, I don't believe this to be the case. There's no denying that this has been done in reaction to the current situation in the music industry. But not because the desired acts aren't available so settling for second best was the only option. But because the biggest acts, and those making the best received music right now, don't consist of four white guys in a band playing guitars, drums, bass and singing in a way they perhaps once did.

Looking at an aggregation of over 100 publications' 'Album of the Year' lists from 2018, seven of the top ten ranked albums come from female or non-binary solo artists, 11 of the top 20, 17 of the top 30.

Robyn, Christine & The Queens, Janelle Monae, Mitski, Rosalía, Cardi B, SOPHIE, Kacey Musgraves, Ariana Grande, Noname, Courtney Barnett, Tirzah, Tierra Whack, Snail Mail, Kali Uchis, U.S. Girls, Soccer Mommy, Lucy Dacus and Julia Holter were ever-present.

Among the other highly ranked acts are Beach House, Low, Let's Eat Grandma, The Internet, Khruangbin, boygenius, Hop Along and The Beths – all prominently featuring female performers. 

Obviously that's not to suggest that the likes of IDLES, Parquet Courts, Arctic Monkeys, Daughters, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Shame, Interpol, or Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever don't deserve credit for their fantastic years – each of them, and countless more in their vane, released superb records in 2018 and rightfully received plaudits.

But the idea that only certain types of acts are suited to headlining major festivals strikes me as a frustratingly antiquated attitude. I'd argue it is linked to a nostalgia for the iconic archetype of the music festival from the 60s or 70s, when those kinds of acts headlined precisely because they were the most popular form of music at the time. The world of the music festival needs to react to the ebbs and flows of the wider music industry; from the artists who are creating the most exciting music, to the ever-evolving tastes of fans.

Thus, a greater push to feature more women on festival lineups should not be seen as some form of tokenism, or positive discrimination enacted solely to help out artists who otherwise wouldn't get the chance. Of course this is a conscious effort to combat the long-standing underrepresentation, but more importantly it is a recognition of the hard work and talent of these acts, and of the popularity and support that this has garnered them.

Ultimately, this drive – epitomised neatly by Primavera Sound and 'The New Normal' but by no means solely enacted by them – serves to promote a new way of thinking that rewards and supports all manner of deserving artists, rather than celebrating former glories, facilitating complacency, fuelling mediocrity, or perpetuating frustratingly ubiquitous attitudes about who is or isn't worthy of success at the highest level.   

If this truly is the new normal, sign me up.

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