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Coachella released its lineup on Monday night, naming Guns N’ Roses, LCD Soundsystem, and Calvin Harris as main stage acts for 2016. Two of its three headliners are bands heading out on hotly hyped (albeit poorly concealed) reunion tours. That’s exactly two more than the female solo headliners Coachella has hosted since 2008. What does this mean about the business and culture around America’s A-list music festivals?
Coachella hasn’t had a female solo act headline since Bjork in 2007. To their credit, they do have more female or female-fronted acts in the upper reaches of the lineup than usual this year. For instance, there were eight such artists on the top three lines of each day’s lineup combined last year — this year, there are 11. But female headliners? Not so much.
This is a constant criticism dogging most leading music festivals, especially in recent years, when the poptimist perspective urges us to wonder why we don’t see the likes of Taylor Swift, Beyonce, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj — the A-list pop stars — atop lineups like Coachella’s. Zane Lowe asked Swift last month why she doesn’t play fests (save for a May 2015 Rock in Rio gig) and here’s what she said: “I just focused on [the 1989] tour. It’s amazing to be able to play to a festival-sized audience who all bought tickets just to see the show, everybody in the audience knowing the words to every single song. It’s kind of magical.”
Artists on Swift’s level don’t need festivals. Often, their productions don’t translate logistically to a festival stage, which has to hold numerous acts throughout a given day. And then there’s the money issue. If you’re one of the select few who can gross more money on your own, why adapt your stage show? Or why give fans the option of buying, say, a Lana Del Rey shirt instead of your own at a multi-artist merch table?
There are plenty of female acts just below the superstar tier, however, who could and should be headlining Coachella. Ellie Goulding continues to crank out hits, and in another year, could rise to the top of a bill, instead of batting second to LCD Soundsystem. A few more jacked-up anthems along the lines of “Yellow Flicker Beat” and Lorde could rock the top slot. And though her festival show has dealt with difficulty before (like getting drowned out by The Black Keys), a Lana Del Rey headlining set would be just about as on-brand as Coachella could get.
And about that brand — Coachella courts an affluent music fan who hops across “cool” genres such as rock/alternative, dance and crossover hip-hop (this year, Grammy-nominated country singer Chris Stapleton is a notable exception). Tickets sell out almost instantly, since fans know they can expect a certain kind of lineup — the brand sells itself. But prioritizing certain genres contributes to gender inequality at fests. Paramore is a killer live act with numerous widely known hits, yet they are frequently relegated to niche events, while bands like Kings of Leon and the Black Keys are called on by mainstream fests year after year. Dolly Parton drew a massive crowd to Glastonbury in the U.K., so why aren’t U.S. fests asking her to headline?
In the end, festival bookings come down to a matter of mutual necessity. Last month, Billboard reported that Guns N’ Roses was asking as much as $3 million per concert on its reunion tour, which is expected to include as many as 25 North American stadiums in addition to Coachella. “Headliners at major festivals can rake in as much as $1 million — and more,” we reported last year. Coachella presumably loosened the purse strings for Axl Rose and Slash this year, likely more than it does for most headliners. Guns N’ Roses is of the most sought after (and expensive) artists on the festival market this year, so snagging them helps Coachella maintain is lofty reputation and broaden its appeal beyond its usual customers. For the diehards who have to catch one of the reunion dates, the festival becomes one of their limited options.
The same goes for LCD Soundsystem, albeit amongst a crowd that likely contains more Coachella regulars. When the James Murphy-led band first broke up in 2011, it rode off into the sunset with a sold-out Madison Square Garden concert, a peak that would have seemed unthinkable for the act just a few years prior. Murphy and his bandmates wanted to get on with their lives and explore other pursuits, knowing how much of their time had been devoted to making three albums and touring behind them. Entering another new album cycle in 2016, fests like Coachella give the group the option of condensing tour volume by playing to more people at once, along with what’s likely a much bigger paycheck. In this way, festivals and reunion concerts are mutually beneficial; they just make sense together.
So far, the Swifts and Rihannas of the world don’t need festivals. But what we all need is more diversity.
This story first appeared on Billboard.com.
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