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What Makes a Good Festival Headliner Act?

Summer = Festival Season. With the summer mostly over, it is time to look back at the festivals of the summer; but, specifically, Headliners. However good a line up a Festival has, if the Main Stage Headliners of said Festival are bad, then the entire tone of the Festival will be negative.

I was lucky enough to attend Reading Festival this summer for the 4th year in a row. For me personally, this year was the best yet. Considering this time last year I was sure that I wouldn’t be attending Reading 2016, it is even more extraordinary, and it is all to do with one thing – the Main Stage Headliners.

The line up at Reading and Leeds Festival this year was beyond good. Every stage had some absolutely excellent acts, and there was only a very little period where I felt there was nothing I really wanted to see. Even the Headliners of the secondary stages were on point, and gave very genuine alternative acts for festival goers to end their day.

However, as I already stated, it was the Main Stage Headliners that truly made it so unforgettable this year. But what is it that makes a truly great Headliner? This is something I had never really thought about in depth until a friend who saw The 1975 at Reading excitedly told me that Matt Healy, the lead singer of The 1975, yelled “We will be back and headline Main Stage!” – and my reaction had been to immediately shake my head in disagreement. Why? What makes a Headliner work?

In many respects, the most important Headliner of all is the Sunday night one – the act that closes the Main Stage, and closes the Festival. Because of how Reading and Leeds is a twin festival, it is therefore crucial that at least two of the three Headliners have the ability to close Main Stage, and to do it well.  

An important consideration is the type of festival the act is headlining; and Reading and Leeds Festival is a rock festival. For example, in 2013, I saw Eminem at Reading Festival, and I thoroughly enjoyed him. Yet, however much I enjoyed him, he was not a Sunday Night act. He is not a rock act. Biffy Clyro closed Main Stage instead, and did so fantastically. A similar comparison is that this year at Reading Festival, Foals played as Headliner on the Friday. They are a rock band, but not a band in the same league as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Biffy Clyro, who each closed Main Stage at the two festivals. To have them on the Friday was far more fitting.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is this – can you imagine the band’s music having fireworks and streamers alongside the performance, with a huge audience? If both of those things are not fulfilled, then they are not a Main Stage Headliner. They are a secondary tent Headliner, or an earlier act on Main Stage. If you can imagine those things, then you have a Headliner. Reading and Leeds has worked out that algorithm, and as such has Headliners each year and every year who close Main Stage to perfection.

About Sarah Kenchington


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