Monday, April 14, 2008

To Z or not to Z - That is the Question...

It's unfathomable to me why the shockwaves following Michael Eavis' announcement that Jay-Z would be the Saturday night headliner at this year's Glastonbury Festival are still rolling around the internet like a bad smell. The only reservations I might have about Eavis' programming here is that it has come at least five, maybe even ten years too late. Jay-Z has been the most respected, challenging and innovative of American hip hop artists, and his prolific work rate puts most guitar groups to shame. Some of us may not relate to the lifestyle his music promotes but his wordplay has always been second-to-none and his performance should be invigorating and exciting. The problem is that he may by this stage be past his best.

The innate conservatism of some festival-goers has occasionally bordered on racism. It's fine not to appreciate hip hop, but to claim that Glastonbury is all about 'guitar bands' is not only inaccurate, but implies a certain supremacy lies in big British rock bands who mostly happen to also be white. Previous Glastonbury festivals have featured Basement Jaxx (with a wonderful cast of black vocalists and South American dancers), Orbital (one of the most famous Glastonbury headline sets, with nary a guitar in sight), Michael Franti (whom I was lucky enough to interview and record in 2004), Al Green and Toots and The Maytals (actually the most hotly anticipated act amongst festival-goers I canvassed for Radio Avalon in 2004). I would certainly rather stand in a muddy field watching Jay-Z than either of the other two headliners - Kings of Leon, a band whose live performances have tended to be sluggish and demotivated (certainly disappointing when playing second fiddle to Oasis in 2004) or The Verve, a band whose grandiose pretentions have surely now been revealed as exactly that - mere pretentions. Who exactly is Noel Gallagher to claim that Jay-Z is 'not right' for Glastonbury?

Having said that, I've not even attempted to buy a ticket and neither, it appears, have many others so far. So - why did Glastonbury not sell out in three minutes as it has done in the past? First of all, few seem to have recognised that this might actually be a good thing, particularly for festival-goers themselves. Why, after all, is it always so desirable for an event to sell out as soon as tickets have been put on sale? The registration process is certainly a pain, but if it has reduced demand, it has made it easier for those genuinely wanting to go to obtain a ticket. It has also helped tickets to be distributed fairly, virtually elimianting the role of ticket touts. If there are further factors involved, broadening choice and rising prices would certainly seem to be the main ones. Smaller, more specialist festivals are now not just surviving, but positively thriving, offering a more intimate and comfortable experience (particularly ATP, which even dares to offer accommodation). It seems a long time since the Phoenix Festival was mercilessly squeezed out of operation. Other festivals offer similar or better services at comparable prices - and Glastonbury is now beginning to look like a substantial expense for many people. For sure, it's in a wonderful setting - but one does not need to go to such a place every single year.

The corollary of this is that the mainstream festivals seem to concentrate relentlessly on the same artists - Jay-Z is doing Glastonbury and Wireless, The Verve and Kings of Leon are everywhere, and the Killers are the main act at Reading, having headlined Glastonbury only last year. Examining the finer detail suggests that choice is more limited than one might suspect - and still people moan that there is no sign of Radiohead or Oasis.

It's a very English analysis to cite the weather as a possible factor - regular Glastonbury-goers are probably a little more stoical about bad weather though. It's certainly stubborn of Eavis to insist on scheduling the festival for the last weekend in June, when it consistently rains pretty much every year. He could reconsider this, but if he's happy to deal with the carnage 180,000 people churning up farmland mud creates, then he can make his own bed and lie in it.

Similarly, perhaps he has to accept that some of the 'younger' audience he was attempting to court by booking Jay-Z are actually depressingly closed-minded about music. Hopefully, Glastonbury will have lost some of the regular whingers and gained some new converts. Next year Eavis should have more courage in backing innovators and not fall back on traditional pantomime horses such as The Verve. This year's line-up ultimately looks like a botched compromise.

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