A festival poster is not unlike an optician’s eye chart. The top names are easily visible even from a distance, drawing the eye and keeping it focused. But does this font size mean the best festival slot for the artist? Or isn’t this headlining slot really the holy grail it claims to be?
“In a festival environment, the headline slot might not be the ideal one,” says Evan Winiker, managing partner at Range Media Partners, who counts Max, Disco Biscuits and Walk Off the Earth among his clients.
There are a number of factors that speak against this headlining slot. For one, you’re in competition with other headliners, especially if you’re not headlining the main stage. And if you’re up against a one-time headliner like Beyoncé at Coachella 2018, you might as well have played at 12 noon on the final day of the festival since the same number of people would have been in attendance at your stage.
“If an artist is performing on a side stage or tent later in the night, they have real competition,” says Winiker.
Mike “G” Guirguis, a music agent at United Talent Agency who represents The Kid Laroi, Demi Lovato and Burna Boy, among others, disagrees. “The goal is always to be a headliner,” he says. “That’s every artist’s ambition: to close the main stage. But the headline slot isn’t always the main slot at every festival. Some festivals, like Lollapalooza, rotate from stage one to stage two, back and forth, so there’s no competition.”
Moby, who headlined and one of the blurry artists on festival lineups and ran his own touring festival Area One and Area Two in the early 2000s, has a unique take on it. “The best timeslot would be 10pm on the first night of a festival, and the worst timeslot is pretty much any time on the last day,” he says definitively.
“I’ve played festivals that I headlined on the last day,” he continues. “If people have been in the sun, drunk, slept in tents and eaten rubbish, they are devastated by the last day. It may seem like a great honor to headline the last day of a festival, but the reality is you’re playing to an audience that is often on the verge of a coma.”
The environmental factor of festivals cannot be neglected. Warm weather festivals have late arrivals and attendees tire quickly. By the time the headliner takes the stage, no matter what the festival day, if the audience has been there a few hours, they’re already wiped away. Festival-goers, who fill the hot hours with other non-festival activities like off-site parties, come to the festival site when it cools down and is fresh and ready.
For Winiker, who has experienced festivals both as a manager and as an artist as a member of Steel Train with Jack Antonoff, “Sunset slot is always the best slot.” He explains: “By this point, almost everyone is at the festival. People prepare for the night. The competition for this slot is not as great as shortly afterwards. It’s a magical moment when an amazing performance coincides with something wonderful in nature.”
“It may seem like a great honor to headline the last day of a festival, but in fact you’re playing to an audience that is often on the verge of a coma.” – Mobie
According to Winiker, any time slot between 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. is a win — the later set time aligns well with the sunset, at a festival like Coachella, which can be a magical experience for fans and actors alike. By then there are already thousands of people on site making for a good crowd. From the audience’s perspective, roaming from stage to stage is a great opportunity for discovery.
Another factor that could counteract the headlining slot is the festival’s exit situation. Contestants may depart before or during the headlining window just to allow them a reasonable amount of time to leave the festival site. Winiker says, “High-profile festivals with 100,000 people and Parking and Ubers are a problem, a lot of people leave after the headliner’s first three or four songs – unless you feel like it’s a moment you can’t miss.” and you have to be there.”
From Moby’s experience, the desire for an early exit is understandable: “Especially at some European festivals with a single lane entry and exit and 150,000 people walking at the same time, you can be stuck there for at least three hours.”
UTA’s Guirguis feels that the festival’s demographics dictate its audience’s exit strategy. “Young kids don’t worry about leaving a festival early or trying to avoid traffic,” he says. “That’s not taken into account or even thought of when we negotiate these slots.”
This is a festival-by-festival situation. In Glastonbury, for example, nobody leaves the site at the end of the night as the majority of visitors spend the night on site in tents. “Glastonbury is really something special,” says Winiker. “Over 100,000 people are going nowhere knowing the conditions are going to suck.
“There’s no sun in Glastonbury so there’s no sunset slot, but there are so many stages and the way they curate the lineup and stages is intense. I’ve seen some amazing headline sets at Glastonbury with the full audience. People aren’t going anywhere. At festivals where people are camping, like Bonnaroo, you’re going to play in front of the whole crowd.”
While this headlining slot isn’t ideal in practice at a non-camping festival, the optics of filling this position are almost greater than the reality of performing in this time frame. “The billing is always very important,” says Guirguis. “It’s just as important as the time you play. When a flyer comes out, the fan sees it first. You want your artists to be as well positioned as possible.”
In some situations, you can have top billing and not necessarily play the traditional headlining time slot. Such was the case with David Bowie playing at Moby’s Area Two Festival. “He insisted that I go after him, that was one of his conditions for doing Area Two,” Moby says of his experience with Bowie. “He was the headliner and was getting paid a lot more than I was, but I had to be in last seat because he wanted to finish his show, relax for a minute, get on the bus and walk without having to sit in traffic. For him, the ideal slot was the one that allowed him to walk as easily as possible.”
Check out the just-announced Coachella set times below, including Sunset slot acts Anitta, 88Rising, Maggie Rogers and Karol G:
Unprecedented setting times pic.twitter.com/jJGs4uR51k
— Coachella (@coachella) April 14, 2022
https://variety.com/2022/music/news/coachella-festival-time-slot-set-time-1235233195/ What is the optimal time slot for a performance at a music festival?