A festival poster is not unlike an optometrist’s eye chart. The top names are clearly visible, even from a distance, drawing your gaze and keeping it focused. But does that font size translate to the best festival time slot for the artist? Or is that headlining slot not actually the holy grail it’s cracked out to be?
“In a festival environment, the headline slot might not be the most 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 working against that headlining slot. For one, you’re competing with other headliners, particularly if you’re not the main stage headliner. And if you’re up against a once-in-a-lifetime headlining artist like Beyoncé at Coachella 2018, you might as well have played at noon on the last day of the festival, as you would have had the same number of people present at your stage.
“If an artist is performing later at night on a side stage or a tent, they’ve got real competition,” says Winiker.
Mike “G” Guirguis, music agent at United Talent Agency, who represents The Kid Laroi, Demi Lovato, 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 is not 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 competing.”
Moby, who has headlined, as well as been one of the blurry-lined artists on festival lineups and hosted his own roving festival in the early 2000s, Area One and Area Two, has a unique take on this. “The best time slot would be 10pm on the first night of a festival, and the worst time slot is pretty much any time on the last day,” he states definitively.
“I’ve played festivals where I’m headlining the last day,” he continues. “When people have been in the sun, drinking, sleeping in tents, eating garbage food, by the last day, they are destroyed. It might seem like a wonderful honor to be headlining a festival on the last day, but you’re actually playing in front of an audience who oftentimes are on the verge of being comatose.”
The environmental factor of festivals cannot be discounted. Warm weather festivals have late arrivals and attendees exhaust quickly. By the time the headliner hits the stage, no matter which day of the festival, if the audience has been there for a few hours, they’re already wiped. Festival-goers who fills the hot hours with other non-festival activities like off-site parties, descend on the festival grounds as it’s cooling down and are 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, “The sunset slot is always the best slot.” He explains, “Most everyone is at the festival by that point. People are getting ready for the night. Competition for that slot is not as great as what’s just after. It’s a magical moment when you have an amazing performance coincide with something beautiful happening in nature.”
“It might seem like a wonderful honor to be headlining a festival on the last day, but you’re actually playing in front of an audience who oftentimes are on the verge of being comatose.” — Moby
According to Winiker, any time slot between 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. is a winner — the later set time aligning nicely with the sun setting, at a festival like Coachella, which can make for a magical experience for fan and act alike. By then, there are already thousands of people on site making for a good crowd. From the audience’s perspective, wandering from stage to stage, is a great opportunity for discovery.
Another factor that has the potential to work against the headlining slot is the festival’s egress situation. Attendees might leave before, or during the headlining time slot, just so they can get off the festival grounds in a reasonable amount of time. Says Winiker: “Top-tier festivals where you’ve got 100,000 people and parking is an issue and Ubers are an issue, a lot of people leave after the first three or four songs of the headliner — unless you feel like it’s a moment you can’t miss out on and you have to be there.”
From Moby’s experience, wanting to make an early exit is understandable, “Especially some European festivals with a one-lane road in and out, and 150,000 people leaving at the same time, you can be stuck there for at least three hours.”
UTA’s Guirguis feels the festival’s demographic dictates its audience’s exit strategy. “Young kids are not really worried about leaving a festival early or trying to beat traffic,” he says. “That’s not considered or even thought of when we’re negotiating these slots.”
This is a festival-by-festival situation. At Glastonbury, for example, no one’s leaving the grounds at the end of the night as the majority of the attendees spend the night on-site in tents. “Glastonbury is really special,” says Winiker. “100,000-plus people going out to the middle of nowhere and they know the conditions are going to suck.
“There’s no sun at Glastonbury so there’s no sunset slot, but there are so many stages and the way they curate the lineup and the stages is intense. I’ve seen some amazing headline sets at Glastonbury with the full audience. People aren’t going anywhere. For festivals where people camp, like Bonnaroo, you’re going to be playing to the full crowd.”
Even if in practicality that headlining slot in a non-camping festival is not the ideal one, the optics of occupying that position are almost greater than the reality of performing in that timeframe. “Billing is always very important,” says Guirguis. “It’s equally as important as what time you play. When a flyer comes out, that’s what the fan is seeing first. You want your artists positioned as best as possible.”
In some situations, you can have top billing and not necessarily play that traditional headlining time slot. This was the case with David Bowie, who played Moby’s Area Two festival. “He insisted that I go on after him, that was one of his conditions for doing Area Two,” Moby recounts that experience with Bowie. “He was the headliner and he got paid quite a lot more than I did, but I would have to be on the last slot because he wanted to finish his show, relax for a minute, get in the bus and leave without having to sit in traffic. For him, the ideal slot was the one that enabled him to leave 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 set times pic.twitter.com/jJGs4uR51k
— Coachella (@coachella) April 14, 2022