Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Spring 2014 Power Rankings

Festival Outlook

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Photo by Heather Kaplan

Welcome to Festival Outlook, a new supplemental column that will provide more in-depth analysis for the rumors found on Consequence of Sound’s Festival Outlook. In this installment, Michael Roffman, Alex Young, and Frank Mojica break down this year’s top 10 festival headliners so far and discuss the pros and cons for each act. We think of this as a SportsCenter for festival addicts.

Michael Roffman (MR): A few weeks back, Frank and I pieced together our Spring Power Rankings for North American music festivals, and it proved quite a success — despite being one of the more polarizing articles in recent memory. (Who knew so many of you went to bat for Jack Johnson?) Now we’re back with the same mindset, only for a major component of any music festival: the headliners.

Already this year has been revolutionary for the festival industry, especially given OutKast’s blanket deal to headline just about every popular North American music festival. It’s a move that seems quite transparent, or perhaps an exploitation to the obvious fact that most banner acts, especially large-scale reunions, tend to appear everywhere anyhow. Frank and Alex, you two debated this model in an earlier inclusion of Festival Outlook, ultimately concluding that OutKast’s deal was a further example of the industry in flux.

That’s something I think we should bring up again now that Andre and Big Boi have put their Coachella duties behind them. Did this work out? Or do you think it’s a forgotten watermark we’ll have to hear again and again all summer, sort of like Postal Service? Does it even matter at this point, given that so many festivals (Lollapalooza, Sasquatch!, etc.) have sold out already?

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Photo by Ted Maider

Alex Young (AY): I think the jury is still out on the “OutKast model” or whatever you want to call it. After the duo’s Coachella weekend one performance received a less than lukewarm response, I’m sure some of the other festivals that had booked them started to question whether it was actually a good idea. Fortunately, Andre and Big Boi seemed to right the ship during weekend two by cutting off some of setlist’s excess meat and actually facing the audience.

But again, I think it’s too early to judge. Coachella was going to sell out no matter what, so I don’t think it’s the best case study. What will be interesting to see is how middle-tier festivals such as Firefly, Big Guava, and Pemberton do ticket-wise with OutKast atop the bill. As of yet, none of these festivals have sold out.

What we can gather from OutKast’s Coachella performance, however, is that they are definitely a niche headliner, in the sense that the audience was relatively unfamiliar with their catalog. Even more so than I initially thought. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I wonder whether these festivals were blinded by the idea of having “OutKast” top the lineup despite the duo’s waning commercial appeal. And what I fear is that a few more so-so performances could turn off those festival-goers who are only familiar with “Hey Ya” and “B.O.B.”, leading to smaller crowds and Andre to lose the little interest that he currently has in this reunion tour.

Frank Mojica (FM): In regards to OutKast, I wonder if the response to their Coachella comeback will discourage people from coming out for them at other festivals. Sure, they addressed some problems on weekend two, but that wasn’t the performance everyone watched on the webcast. Headliners may no longer matter at fests like Coachella, but they still do at a lot of these newer, mid-level festivals.

bligedisclosure large Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Spring 2014 Power RankingsMR: That’s true. I feel at this point the only reason Coachella books legacy headliners at all is Paul Tollett’s affinity for them. As some writers pointed out, they could have booked Disclosure, Calvin Harris, and Skrillex as the main headliners and sold out. That’s not the case for the mid-tier festivals, as you both pointed out, and I agree that the jury is still out. Coachella hosts a unique crowd, whereas the crowds at, say, Firefly, Counterpoint, and Hangout will no doubt appreciate the veterans a little more. Still, it’s depressing to see the changing of the guard at Coachella, even though few acts can compete with the allure of Disclosure… or any popular electronic act these days. Their sets promise a youthful air of danger and promiscuity that just won’t be found with the veterans. But hey, that’s another discussion altogether — or is it?

If we look at all the lineups this year, the veterans still take precedence. Tom Petty, Lionel Richie, Eminem, Kraftwerk, etc. They all have their years behind them, and I guess the question now is: How old does an act need to be to headline a festival? Does longevity even matter? Why do they get seniority over acts that are currently selling triple what they do both on and off stage? I feel that’s an important discussion that could potentially change the way promoters book a variety of festivals. Even a festival like Bonnaroo. You know, we act disappointed Lollapalooza didn’t book someone like Pearl Jam, or grab The Replacements, both favorites in my book, but look at their audiences in recent memory. I’m willing to bet that Calvin Harris, Skrillex, Lorde, and Zedd have nearly twice the size of the crowds that flock to Kings of Leon, OutKast, or Arctic Monkeys. So, why do they book ’em?

Is it to retain an identity? Lollapalooza has long shied away from its ’90s origins. In fact, I would argue that booking Lorde, Calvin Harris, Skrillex, and Zedd is more in line with their roots than the booking of Eminem, Kings of Leon, or Arctic Monkeys. These young acts are legitimately thriving in their respective scenes, capturing the spirit and identity of a generation. In a way, the headliners are a collection of niche commodities, and really, who are they supposed to appease? I’m sorry for ranting, but this is something that’s been on my mind for months now, and with ACL’s recent announcement, I only have more questions.

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AY: It’s definitely a fair question, and I think we’re starting to see that reality play out in Coachella and Lollapalooza’s shift toward more Top 40 acts. Will there ever be a day where these festivals book a lineup equivalent to a the iHeartRadio Festival, with Bruno Mars, Katy Perry, and deadmau5 billed as the top three headliners?

There is still a certain cache to booking legacy acts like the Kraftwerk and OutKasts of the world, but they don’t move tickets like the aforementioned. What will be interesting to see, however, is whether these festivals are willing to shed their loyalty to underground and alternative music in favor of a total mainstream vibe. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Coachella is no longer your older brother’s festival. The days of Portishead and Bjork topping the lineup are long gone. Major EDM and Pop acts dominated this year’s bill, and I no doubt believe that’ll continue to be the case when you hear about the low turnouts for acts like The Replacements, The Knife, and Pet Shop Boys.

I also think it’s worth noting that these newer acts are no longer cheap. Skrillex and Calvin Harris boast million-dollar price tags, and as their popularity grows, those numbers will only increase. So, it’s not like the festivals are saving money by booking these acts.

FM: Is it only a matter of time before Pitbull headlines Coachella and Lollapalooza? Maybe. My question is what happened to all the people that used to flock to festivals for the likes of Bjork and Portishead?

pitchfork 2014 lineup

AY: Where will those people go? ATP, Pitchfork, and Primavera Sound. But these festivals will never have the dollars to book big, mammoth rock acts. That’s unless said acts start lowering their asking price, which I don’t see since there’s still demand in arena tours and what not.

I think we’re going to get to a point where the major festivals veer more toward Top 40 Pop, and the indie, niche festivals remain just that. There will be no in between, unfortunately.

MR: All terrifying points. But I don’t think Top 40 will ever fully take over these festivals. As you said Alex, most of these acts do come with incredibly high price tags, but I wouldn’t be shocked if Lollapalooza eventually gives the upper-tier hype acts the coveted headline banner, instead, and that would save them money. That’s why I think Governors Ball got it right this year with their choices. Really, OutKast is the only legacy act serving as one of their headliners, and it’s still one of the hottest festivals (if not the hottest) of the summer.

Anyways, judging from the posters and lineups this year, who are some current headliners giving these festivals the most bang for their buck? Mind you, that includes festivalgoers, too. The first name that comes to mind is Arcade Fire. I haven’t had a chance to see them yet on this run, but every review I’ve read — including yours, Frank — pegs them as a must-see celebration, and I can only imagine they’ve upped their already impressive onstage game. They also played it smart by agreeing to very few festivals.

Photo by Jo McCaughey

RSD_TMR_2014013FM: When I first went to Coachella, LCD Soundsystem had maybe a dozen people watching because they were on at the same time as Pixies. Even the Sahara was light in attendance at the time. Funny how things change.

Yes, I saw Arcade Fire at Coachella, and it was glorious. Still, I feel like I am missing out because I couldn’t also go the second weekend. Debbie Harry and Paft Dunk… they sure know how to make each Coachella appearance a memorable, unique one. I can’t wait to see them again at Primavera Sound. Speaking of which, that lineup blows any of ours out of the water, and it is a national disgrace that we apparently can’t have such an event here.

Kanye West has both the hits and the current cultural relevance to dominate at both Outside Lands and Bonnaroo. Whatever it costs to book him, they will get back easily. Jack White is possibly the only guitarist that the current crop of festivalgoers still revere as a deity. Just say his name and people pay attention.

MR: I wait patiently for the day Kurt Vile has that power. Ha. No, you’re right. Kanye and Jack White are two of the summer’s hottest commodities outside of Win Butler & Co. — and for two reasons. Kanye could very well have another album out, while White should have a complete overhaul of his infamous live set back in 2012. Actually, Kanye could have a new stage setup, too. As you two discussed previously, whatever happens at Bonnaroo is a mystery. Either he dives head first into a stripped-down hits medley, as he recently did on Late Night with Seth Meyers, or he risks the stage setup again with his Yeezus configuration. Whatever happens will get eyes and ears there.

Photo by Jonathan Fritz

Julian-Casablancas-Jonathan-FritzWhat about the one-offs? Elton John, Foo Fighters, The Strokes, Kraftwerk? I feel like that gives an added umph to any lineup. For one, we don’t know what the hell is going on with Dave Grohl’s camp. Odds are we won’t hear any new material at Firefly, but it’s still a possibility. It might be The Strokes’ last gig in ages, although, judging from Julian Casablancas’ recent performances, who knows how that’ll end up. Meanwhile, Kraftwerk are hauling around a 3D live show for Christ’s sake, and Elton John, well… yeah. I don’t know. What do you guys think about these acts? Legacy aside, do they serve as an apt headliner? Or will they prove snooze-worthy at the festivals?

AY: Don’t get me wrong. As doom and gloom as I am about the future of music festivals, there’s a lot to like about this year. Kraftwerk is an exciting and unique booking for Moogfest; it’s just a shame they didn’t work out for Sasquatch! Foo Fighters will always hold a special place in my heart for their performance at Lollapalooza in 2011. I think the idea of seeing The Strokes together again is certainly intriguing, but I do worry it’s merely a cash grab. And what more can you say about Elton John that hasn’t already been said? He’ll provide a fitting send-off to Bonnaroovians come Sunday night.

Many of us, including yours truly, have bitched and moaned about the increasing “sameness” of these festival lineups, and that certainly holds true in 2014. I would argue, however, that this is one of the better years for headliners in recent memory.

moogfest 2014

MR: Possibly. With the exception of Arcade Fire, OutKast, and Jack White, most of the headliners this summer are recycled from acts around last year. It’s almost like we’re in a transition, especially since so many of our top choices here have yet to release their respective working projects. Kanye’s tinkering the follow-up to Yeezus (hopefully), Jack White only recently began his album cycle, Foo Fighters are still halfway through their album, and we haven’t heard a thing off Tom Petty’s comeback record.

What I would argue, instead, is that this year’s mid-tier might be the festival season’s best since, possibly, 2010. Every festival, no matter the headliner, is fully stocked with a bevy of talent that have either offered promising albums thus far (tUnE-yArDs, Cloud Nothings) or haven’t been around in awhile (Spoon, Interpol). Come to think of it, festival season isn’t too shabby for 2014 if you don’t plan on attacking one each month.

Clearly, I think we have an idea on who some of our favorite headliners are this year. But as with our festivals, these are all subject to change come summer or fall or late winter when we’re tallying up our year-end votes. That goes especially for the one-offs that may or may not be a total bust; right now, they’re quite the exception to the rule.

So, shall we?

10. Queens of the Stone Age

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Photo by Ted Maider

MR: Last year’s live act of the year continues to impress. With the recent appearance of scream box Nick Oliveri, one has to wonder what’s in store for Queens’ upcoming shows, specifically their headlining slot at Sasquatch!, which should be nothing short of exceptional. I said this last year in Austin, but Josh Homme’s crew deserves the top billing, and a longer set time will do them well. This is a bunch that excels in the flames, so the more tired we get, the more they rage. To date, they’re the only act I’ve had to stumble out of due to heat exhaustion. Thanks 2002 self.

AY: Outside of Foo Fighters, Queens are the best rock and roll headliner out touring in 2014. Their set features no gimmicks, no special guests — just real, pummeling, unabashed rock music.

FM: Heat exhaustion for Queens is more appropriate than my experience with that ailment: getting overheated due to a dangerously overcrowded 2 Chainz set I endured at Coachella in order to secure a spot for Bat for Lashes. I haven’t seen Queens since 2006, but maybe I will get to see what they bring to Primavera Sound, where they share the top line with Arcade Fire.

09. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

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Photo by Philip Cosores

MR: I wasn’t too impressed with 2010’s Mojo, but even then, his shows were still a can’t miss. Now that the Heartbreakers are revisiting the feel-good rock ‘n’ roll of their first two albums, I have to believe that these shows will be quintessential Petty. I hate that they’re not playing Lollapalooza, Austin City Limits, or any festival I’m attending…  yet.

AY: It’s certainly strange that outside Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, the Heartbreakers don’t really get the headlining slots they so rightful deserve.

FM: Tom Petty is someone I sadly have not seen yet, but would like to at a festival since he has so many hits and I grew up with them. I’m sure a lot of people at Outside Lands will feel the same way.

08. Kraftwerk

Kraftwerk in Concert

Photo by Robert Altman

MR: This one’s more of your choice, guys. The 3D will be intriguing, but having caught them at Ultra back in 2012, I have no interest in seeing them again. That’s how I also feel about any film by Darren Aronofsky that isn’t titled The Wrestler.

AY: They’re a unique booking who rarely tours the U.S., much less play music festivals. Moogfest marks their first U.S. festival appearance since Ultra and by the sound of it, their show has only gotten better.

FM: Kraftwerk is one of those acts that’s interesting to see at least once due to their significance. Also, they put on quite a show.

07. St. Vincent

st vincent terminal5 24 Top 10 Music Festival Headliners in North America: Spring 2014 Power Rankings

Photo by Wei Shi

MR: Much like Queens, Ms. Annie Clark thrives with more stage time. Give her three hours, a few more festivals, and she’ll be top three in my book. However, as much as her stage show impresses, I do miss the more unpredictable St. Vincent, which only surfaces towards the end of her set now.

AY: Annie Clark is a Rock God. Enough said.

FM: Artist of the decade. Annie Clark never ceases to amaze me and outdoes herself consistently. Her current tour is an absolute stunner with gripping, creative visuals and choreography in addition to a jaw-dropping musical intensity. It’s a shame that someone hasn’t filled the void left by ATP and created a similar festival and had St. Vincent headline, preferably all three nights. NXNE and Sled Island have permanently endeared themselves to me for having her top the bill at their fests.

06. Foo Fighters

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Photo by Ted Maider

MR: If it’s a greatest hits set, consider this inclusion off the top 10 for me. What made them so impacting in 2011, and partly through 2012, was their ability to provide an exhaustive mixture of hits, deep cuts, and power. They shouldn’t stop that for Firefly, and if they’re smart, they might even toss in a surprise recording on-the-spot. Or I don’t know… another Nirvana medley. Something.

AY: It sounds like Foo’s new album will be a fall 2014 release, so it’s unclear whether we’ll hear any new sounds at Firefly. That said, their current catalog packs enough gems to ensure one of the better headlining sets of the summer. Plus, Dave Grohl.

FM: Foo who? Now I just want a Nirvana set with Annie Clark, Joan Jett, etc. But until that happens, a greatest hits set from Foo Fighters would be a blast.

05. Elton John

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MR: Someone made a smart-ass remark in an earlier post about how Elton John’s inclusion was mild at best considering he couldn’t even sell out Vegas. Okay pal, that’s probably because nobody wants to visit Sin City anymore. The Farm’s a different story, and having never been to Bonnaroo before, even I know that the best moments there involve sing-alongs and communal experiences that Bonnaroovians swear to god Coachella will never have. This booking speaks volumes to that.

AY: Hopefully Eminem doesn’t come out and run it.

FM: Like Coachella, people only go to Vegas now to fistpump to someone pretending to mix a pre-recorded set of EDM. All I can say is: “Tiny Dancer” singalong. Those three words are why I want to go to Bonnaroo.

04. OutKast

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Photo by Ted Maider

MR: Hey, it’s great they’re back, and they’re a hot commodity. I do wish that they felt more like an actual outfit again. Both of their sets reminded me of how the Pixies were circa 2005, back when it was a stoic nostalgic act. Still, much like Frank Black & Co. a decade ago, they’re hitting all the right buttons.

AY: I wasn’t as down on their Coachella weekend one performance as most people and it definitely seems like their weekend two set improved some. At the end of the day, this is still OutKast, one of the most important hip-hop groups of our era. Go see them. And don’t bug out if Andre doesn’t make eye contact (says the guy highly medicated on Zoloft).

FM: I saw them during the first weekend of Coachella, so I’m still unfulfilled. I would like a do-over now that they’ve improved their set. If Andre 3000 can stay enthused, this will be a great party at all these festivals.

03. Jack White

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Photo by Jo McCaughey

MR: I don’t want to talk about Mr. White anymore. So, I’ll pass this one to you all. I will say this: The man’s a goddamn perfectionist, and if anyone can throw a headline-worthy rock show together, it’s going to be him.

AY: I read the first two names on Bonnaroo’s 2014 lineup and immediately pulled up Southwest’s website. I’ve seen many Jack White shows in my time, and each new one seems to be better than than the last. The guy is a Modern Day Legend for a reason and it’s due in part to his impressive live chops. His setlists are spontaneous, his backing band is tight as my gym shoe laces, and his catalog of hits… need I say more?

FM: Jack White does so much. I have no idea what to expect from his upcoming tour, which make me even more excited for it.

02. Kanye West

Kanye-West-Yeezus-Tour-by-Joshua-Mellin_11447009434_l

Photo by Joshua Mellin

MR: He could be dressed as Marty McFly in his Nike Air Mags, reading the book adaptation of Back to the Future, and I’d still think it was better than anything out there. Kanye’s trick is that he’s an enigma, which eclipses whether he’s good or bad. My obsession with Yeezy explains why I have multiple bookmarks that lead to LiveLeak: I like being shocked, I like being heartbroken, and I like to witness the truth. It doesn’t get more real than Mr. West.

AY: Here’s the other reason I’m going to Bonnaroo. Kanye’s Redemption: The Greatest Story Ever Told. Coming to Manchester, TN and YouTube videos everywhere come June 13th, 2014.

FM: The Kardashians need more money? But seriously. Yeezus H. Christ is the biggest headliner around right now, and hopefully his Bonnaroo set gets webcast because everyone is going to want to see what happens there. No matter what, we will be talking about it for years to come.

01. Arcade Fire

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Photo by Ted Maider

MR: I don’t believe in religion, I just believe in… Win.

AY: Best band working today. Not even close.

FM: Arcade Fire are having as much fun playing as we are watching them. They truly bring the magic wherever they play and nobody does it better.

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