Is Reading Festival Losing Its Way?

By Alex Rigotti

As the music industry grapples with today’s shifting trends, so do the music festivals that are left behind. Reading Festival has been hailed for generations as the premier rock festival, having hosted everyone from Green Day and Metallica to Oasis and The Rolling Stones.

Today it seems to be stuck between honouring its roots as an edgy rock festival and updating its roster to appeal to a younger generation. You only need to look at the 2019 headliners for evidence – The 1975, Twenty Øne Pilots, Post Malone and Foo Fighters. Reading’s solution seems to be simple: play both sides of the coin. How far was this a success this year?

Headliners are the litmus test for what’s in and what’s out; for certain acts this year, the results were especially telling.

There’s no reliable method to measure the success of any festival, but I aim to measure Reading’s success through the performances of their headliners. After all, it’s impossible for anyone to go to every set. It’s what the organisers invest the most in, it’s what the people want to see. Even the most indifferent attendees would at least bother to show up for the main event. Yes, there are other acts that exist apart from the headliners, though set times are all structured to lead up to them. They’re the litmus test for what’s in and what’s out; for certain acts this year, the results were especially telling.

The 1975 were the Friday headliners, and their performance did not disappoint. Compared to other headliners, there was plenty of audience engagement. I was standing near the second barrier (relatively far back for the Main Stage), and everyone was able to sing along to most of the set. The loyal fanbase that the band have cultivated produced an energetic festival crowd eager to hear hits such as ‘Chocolate’ and ‘The Sound’. The stage is lit according to the aesthetic history of the band; the lights flash from black-and-white to millennial pink to 80s neon nostalgia to the shocking fluoro yellow of their latest era.

Matty Healy isn’t shy, and it’s not just the flamboyant frontman’s dance moves. He defends his protest kiss with a male fan in Dubai, and he stands in silence as the lyrics to the latest edition of their album opening track ‘The 1975’, featuring climate change activist Greta Thunberg, play on the gigantic screens. It’s breathtaking, risky and bold. Say what you like about The 1975, but they know how to entertain a crowd.

Twenty Øne Pilots co-headlined the Saturday with Post Malone. Image Credit: Drew De F Fawkes via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

For other headliners like Twenty Øne Pilots (Saturday’s first co-headliner), stage presence was crucial in the success of their set. I was positioned similarly in their set, close to the second barrier, and most people stood in silence, nodding their heads to the music. It’s difficult to gauge audience engagement during rap songs as only hardcore fans at the front will be able to know every word. TØP probably knew this, as they turned the stage into their own personal playground. Tyler Joseph, the duo’s lead singer/bassist, climbed a 20-foot ladder during hit song ‘Car Radio’, and Josh Dun enacted his famed crowdsurfing-whilst-drumming manoeuvre.

Tyler also stood in the crowd, rapping; this is especially notable since the band abandoned their 2016 set due to a lack of crowd control whilst crowdsurfing at Reading. There were touching moments, too: a cover of  Oasis’ ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger’, garnered an uproarious chant. It was impressive how the band persevered through the relative silence from the crowd. The stage was ablaze with burning cars, backflips and brilliant visuals. It was a feast for the eyes, and truly exciting to watch.

Whilst I don’t think Posty’s brand is particularly sustainable, it was the perfect encapsulation of the times – and a hell of a show.

In contrast, Post Malone’s minimalist approach to performance redirected attention to his arena-ready bangers. There were no props, no dancers, just Posty with the occasional pyrotechnics and a swathe of stunning visuals. The politics of Post Malone’s place in rap music might be muddy, but his songs are engineered for festivals and massive crowds. Organisers wisely placed him last on the schedule, where everyone was adequately wasted enough to scream out some of his biggest hits. Unlike the legendary mythologies of TØP and The 1975, Post Malone’s appeal is distilled into catchy melodies and the hype of trap beats to support it.

Admittedly, he’s not the most ‘traditionally’ compelling figure to watch. In fact, there was something strangely sad about a man throwing AutoTuned tantrums in what looked like pajamas. Then again, who needs to be when you have songs like ‘rockstar’ and ‘Congratulations’ under your belt? Whilst I don’t think Posty’s brand is particularly sustainable, it was the perfect encapsulation of the times – and a hell of a show.

Post Malone proved to be a zeitgeist headliner choice from Festival Republic. Image Credit: Tore Sætre via Wikimedia & Creative Commons.

Oddly enough, it was Sunday headliners Foo Fighters that showed the starkest conflict in Reading Festival’s crisis. I was standing far back from the Main Stage in the fringes of the crowd, and I was surprised at how uninterested most of the audience was. Dave Grohl is a fantastic character for the stage, getting the balance of heartfelt sentiment and Twitter-ready quotes just right. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to prevent festivalgoers from leaving mid-set to see BBC Radio 1 headliners Bastille (myself included).

The Radio 1 tent was overflowing, with deep crowds of at least 7 feet deep in the largest pockets.  Compare this to The 1975: Dave was headlining the Radio 1 tent during their set, and I didn’t see as much abandonment mid-set. You’d bet he’d pull in a serious crowd given the success of his newest release, Psychodrama. For superfans of the band, it was probably a satisfying set, but a good headliner should be able to sustain everyone’s attention.

I was surprised at how uninterested most of the audience was towards Foo Fighters’ performance.

Ultimately, Reading Festival needs to make up its mind about who it wants to be. It’s in the unique position of huge financial security and a devoted fanbase: all 105,000 tickets sold out this year. Given this creative freedom, I’d love to see Reading Festival take more risks in terms of its line-up. Finding a clear sense of direction would help separate Reading from the slew of festivals in an increasingly competitive industry – and gain even more edge.

Image Credit: Raph_PH via Wikimedia Creative Commons

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