Festival Frequency is a monthly look at music festival-related topics that step beyond the shadow of the Ferris wheel, discussing everything from the performances to the inner workings that make this a global phenomenon.
Over the weekend, Austin City Limits concluded its second weekend, marking the unofficial end to festival season for 2018. Oh, don’t be fooled. Festival season doesn’t really ever end these days, as the fact that it is a global market means there is warm weather somewhere all year long. And sometimes warm weather isn’t even required, as Uproxx will be bringing coverage from Iceland Airwaves, Mexico City’s Corona Capital, and Los Angeles’ hip-hop festivals Rolling Loud and Camp Flog Gnaw in the coming weeks. December will offer the strange, singular world of radio station holiday festivals, while January and February still provide scattered domestic events and giant fests in places south of the equator.
But the end of the traditional festival season, typically symbolized as the time between Coachella and ACL, does still have significance even in the 365-day festival cycle. Coachella generally symbolizes a changing of the guard, with many acts launching the live shows that they will bring to music festivals all year long, while ACL represents a conclusion to that narrative, as generally the last big outdoor music festival that can book acts in the realm of Paul McCartney’s status. Also, as both are the only two-weekend festivals that have managed to make that format successful, the two festivals’ symbolic places are also rooted in metrics. They’ve earned their status through sheer success, and as of yet, no other music festivals have managed to re-center that narrative.
So, what better time to look ahead at the year to come than the conclusion of ACL. Because of the cyclical nature of the music world, ACL can also feel like the beginning of something as much as it is the end, and that narrative felt very true with the originally scheduled headlining performance from Childish Gambino. Unfortunately, Donald Glover injured himself in the weeks leading up to the event and wound up canceling his ACL set and rescheduling the rest of his arena tour. Shortly after this, Hits Daily Double claimed to have the Coachella scoop, naming Gambino, Justin Timberlake, and Kanye West their rumored Coachella 2019 headliners. As someone that had fun surmising the Coachella 2019 docket a year early, I was relatively pleased to at least get one right.
Gambino’s expected Coachella performance should cement him to big-festival-headliner status quickly, ultimately making his injury a coup for the SoCal event and a major loss for ACL. Let’s start there as we break down some of the players we expect to make a major impact on 2019 music festivals.
There was a point in the first half of 2018 where Donald Glover was conquering music, TV, and film simultaeously, with “This Is America” becoming his first No. 1 single, Atlanta embarking on a strong second season, and the actor providing one of the most memorable roles in Solo. Still, that doesn’t mean he’s a slam dunk as a major festival headliner (it should be noted that his headlining performance at Governors Ball in 2017 was one of the only live appearance in support of his Grammy nominated Awaken, My Love!, but still he was billed below Phoenix if that tells you anything about how far he’s come in a year).
The duty of a big festival headliner is to play songs known by even casual fans, and outside of “This Is America” and “Redbone,” Gambino is still a little light on that category. But in his favor is star power and that matters a ton. Of the rumored Coachella headliners, Gambino holds the most logic, particularly if he’s the least established of the three eventual choices and particularly if this is billed as the last run of Childish Gambino before Glover starts recording under his own name. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him pop up at fests all around the country in 2019.
Before Grande’s ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died last month, the pop star had a narrative ripe for a festival breakout. She’d already endured a major tragedy with the Manchester bombing and crafted the strongest album of her career in response. Earlier this year, she made a surprise appearance at Coachella during Kygo’s set to give fans a debut live version of her then-new single, “No Tears Left To Cry,” seemingly solidifying a relationship with the fest. With events often lacking for top-line non-male talent, an Ariana Grande headlining set at Coachella makes a ton of sense.
Of course, with Miller’s death and her breakup with Pete Davidson this week, there is no telling when Grande will be ready for the public eye again. But if 2019 finds her ready for big stages, Coachella or whoever pulls the trigger at having her anchor a major festival is in line for one of the biggest stories to possibly emerge out of festival season.
Kanye West hasn’t performed a proper headlining concert in nearly two years. Sure, we’ve seen him on Saturday Night Live and he’s playing an upcoming show with Kid Cudi as Kids See Ghosts, but Kanye West’s triumphant live return following the Saint Pablo tour debacle still has yet to properly occur (he was rumored to have been booked for this year’s Lollapalooza but that never materialized).
Surely his association with President Trump complicates how rabid his fanbase is anticipating live support of Ye (or his expected November album Yandhi), but no matter how Kanye behaves publicly, there will be massive curiosity for what he’ll do next. Still, despite the Coachella rumors, it’s hard to see a festival that already has its own issues revolving around the AEG founder’s alleged donations to anti-gay groups alligning with West, that seems like a PR nightmare. Do they really want one of their headliners streaming internationally from their stage, red MAGA hat on head, spouting who knows what nonsense? Is there really no such thing as bad press? Time will tell.
The one name on the Coachella headline list that really makes no sense is Justin Timberlake. By any stretch of the imagination, Timberlake had a bad album cycle for this year’s Man Of The Woods. The album failed to launch any hits, saw him as the target for numerous critical pannings, and ultimately resulted in a year of touring that felt like it was occurring far out of the public eye. Coachella is usually a place for artists at their peak, not someone who’s just taken their lumps for a calendar year.
Coupled with the fact that this prospective Coachella headliner list is all men, and two of them have been involved in some sort of controversy that makes them agitators to much of the woke media, it’s safe to wonder what Coachella would have to gain by booking Timberlake? Unless he has a release that he’s planning to time with the Coachella appearance, a la Kendrick Lamar and The Weeknd have the last two years, this seems like a bizarre move for 2019 festivals that won’t help get people excited.
Yeah, here we are at the fifth item on the list and we’re only first mentioning rock. In case you didn’t notice, rock has become more and more scarce at music fests, and the rock that does get booked fails to draw the huge crowds that hip-hop, pop, and dance tend to attract. But all hope is not lost. Music festivals in 2019 will likely just reevaluate how they approach rock music.
Imagine Dragons (who are a lot better than given credit for), Twenty One Pilots, The 1975, and even old guard band Weezer all have been booming in popularity and reach thanks to hit songs and albums. But for the biggest music fests, some of these like ID and 21P haven’t been seen as viable headliners because of their lack of critical cachet or indie coolness.
Others, like The 1975, should step into more prominant roles despite their lack of mainstream hits. And a band like Weezer, who along with The 1975 are all but confirmed for Chella sets, full of songs that people know and fresh on the brains with their massive cover of Toto’s “Africa,” provide the perfect festival entertainment for music fans with ominverous tastes. It’s time to cater to what young people actually listen to and that doesn’t mean removing rock, it just means redefining it.
The Big Names Still To Come
Of course, we still don’t have a firm grasp on what will be happening in music in six months when festival season kicks back into gear, but there are plenty of options to speculate about. Rihanna could have a new album out next year, and whoever forks up enough cash to make her the festival headliner she deserves to be should be seen as a hero for the industry. Solange is expected to have a new album out this year, and anyone that saw her festival sets for A Seat At The Table knows what a special performer she is. Paul McCartney will again be on the road next year, and though he has already headlined a lot of the biggest festivals in the US, it would be surprising if he didn’t add at least a couple to his docket. And artists like Vampire Weekend, Grimes, and Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad, And The Queen are all expected to be offering up new music in the near future, and should be expected to play some festival dates.
The Biggest Albums Of 2018
Music festivals these days are often about showcasing the big albums from the past year as much as they are about capturing the zeitgeist. It’s with that in mind that Kacey Musgraves seems like she’d be an ideal booking that checks off a lot of boxes, but mostly because she’s absolutely wonderful. Surely putting out one of the most critically adored albums of the year all but guarantees her some festival appearances. The same should be said about Janelle Monae, who has already started her festival runs (she was at ACL) and has quickly become one of the most talked about live performers on earth. Who else fits into this category? -Deep breath- Pusha T, Noname, Mitski, Beach House, Let’s Eat Grandma, Sheck Wes, Playboi Carti, Lil Skies, Sophie, Tierra Whack, Cat Power, Troye Sivan, Foxing, Wild Pink, Snail Mail, Soccer Mommy, Saba, Amen Dunes, and even Eric Church all seem like big candidates to becomes music festival road warriors. And some who have already been playing a lot of festivals, your Travis Scotts and Cardi Bs and Post Malones and Migos’ of the world, will likely continue doing what they do well.
That’s all to say that music festivals should again be at an interesting place come next year. This all leaves room for hopes. Personally, Drake and Taylor Swift feel like the contemporary holy grails to me (Beyonce doesn’t need to play a fest for a few years after owning this year at Coachella). Harry Styles also feels like a smart choice for more forward-thinking fests. And if someone can get Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to do some A Star Is Born-dueting on a festival stage, holy cow, that would probably win the year. But in a time where numerous events recently called it a day or canceled in some sense — Sasquatch, FYF, Warped Tour — and others like Bonnaroo are rumored to be in financial peril, big swings might be necessary to stand out from the crowd. Unless you are Coachella or ACL or Lollapalooza, playing it safe might no longer be the way toward long-term survival. So step into the deep end, festivals of the world. We’re far from the shallow now.