Does Splendour in the Grass have an Outkast problem?
"Getting the band back together" stories are great fun.
Media bozos get to churn the content farm for a month of "will they/won't they" traffic-speculation. Sites collect listicles and videos of "that song" that bands of such stature always have at least a couple of. Meanwhile, the act in question gets to exhume the dormant goodwill of a fanbase who still subscribe to their myth, while hopefully titillating a new wave of untapped consumers who never got to see them live, man. The artist's brand-awareness gets a jolt and so too, logic goes, a boost in units shifted, ticket sales, and performance fees.
Oh yeah: the festival that lands this act for their event gets to hitch a ride on the band's wagon, harnessing the "OMG I HAVE TO BE THERE" thinking from acolytes who, in their giddy head-rush, can't click the 'Buy Now' button fast enough. That's the way it's worked for a long time. We've been cool with it. But as shown in recent years — most obviously with the Big Day Out — that might not be the way it works for much longer.
After weeks of speculation, Outkast were officially announced today for Splendour in the Grass. THIS IS GREAT. OUTKAST WERE/ARE GREAT. THUS, SEEING THEM LIVE WOULD BE GREAT. Recent consensus about the US hip-hop duo returning to the live arena has been pretty universal. (Even if it is inflated by the not unreasonable thought of just wanting to see 'Hey Ya!' live, at least once in your life.) It's these gut instincts that fanned fumes surrounding Andre 3000 and Big Boi's reconnection; back when sites frothed at twitter rumours; before lush, 7,500 word features closed mistily with "we remember them the way we remember those who died at their peak: permanently immortal, practically perfect"; before their actual reunification announcement, when BuzzFeed ran with the in-no-way-hyperbolic headline: Miracles Do Come True. I mean, what kind of real music fan wouldn't buy a ticket to a miracle?
Are Outkast actually any good?
After a "decade-long" absence from the live arena, expectations ran unfairly high for the return of Outkast at the recent Coachella festival. Even so, their reappearance was problematic for many.
The Guardian called their set "a crushing disappointment". NPR wrote "I think we all feel like this is goodbye". New York Times labelled it "uneasy". Radio.com said the show was good for "diehard" fans, but "the sense that the crowd wasn’t fully into all of it was not lost on the band, with Andre repeatedly asking the audience if they were tired or questioning if the crowd was even alive."
To their credit, Outkast evidently heard the haters and reinvented their set for the festival's second weekend. Billboard even said they "redeemed" themselves:
The beloved hip-hop duo, whose 20th-anniversary reunion tour launched at Coachella last week with a debut set that garnered almost universally negative reviews, clearly paid attention and responded, with an immensely tweaked, far superior set to end the first day of the festival's second weekend.
The setlist was completely reinvented, with a mid-set solo segment from each rapper reduced by half and a complete swap out of some songs and reorganization of the order of others. That meant that there was no extended guest spot from the rapper Future, no dead-last “Hey Ya” to feel like an afterthought (instead, it was played mid-set – and reinvigorated the audience), and no violation of curfew, as there'd been the week before. Instead, the set actually ran short – a much smarter move that made the whole thing feel tight, taught, and ready for action.
Outkast made great music, thus they are great live, goes the thinking. If their second Coachella outing is any indication, this might still be the case. But Grantland ran with a passage that would chill Splendour's accountant:
Despite their headlining a huge percentage of the world’s major music festivals this summer, it’s clear after Coachella that the likelihood of Outkast being the main draw for an entire festival crowd is small. Instead of people coming to a three-day festival for Outkast, their reunion becomes something everyone can casually walk over and see, another item on the checklist of all the other things they’re doing that weekend.
Landing Outkast for an exclusive festival slot in Australia would not be cheap. And in the wake of Coachella, what might have sounded like a sure thing a few months ago — a widely-loved act that's never performed in Australia playing an exclusive festival slot — suddenly sounds a little like damaged goods.
But even if they were great on that first weekend, landing such a grand headliner begs a second question:
And who else?
Unsurprisingly, Outkast are the biggest name on the Splendour bill, at least in terms of critical and — for a certain generation — cultural awareness. What is interesting is the stock of the other "big" name bands around them, many of them at least two of the below three options:
- Recent visitors.
- Legacy acts on a new album cycle.
Two Door Cinema Club, London Grammar and Foster the People have all played Australian festivals in the last two years. Interpol and Lily Allen are on their second career-arc of yet-to-be-determined length, both toting unproven new albums. (Today Lily Allen remarked to 2Day FM, "I'm not really the headliner, right?" She's headlining the closing night, as FasterLouder points out. And if Interpol's turnout at Falls in 2010 was any indication, the NYC-veterans are no longer trusted headline material.) Deeper down the list there's excellent but lower-tier names like Darkside, Future Islands, Tune-Yards, Danny Brown and Grouplove: great acts but not ones you buy an expensive ticket for. Then there's the Australians…
The Australian contingent may well be the overall strongest drawcard at this year's Splendour. Vance Joy, Angus & Julia Stone, 360 and RÜFÜS should all reasonably pull as many people to their allotted tent as anyone else. Throw in a solid second round of, say, The Preatures, Art vs Science, The Jezabels, Illy, and Violent Soho, along with after-hours noise from Nina Las Vegas, Yacht Club DJs and Touch Sensitive, and that looks like an unassailable, major-market, triple j AND commercial radio-friendly, touring Australian festival lineup. Less buzzy, yes. But a much, much cheaper one to book.
I contributed a little to this October 2013 Fairfax feature about the state of Australian music festivals. Back then I had a sprawling (and unpublished) chat with an industry insider about the current culture of booking Australian festivals, and why the chase for huge headliners (as is now attached to any Big Day Out conversation) is killing them. Here's a small part of that conversation:
The thing that's been happening in the last few years is that bands have figured out this inevitable thing of new records not being big, and so they disappear for two or three years. What happens is bands go on this cycle where they play a lot, 18 months or so, and then they disappear for three years.
And what happens in that three years is all the festivals ask them to play. So the festivals put in an offer. The band's already decided not to play but the agent doesn't tell you that, they say 'How much will you offer?' Then the agent thinks about it for a month, then they come back and say 'The band still doesn't want to play even though I tried really hard to convince them.'
Then that same festival, 12 months later, they offer that same band more money, even though they're worth less because they haven't put out a record and they haven't done anything. They offer more money because they know that offer the year before didn't get the band. So then at the very point the band is worth less money, the festival offers more.
Then the festival does the same dance with the agent, and they don't get the band. Twelve months later what happens? The festival offers more, even though they're even less famous and it's longer since their hit.
That's why [festivals] are paying too much for bands. There hasn't been enough [new] talent and they've already overpaid all the not-enough-talent to play because they've been desperate, building their whole show on booking those [big] bands.
Splendour in the Grass maintains a crucial spot in the delicate Australian festival ecosystem. It enjoys a rusted-on fanbase that loves a reason to go to Byron in winter. They've downsized since their Coldplay + Kanye experiment, they've learnt from last year's site issues, and are excited about having a dedicated home. Fans need Splendour to succeed, to back them in order to continue to bring out headliners like Outkast for us music lovers to go enjoy. From a fan's perspective, Splendour deserves to sell out. It probably will.
But in today's climate the stakes are higher. Big names aren't the solution they once were. (And in the wake of Outkast's wobbly return, along with how their presence must inevitably affect the lineup around them, never a sure thing.) In 2014, even the most robust Australian promoter must lie awake at night wondering when they might have unwittingly snagged their own "white whale".
Splendour in the Grass 2014 takes place at the North Byron Parklands July 25 - 27. Tickets go on sale Friday 2nd May. See our review of last year's festival here: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3.