Where have all the headliners gone?

Rock is dead. But then people were saying that 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 even. Hell, people have been saying it since Elvis got drafted, and yet it keeps going. People point to the lack of exposure on mainstream television and radio, but that’s not really how music works anymore, nor are record sales the indicator they used to be because hardly anyone buys records nowadays. The merch stand is more important than the album chart. So what do we have to go on then? YouTube hits, Spotify listens and live ticket sales. And it’s in the live arena that rock and metal bands should excel, part of the thrill of a good rock band is the visceral pleasure of the live show. It’s their bread and butter. Behemoths Like Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith were critically panned but made their names touring and playing live and once again this seems to be the route to success for modern bands. Last year I went to see Alter Bridge at the O2 and I’ll admit up until that point they’d pretty much passed me by (I was offered free tickets and Volbeat were supporting so I snapped them up). When I spoke to my friends who like heavier music many of them seemed to be in the same boat. Most of them had heard of the band but not actually heard anything by them. And yet here they were headlining a 25,000 capacity venue, the largest indoor arena in the U.K. What this proves is that me and my friends are all hopelessly out of touch but also that with hard work and persistence the avenues to success are still open for a rock bands.

It seems strange then that in pretty much every interview  with every ageing rocker they are asked whether they can see any festival headliners coming from the current crop of rock and metal bands. The answer is invariably the same: no, no they can’t. Now far be it from me to suggest that Gene Simmons or Joey Kramer perhaps don’t have their finger on the pulse of the current rock scene (and why should they? They’re pensioners for Christ’s sake) but I would take their answers with a pinch of salt. 

The worry is that once the current crop of mega-bands retires (and this year has already seen the last Sabbath tour and Aerosmith announcing they’re calling it a day too) that there won’t be anyone to fill the void. A common refrain is “where is the next Metallica?” A question that conveniently ignores the fact that Metallica are pretty much in a field of one in terms of out and out metal bands. Only Iron Maiden come close and even they looked dead and buried until Bruce Dickinson rejoined them. But, in truth, no other band before or after Metallica is in their league. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t other headline bands out there though. Linkin Park release a new album this year and filling the O2 or taking one of the top spots at Download would pose no problem for them. The aforementioned Alter Bridge are playing second fiddle to Aerosmith on the Sunday at Download this year, but next year a Friday night headline spot is surely up for grabs. Avenged Sevenfold are still going strong, Bring Me The Horizon headlined the O2 last year and System of a Down, Faith No More and Guns N Roses have all shown that a reunion of a much loved band still excites audiences.

Download itself has taken some stick this year for giving Biffy Clyro top billing this year but in truth the festival needs to try different acts to ensure the future of the event, and while Biffy Clyro may seem a little mainstream for many there’s no denying that they’re big enough to bring in the crowds. The question is Download brave enough to gamble on other bands to make the step up? Bands like Mastodon and Opeth for instance, who have successfully headlined smaller festivals and, in the case of Opeth, have sold out arenas, including Wembley.

So is everything rosy then? No, of course not. For the short term there are still enough of the old-school headliners to keep the big festivals going, and while there are other bands coming up that can fill the gaps the changing face of the music business and the way we consume music has made it harder than ever for bands to become huge. The rock and metal scenes are actually in robust health in terms of quality and diversity but we could perhaps do with a new ‘scene’ within the genre that spews forth a headliner for the future, the way Nu-metal gave us Linkin Park or Grunge did with Pearl Jam. They may not be your favourite band from those respective scenes but if we want our festivals to survive and give the less mainstream bands an opportunity to shine in front of huge audiences then we need the bands at the top of the bill. 

So where will the next generation of headliners come from? Who knows? While it seems strange in hindsight, no one was predicting Sabbath, Maiden or Metallica would be able to sell out stadiums when they first started out. The potential next big thing is out there, but they won’t get there without fan support, so get out there discover new music, go to gigs, make there t-shirts go platinum and then moan that they’re not as good as they used to be when they get to the top, because isn’t that the prerogative of the true music lover? Pink Pussycats from Hell? Yeah I knew them before they sold out, man…

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