Back to the Future: Are Music Festivals Over-Reliant on Nostalgia Acts?

Littered with washed-up dad rockers and contentious 90s frontmen-gone-rogue, the festival bills of the present seem to reflect little of 2021’s diverse musical mise en scène. On top of the scarcity of female acts, headliners dusted off from yesteryear call into conversation festival organisers’ attempts to cling onto the nostalgia-factor. The Mic’s Gemma Cockrell asks why.

It is evident that modern music festivals are reliant on nostalgia in order to attract fans. Looking at the recent headliners for festivals such as Reading & Leeds and Glastonbury, it’s difficult not to notice their similarity to line-ups from over a decade ago.

The most notable example in 2021 is the appearance of Liam Gallagher as a headliner on what feels like nearly every festival line-up for this summer. This may be a slight exaggeration, but he is headlining three in the UK: Reading & Leeds, TRNSMT, and Isle of Wight Festival. Liam is still recording and releasing original music to this day, and some people will be attending these festivals to hear him play his solo work. However, it seems likely that many more casual fans would be equally, if not more, excited to hear him perform the Oasis classics, albeit without his brother Noel by his side.

It takes one look at the current album charts to notice how popular bands from decades past remain in today’s musical climate.

This desire for nostalgia explains why tribute act festivals such as Glastonbudget, Tribfest and The Big Fake Festival have seen an increase in ticket sales. There are now over thirty outdoor music festivals in the UK showcasing such acts, including Coldplace, Oasish, Antarctic Monkeys, Guns2Roses and Stereotonics to name a few. Broadcaster and music journalist Paul Morley says what you’re getting is “a cheap thrill” and an “Aldi cut-price version of the real thing,” proving that people are so desperate for that rush of nostalgia that tribute acts are used to momentarily fulfil this desire.

It’s not just music festivals that are reliant on this kind of nostalgia, as it can also be seen elsewhere within the industry. Take modern artists such as Dua Lipa and The Weeknd, who have dominated the music charts in recent years with nostalgia-fuelled eighties inspired albums (Dua Lipa’s album Future Nostalgia even refers to nostalgia in the title). This proves that music lovers crave nostalgia in all forms – whether it is hearing their favourite band from a decade ago headline a festival, or hearing a new artist replicate certain elements of sounds of decades past.

Furthermore, it takes one look at the current album charts to notice how popular bands from decades past remain in today’s musical climate. Fleetwood Mac’s 50 Years – Don’t Stop sits at number nine at the time of writing, after 127 weeks on the chart, whilst Queen’s Greatest Hits album is at number twelve after a whopping 942 weeks. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours and Time Flies – 1994- 2009 by nineties rockers Oasis are also both in the top twenty. This confirms the fact that the appeal of nostalgia is not limited to festivals; it also dominates and controls the album charts and assists sales in all aspects of the music industry.

However, even though no one can blame festivals for booking artists that people clearly want to see, it seems a shame that it is so difficult for new and upcoming artists to rise to the higher tiers of festival line-ups. In 2013, Richard Ashcroft of The Verve told BBC 6 Music that he’d like to see more opportunities given to newer bands because “we need the youth to create their own version of what potentially may become nostalgic.” He said that festivals are “dominated by these big dinosaur acts mopping up all the money” and admitted he found nostalgia “suffocating.”

“Serving as a comfort blanket, these kind of nostalgic acts are a safe option for organisers to book.”

This widespread obsession with nostalgia has undeniably created a stagnation within the music industry. Rather than looking into the future of new and creative experimentations, society has grown secure within the comfort of reflecting to the past. Many modern artists are pushing the boundaries of music and creating refreshing and experimental sounds, but often they exist in the underground scene because they simply aren’t being given slots high up on festival bills, and many aren’t even receiving mainstream radio play.

Festival organisers would quite frankly be stupid to ignore these trends within the music industry. They are very aware that if they book headlining bands which capture the nostalgic spirit which everyone craves, then people will buy tickets and attend their festival. Serving as a comfort blanket, these kind of nostalgic acts are a safe option for organisers to book due to the knowledge that their performances will never disappoint due to their many years of experience. So, it is true that music festivals are over-reliant on nostalgic acts, but when these are the bands and artists that sell the most tickets, it seems impossible to blame them.

Written by: Gemma Cockrell

Edited by: Olivia Stock

Featured image courtesy of Annie Spratt via Unsplash. In-article image courtesy of Glastonbury Festivals via Facebook.