OPINION: SZA, Glastonbury headliners and industry dysfunction

I’ve long thought that Glastonbury just can’t win. 

Maybe it’s a symptom of social media, but everyone has an opinion on what they’re doing wrong, and how they can do it better. Presumably, these people have absolutely no experience in booking anything more elaborate than a karaoke machine for a birthday party, because the tone deaf cries of “Why didn’t they just book Taylor Swift/Green Day/Foo Fighters/whoever the fuck else” completely disregards the reality of whether said artist is even available, wants to do it or is signed to other contracts that prevent them from performing (“UK Festival Exclusive” and the like). 

It’s important to note, too, that the assumption that Glastonbury can just book whoever they want, whenever they want is a fallacy. The truth is, Glastonbury pays much lower than other festivals. The only real reason to is for the exposure. Which I’m sure some artists regret given the technical gremlins that plagued the main stage this year. 

Fleetwood Mac have never played Glasto, and it’s not for lack of trying. They just didn’t need it, so they wouldn’t go under their fee. Ditto The Eagles – I would assume the famously prickly Don Henley wouldn’t take a penny under the asking price. Bagging Bruce Springsteen for his first ever festival appearance was a coup in 2009, but they had to send him a dossier about their charity work to achieve it. Plus, why would Americans care about the British prestige of Glastonbury?

On paper, Sunday afternoon on the Pyramid Stage this year made enough sense. Janelle Monae (my Q.U.E.E.N.) is one of the GOATS of her generation, an absolute powerhouse performer who, in previous years, has packed out the smaller stages. Its not hard to understand why they promoted her to the Pyramid after barnstorming and much talked about performances in 2011 and 2019 – the former single handedly increased the sales of her debut album The ArchAndroid by nearly 5,000%. 

The other two artists on the bill go even further; Burna Boy headlined London Stadium to 80,000 people the night before, and closer SZA arguably has had an even more impressive 12 months in the capital. 

Last summer, she toured sold out arenas in the UK, including a whopping FOUR nights at London’s O2 Arena. Thats around 80,000 people in one city. The night before Glastonbury, she too was playing an open air show with 50,000 people in Hyde Park. If you’re keep tabs, that’s 130,000 people buying SZA tickets in one UK city over 12 months, in addition to further shows in the largest venues in the country. 

Furthermore, these three artists work together. There’s some synergy there. 

And yet following Shania Twain‘s legend slot, Sunday saw record low numbers at the Pyramid Stage. Which should raise an eyebrow or two, because LCD Soundsystem were great playing second fiddle to Dua Lipa on Friday, but when was the last time they headlined in front of as many people as SZA and Burna Boy did in London? 

It wasn’t just the Pyramid Stage either. From what I could gather, Avril Lavigne was the only person to truly pack ’em in. I caught the end of Alvvays at Woodsies and from the iPlayer, it was dead. Not just dead, but “first band on a local bill playing to their mates and the other bands”-level dead (and we all know what that looks like). 

There is a lot to unpack here. Social media is awash with theories, though; People often leave early on a Sunday. Janelle Monae clashed with Avril Lavigne. It ALL clashed with the football (as everyone knows, football trumps everything in Britain – even when people have paid £300 to attend a music and arts festival, they would rather sit in a tent watching a shit game of football either on their phones or on a standard TV screen with one of the One Directions who isn’t Harry Styles as part of a presumed publicity stunt). Some have pointed out that SZA’s audience is younger than that of the average Glastonbury attendee. 

In truth, it’s probably a mixture of all of that.

But the real problem has to be the almighty algorithm. If SZA can play to 130,000 people over 12 months in London, but barely attract an audience that stretches beyond the sound desk at Glastonbury, then surely there’s something peculiar going on. 

The regular complaint was that people simply hadn’t heard of her – which, honestly, says more about the proverbial you than it does about her. But if people genuinely haven’t heard of an artist that popular, what does that say about the fragmented state of artist development in the 2020s? Could you imagine someone being big enough to sell out four nights at the O2 ten years ago that so many people attending Glastonbury hadn’t even heard of? 

Given her popularity, it wasn’t completely leftfield to book SZA, and it appears as though Emily Eavis was listening last year’s annual Glasto moan. 

Do you remember the Big Complaint of 2023? You must have seen it, it was everywhere. You were probably one of the people saying it. 

When the 2023 headliners were announced as Arctic Monkeys, Guns N Roses and Elton John there was murder. “WHY IS IT ALL WHITE MEN WITH GUITARS?” (or a piano, in Elton’s case). Eavis was fielding questions left, right and centre about how awful this was. Surely, Lizzo – playing underneath GNR, who were a last minute replacement for someone else – could have filled that spot? 

As I recall, people howled in despair about how Glastonbury sells out anyway, so they should be taking greater risks and promoting people to the top of the bill instead of relying on old warhorses. 

If media reports are to be believed, the initial plan for 2024 was to have Madonna close out her Celebration Tour on the Pyramid Stage, but fell through due to production costs (as I said, Glastonbury pay the least). So they did exactly what everyone said they should do last year – they took a chance and promoted SZA to the top. 

But the thing with risks is that they are…well, risky. They don’t always work out. So, now we’re in a position where Glastonbury is being criticised for actually doing the thing that everyone criticised them for not doing last year. 

Had the order of headliners been different (SZA on Friday, Dua Lipa on Saturday and Coldplay on Sunday), it may have worked out better. And not just for the headliners, surely the kind of people who are weirdly desperate to see Chris Martin dad dance would have camped out at the main stage following Shania. Friday is the prime day to experiment with headliners. But, of course, if they were banking on Madonna, then Dua Lipa would have been the experiment. Just because a different order would have been preferable doesn’t mean it was possible. All of these artists are in the middle of massive worldwide tours and are on a tight schedule. Its not as easy as just changing everything on a whim. When programming a festival, you’re at the mercy of everyone else’s availability. 

I can’t help but think this might be a sign of things to come. Glastonbury literally did the thing that everyone said they should do, the thing that was supposed to ensure that they keep producing major headliners, and it fell flat. Despite the fact that they booked actual Stadium fillers. 

So…now what? Because eventually the monoculture headliners will run out and the joke about Coldplay headlining every year will come true. After that, they’ll be replaced by Coldplay holograms. The algorithm is going to ensure that Coldplay fans will only hear other music that sound like Coldplay – and they’re the ones who can afford to go to Glastonbury, not the young ‘uns whose algorithm is going to show them other artists who sound like Burna Boy. 

The irony of all this is that when I was growing up, I was told Glastonbury was a wonderful, inclusive place where all kinds of music and culture was represented. But I never saw that on the main stages. All I saw on TV in the 2000s was bland landfill indie. I’ll give it to Emily Eavis, she has dragged the festival’s main stages into the 21st century and Glastonbury now looks on paper like the thing that everyone used to tell me it was. I like that they took a chance, I like that they tried with SZA instead of fucking Kasabian (Christ, that would have been unbearable after the football). 

But It feels like the big festivals have been one of the few things that the changes in the music industry have improved. For better or for worse, the festival circuit can be lucrative, and artists are primed to take advantage of it. Big stars like Michael Jackson and Prince wouldn’t have played Glastonbury in the 90s, but its nothing to think of Beyonce or Taylor Swift rocking up now. 

Maybe the industry disjunction is finally hitting. 

  1. Obviously given your stats on her recent ticket sales she is not unknown, but at the same time everyone I spoke to at Glastonbury had no clue about who SZA was, and so to my mind that probably means you’re a misfit for the headline spot – I’m not saying she did not warrant a slot somewhere, but for the headline you would expect a broader appeal. On another note, in terms of trends, it is very noticeable that Glasto (and other big festivals) have all moved towards an EDM vibe, and rock/indie/guitars and even singing is getting sidelined. These changes happen and they do not suit me, but change is change and hopefully does reflect what a lot of others like/need. I only hope there remains room for more that EDM even if I’m pushed to the edges.

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God is in the TV is an online music and culture fanzine founded in Cardiff by the editor Bill Cummings in 2003. GIITTV Bill has developed the site with the aid of a team of sub-editors and writers from across Britain, covering a wide range of music from unsigned and independent artists to major releases.