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Note to Harvey Goldsmith: it’s your music that’s dead, not festivals

Alive and kicking. Ben Birchall/PA Archive

Music festivals are about to die, according to leading rock promoter and manager Harvey Goldsmith.

Speaking recently at the Hay Literary festival, he declared that it would be gatherings such as Hay, where a diverse range of interests are represented, which would come to replace live music festivals. Goldsmith thinks that there aren’t any new bands surfacing to fill the stages of the UK’s 900+ festivals. But what he fails to acknowledge is that there are plenty of other musical acts to replace them – perhaps more than ever.

Goldsmith is living in the past – the rock music past in which he carved himself a considerable name and fortune. His most notable achievement was the staging of Live Aid and he has long been in the business of “stadium” shows, one-off events featuring very big names. It is perhaps unsurprising that a man who has produced the Who, Queen and The Rolling Stones thinks that the festival is dying – it is true is that there are now fewer obvious “headline” acts for rock festivals than in days gone by.

To take the Glastonbury Festival as an example, the last genuinely “new” rock act to appear as headliners were Arctic Monkeys in 2007, who had broken through late in 2005 and were the dominant UK act of the following year. But this last breakthrough act was symptomatic of the turning point in the music scene.

Social monkeys

The Arctic Monkeys were a media story waiting to happen. The band emerged in exactly the period that saw the overlap between the decline of MySpace and the rise of Facebook and YouTube – in the moment when the true impact of social media became evident.

It was the contrived story about them being the first band to “make it” through the internet that gave them the media prominence that helped their first album become the fastest-selling debut in UK chart history. The point here is that this can only happen once. The future of the recording industry was already being shaped by the combination of iTunes and the iPod.

If 2007 was the year of the Arctic Monkeys it was also the year that downloads from the iTunes store started amping up. The iPod had been launched in 2001 with the slogan “a thousand songs in your pocket”: the emphasis on songs not albums. This change in emphasis is what saved the major record companies from the negative impact of file-sharing – but also what damaged it mortally.

Until the late 1990s, the recording industry was the dominant industry of music and it enjoyed its ascendancy because the key purchase made by pop music fans was the album – notably the rock album. The rock album had been born with Rubber Soul by the Beatles – their first, non-film score, album to contain all their own songs, songs that bore the introspective imprint of Bob Dylan.

The album had low production costs and enormous sales, making it – and the format it so greatly encouraged – a true money spinner. It was this money-spinning industry that then helped to replace the ailing live performance, “variety” industry with the “live music industry” that Harvey Goldsmith entered in the early 1970s.

Festivals will see many more sunrises. bencremin/flickr, CC BY

Fashioning stars

As Joni Mitchell put it in her 1974 song Free Man in Paris, the recording industry was, by that time, a “star-making machinery”. But now this “machinery” has become generalised. Today, as old communities disintegrate and the world is increasingly globalised, individuals find their role models in celebrities – and celebrities can be sports stars or chat-show hosts or chefs or even those who are famous for being famous, as well as pop stars and film stars.

Meanwhile, music users no longer have the patience to wait for rock bands to spend a few years making an album, particularly when it is individual tracks that are prized over exactly the album format through which rock stars came to be stars.

But although the days of the primacy of the rock star may be over, the live music event is far from dead, far from buckling to competition with sporting events or comedy shows, as Goldsmith seems to imply. There are plenty of live music events that function and are growing: those that involve dance music.

What the Americans call “Electronic Dance Music” (EDM) is what the British have long understood as club culture. Dance music is the quintessential music for the internet age: it is track-based, it is perfectly comfortable in a brand-driven, celebrity–obsessed culture and it draws people in their hundreds of thousands to live music events.

This summer, while the Who headline Glastonbury, David Guetta will headline T in the Park. The Who’s set-list will not have changed for decades, Guetta’s is likely to change every night. There is no contest. Harvey Goldsmith’s business model is what is past its peak – not live music events.

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