Time for Slane to ditch the ‘safe bet’ headliners


THERE’S a real whiff of the underwhelming around this weekend’s Slane Castle concert with all indications pointing towards a stack of Foo Fighters tickets that just don’t seem to be shifting.

Promoters MCD have given this one an almighty push, but the hard sell just doesn’t seem to be working. People just don’t seem excited about the thought of watching Dave Grohl howl his way through a set of trudging rock songs in a big field in Meath.

Foo Fighters were supposed to have been the safe bet. They’ve played all the big festivals, sold millions of albums, and everyone seems to love Dave Grohl. I’d be surprised if MCD had banked on erecting so many billboards, decking out backs of buses, and ploughing cash into radio ads, online ads, and huge adverts in newspapers (as well as doing countless competitions through various media outlets) to fill that big amphitheatre. Slane 2015 just isn’t electrifying Irish music fans in the way that the promoters thought it might.

Who could blame those punters? As the tens of thousands who clogged up Joe Duffy’s phone lines after Oasis’ gig in 2009 know, getting to and from a gig in Slane can be a slog. It’s also one that will cost you anywhere between €150-€200 when ticket prices, fun taxes, bus tickets, taxis, food and booze are all added up. That’s a lot to fork out for a dull-as-dishwater line-up and a headliner that has played at least six huge shows on this island in the last 15 years.

This year’s Slane line-up – like the majority of Slane gigs over the past 20 years – is uninspiring, safe and poised to be another yawn-fest. Promoters keep going back to the old, stale booking algorithm that is based around record sales and previous ticket-selling status, rather than taking a punt and trying to resurrect Slane’s rite-of-passage like status in the public psyche with something that might excite. People listen to music differently now, have a much more diverse range of acts they listen to, and are more open to checking out bands live without necessarily paying hard cash for their record.

The old ‘no-risk’ model has meant the same old headliners are trotted out and there’s little new blood given the opportunity to push through. It’s not that the new blood isn’t there. Any combination of an Ed Sheeran, Sam Smith or Paolo Nutini would fill Slane, while bands like Vampire Weekend, with the right bill and pricing behind them, could probably cut it given the surge in radio play and media attention that the booking would bring.

It is understandable why your average festival opts to play it safe. With so many options out there for punters, it takes a huge effort to attract a slice of the audience. Slane, however, has the benefit of a rose-tinted history. It can bank on the media largely buying in to the mythology, as well as a portion of ‘bucket list’ young punters who just want to be there at least once. A sizeable portion of Saturday’s audience will be holed up in Lord Henry’s backyard because it’s ‘Slane’ and not through any desire to hear ‘Everlong’ again. Banking on those young punters and giving them a relatively exciting, contemporary bill would inject some excitement back into the diminishing Slane brand. As we’ve seen with Ed Sheeran, there are enough people willing to stump up to see those acts.

The same ‘safe’ accusation can be levelled at Glastonbury, Slane’s across-the-water counterpart in terms of the prestige in which it is held by the public. The Vaccines’ lead singer Justin Young this week got it right when he criticised The Who as a “safe booking” by Glastonbury’s organisers. He was also right when he said that the slot should have been given to Florence & The Machine, who wouldn’t have been a risky proposition at all.

Her third record will be one of the summer’s biggest sellers and she’s headlined festivals around the world, but Glastonbury wasn’t even prepared to take that chance. They could have made a statement with such a booking, but instead they asked Roger and Pete to point their private jet for Somerset, despite that fact that The Who had a date-conflicting booking in Paris.

For a festival that sells out months before even announcing its line up, you would have expected organisers to be less risk averse. One of those big slots could have been given to the likes of Foals, Disclosure, Alt-J, Rudimental or Jamie T.

In years previous, the festival took a gamble – and the larger industry won. Acts such as Pulp, Oasis and Coldplay got their first real lift-off to bigger things at Glastonbury. Coldplay in particular, were a huge gamble back in 2002. They were booked to headline two months before the release of their second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, on the belief that that album would confirm a status hinted at by the success of early single, ‘Yellow’. It did.

Glastonbury’s defenders will point to Jay-Z, Metallica and Kanye West as examples of recent ‘risky’ bookings, but there’s no truth in that. All three acts are household names worldwide and any risk taken is only in angering a loud minority of conservative British music fans. If anything, both Kanye and Jay-Z should have topped the bill years ago.

Slane has bigger problems than its English counterpart. The rot set-in up in Co Meath around Bryan Adams’ 2000 headliner and has continued with Stereophonics (2002), Madonna (2004), Kings of Leon (2011), Oasis (2009) and Bon Jovi (2013). That’s a run of acts that have rocked up the N2 long past their sell-by date.

Now’s the time for Lord Henry and the promoters to show some belief in an emerging act, take a punt, and put some excitement back into Slane Castle’s dwindling status as a prestige location for music events.

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