As The Well of Headliners Dries, Coachella Lineups Get Weirder

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There was a time when you could discuss Coachella headliners the same way you’d talk about fantasy sports: debate who would be big enough to warrant the big font top billing, what reunions would be possible that year and who was a big enough star to create enough buzz. There was also a definite Coachella type; an artist that fit a mold, even if that mold was vaguely defined and changing every year. In 2016, we have seen that they are down to the last few bullets in the chamber. After shelling out a premium for the LCD Soundsystem reunion, there are barely any headliners left that would move the needle and continue to distinguish Coachella as not just a music festival, but the festival, the one event that shapes the landscape of the music industry for the year.

From here on out, it’s pretty much Daft Punk or bust. Because Coachella demands three headliners every year, we’ve begun to see the effects of the thinning heard for years now; last year’s AC/DC booking was evidence that they had to start reaching into broader genres and yesteryear to pull out someone 1) with prestige and recognition and 2) that they hadn’t done before. This year’s Guns N’ Roses reunion is more of that. This is not to say that they are not big names worthy of this big audience. To be sure, GNR is one of the most important bands of the late 80s and early 90s, one of the last times a straight rock & roll band could make a big splash like that. But they broaden the scope of Coachella to the point of diluting any cultural focus that it may have had at one point. A festival about everything becomes a festival about nothing.

This same dilemma has hit alternative rock radio for years. The rise of indie was weird for a station like 106.7 KROQ in Los Angeles, one of the vanguards of “alternative,” a purposeful counter-point to pop music and your dad’s rock & roll records. Suddenly there were The Shins and Arcade Fire and ever more obscure bands with ideas and sounds that were counter to the Offspring-and-Sublime diet they had built the alternative empire on. Their decision was to broaden the scope of alternative, so that the once clearly-defined alternative would jarringly shuffle the Violent Femmes with Owl City, POD with Mumford and Sons, Linkin Park with Daft Punk and Dynamite Hack with MGMT. At least Top 40 radio had a criteria: it had to be the most popular or easily likable songs. This route for the changing face of counter-culture just shoveled wildly different new stuff on top of their canon of Lit and Chevelle songs that they think people still like in order to not die out.

The result: wild success and new highs in business. So let’s be clear: I’m just a whiner with a keyboard and Goldenvoice, with the most successful music event business in the world, would not do well to listen to me. They are surely going to reach record highs and continue to be a titan of industry for the next decade plus. They are making smart booking decisions if your only criteria is making the most money and attracting the biggest possible audience to a sun-scorched field in desolate inland California. The cost of such success is relatively minor and unimportant, then: the loss of a clear idea of what this festival is supposed to represent. We live in an age where you might be sitting through Savages to get to Lord Huron to get to Rae Sremmurd to get through fucking Sufjan Stevens to get to LCD Soundsystem. It’s a bizarro world that tries to satisfy everyone. It is only a matter of time until the inevitable Taylor Swift headline, or perhaps U2, or maybe we’ll just get an N Sync reunion and call it a day. Anything is possible and, yet, that somehow seems less exciting.

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