Reading and Leeds is a festival in transition. For years now, it’s been unsure of whether to lean into its indie and rock roots, or continue turning itself into the soundtrack of A-Level results day, for which it has already garnered a reputation. This has resulted in quite a formulaic lineup being announced year after year, with one headliner being a classic rock band, one being whichever rapper just released a new album, and then a traditional indie act. Finally, we’ll see a pop artist to round it off. But this year things are different. Or are they?
This will be the first year the festival has 6 headliners with 2 separate main stages, with the organisers promising that there will be no clashes between the two main stages (an East venue and a West venue), and that all of these headliners will be “first-time headliners” (but we’ll get to that). Yet again the festival has been bombarded with accusations of avoiding putting female artists in the headline slots, accusations that are well founded (you have to go through 9 lines of artists on the poster before seeing a single female) and this year it seems more unforgivable than usual with huge artists seemingly being ignored.
With Billie Eilish and Florence and the Machine both recently releasing new singles, most would assume that they are primed for a headline slot, and with Billie Eilish pulling in one of the largest crowds the festival has ever seen in her mid-afternoon slot in 2019 whilst still being a young artist and having a huge, diverse fanbase, it could’ve been an encouraging announcement for the festival’s future to have her headline.
But enough about who could’ve been in the top slots; let’s talk about who made the cut. The big six this year are Catfish and the Bottlemen, Disclosure, Liam Gallagher, Post Malone, Queens of the Stone Age and Stormzy. A solid lineup, if a little uninspiring. The festival’s claim that all six are “first time headliners” is stretching the truth a little, with Disclosure, Post Malone and Queens of the Stone Age all co-headlining within the last ten years and Liam Gallagher headlining with Oasis in 2000. Catfish and the Bottlemen and Disclosure perfectly exemplify the divide in the festival with Catfish being indie darlings with a devoted group of fans amongst the more traditional Reading crowd while Disclosure are one of the biggest electronic acts on the planet and will definitely sell tickets to the festival’s new cohort.
The classic rockers, Liam Gallagher and Queens of the Stone Age, both know how to get a festival crowd on their side and will no doubt deliver huge anthems to the main stage that’ll appeal to fans both young and old. But while both are tried and tested headliners that won’t disappoint, both were also formed in the 90’s. Maybe it’s time for new blood to step in or perhaps take a leaf from Glastonbury’s book with a dedicated “legends” slot for musicians of their stature.
This then leaves us with the young hip-hop stars taking the world by storm. Post Malone’s headline set last year drew a huge crowd and was a massive success with the younger attendees while Stormzy’s Glastonbury set was hailed as generation defining. Whether you like it or not, it seems as though hip-hop and grime are at Reading to stay and while the purists may not be on board, festivals need to adapt or die, just ask the ill-fated T in the Park.
Further down the bill is where the festival has hidden the female acts with 100 Gecs bringing their experimental brand of hyperpop to Reading and Leeds for the first time while viral stars Doja Cat and Beabadoobee are also amongst the big names further down the line-up. Irish indie rockers Two Door Cinema Club are making a welcome return to the main stage after a 4 year break and are a must-watch for those that have never caught them before.
Overall this first announcement is, well, just fine. It’s not awe-inspiring nor is it the wash-out that some seem to think it is. It seems the organisers have used the enforced break not to reinvent the wheel but rather to tweak what they already had, with two of the doomed 2020 event’s headliners returning for 2021. This is only the first announcement and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t still have a trick or two up their sleeves. Who knows – we might even get a few more female artists too.