Brit Beat: Reading & Leeds Festival Boss Talks Rage Against the Machine, Maneskin Dropouts

·10-min read

As the touring business continues its uneven return after nearly two years of lockdown, one major bright spot has been the famed U.K. festival sector, which came back with a bang this summer.

Reading & Leeds Festival, the traditional finale to the season, took place last weekend and was completely sold out well in advance, contributing to what Festival Republic managing director Melvin Benn calls his “best year ever.”

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Festival Republic staged events including Wireless, Latitude, Gunnersbury Park and huge outdoor shows from the likes of Liam Gallagher, Sam Fender and George Ezra. But Reading & Leeds remains the jewel in the crown with another hugely successful year, despite one headliner, Rage Against the Machine, pulling out 10 days before the event, due to frontman Zack de la Rocha’s leg injury.

“That was a really scary moment,” Benn tells Variety. “We did all we could to try and keep them on the show, but doctor’s orders are doctor’s orders. People have got to look after themselves and one has to understand that.”

The scramble to find a replacement saw Benn pay “a huge amount of money” to the 1975 to step in, joining other headliners including Arctic Monkeys, Halsey and Bring Me The Horizon. The switch caused some online backlash, but Benn says most ticket holders had no complaints.

“They are a proper headliner,” he says. “A few of the day ticket holders were unhappy because they specifically bought for Rage, but the weekend campers were very happy to have the 1975.”

Benn says it is unlikely that Rage will return to headline next year, as the timing doesn’t currently fit with the band’s 2023 touring schedule. Nor does it sound likely that Maneskin or Jack Harlow – both of whom dropped out at the last minute to perform at the MTV VMAs instead – will be treading the famous festival’s boards any time soon.

“That was hugely disappointing for us,” he says. “Reading and Leeds are the biggest and most important music festivals on the planet. If people choose not to play in front of the most important music fans in the world, that’s their loss.”

Benn says he already has three headliners booked for 2023, and that “At least one of them has a guitar!” That was once an essential, but the festival’s formerly rock-dominated music policy has been transformed in recent years, with this year’s headliners including Megan Thee Stallion and U.K. rapper Dave, while even Ed Sheeran made a guest appearance with Bring Me the Horizon.

Benn says the 2013 introduction of the BBC Radio 1Xtra Stage, showcasing rap, hip-hop and R&B acts, has helped other genres come through at the festival.

“At the time, Reading was perceived as an exclusively guitar-based event,” says Benn. “Many years later, acts that have come through hip-hop and grime culture are actually recognizing that Reading & Leeds is a key play for them. That’s a testament to how important that move was.”

Benn also hailed the work done by climate change pressure group Music Declares Emergency, which partnered with Reading & Leeds this year and campaigned on site all weekend. Many in the live music industry are worried about Britain’s raging energy crisis, which has seen unprecedented increases in electricity and gas bills, and the possible knock-on effect on ticket sales. But, despite the rising cost of living, Benn says he remains “very optimistic” about 2023’s festival season, and plans to stage additional outdoor shows next year to meet demand.

“Tickets are not cheap and costs have gone up left, right and center,” he says. “But maybe by then there will be a resolution in Ukraine and maybe that will reduce some of the energy prices. I always have to plan optimistically and I’m doing it very enthusiastically.”

+ It’s all change at the top of the U.K. music biz as the industry drifts back to work at the end of a long, hot summer, with a succession of trade-organization stalwarts announcing plans to move on.

Paul Pacifico, who has run the Association of Independent Music since 2016, will step down at the end of this year, while Paul Reed will depart as CEO of the Association of Independent Festivals in November. And, perhaps most significantly, Geoff Taylor will leave labels body the BPI after a 15-year run as chief executive.

Taylor has expertly led the British recorded music industry through its most tumultuous period, dealing with piracy and tumbling revenues at the start of his tenure, and the pandemic and a bruising U.K. Government streaming inquiry in more recent times. But he told Variety that he was confident record labels are in a more favorable position now than in 2007.

“When we came in, there were a lot of challenges,” he says. “We had to fight hard to reassert our role in the ecosystem. I’m proud of the job the BPI has done to protect artists’ and labels’ rights, and to stand up for the value of music. There are still some challenges, but we’re in a better state than we were, without a doubt.”

Taylor is staying on until early 2023 before taking an as-yet-unconfirmed role in “a commercial environment,” but will remain in the music industry. By then, he hopes there might be a resolution to the long-running battle over streaming remuneration for artists and songwriters.

Much of the recent momentum has been with the #BrokenRecord and #FixStreaming campaigns, which have attracted support from a wide array of artists and MPs. But record labels recently breathed a sigh of relief when, in an interim judgement, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) decided not to conduct a full market investigation into the music streaming sector and the major labels’ role within it.

“The interim conclusions reflect reality,” says Taylor. “The debate around streaming has become particularly emotive, so it’s very significant that an objective, dispassionate regulator has looked at the facts and made certain conclusions. I hope this will help to at least narrow the issues in the debate, by closing down some of the arguments that have been made.”

Negotiations are still going on at various governmental working groups to try and improve conditions for creators, with Taylor saying there are “areas on which consensus is emerging – and also areas where it isn’t!”

The BPI and the artist/songwriter campaigns have clashed on numerous occasions since the issue picked up traction during the pandemic, but Taylor now says “credit is due to their effective campaigning,” which has seen all three major labels pledge to change their rules on recoupment of older recording contracts.

“I’m confident the opportunity is there for us to demonstrate to government that we can get our act together as an industry,” he says. “We can come up with a package of improvements that make a difference and that are much better than government intervening in a clumsy way that could ultimately reduce the size of the music industry.”

Whether he’s still at the BPI to see that conclusion remains to be seen, but Taylor will leave having improved the BPI’s relationship with the independent sector, successfully revamped the BRIT Awards and brought the Mercury Prize under the BPI umbrella.

Paul Pacifico is considered by many to be the front-runner to succeed Taylor, but sources tell Variety the recruitment process is still in progress. But whoever takes over, Taylor says they will have to work to shore up British music’s international appeal.

“The health of the industry is good in terms of quality, but we do face greater competition than ever before,” says Taylor. “The reality of that is, you have to work harder to achieve the same level of success so, whilst our export revenues are increasing, our market share has dropped over recent years. We must step up our game.”

+ On the other side of the streaming debate, #BrokenRecord campaigner Tom Gray admits the regulatory body Competition and Markets Authority’s initial decision not to fully investigate the sector was “a huge disappointment.” But he says the fight for artists to earn a greater share of streaming revenues is not going away any time soon.

“This is not a done deal by any stretch of the imagination,” he tells Variety. “What’s quite funny is members of the industry looking at this and going, ‘It’s a clean bill of health for the industry.’ It’s really not, if you read it. It’s shit for everybody who makes music.”

Gray – also chair of songwriters’ body The Ivors Academy – plans to “very strongly respond” to the report. But he says that, even if the CMA doesn’t change its mind, there remain multiple avenues for change.

“It’s not like one thing precludes the other,” he says. “The truth is that this country desperately needs to revisit its copyright law, like the rest of Europe already has done. We are being left languishing in 2003 – and that’s an international embarrassment.”

Gray agrees that some progress has been made in the working groups, but is concerned that U.K. government inertia following the resignation of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and the likely changes to ministerial personnel when a new PM is appointed next week, may see the issue kicked into the long grass.

“But I don’t think there is an end to this process,” he adds. “There is a political inevitability to upgrading and redesigning British copyright law to suit the 21st century. And when that happens, under whichever sensible government actually does it, creators are going to be stood there with a much stronger hand than they had three years ago.”

+ Back on the festival front, Warner Chappell Music used the R&B-leaning Wireless fest to bring together some of its top U.K. and U.S. songwriters, producers and artists for a writing camp.

The brainchild of U.K. managing director/global head of A&R Shani Gonzales and North America president Ryan Press, Warner Chappell took over London’s Metropolis Studios for 10 days around Wireless’ events, with AJ Tracey, MNEK, Tay Keith and Turbo amongst the dozens of names popping in at various points.

“We had people just turning up off the street!” Gonzales tells Variety. “We had quite a few funny moments, but it all worked out and just added to the vibe.”

British hip-hop is a huge presence on the U.K. charts, but has struggled to make an impact in America – something Press expects to change soon.

“The walls are coming down rapidly – it’s only a matter of time,” says Press. “A lot of music is travelling to different places all over the world, the world has become small. This year or next year, someone will break through. But whether an artist has broken in the hip-hop space or not in a while, the impact of [U.K.] music is being felt, for sure.”

Both execs expect the songwriting camp to help with that, with several songs created at the event already being lined up for release by major artists.

“We will be reporting back with all kinds of smashes, Grammys and BRITs,” declares Gonzales. “All of which have come from this camp.”

Details will be confirmed soon but, unsurprisingly, Warner Chappell plans to repeat the camp next year and may also launch a similar event in Europe, as co-chairs Guy Moot and Carianne Marshall promote a global approach at the music publisher.

“For Guy to be English living in the U.S., it sets the tone about how important the world is,” says Gonzales. “Talent is coming from everywhere now and we have to pay attention.”

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