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The cancellation of Sonisphere: are record companies to blame?

Former Guns N' Roses manager Alan Niven thinks he knows why Sonisphere was cancelled: because record companies long ago gave up on artist development...

The cancellation of Sonisphere 2015 and the festival’s reasoning – "We’ve been working hard to get a line-up that we felt was good enough" – reveals the challenge facing festival promoters today: it’s getting harder and harder to put a worthwhile line-up together.

I see it in the US. John Reese's Mayhem tour annually weaves through Arizona with a numbing predictability. Every year the Mayhem bill looks and feels like a reshuffle of previous years. It’s gotten to the point that I find it hard to summon the enthusiasm to get off my bar stool and go look at the stage: "They've all been here and we've seen all that and, ho-hum, is there anyone on the bill doing anything more than going through the motions?" The last time I left my beer and headed out into the 110 degree heat was to see Lemmy play. That was in 2012. Otherwise it's "Barkeep - pour another – I'll watch Korn, Avenged, Slipknot, whatever, on the bar TV again."

Fans at Mayhem festival, 2014

Festivals themselves are becoming bloated and tiresome. Expensive. With most, the driving motive is to squeeze every last penny from the audience assembled. Get 'em there for a day, try to make 'em stay for three and put a vice grip on their wallets: $12 for a beer. Bottle of water? Four bucks. To counter a sense of exploitation, the promoters throw up multiple stages and populate them with as many inexperienced low cost bands as they can find. Some make them pay to play. Never mind that competing PAs create a dissonance. Never mind that multiple stages dissipate focus and audience unity. Never mind the quality, mate, feel the fuckin' width.

The Sonisphere cancellation highlights the fact that festivals have issues and perhaps a major contribution to their plight is the fact that record companies long ago gave up on rock’n’roll artist development. Every year I await the crew who will reach for the crown that once sat, lopsided, on Guns N’ Roses' head - every year I await the new standard bearers of rock’n’roll's most intense attitudes and insights. But the truth is, there’s not much on the horizon when it comes to compelling new bands.

Here’s how it used to be: back in the late 50s and early 60s, the concept of artist development was directly connected to the release of singles. Record enough good singles, over a period of time, and you'd have them compiled into an album. In the 70s and 80s, if you managed to get a record contract and a debut release, you'd be put on the road to support that record. If you managed to sell 100,000 units through touring then you might get the chance to record another album. Get that to the 350,000 sales mark and you would probably be asked to make a third record, and the label would look to push that sucker over the top.

A record shop, 1979. Back when people used to buy records.

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