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Set Times: Musicians’ Emerging Measuring Stick

May 1, 2011

It’s Time To Decide…

What Set-Times Mean For Musicians These Days

By: Patrick Gipson

Recently, singer Cee Lo Green gave musicians everywhere a free lesson in what not to do onstage after his embittered unraveling at the Coachella Music & Arts Festival. Arriving over a half hour after his original show time, Green commenced to blaming a late flight for his tardiness, which left him a mere 20 minutes of stage time. Foolishly, the singer utilized much of that time swearing and blaming Coachella for his 4:30 p.m. set time. Festival operators had the last laugh when the plug was pulled on Green’s backing band at the onset of their “Don’t Stop Believing” cover, while Cee Lo stormed offstage; a towel draped over his pouting face.

While there is much left unsaid as to why Green was late, the charade does bring light to another issue that has emerged in recent years: festival set-times. Coachella was right to pull the plug on Green, not only for his reckless attitude, but to maintain a tight deadline and preserve the sanctity of the schedule for the benefit of the fans. However, was Coachella wrong to award Green a less-than-primetime showcase? (Especially after one of the greatest years of his career, which included the release of his contagious satirical classic “F*** You.”)

A late plane flight was only the beginning of a ruined performance by Cee Lo Green at this year's Coachella Festival. Green's negative attitude did little to rebound from what was a forgettable, alienating show. Did Cee Lo and his management fail by not getting the artist on location in time, or is Coachella partly to blame for their shunning of Green to an early set time?

It’s a tough call for festival-planners, who annually face the task of ranking and organizing hundreds of bands into what they hope is the most fluid and accessible schedule for an ever-diversifying fanbase. It’s like taking the mathematical approach of building March Madness, mixed with the vanity of a high-school beauty pageant. What comes first, popularity of profits?

Not to pick on Coachella again, but let’s examine another scheduling quandary from 2011. Saturday night’s main stage was, per usual, stocked with all-star bands. None so less than British new wavers Duran Duran. Surprisingly, 30+ years of rock and roll, including a ‘never die’ effort with their 2010 album All You Need Is Now (which reached number one in 15 countries), was only enough to earn the chaps a 7:25 p.m. slot opening for a 10-year-old garage rock band from New York City, better known as The Strokes.

Now, I’m not saying that festivals should schedule headliners based on tenure or experience. However, it is a fairly accurate gauge of public interest when a troupe of young musicians on a cultural upswing beats out a classic 1980s act, on the strongest leg of their reunion, for a headlining spotlight at Coachella.

Remember Kanye West’s infuriating schedule conflicts at Bonnaroo in 2008? A late request by West abruptly moved his 2:15 a.m. “glow-in-the-dark” show from to the main stage, leading to extensive technical delays that wouldn’t culminate until 4:45 a.m., once every other Saturday night show had ceased. I don’t care if you call it a fight for show time or stage location; West treated it as a popularity contest. At least in the initial result, he won.

I’m not here to champion one artist over another, but set-times haven proven to be the new measuring stick in popularity within the music business. Granted, its no secret that Kings of Leon or Jay-Z are sundown shows while The Dodos or Hockey are left to battle the blazing heat of midday sets. But with the emergence of festivals as the preeminent showcase of today’s best bands and artists, the magnifying glass has never been so gigantic.

So who does this affect most?

The headliners are always the least disturbed. From Bruce Springsteen to Muse to a post-Suburbs Arcade Fire, the same names seem to recertify themselves at the top of every festival list. It’s the mid-majors, the body of every lineup that will find themselves battling for principal evening slots. It’s like a landslide of bands at a bottleneck; some will always fall to the day shows.

Groups who celebrate breakout albums accentuate the effects of a popularity swing best. Remember MGMT? They graduated from a Thursday night show at Bonnaroo in 2008, which followed the release of their heralded album Oracular Spectacular, to a practically headlining spot in 2009, with a 2:15 a.m. performance at “That Tent” that had crowds flooding far outside the reaches of the overhanging roof.

Let’s not let the set times mislead us…good music is everywhere. It’s not important who sells the most records or draws the most fans. The best shows are not exclusively reserved for late nights and massive crowds. The truth is, if you listen with open ears, you will discover the greatest music in the most obscure places.

Perhaps that’s the lesson we can draw from this. Set times are there to remind us what we already know: how these massive artists at the top already sound. Perhaps it’s our search. The blind sifting through multitudes of emerging artists and ever-risers, all against the scorching heat of midday or our lazy inhibition to show up at festivals on day one with the rest of the early birds. Earn the right to say ‘I was there. I saw them before they were big.’

After all, they’re the ones that catch the worm. Or the next great thing…

Editorial originally written for Blank Newspaper. (Knoxville, Tennessee)

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