Reading & Leeds Boss Melvin Benn On Grime, Future Headliners And Gender Equality On Festival Bills

Festival Republic boss Melvin Benn, the man behind Reading & Leeds, has been at the forefront of the festival industry for over 30 years. Alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers, this year features dual headliners Foal and Disclosure and Fall Out Boy and Biffy Clyro, with each pair swapping top slots between the two sites. No sooner than the festivals kicked off this morning, we spoke to Benn about heritage acts, future headliners and a lack of gender equality in the industry.

The double headliners are a big talking point this year…
“It’s always about what’s about there. Sometimes there are more than three headliners, and sometimes there aren’t. Sometimes there are and they don’t want to co-headline. One of the real pluses this year was three of the five are British acts. That’s nice because British people have grown up with those bands.”

Have you had any acts fighting over who’s going to go on last?
“We tend to do it as a flip of a coin. Both [co-headliners] want to close the festivals so flipping a coin is a great way of levelling every body out.”

People say only heritage acts are headlining festivals now…
“Three of these acts – including Fall Out Boy – are making their first headline performances… There’s a huge importance to heritage acts, but not if you’re relying on them exclusively. And that isn’t what we will ever do. I am always determined to be bringing new headliners through. There’s never a need to bring headliners through that aren’t ready for it, because for me there’s always acts that are ready and waiting for it. When Foals headlined Lattitude three years ago, we knew they were going to headline here. It was just a question of when.”

It’s going to be a big moment when they do headline later
“They get the essence of Reading, they’re from down the road, they’ve been here as kids. Disclosure have been here as kids. That’s one of the things when you get British headliners in particular – they’ve often been out camping with the kids before they became recognised. But I’ve never though we were in danger of running out of headliners.”

Are there any bands further down this bill, or in the current music scene in general, that you can see headlining in a few years’ time?
“I suspect Chvrches will get there at some point. I’ll be surprised if they don’t. [Singer Lauren Mayberry] is amazing – she just commands the stage. I will be devastated if Young Fathers don’t get there at some point. I don’t want to put pressure on any band but they, I think, are incredible – one of the most exciting bands in terms of energy and presentation that I’ve seen for years and years. One of the great things about them is that there wasn’t a mould that they came from. If they can maintain the energy that they’ve got and keep writing the songs and have the balls and chin to stick out like they have, they’ve got it for me. I think Boy Better Known [BBK] or Stormzy are acts that are going to go through – and I have huge joy and pride in the fact that Reading is a place for them.”

Grime has found a real home at festivals in recent years, it seems
“I brought in the Radio 1Xtra Stage a few years ago because of what my own kids were listening to. It’s not genre divided in the way it used to be. There will be kids that went to see Frank Turner that will also be at the Radio 1Xtra Stage. That’s a change and Reading has responded to that. “

Grime acts have traditionally been on smaller stages at Reading, but now BBK are on the Main Stage. Did you think: “Let’s get a grime act on the main stage this year; it’s time”?
“It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a conscious decision. It’s not like, ‘Let’s move grime into the Main Stage.’ It’s more a case of, ‘We think where BBK should play is the Main Stage.’ It’s the act that demands the position, as opposed to the genre. The fact is, the genre is producing these acts.”

People have been trying to book Adele as a festival headliner for ages. It’s probably safe to say she wouldn’t be right for Reading & Leeds, but did you still feel a pang of professional jealousy when the Eavises pulled it off at Glastonbury?
“No, not a morsel of it. Adele is amazing, an incredible person, but I would definitely have carted her agent off to the loony bin if she’d have said, ‘Do you want to take Adele?’ No pang of jeaousy at all.”

There’s been talk for years that the festival bubble is going to burst. What’s your take on that?
“Anybody that’s still talking about it as a bubble probably thinks Harold Wilson is still the Prime Minister. If there was a bubble, it was 2002/2003 for three or four years. From 2008/2009, it’s been less of a bubble and more of a reality of culture. There always will be new festivals and there will always be festivals that stop. No festival has a right to exist and no festival should be forced to close. Festivals are a part of our culture now. When I came into the mainstream festival business in ’89, there was only Reading and Glastonbury. Festivals weren’t part of our culture. They’re absolutely embedded in our culture now. It isn’t a bubble and it isn’t going away.”

There’s a lack of representation for female artists across the board at festivals, including this year at Reading & Leeds. How do you feel about that?
“I continue to be disappointed about that. My whole being is one of equality. I’ve always had a left wing, campaigning point of view in terms of equal rights and equal justice on everything. But as a festival promoter, we’re a representation of what people are listening to. We’re not the determiner of what people are listening to do. If we wanted to become a determiner of what people are listening to, we’d become a radio station or a magazine. We’re a representation of what people want to see live. But I don’t think the music industry sees gender.”

Then why do you think this problem exists?
“I think there’s an element of time. When rock’n’roll as we know it started in the late ’60s and the ’70s, it started as a pretty exclusively male domain. In truth, it stayed like that until the early 2000s. It’s changing now. And it takes time to change – in the same way that it took a long time before the England football team became equal in terms of black and white. It isn’t a position – it’s just, culture takes longer to change.”

So, are you saying that in terms of counteracting the issue, it’s the music industry’s problem, not your problem?
“I count myself part of the music industry. No, I don’t think it’s a question of counteracting it. I don’t think it’s something you can counteract; it comes through. You can’t force it through. It’s different to, say, women on a company board. What we know is there are 50 percent of women that are as capable as the 50 percent of men. They can bring something to a company because a man and woman can do the same – they can bring the same accountancy skills, for example. That’s a defined skill. What entertainers do is very subjective. It’s not definable. Just because you’re the best guitarist, it doesn’t mean to say you’ll play on the Main Stage at Reading Festival. Being the best communicator with your audience is what puts you on the stages.”

Are you saying it’s a case of people coming round to the idea?
“No, it’s not a case of people coming round to the idea. If you walk out into the audience – if you walk out in the campsite and you spend the night in Reading campsite like I did last night – there’s no gender issue. Gender isn’t on the agenda, in a way.”

I’m just trying to understand what you were saying about the difference between a board room and a subjective talent.
“I guess the difference with the subjectiveness is that I’m not the decider. The larger number of people are the decider. And until I’m seeing acts that are gender mixed or female playing two or three nights at Wembley Arena, for example, I’m not seeing them capable of headlining Reading Festival. It’s that subjectivity of people liking a band that means more and more and more [people] come to watch [the band]. That’s the only thing that puts them on a stage here. I am a conduit between the fan and the band; I’m not the determiner. I want to put the band on the stage that the fans want to watch – that’s why they buy tickets. The more gender mixed or female bands there are, the better for me, because that’s my political point of view. And the sooner that happens, the better.”