Reading & Leeds boss Melvin Benn has told NME that three of the six headliners for 2022’s event have been booked, as well as hinting at what the line-up could look like and reflecting on safely putting on a festival in the time of COVID-19.
This weekend saw R+L 2021 headlined by Liam Gallagher, Post Malone, Stormzy, Disclosure, Biffy Clyro and Catfish + The Bottlemen, with other huge performances from the likes of Slowthai, Wolf Alice, Gerry Cinnamon, Sigrid, Baebadoobee, Yungblud, AJ Tracey, Girl In Red and many more.
Having organised the coronavirus pilot shows of Download Festival, Latitude 2021 and Blossoms’ Sefton Park gig, the Festival Republic boss said that he was confident and relieved knowing that Reading & Leeds was able to go ahead safely, allowing music fans to celebrate together.
“Every Reading is very special to me,” he told NME on the final day of Reading & Leeds. “I suppose this one is more special because it’s the biggest festival in the world this year. It’s been five days of 105,000 people just having the time of their lives, seeing the bands that they adore, the bands that I adore.
“I’ll remember it as an incredible relief that we got through the pandemic in a way that allowed us to have Reading & Leeds festival because it is important.”
So important that he also revealed that “three of the six headliners are in place” for next year. The only other clues as to who they might be were that “some of them have guitars”, and only one of them has headlined before.
To mark the end of an epic weekend, we asked Benn about managing COVID at the festival, uptake of on-site vaccinations, having two main stages, future headliners, next year’s line-up and the chances of Arctic Monkeys returning…
Hello Melvin. Do you feel as if the crowd behaved any differently this year due to the pandemic?
Benn: “I don’t know if there’s been that much difference. This is a Reading Festival crowd, they’re not less exuberant than they usually are. You can tell that they have been pent up for a long time and that this means a lot to them in the sense of just how much time they’ve not been able to do what they’re doing now – jump up and down and watching bands freely with their mates without having to worry or constantly have that burden of COVID on their shoulder.
“I’ve spent a lot of time out there talking to people and what they’re saying is that it’s great to not be thinking about COVID. It’s a really simple statement but they haven’t thought about COVID while they’ve been here.”
After recent headlines about COVID cases increasing after Latitude and Boardmasters, while EXIT Festival saw no new infections, how did these numbers make you feel going into this weekend?
“I felt really comfortable about them actually. I can’t comment on the Boardmasters numbers, but what I do know is that up and down the country, we as festival promoters have been really clear that we want festivals to happen safely and Public Health England directors have been really happy for us to make festivals happen. They wanted us to test people, so we have. They will expect a spike and we will get a spike. Nothing about what’s happened has been a surprise. We’ve anticipated it all. I came into this festival this weekend feeling very confident that what the results will be what the scientists expect them to.”
So testing is key?
“This weekend, come what may, all these kids would have been in parks, pub gardens, their mates’ gardens, they’d have been having barbecues, hanging around on street corners and partying one way or another to a greater or lesser degree, and guaranteed that they’d have been partying with people who they had no idea whether they had been tested COVID clear or not. The one thing about this weekend is that they’re all here knowing that everyone they’re hanging around with has been tested COVID clear. Arguably, they’re in an even safer position here.
“The government have said these young people can go out and behave as normal, so that’s what we’re doing. I didn’t do it half-heartedly. We intended to do it as safely and well as we could. I’m not even allowed onto my own festival without having a COVID clear test every three days, and I’m double-jabbed. Every single member of the crew is doing it.”
Do you know what the numbers have been like for the on-site vaccination programme?
“No, but I know that the queues were pretty big today (Sunday 29 August). We knew from experience at Latitude that more people on Sunday would want the jab than all the other days put together, to avoid feeling unwell or having a sore arm for the whole weekend. The numbers have been great. What I’m getting from the NHS is that they’re really, really happy about it.”
“That just came through yesterday morning. Declan’s manager emailed me and said, ‘Declan wants his second jab, will he have to queue?’ So we sorted him out with an appointment.”
Do we need more artists like Declan and less like Ian Brown?
“Everybody’s got their point of view and I’m respectful of that. My view was that you didn’t have to be double-vaccinated but you needed to be tested. The government are changing that from the end of September, but I’m OK with that because it will keep us working and it will keep us seeing bands and keep earning bands money as they play to brilliant crowds. It’s not ideal but Jesus, we’re on the back of a pandemic – we can’t choose ideal anymore.”
This was the first year with two main stages. Was that a COVID measure to create more outside space for gigs and will you bringing it back?
“It wasn’t a COVID measure, it was something I’ve been doing with Lollapalooza in Berlin. I liked the way works so I wanted to give it a go here. It gives us the chance to present six headliners. That’s better for the fans. We wouldn’t have room for all those acts if the other stage had been in a tent because they’re too big to play it. For me, it’s absolutely fantastic and having six headliners is better for the fans.”
What have your musical highlights been?
“I’ve been busy, but I do get to see some stuff. Wolf Alice were really special, that was a fantastic show. There were huge crowds for Blossoms, especially considering that they were only added relatively recently of course. Stormzy, Liam and Post Malone of course. Oh and Aitch, Jesus – did you see that? Amazing shows and incredible crowds both in Reading and Leeds. One of the interesting things is that no one’s had a bad show. I think everyone has just appreciated that they’ve got an act in front of them and everyone’s going for it.”
Is there anyone lower down this year’s line-up that you can imagine returning to headline one day?
“Quite a number, actually, to be honest. I’m not going to burden them with my predictions, but I’d say there are definitely at least two or three future headliners on there. I might even be watching one of them now [Yungblud’s set was playing on the screen at the time], maybe more. The fans know who they are because they were in the biggest crowds of the weekend, and the bands know too.”
How much of a nightmare was it dealing with US artists like Queens Of The Stone Age and Machine Gun Kelly dropping out?
“A lot of them were late to cancel, but that’s only because they really wanted to come so they left it until the last minute to see what the circumstances would be. We were really disappointed by everyone who cancelled. We all learned from Latitude that people would cancel, so we had agents and bands letting us know that they were rehearsed and show-ready if we needed them to step in. That wasn’t opportunism, that was the industry coming together.”
Is it now a matter of re-booking Queens Of The Stone Age and Machine Gun Kelly for next year, or is that a whole new ball-game?
“It’s a whole new ball game, absolutely. As you’ve seen from 2020 into this year, we don’t just rebook acts for the sake of it. What we want to do is book a relevant festival every year, and not just rebook the acts who have cancelled.”
So what else can you tell us about the headliners for Reading & Leeds 2022?
“I can tell you that three of the six headliners are in place, and I can tell you how happy I am about it. I can’t tell you who they are, but we’re going to announce them and it will be very special. Reading & Leeds are key and important festivals, they’re both bigger than Wembley Stadium. You get the chance to play for huge crowds.”
Can we have some more clues please?
“Some of them have guitars.”
Have any of them headlined before?
“One of them definitely has.”
Is there anything else you’d like to say about next year’s bill?
“We started as a rock festival but we didn’t stay there. We will always intend to be relevant to an incredible audience. We don’t rest on our laurels, we don’t book for the sake of booking, we book for the sake of what works for our audience. The direction moves wherever music goes.”
We hear that Arctic Monkeys have been working on a new album…
“Well, you put that on NME so I guess you did hear! Does that mean they’re ready to play? I don’t know. Arctic Monkeys are a law unto themselves and when they decide next to play live is beyond me, if I’m honest.”
Reading & Leeds returns next year on August Bank Holiday Weekend 2022. Tickets will be on sale from 12pm on Wednesday 1 September.
Check back at NME all weekend for more reviews, news, interviews, photos and more from Reading & Leeds 2021.