Arguments over microscopic differences in font size may seem petty, but the dimensions and placement of an artist's name on a music-festival poster is a matter of extreme importance -- and, often, intense negotiation -- to the talent buyers, acts, and agents who represent them. Though not all admit it, many agents rank billing just below fees and time slots as a deal point.
"We spend considerable time and resources working out the best placement possible," says Windish Agency president Tom Windish.
Another concert-industry insider adds, "When you list 50 acts, who goes before who can be a big issue, especially if there are bands who have history. It's a little like dodgeball in grade school, where you don't want to be last."
The frequent result, according to Jordan Wolowitz, partner in Governor's Ball/Farmborough producer Founders Entertainment, is this: "The poster comes out, the artist complains to the manager, the manager complains to the agent, and the agent has to complain to the promoter. It's all part of the dance we all love."
While the agents are free to make their case, the festival producer has final call on billing, as it's their money on the line. "If you're a festival promoter, the poster is how you're presenting your product to everyone," says Wolowitz, who says he aims for "a certain level of pragmatism and science" in creating his bill.
"A couple GovBall's ago, I had a very legitimate act formally pull off the festival the day before our announce, because they hated their billing," Wolowitz continues. "My initial reaction was to tell them to piss off -- respectfully -- but, luckily, good judgment kicked in and I acquiesced to their wishes -- which was to be moved three spots up from where they were. It was kind of hilarious, actually. From then on, I have had a line in my offers that clearly states billing is solely at my discretion."
The typical festival ad matte has the headliners in large font at the top of each day, with the type getting smaller as it goes through the bill. Many variables are in play, but generally each act is weighted in direct proportion to its ticket-selling ability, which also essentially determines how much each act is paid. Headliners at major festivals can rake in as much as $1 million -- and more.
The names of the headliners for April's Coachella festival -- AC/DC, Jack White and Drake -- appear on the poster in a font approximately 35 percent larger than the next tier of acts. "I pay more attention to the schedule than to the poster billing, and try to deliver to each artist the slot they need for a memorable event," says Paul Tollett, president of Goldenvoice, who adds that he puts together the schedule for this highest-grossing fest in about 90 days. "With all the different genres and all the different metrics [used] to judge an artist, it can be confusing, for sure."
Indeed, as festivals diversify, promoters must be cautious to avoid perception that their lineup has gone too far in one musical direction or another. "I don't want three hip-hop acts next to each other, or four hard-rock acts," Wolowitz points out. "Once you get past the headliners, [placement] really comes down to how I want to present the finished product to the public."
While the tussling can seem juvenile at times -- one country agent "fixed" a stalemate over an established artist's second-tier billing at a festival by pushing for the same font size on the poster as the headliner -- a major reason why agents negotiate hard for the highest possible billing because an act's position on one fest could determine how much it is valued by the next. "I got a call from an agent representing a great artist, who claimed that other festivals used the billing at GovBall as an excuse for why the act wasn't worth a certain amount of money," Wolowitz recalls.
In EDM, where some of the most fierce negotiations take place, Insomniac/Electric Daisy Carnival founder Pasquale Rotella has found a democratic solution: alphabetical order, an approach Wolowitz has adapted as well. "That was a fight, too," he admits. "But we said, 'Hey, if this doesn't work for you, you don't need to play.' I think deep down they appreciated it, because [negotiating billing] was time out of their lives and I'm sure it raised their anxiety levels. Timeslots are still like that, but there are a lot more options when it comes to timeslots versus being at the top of the list."
Other agents feel that sweating such details is misplaced effort. "We argue about lineups, times, and who goes in front of who, but ultimately what has to happen is the festival be successful and [the artists] get to play in front of a ton of people," says Rob Beckham, co-head of William Morris Endeavor Entertainment's Nashville office. "The stars are what drive sales. Outside of that, if you look at the size of the names on the poster, does that really matter? No. You still have to deliver, no matter where you are on the poster."
Additional reporting by Megan Buerger.
An edited version of this article first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of Billboard.