The Problematic Nature of Secret Sets

HQ /
Jul 6, 2017 / Music

Picture the scene – you’ve hurried away from a high profile main stage set to make your way to the far-flung corners of a festival’s grounds, squeezing your way past unsuspecting families and knowledgeable hipsters to push to the front of a cautiously optimistic crowd. It’s finally the time, you’re finally going to get to see your favourite band.

They’ve been away for five years, and they haven’t released anything new in seven, but all the ITKs on Twitter assure you this TBC will them. The crowd is ready, the lights dim and… on walk The Vaccines, and your heart sinks.

This is the problematic nature of the secret set.

There can be nothing more wonderful than a good old surprise. Be it an unexpected birthday present, a once-forgotten pound coin discovery in your wallet or a text from an old friend, surprises can fill you with wonderment and add a little spark of magic to otherwise mundane days. When it comes to music festivals however, sometimes surprises are not as great as they are made out to be.

The secret set has been a staple of festivals ever since their inception, encouraging punters to attend ‘TBA’ slots on the line-up to discover which big-time (or, sometimes, small-time) act will be making an unannounced appearance on the festival grounds. It really is a romantic concept; a whole crowd of people standing in mystery and awe, waiting to find out which act has been deemed worthy enough to arrive unannounced and be able to satisfy a disparate group of fans with differing musical tastes.

Glastonbury 2017 was no outlier to this tradition, and played host to a wealth of secret sets across different days and stages of all sizes. The two sets most written about were those by The Killers and Elbow, two commercially and critically successful bands who have the wide level of appeal to be able to satisfy their status as ‘special’ attractions. Both of these sets, while magnificent when taken out of context, were slightly problematic in their placings in that they clashed with equally magnificent bands. Now of course, at any festival as big as Glastonbury there will be infuriating clashes, but secret sets add another infuriating element – the potential of major disappointment. With no concrete proof of who the performers would be, festival-goers risked missing iconic sets from the likes of The xx or Haim in favour of bands they might not even like. Strong rumours floated throughout Worthy Farm that the Friday secret set may have been Arcade Fire or Gorillaz. Imagine the disappointment of expecting to see mandolins or cartoon characters and instead being greeted by Guy Garvey and his merry band of middle aged men.

You have to ask the question: was it really necessary for either of these sets to be secret? I would argue that in the case of The Killers, making the set secret may have been worthwhile, as the band have been away from the spotlight for a few years and so their appearance is a legitimate surprise, albeit one hinted at by the recent release of a comeback single. Elbow on the other hand have recently released a record and so are very much in the public eye. Would it not have been more worthwhile to have announced the act beforehand so that die-hards could factor their set into their schedule and not have to miss out on one of their favourites?

This is the real issue with secret sets – festival goers are expected to be ‘in the know’ via Twitter and other such social media sites so as to more or less discover who the secret sets might be. This creates a problematic divide amongst punters between those who have access to this knowledge and those who don’t, something which seems to be against the whole ethos of a festival. Festivals are about disparate groups of people coming together to share the music that they love and finding common sonic ground despite their differences. To deny sections of this crowd the chance to experience certain acts for the sake of a surprise seems pretty unfair.

Returning to Glastonbury this year, the aforementioned high-profile secret sets contrast nicely with two smaller secret sets on the Thursday night. With the festival only really kicking into full gear on the Friday night, putting secret sets on Thursday night is actually a great idea. It gives festival-goers something to do that evening, doesn’t stop them from seeing the bands already announced and adds that little spark of magic that the organisers crave. This year’s Thursday secrets were Circa Waves and Everything Everything, the latter of which were not booked otherwise and so were a real treat to the youthful attendees who made their way to the William’s Green stage.

I’m not trying to be spoilsport here and say that all secret sets should be banned. Of course the biggest argument in favour of secret sets is that they are really just a bit of fun, but I would retort that festival goers should be able to know who is playing and when, especially when having fork out £300 or so for a ticket. One secret set creates a magical festival moment; a line-up full of TBAs just creates an elitist divide. Glastonbury 2017 featured the highest highs and lowest lows of secret sets, depending on your opinion of Elbow. How about next year we don’t define everyone’s festival experience by how much they love Guy Garvey.


Words by Phil Jones

Words by HQ

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