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As more and more artists reach for surprise cameo appearances to generate talking points, what questions does this raise about the state of the industry – and fans’ growing need for value for money?

On Saturday night (April 20), about halfway through his second headline performance of Coachella 2024, Tyler, the Creator had to calm the crowd down. As the instrumental from his and Frank Ocean’s 2011 collaboration She rang out over the festival soundsystem, and the crowd noise began to escalate in excitement, Tyler asked them: “Y’all know this song? Oh, sing the song, ‘cause [Frank Ocean]’s not coming out. We don’t know where [he] is, so… It’s on y’all.”

While he did later bring out his former Odd Future collaborator Earl Sweatshirt in a fan-pleasing, nostalgia-ridden performance of AssMilk from Tyler’s debut mixtape for the first time in a decade, along with 2013’s Rusty, it was symptomatic of just how expectant festival goers have become for guest cameos. Altogether, it was an eventful couple of weekends, with unusually slow ticket sales, a screaming Grimes reportedly facing Rekordbox-related “technical issues”, Kid Cudi breaking his foot in the Sahara tent, and endless surprise appearances during sets. 

These ranged from the seemingly thoughtful – Billie Eilish joining Lana Del Rey on a balcony to duet the latter’s 2012 breakout track Video Games, or Olivia Rodrigo singing Bathwater with her hero Gwen Stefani – to the bizarre spectacles of Paris Hilton playing an onstage game of cornhole with Vampire Weekend and Will Smith performing Men in Black for J. Balvin in full costume. It’s a strange side quest in its own right, with guessing the guest appearance becoming more interesting than the sets themselves.

@soedzo #tylerthecreator #earlsweatshirt #coachella #fyp ♬ original sound – edżo

At a festival like Coachella, where vibes can be hard to come by and ticket prices cost at an eye-watering minimum $499 plus fees, those moments can be the difference between fans returning home satisfied or not. Lina Abascal, an LA-based music and culture journalist who attended last weekend, says: “I do think catching the special guests is sort of like collecting Pokémon cards at Coachella. People love to show off who they saw and who came out [to perform] the weekend they went and it sort of justifies the expense and effort it requires to get there.”

But it’s also become an important way for artists to create something memorable. “It’s pretty awesome, the amount of guest appearances this year at Coachella – I’ve never seen such a bonanza of guests,” explains Jesse Kirshbaum, the CEO of music creative agency Nue and author of the Beats and Bytes newsletter, which examines trends across music and technology. “There’s so much noise in music right now, it is harder than ever for an artist to break through it so a co-sign and an artist giving another artist a hat tip is one of the best ways.”

Last year, Music Business Wordwide found that 120,000 new tracks were being uploaded to music streaming services each day, or roughly 43 million a year. With the accessibility and ease afforded to musicians in releasing their music that the globalised, digital sphere offers, standing out becomes harder. Creating a memorable, viral moment – while also introducing an artist’s fanbase to another’s – is perhaps the most effective way to do so.

“It’s so important to grab attention, and however an artist can do that with their set – it’s about the 20,000 people in the crowd, but really it’s about the millions of people that are going to talk about this after,” Kirshbaum continues. With clips of Eilish’s appearance plastered across stan forums and pop culture aggregators in the immediate aftermath, her moment with Lana was an unquestioned numerical success. “One of the best ways is to bring out these rare, never seen before collaborations or experiences live on stage. It makes this performance feel exciting, one of one, unique.” 

Fans, particularly hypercharged stans, have turned speculating on social media platforms into an activity in its own right. While artists – and their staffs – have learned to harness that excitement for likes and shares on timelines, audiences are learning when those moments feel farmed, or forcibly generated.

Courtney Rosemeyer, founder of music-focused digital marketing consultancy and agency Cute Communications, says: “People are fickle, we want these huge moments but we’re also very quick to criticise when it seems like an artist is just trying to create these moments simply for clout.”

In a world that is increasingly driven by algorithms and viral content, fans are valuing authenticity more and more. But when done right, cameos and collaborations can be powerful. “I always love to see a newer artist reference an older artist as their inspiration and vice versa (Olivia Rodrigo and No Doubt for example) or when someone more established invites a newer artist on stage – Elton John having Rina Sawayama as his guest at Glastonbury was definitely a huge moment,” she continues. “[A collaboration] has to have a depth or context behind it – I think [artists’] teams need to think really carefully.” 

With so many collaborations onstage, and seeing the exhaustive lists collating them, where does the line end? Is there a saturation point, or fatigue for manufactured shock value? Maybe we’ve already reached it – despite the many hype-building moments, the second weekend edition of Coachella 2024 only sold 80 percent of its tickets. Kirshbaum says: “I think it’s almost a tolerance now, where people start to expect that and maybe the pendulum swings the other way. Who else could you bring out if Lana Del Rey doesn’t bring out Billie Eilish? How much bigger could it be? Madonna maybe.

“People go to these high-profile shows and events because they want to know who the guests are going to be, like who Usher is going to bring out at the Super Bowl,” he continues. “But then you swing the pendulum back and Rihanna brought out nobody and her performance crushed – her only guest was her baby bump and that’s the only guest she needed.”

It’s wild that in the modern age, an artist not bringing out any special guests is enough to fill news pages and generate thinkpieces (this year saw one critic suggest a guest cameo was “maybe all Blur needed” to liven the crowd). But Rihanna’s stripping of her set down to its essentials – herself, her tracks and her voice – on one of the most-watched stages of them all meant putting the music first. 

Despite the urge to offer fans those special moments, to stop people following from afar in their scrolls, or generate a quick “WTF” with a star-brained cameo – perhaps the vibes (and ticket sales) at Coachella would be helped if artists put theirs first too. The idea of Coachella as the pinnacle of US live music culture has been out of sync with its grab-and-go consumerist reality for a while, and a switch in focus to what makes a music festival really memorable – sharp production, authentic world building, and top quality performances – is needed.

And fans need to play their part too. Next time one of the past 20 years’ most genre-pushing hip hop acts is gracing the main stage of a festival, enjoy the set and “sing the song”.