Some headliners slip through the net, with John's May Ball rueing the day they let Billie Eilish goEmeric Claudiu with permission for varsity

As a finalist, I can confirm that it happens every year. It might be at brunch, in the Revs smoking area or in the inevitable CamFess theorising but, one way or another, somebody tells you that Taylor Swift is coming for May Week. I can also confirm that, every year, she doesn’t.

But, after three years of unsuccessful speculation, it got me thinking: how on earth would you get her here? If you’ve ever spoken to a May Ball committee member, they’ll tell you it’s a hellish job that takes up your entire year. But what does a year’s worth of work even look like? To get some answers, I spoke to May Ball committees past and present to see how exactly you bag a May Ball headliner.

“We’ve managed to quite spectacularly miss out on some incredible acts”

First thing’s first, you’ve got to decide who to approach. With the likes of Bastille, Clean Bandit and Charli XCX all having graced our temporary stages, it can be daunting to find a big enough name to please the crowd with a small enough price tag to book. For most committees, this means a collaborative effort. “We asked our committee to put ideas in a shared doc,” says Lauren Welsby-Riley, co-president of Homerton’s May Ball this year, “It was actually our Publicity Officer who put The Last Dinner Party.” The London-based indie rock band have amassed a huge following over the past year but, with planning commencing well in advance of the ball, Lauren told me that securing an exciting headliner meant taking a chance on an up-and-coming act they hoped would make it big.

The team for St John’s 2023 May Ball told me that this early gamble can make it nearly impossible to tell if the act is a good fit. “Over the years, we’ve managed to quite spectacularly miss out on some incredible acts,” says President Dommy Goddard, “Several years ago, we doubted a girl who had an uncannily spooky voice […] now it pains us to hear Billie Eilish’s name.”

Once the list of potential performers is set, it’s time to get in touch. Lauren tells me that “this is actually the easiest part. You can google pretty much any celebrity and find the contact info for their publicists.” As a 21-year-old who still shivers at the thought of phoning the dentist, contacting a musical powerhouse like The Last Dinner Party terrifies me and the presidents agreed: “We were really nervous […] this was the dream headliner.”

“Committees also have to consider if the artist is even in the country during May Week”

However, for many balls, the committee wouldn’t just call Taylor up. The committees of John’s, Trinity and Jesus May Balls make use of a go-between company, which covers the negotiation process. “We didn’t have any direct contact with the artists’ management at all,” says the committee for last year’s Jesus May Ball. This seems like a smart move to save a student drunk texting ShyFX (the ball’s eventual headliner) to ask if they liked their mate’s recent MASH DJ set.

While using a private company can mean the artists take your offer more seriously, the negotiation process remains lengthy. Adanna, president of Christ’s May Ball this year, explained: “We usually put in a low offer which would gradually increase.” But pay isn’t everything. Committees also have to consider if the artist is even in the country during May Week. Thankfully, the end of term ushers in festival season. Kelis, who also headlined Jesus 2023, “was already in the country for Glastonbury,” says the committee, and “her management was looking to make a string of bookings in the lead-up.”


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On top of availability comes other conditions, known as “riders”. These constitute a list of items the artist wants in their dressing room and can vary massively, as Harriet from Trinity’s 2023 committee explains: “Some are reasonable (a crate of beer and some snacks). Others aren’t (Moët champagne, face cloths of a specific material) and some are just random (scratch cards, really specific flavoured teas, specifically non-supermarket-own crisps).” While I may be partial to a bag of Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference sea salt, I suppose they just don’t cut it for big names like Boney M, who headlined last year’s ball.

But if the price is fair, the timing is right and you can convince Taylor that Gardies’ cheesy chips are a sufficient rider, then you’ve got yourself one hell of a May Ball headliner. Sadly, the Eras Tour dates for Cardiff, Liverpool and London might get in the way of this year’s May Week. Though, with John’s May Ball committing to a headliner almost a year in advance, it might not be too long before we start guessing whether they’ve bagged her for May Week 2025.