Music festivals are an undeniable highlight of the summer calendar, igniting unparalleled feelings of excitement among thousands of young Australians. Despite this, the festival industry is facing an uncertain future, with some reputable live events coming dangerously close to financial ruin and closure. While it would be hasty to write the epitaph for all Australian festivals, the times are certainly changing and the stewards of the music industry are failing to grasp the demands of a new audience.
The sensation of Australian music festivals began with the first Big Day Out in January 1992, an event that by all accounts succeeded through sheer luck. The Violent Femmes were named to headline the festival, which otherwise featured several up-and-coming acts. One of these was Nirvana, who were booked just prior to the release of their LP Nevermind. Nirvana’s fame skyrocketed after the album’s release, helping them to fast become the world’s biggest band. Pandemonium ensued as new fans tried desperately to get hold of a ticket, sparking a live music transformation within Australia. Fast-forward to 2014, and Big Day Out’s existence is now in jeopardy.
2014’s first problem was its dated line-up. Blur and Pearl Jam are exceptionally popular bands, but are no longer able to magnetise today’s festival audience demographic. Having one nostalgic headliner can potentially work wonders for a festival, but two? When Blur pulled out just two months before the event, Big Day Out’s reputation was left in shatters.
Coupled with an exorbitant ticket price ($185) and overpriced drinks ($8 for a tinnie), Big Day Out was destined to fail.
And fail it did.
In an interview with Triple J, Big Day Out co-owner AJ Maddah said the festival lost somewhere between eight to 15 million dollars. He acknowledged the line-up was the major problem, believing that promoters had lost their connection with the current music scene. To add to his woes, Maddah was forced to cancel Harvest festival last year. Meanwhile, several top acts pulled out of Soundwave—Maddah’s rock-metal festival—which subsequently failed to sell out.
Despite his poor recent record, the beleaguered promoter is arguably all that stands between the Big Day Out’s prolonged existence and its extinction. Maddah co-owns Big Day Out with American company C3 Presents, whose portfolio includes Lollapalooza and Austin City Limits. With C3 unlikely to come to Big Day Out’s rescue, the onus remains on Maddah to save some of Australia’s best-loved festivals.
It’s unclear whether cheaper tickets or more relevant acts will be enough to keep Big Day Out and Soundwave alive. But one thing is for sure—these recent disasters are not indicative of the vitality of the Australian festival scene.
It appears that the one-day festival has been superceded by its multiple-day counterparts. Where Harvest has failed, Falls Festival has triumphed with sold-out campsites in three locations across Australia. Meanwhile, dance festival Stereosonic extended its show to two days and a rise in ticket sales followed. These festivals, along with Splendour in the Grass, Meredith, Golden Plains, and Future Music Festival routinely sell out in a matter of minutes.
So what have these festivals learned out about today’s audience?
First of all, it’s a simple matter of supply and demand. Stereosonic and Future satisfy the younger generation’s hunger for electronic/dance music, whereas Falls, Splendour, and newcomer Laneway have tapped into the 18-30-year-old Triple J listener demographic. Maddah believes this is why younger festivals are succeeding, for they know “what’s going to break, when it’s going to break [and when] to book bands at the exact appropriate time”.
To thrive in a market with an exhaustive range of festivals, you also need to offer your audience a truly exceptional adventure; a good festival is more than a good line-up. Falls is the perfect example. At what other festival can you sing-a-long with Vampire Weekend or MGMT at the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve? Moreover, its village is packed full of art, craft, theatre, and stalls to keep festival goers busy between set-times.
Festivals everywhere are buying into this concept. Indeed, an industry member from a leading festival notes—with specific reference to dance festivals—that a line-up means ‘almost nothing anymore unless you have someone like Daft Punk playing’. This explains the snowballing popularity of bush festivals such as Rainbow Serpent and Strawberry Fields, which often have relatively underground artists on their line-up.
Festivals need to be able to cater to an ever-dynamic audience, who demand an evolving sound and experience. While Big Day Out and Soundwave may sit in a vulnerable position, the Australian festival scene is otherwise thriving. And I think that is something for which we can be excited.