The reinvention of the music festival
A new brand of music festival is rising from the ashes of the old. Breannan Graham and Sam Buckingham-Jones report.
It could be classified as a religion. Tens of thousands of people standing, hands raised reverently, watching the miniscule figures in the distance. A roar grips the crowd as one of the distant deities steps up to a microphone.
A hush descends, as each of the faithful prepares for what they are about to receive. Then, suddenly, and loudly, a melody thunders out of the storey-tall speaker box mounted next to the stage. The first song begins.
The smell is overwhelming. A mixture of sweat, cheap deodorant, cigarettes and body odour; it is unbearable to anyone not used to such an invasion of personal space. With the smell comes the heat. Sweat pours off the limbs of many, making it a huge, slippery congregation.
Metres from the edge of the crowd, hundreds more people wait for their turn in the portaloos. One girl decides the line is too long, and drops her pants to do her business among the crowd.
The average age is around 20 years old. Many are much younger, a couple are much older. Each person has paid an absurd amount of money to be there, and each plans to make it count.
Welcome to the music festival scene in Australia.
Over the past 20 years, much has changed. The first ‘Big Day Out’ festival was held in 1992, alone, boasting a line-up of Nirvana. Last year, there were over 25 festivals dedicated to music held in Australia, almost one every two weeks.
Recently, the number of people at these events has dropped off. The 2010 Big Day Out promoted ‘two-for-one’ deals for one of its days, when ticket sales fell to unprecedented lows. The Great Escape was cancelled indefinitely in 2008, as it barely scratched the surface of necessary revenue.
The State of Festival Market Report, released late last year, found a number of factors have contributed to the fall in sales. 80 per cent of those surveyed thought that ticket prices were the main reason, along with the line-up. Also, more intimate gigs are seen by over half as being a better place to see a loved band.
Chief executive officer of News Ticketing, Adam McArthur, believes there is a fine line in creating a profitable event. “Promoters need to find the right balance between securing a high-quality line-up, keeping the ticket price as low as possible and attracting the right crowds to their festivals.”
It seems promoters are listening. Last year saw the launch of a new type of music festival. Harvest, the newest venture organised by Soundwave promoter AJ Maddah, was 2011’s success story. Branded as a ‘gathering’, its 10,000 – 15,000 capacity and over-18 age limit meant that the audience was more mature. “We want to be very, very selective about the crowd we attract,” Maddah told the Sydney Morning Herald before the event.
James Holmes is a music festival devotee. His relaxed, laid-back attitude and flaming red hair has made him a target at some of the more rowdy events. “I’ve been abused countless times at festivals,” he said. “At Splendour, I had someone throw a full can of beer at my head because I had red hair. I’ve been urinated on as well.”
He attended Harvest, and said the crowd was tailor-made for the bands and vice-versa: “Harvest was exceptional. Incredible line-up, affordable, really relaxed atmosphere. It was the best crowd I’ve ever seen at an Australian festival. [The organisers] were pushing for quality over quantity, and that helped.
“Another good thing was that it was over 18 and the line-up suited a smaller, niche demographic. The shirtless, pill-popping idiots who just go to the festival for the two Aussie bands they know weren’t there. Instead, it was just really chilled, relaxed, cruisy day.”
Audiences are looking for more intimate and cultured festivals that are targeted towards key markets, and event organizers in the industry are looking for ways to branch out from the previous style.
There is no doubt that Australians love music, and music festivals. Each year will bring new ideas and trends that will shape the musical scene.
We just have to have faith.