The Australian Music Festival Scene Is Hanging By A Thread

Our summer festival season has been wiped off the map, and there's not yet a clear road map to recovery.

music festival coronavirus vaccine photo

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In an alternate timeline, one where the coronavirus hadn’t snaked across the world and wreaked havoc and disaster, this month would have marked the start of Australia’s summer festival season.

Listen Out, which last year hosted Flume, Diplo, Wafia, and Doja Cat, should have hit the ground running at the start of October, unofficially kicking off a season which would have run until April.

In a usual year, the season would have featured major events like Falls, Beyond The Valley, Festival X, Lost Paradise, Spilt Milk, Field Day, Strawberry Fields, Meredith, Laneway, Origin Fields, Good Things, Download Australia, and dozens of others. If you were a music fan, and you had ample money to spend, you could have spent just about every weekend for six months at a festival.

But 2020 isn’t a usual year, putting it mildly, and the next six months look nothing like we’ve come to expect. With the exception of a couple of festivals mentioned above, who have yet to announce their plans, every single major music event has been cancelled or postponed — and even when they’ve optimistically been postponed, it’s not clear if they’ll actually be able to go ahead.

The event wipeout has completely devastated the industry. Last month a survey by the newly minted Australian Live Music Business Council (ALMBC) found that the sector was heading for collapse, with 400 live music businesses — that’s everything from venues to bookers to roadies to everything in between — set to close in the next six months.

“You can’t remove two-thirds of businesses from an ecosystem and not have a flow-on impact to all the other businesses in the chain,” Select Music’s Stephen Wade, interim chair of the ALMBC, said last month. “Tours can’t happen without engineers, road crew, marketing staff and countless others. Venues and promoters need agents to book acts and essential skilled technical staff to deliver the live experience.”

“What happens when festivals return but there are no production companies or crew to service them? What happens when there are no operators to handle production in local pubs and clubs? What happens when international artists want to visit Australia and there are no venues to play? When the ecosystem collapses, it’s the artists, the public, our culture and way of life that will ultimately pay the price.”

To most music fans across the country, the idea of a summer without sweaty crowds, sticky Smirnoff Blacks, and dusty campgrounds is almost impossible to imagine.

While most punters might think festivals can spring up out of the ground as soon as a vaccine is found, the reality is arguably more bleaker than we’d like to consider. To most music fans across the country, the idea of a summer without sweaty crowds, sticky Smirnoff Blacks, and dusty campgrounds is almost impossible to imagine — but it’s a reality we’ll have to contend with, perhaps for longer than we’d like.

Alongside the devastation wreaked on the industry and economy, the disappearance of major festivals would rip a piece of heart out of our live music scene. Our summer season has been wiped off the map, and there’s not yet a clear road map to recovery.

A Tough Road Regardless

The festival industry in Australia is not exactly a lucrative one, and COVID-19 has taken a battering ram to even the strongest businesses. Tough regulations, sky high fees, and a high Aussie dollar have all impacted on festivals in recent years — particularly in NSW, thanks to increasingly harsh regulations imposed by the state government. But nothing compares to COVID-19.

“We have come to a complete standstill and we legally cannot operate our businesses,” Nicholas Greco, Director of Untitled Group, which runs events like Pitch and Beyond The Valley, told Music Junkee. “Every year we find ourselves faced with really scary problems that can impede our ability to run our events — weather issues such as bushfires, government red tape — but this year definitely trumps all others.”

While the industry was lucky to squeak in most major summer events before March hit, Greco says that the start of the lockdown period was nothing short of chaotic — he’d only ever had to reschedule one show in his career, suddenly he was faced with pushing back and shifting numerous tours. He’s rescheduled some tours twice, and he says the business has holds on dates for further postponements.

Some festivals valiantly tried to go on even when lockdowns loomed — Bluesfest maintained they were going to proceed just weeks out from the festival’s starting date, but were forced to pull to plug at the last minute once the ban on major public gatherings came in. Virtual “festivals” and live-stream gigs became the new novelty, but Greco says they haven’t yet found a viable way to make any money out of them.

The federal government has been slow to act on stimulus and recovery packages for the industry — a cruel blow, given entertainment was one of the first industries to shutter, and will be the last to open.

Vera Blue at Spilt Milk festival, Canberra. Photo Credit: Em Roberts

In June, a $250 million Creative Economy Support package was announced (months after venues had first closed, it’s worth noting). But as Josh Butler in The New Daily noted, a key part of this package — $90 million in ShowStarter loans — will actually be useless to most in the industry. Additionally, the crucial $75 million in grant funding allocated (known as the RISE fund) won’t actually assist many live music businesses — the ALMBC survey found that only 17 percent of businesses in the sector will be able to benefit, due to tough eligibility criteria. Even then, the money may not flow until the end of the year.

“The general consensus is not enough has been done and people are seriously struggling,” Greco says. “We’ve just gone through the process of applying for quite a few grants, so fingers crossed we can get some of those over the line but we won’t really see any of that money until next year and it could be too late for a lot of businesses by then.”

COVID-Safe, But Still Risky

In recent months, as restrictions have eased across the country — with the notable exception of Victoria — socially distanced gigs have begun to creep back into our nightlife. In WA, a number of “COVID-safe” festivals have even taken place, or been announced, and the small Rebound festival, featuring acts like Lime Cordiale and Hermitude, happened without incident in Darwin earlier this month.

It’s a positive step for the industry and music fans, and there is a newfound intimacy in these gigs that is precious. But as Greco says, running a major event with such restrictions in place just isn’t viable for most players.

“The margins are just so slim and it’s also very risky,” he says. “We made the bold move to announce a series of drive-in concert shows in Melbourne just before the second wave hit and it was an expensive exercise in how we should handle our business in a pandemic moving forward — we are definitely going to err on the side of caution to see ourselves through this. Our business models weren’t based on the concept of social distancing and our industry is risky enough as it is.”

Part of the issue at the moment is the lack of COVID insurance available. Without any protection for festivals in the event of cancellation due to pandemic restrictions, there’s a huge risk for promoters in announcing anything as they could potentially run up astronomical bills in expenses and fees.

“We won’t be getting anything up next summer in any capacity,” said Michael Chugg, veteran Australian promoter, told The New Daily. “It’s too dangerous. We won’t be able to tour.”

Both Chugg and Peter Noble — director of Bluesfest — say the state and federal governments need to step in and underwrite festivals.

Splendour in the Grass. Photo Credit: Mikki Gomez

A Case Of Survival

The messaging from the federal government around festivals and large scale events remained more or less the same over the last six months: Until there is a vaccine, they’re off the table. The risk is simply too high.

With no certainty available, it’s almost impossible for the festival industry to plan ahead — and this could mean a mass exodus of workers from the sector. Greco says that people in production teams have already been forced to look elsewhere for work, due to the lack of government support. As for trying to plan for the future, it’s a constant juggling act.

“Lots and lots of rolling contingency plans and keeping open and honest dialogue with our external partners (venues, artist teams, site crew, etc),” Greco answers, when asked how they’re strategising for next year. “All of our festivals have gone through so many different iterations while we have been hoping that things would improve, and that’s looking like it’ll keep rolling on for the first half of 2021. There is a real sense of everyone being in this together.”

“There is a real sense of everyone being in this together.”

Even if a vaccine was released in mid-2021, Greco flags that it’s going to take quite some time for events to get back on their feet — but when they do, it’ll be a golden age of festivals. “I feel the back end of 2021 is where things will be truly back to normal and we will be making up for some seriously lost time for the next couple of years. I will never take our shows for granted ever again,” he says.

There’s also the issue of international border closures having a significant impact on local line-ups. While it’s great opportunity for Aussie acts to cut their teeth, it still massive reduces the pool of artists available and Greco worries that a lot of events could start to look the same.

All of this points to the grim fact that some festivals simply won’t survive beyond 2020.

“It’s going to be a very different landscape at the end of this with some players potentially not still standing,” Greco admits. “Some events were just hanging in there prior to this and the pandemic will push them over the edge. What we do is seriously stressful and risky as it is and I know there are quite a few people questioning if they even have the stamina to dive back in at the end of this. These past few months have felt like a lifetime.”

Essentially, the festival industry requires way more support from the government than it’s currently receiving — and while the gradual ease of restrictions is heartening (NSW has just announced that seated, outdoor events of 500 people can now take place) it will take open borders and almost a total ease of restrictions to get the festival industry back firing. And, of course, that won’t happen until COVID-19 is under control for good.

As for whether we can expect a summer festival season next year, Greco is hopeful.

“Everything is pointing to us being back by summer festival season end of 2021 and we are working towards being back to normal by then,” he says. “That being said, when all of this kicked off in March we all thought by September we would be back to normal, and here we are.”

Jules LeFevre is the editor of Music Junkee. She is on Twitter