Why Can’t Australia Make Hip-Hop Festivals Work?

Hip-hop festivals have struggled to make headway in the Australian market, but it's not from lack of trying.

Australian hip hop festivals migos photo

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Drip World Festival promised to bring some of the biggest names in hip-hop to Australia, with Migos, Akon, and French Montana locked in to headline.

In the weeks leading up the festival — which was due to kick off on August 31 in Sydney before taking in dates in Brisbane, Melbourne, and Perth — it really looked like it might be a success story, bucking the trend of previous Australian hip-hop festivals.

But it wasn’t to be: just days before it was meant to begin, organisers announced Drip World was being postponed until mid-January, 2020.

“We have waited until the 11th hour, in hopes that we would receive visas for some of the key artists performing on our incredible Drip World line-up and until this morning we have not received those visas,” organisers wrote in a statement posted to Facebook. “It has to be noted that we have no doubts that everyone on our line-up will be granted a visa into Australia. However, with delays in getting the submissions through for approval, there is no guarantee that they will all be granted in time for the festival tour starting this weekend.”

It’s not clear who of the headliners, or how many, hadn’t been granted visas in time. But either way you string it, it’s Groundhog Day for hip-hop festivals in Australia. Supafest, Soulfest, Movement Festival, Rap City, and more have all struggled to break through, falling prey to the fate of rap festivals in Australia.

A number of artists have faced their fair share of difficulties over the years too. Tyler, the Creator has finally been granted entry into Australia despite not being accepted since 2015. And just last year Skepta was denied entry for his tour on the basis of character grounds, but had the decision overturned.

Lil Uzi Vert, Ski Mask tha Slump God, Young Thug, Snoop Dog, and countless others have all pulled out of, or not made, booked appearances in Australia over the years, for a number of reasons. So why can’t we make it work?

It’s Not All About Visas — But A Lot Of It Is

Whether it’s always because of visa difficulties or not, there seems to be a pattern.

In 2016, Soulfest promoter John Denison was ordered to pay APRA AMCOS, Australia’s peak music rights organisation, $473,000 in damages plus legal fees for his failure to secure the appropriate music licenses for a number of events, including the now defunct Soulfest and Supafest. Dwayne Cross, another Supafest promoter, and his company Paperchase Touring, owed stacks to creditors following the collapse of the festival in 2013.

In 2017 a national tour for The Game organised by Tour Squad fell through. The then-director, Lui Spedaliere, is now CEO of Yellow Live, the promotions company responsible for Drip World. Yellow also appear to have recently allowed their domain to expire.

Music Junkee have previously written how bloody tough it is to make a buck touring in Australia. Not only is it a long haul on an expensive flight, there’s also a high cost of doing business here: wages, accommodation, transport, food, and booze. To turn a profit on a trip here you need sell a lot of tickets.

Music Junkee spoke with Spedaliere on the day news broke that the festival was rescheduling. Phones buzzed in the background constantly while we talked. Spedaliere was rather optimistic, resigned to the fact that visa issues were out of her hands.

“When it lands in immigration’s assessments box, they do their due diligence and they process it. Sometimes some people, some artists, require further documentation, for whatever reason,” Spedaliere explained. “How they assess it and how long they take to assess it, that’s something that we have to wait.”

Spedaliere was adamant that she doesn’t want hip-hop to be continually labelled as the troublemaker, believing it’s not just hip-hop. And it’s true that some hip-hop artists have prior convictions or pending court cases, but so do plenty of rock stars.

Though visa applications are scrutinised on a case-by-case basis, you can’t help but think that it’s kind of like ‘random searches’. The Department of Home Affairs did not respond to our requests for comment.

Tyler the creator photo

Tyler, The Creator

Tom Caw, director of event promotion collective Untitled Group, admits that Australia is a difficult country for touring because our visa laws are strict, and the list of crimes that can bar individuals from entry is long — including crimes that carry a sentence of 12 months or more.

Alex McDonell, director of Lucky URBN, a booking and artist management agency representing urban artists, and an arm of Lucky Entertainment, also points to visas as one of many issues promoters face, particularly new promoters. “Visas are definitely a big thing…at minimum the least you would want to allow is a month to get a visa, for more high profile artists you want to allow a couple of months.”

Consider too that it’s not just artists who need visas, but their touring team as well. In the case of Drip World, Spedaliere says that’s a total of 97 individual visas.

McDonell tells us that, “I’ve had experiences with artists where they have no criminal record, no real bad background, but a visa consultant for the government has gone online, read a story or an article on TMZ that may or may not be true and then asked for information to be provided to prove otherwise.”

Spedaliere said herself that: “Just because you don’t have criminal history doesn’t mean that….if you’ve behaved a certain way in public or past, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t get flagged with immigration. They scrutinise everybody that comes into this country.”

McDonell also sees that countries in the Commonwealth tend to follow each other on approvals, so if an artist can get into Canada, say, they’re likely to gain entry into Australia. Though it’s never guaranteed of course.

But There’s More To It Than That

This isn’t a fight unique to Australia either. The undue prejudice against hip-hop and ‘urban’ music events in the UK is currently the subject of a committee report to the British parliament. Things here could get worse too: The coalition government is introducing a bill that could make it even harder to gain a visa for entry to Australia by extending ‘the grounds for cancellations on character grounds’.

“Hip-hop artists are in such huge demand across the world, and even in Australia, that it makes it hard securing the talent with so much competition.”

Spedaliere herself doesn’t want to frame the issue around race. And while we’d love to believe otherwise, it’s hard to ignore the misplaced, historical belief that hip-hop is somehow ‘dangerous’. Currently, the Department of Home Affairs’ criteria for not passing character requirements include ‘reasonable’ suspicion that an individual is a member or associate of an individual or group involved in criminal conduct –that is, gang affiliation. Further, applications can fail if there’s the perceived risk that the individual might be a danger to the Australian community.

British Pop-star Boy George, convicted of false imprisonment, was invited to Australia to work as a judge on The Voice. Yet Tyler, the Creator, with no confirmed criminal convictions, faced visa issues here in-part because of his lyrics. The double standard is blatant.

So, what else is there?

McDonell points to the AUD to USD exchange rate as another one of the biggest challenges. “It’s currently trading at 68 US cents* to a dollar so it makes it a lot more difficult for promoters in Australia to bring artists out.” This also makes a multi-city festival less viable, where promoters stand to lose a truckload of money if attendance isn’t high enough at every date.

As Caw explains, acts can fit more gigs in places like America and Europe over a two-week period than they can here in Australia. “This also ties into costs, the fees per show are high to recoup this opportunity cost,” he says. “Hip-hop artists are in such huge demand across the world, and even in Australia, that it makes it hard securing the talent with so much competition.”

Caw also concedes that all the prior planning and approvals can go out the window when an act cancels at the eleventh hour. If only the average punter knew just how much went on behind the scenes to bring a festival or tour date together, McDonell laments. It’s a sentiment Spedaliere shares.

There are success stories though. Listen Out, FOMO, Sugar Mountain, and Beyond the Valley (organised by Untitled Group), all regularly book hip-hop acts. And get them across the ditch.

McDonell thinks that Australia could benefit from a monitoring system, much like New Zealand’s approved promoter scheme. Though it’s hard to get that initial approval, once a promoter has the governments tick it’s a much simpler process for artists to gain entry — unless they have a criminal record. He says it’ll help with consumer trust and help the hip-hop market more generally with more events finally getting off the ground.

Rolling Loud seems to be the rare hip-hop platform that has managed to make the jump down under, selling out its January date. That said, even Rolling Loud’s line-up also changed at the last minute due to, you guessed it, last minute cancellations. The NSW Government deemed it a high-risk event under their new liquor licensing regulations. Thankfully, last week, these new regulations were overturned — which means the government will now have to go back to the drawing board regarding health and safety at music events.

But even with the removal of those draconian regulations, the festival industry in NSW faces intense pressure from government and law enforcement bodies. Established festivals have found a way to work within the tough parameters, but for new events — especially hip-hop events — the obstacles are tough to overcome.

Darby-Perrin Larner is a freelance writer and retired comic. 

*At time of interview.