Where To Now For Australian Music Festivals?

News that beloved Australian music festival Falls Festival was going on hiatus for 2023 sent shockwaves through the music industry and beyond. Writer Eilish Gilligan reflects on the importance of Falls, and what it takes to get a music festival right in Australia (and where it can go wrong). Words by Eilish Gilligan

By Eilish Gilligan, 6/6/2023

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Last month, Secret Sounds co-chief executive Jessica Ducrou released a statement announcing that Falls Festival would not be going ahead in 2023, taking the year off to “rest, recover and recalibrate”.

In 2015, someone ran into the back of my car when I was driving myself, my partner at the time, and two friends to Falls Festival in Victoria. I still remember whipping my left arm out across my partner in the passenger seat in that weird, ineffective protective instinct as soon as I felt the impact; I turned my head around at lightning speed to yell: “IS EVERYONE OKAY?”

They were; thankfully, no one was hurt. It was very clear, however, that my car was totally fucked. After liaising with the other driver and the police for what seemed like hours, my partner and I sat ourselves down dejectedly on the side of the road to wait for the tow truck.

That year, Falls Festival had been relocated to a winery at Mt Duneed due to the high risk of bushfires at the original site in Lorne.

The crash en route to the festival had shaken me more than I really wanted to admit — so much so that I was considering just forgetting the festival and going home. There will be other festivals, I thought. I won’t be missing much if I just skip this one.

But I didn’t go home. The pull of that years’ killer line-up was just too strong, and my friends were already at the site, waiting for me and my partner to show. I wanted to go. I had to go.

I ended up making it to Mt Duneed, and I’m so glad I did. I remember standing in the beating sun, listening to Hiatus Kaiyote and everything was so perfect in that moment I wondered how I could have ever considered not going.

I haven’t had the chance to attend Falls Festival since — now I’m a little worried 2015 might’ve been my last Falls ever.

No Falls In 2023

As a musician, the Falls Festival cancellation announcement was devastating; yet another blow to our local music community which has already suffered so much over the last few years.

The announcement followed a tumultuous few years for the long-running festival. It forces us to consider an Australian music industry without Falls Festival. It’s a bleak vision.

I can’t help thinking back to being sat on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere in 2015, wondering if I should go on to Falls or call it a day and head home. Now Falls faces a similar choice. It’s always easier to go home — but ultimately more rewarding to forge ahead.

I haven’t had the chance to attend Falls Festival since 2015 — now I’m a little worried it might’ve been my last Falls ever.

In 2022, Falls was held across two stages at Sidney Myer Music Bowl after negotiations collapsed between organisers and objectors from the proposed festival site, the small town of Murroon, located about 35km from the festival’s original (and beloved) home in Lorne.

Before that, the festival was on a two-year pandemic hiatus. Before that, in 2019, Lorne Falls was cancelled due to high bushfire risk. Talk about a run of bad luck.

Unfortunately, that bad luck is likely to continue, and not just for Falls, but for all Australian music festivals.

A Run Of Bad Luck (That Just Keeps On Running)

Last year, Splendour In The Grass was up against torrential rain and mass flooding, with day one of the festival being cancelled due to the horrific, not to mention unsafe, weather conditions.

As the Guardian reported, more than a dozen music festivals, including Wollongong’s Yours and Owls and Canberra’s The Grass Is Greener, were cancelled in 2022 due to unsafe weather conditions.

The Australian climate has always been harsh. But weather conditions are increasing in intensity due to unmitigated climate change, and the reality is that safe festival sites in this country are going to become harder to come by over the next decade.

Changing climate conditions cause issues across the board. Over the difficult last few years, insurance premiums for Australian festivals have skyrocketed by as much as 300%.

It’s not hard to see why — with wild weather causing festival cancellations and COVID shutdowns threatening every major event since 2020 up until the very last minute, insurers are not positioned to offer coverage to festivals at pre-2020 rates. This, coupled with inflation, means putting on an event is much, much more expensive than it was five years ago.

Punters are feeling the “cost of living” pinch too — as Australians are tightening the purse strings, tickets just aren’t moving like they were pre-COVID.

Splendour In The Grass, arguably Australia’s biggest festival, normally sells out almost immediately after tickets are available. This year, tickets are still readily available, with less than two months to go before the event.

So What Can We Do?

On May 19, 2023, Listen Out festival announced that it had just achieved its biggest ever first-day ticket sales — an incredible achievement, particularly considering everything Australian live music is up against at the moment.

So how did they do it? It’s hard to say exactly, but I’m able to pinpoint a few factors.

Objectively, the line-up for Listen Out 2023 is extremely good. Ice Spice, Four Tet, Skrillex, Lil Uzi Vert and more were tapped for the national festival this year, sparking praise for the effort organisers went to to establish a fresh, innovative and diverse line-up of performers.

“Listen Out reminding Australian audiences (and [the] Australian industry) that strong, diverse, culturally relevant festival lineup[s] – that also support and foster new local talent – [are] still very much possible,” tweeted journalist Jackson Langford.

Cultural diversity on Australian festival line-ups has been a dominant conversation in our industry for several years now. It’s heartening to see a major Australian festival like Listen Out taking major strides in terms of curating a line-up informed by actual equality and diversity. Their first-day sales success proves a longstanding point; curating a line-up with representation at the fore is not “charitable” — it’s just what audiences want.

… Curating a line-up with representation at the fore is not “charitable” — it’s just what audiences want.

Of course, it has to be noted that Listen Out takes place in September, at a time of the year where major weather events are less likely. Falls, taking place at the height of summer, and Splendour in the middle of winter, may face more adverse weather conditions purely because of when they take place in the year.

Perhaps the traditional New Years’ festivals might need to consider a date change in order to miss the worst of Australia’s chaotic weather in the future. Carefully selected festival sites — chosen with accessibility and environmental factors at front of mind — might help here too.

Laneway Festival this year was a total hit, buoyed by what can only be described as national hysteria over British producer Fred Again.. – another example of clever, innovative line-up curation. While Sydney Showgrounds was not exactly a glamorous venue for Laneway this year, it was an accessible, functional space, and fairly protected from any adverse weather conditions.

It’s important to note, however, that while Laneway Festival in Sydney wasn’t victim to any weather events, it wasn’t made accessible to all music fans.

According to a report by Hack, patrons with disabilities were turned away from accessible viewing platforms at the Sydney Laneway leg. There were also no disabled toilets on the site map.

Remember The “Live Music Support Fund”?

In September last year, the federal government announced a $22 million “Live Performance Support Fund”, which was ostensibly to cover major events between November 2022 and February 2023. Sounds good, right?

Unfortunately, no one ever saw the benefits of this so-called support fund. It was established specifically to provide cover only in the event of a festival being cancelled due to government-mandated lockdowns. With the scrapping of lockdowns announced in October 2022, the fund quietly became completely irrelevant.

If the government does not provide tangible and realistic funding for live music events, to help build a way-out of crisis mode, we will undoubtedly lose some of our festivals forever.

The Australian live music industry is still in crisis mode after the onset of the pandemic. They need clear, reliable, specific funding and support from the Australian government if they’re to have any hope of actual, sustainable recovery.

This funding must not just take the form of insurance, either, although that is vital. The sheer cost of putting on a festival at the moment is monumental beyond anything our industry has ever seen.

If the government does not provide tangible and realistic funding for live music events, to help build a way-out of crisis mode, we will undoubtedly lose some of our festivals forever. Even our most beloved, longest-running festival institutions, like Falls, are at high risk.

Everyone who has ever loved live music in this country has a stake here. We’re all sitting on the side of the road, wondering whether we should push forward, find a solution, dig ourselves out — or just pack up and go home. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m not going home.

Eilish Gilligan is a Melbourne-based musician and writer. She’s on Twitter at @eilishgilligan.

Editor’s note: This article has been amended to include more context on Laneway Festival’s Sydney venue this year, and to reference a report by triple j’s Hack. 

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