Music festival

Live Music In Australia Is Changing. Is The Industry Ready To Change With It?

News that Splendour In The Grass was cancelled for 2024 sent shockwaves through the industry — but it was only the latest in a long line of festival cancellations. Writer and Junkee’s Music Editorial Specialist Ben Madden takes a look at what’s happening in Australia’s live music industry, and how we might be able to fix what's broken. Words by Ben Madden

By Ben Madden, 8/4/2024

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Why was Splendour in the Grass 2024 cancelled? It depends on who you ask.

Was it a jumbled line-up? Was it because we don’t want to stand in a field for days on end anymore? Did one of the headliners facing multiple allegations of sexual misconduct have an impact? If this was a multiple choice test, all of the above might have to be ticked. 

The news that Splendour was cancelled shocked many music fans; the festival’s long been considered the biggest event in Australia’s live music calendar. People have already begun conducting post-mortems, while festival organisers have been understandably reserved, saying it was “due to unexpected events”.

In a statement, Secret Sounds Co-CEOs Jessica Ducrou and Paul Piticco said, “We’re heartbroken to be missing a year especially after more than two decades in operation. This festival has always been a huge community effort, and we’d like to thank everyone for their support and overall faith. We hope to be back in the future.” Australia’s biggest festivals are no longer impervious to cancellation — in 2023, Falls Festival announced it was taking the year off, and Groovin The Moo announced it was no longer going ahead earlier this year.

It’s easy to point to surface-level factors like line-up strength or lack of interest in multi-day camping festivals, but there are other significant factors at play here. Speaking to The Age, owner of Melbourne live music venue The Old Bar, Liam Matthews, highlighted the soaring cost of public liability insurance. According to the paper, “Matthews was stung $60,000 a year for liability, a sixfold increase on the $10,000 he paid just two years ago.” These venues, which are often some of the first that the stars of tomorrow play on their journey to the top, are struggling. The much-publicised Pozible campaign to save The Tote was a rare win for live music fans, but it feels like a drop in a bucket with a gaping hole.

The cost of policing is proving similarly prohibitive. In November 2023, the Australian Festival Association told The Guardian of “one festival where NSW police charged $67,000 for patrolling a 22,000 crowd, while the force’s Victorian equivalent charged only $7500 for a crowd of 30,000. In Queensland, the same show cost $37,000 for a crowd of 20,000.” The presence of police at festivals isn’t necessarily a guarantee of safety, either. In 2023, the NSW Police Force and the Law Enforcement Conduct Commission audited 160 searches — 83 general searches and 77 strip searches — conducted at five NSW music festivals in 2021 and 2022. The findings showed that “less than half of the officers who carried out strip searches at the music festivals in the sample had completed the specialist music festival training”.

The effect of global warming on Australia’s festival landscape has come into sharp focus in recent years as well. The much-publicised ‘Splendour In The Mud’ edition of Splendour in 2022 saw the first day cancelled due to heavy rain, while extreme temperatures at electronic music festival Pitch, held in Victoria’s Grampians National Park, saw the festival eventually cancelled. Over the last decade, over 40 Australian festivals have been postponed, evacuated or cancelled due to extreme weather events, with more than 20 of these coming in 2022 alone.

Australian reggae-rock band Rum Jungle were set to play this year’s Splendour prior to its cancellation. Their manager, Isaac Lewis, tells Junkee that “we found out that the festival was no longer going ahead the morning of, our agents had been contacted and were the first (as they should be) to find out so that the information could trickle down to artists/teams”. Splendour was set to be a key part of their 2024 release plans, with the group’s booking on the line-up coming off the back of a sold-out Australian/New Zealand tour. “Getting Rum Jungle on the line-up has taken the band and myself a lot of planning,” he says, “but the effort mainly lies with our agent who has worked tirelessly to develop relationships with the festival and other festivals and work on getting them out to shows prior.”

For many Australian and international artists, especially those emerging, Splendour is a chance to play what may be one of the biggest shows of their career. “Financially, most artists will use most, if not all of their fee to ensure this performance is a highlight as it’s an opportunity for these artists to perform in front of thousands of music fans,” Isaac says. “As a manager, it’s now my job to pivot the business and see what opportunities have now arisen due to the cancellation of Splendour… Anyone who did purchase a ticket now has an extra couple hundred bucks back in their bank account.”

Is It Really All Doom And Gloom For Australia’s Live Music?

Despite the recent string of highly-publicised cancellations, not every Aussie festival is failing — quite the opposite, in some cases. Many reckon the landscape is simply correcting itself, with fans turning to festivals that sit more neatly within a singular/couple of genre spaces, rather than attempting to appeal to everyone. Personally, I thought Splendour’s line-up was decent — but more should have been done to capitalise on the magnitude of booking Future and Yeat, as the rest of the bill left hip-hop fans wanting. Dipping a toe into every single genre pool in one festival just doesn’t appear to be viable anymore, though. Festivals that try to be all things to all people seem to be the ones having a difficult time, while more focused, genre-led festivals like hip-hop/dance festival Listen Out, heavy/pop-punk festivals Good Things and New Bloom Festival, and Afrobeats/amapiano festival Promiseland are all thriving. 

Trishanth Chandrahasan, Brand & Marketing Manager at Whatslively, has been across the shifts in live music locally thanks to his work with the company. They offer a live music discovery app that keeps fans up-to-date with what concerts/festivals are being announced. More recently, Whatslively was the presenting partner for Souled Out, an R&B festival that brought the likes of Summer Walker, Umi, Bryson Tiller and more to Australia. From where Trishanth is sitting, the doom and gloom is wildly exaggerated. “A line-up is a product, and if it doesn’t sell, the product didn’t align with market interests,” he says. “We have a multitude of festivals selling tens of thousands of tickets just within the last six months. Why is one festival cancelling a reflection of wider industry problems?” 

splendour in the grass cancelled 2024

Trishanth notes that fans are being more selective with what they attend, which presents a challenge for promoters. “From what we’ve seen on our end via our app, and the Whatslively community of fans, the current cost-of-living issues are holding people back from buying tickets to multiple shows and they’re only attending their must-gos,” he says. “For example, a show they have moderate interest for would be skipped now, whereas pre-2020 they could have gone as a fun night out. We hope the economy recovers as leisure activities like live music are the first to get hit in these situations, and we want to see people going out to shows whether that’s a show they have to go to, or just want to go to.”

Where can Australian live music fans turn to, if mega festivals are no longer the answer? Their local music community; though this isn’t always the choice they’ll make. Naysayers will point to the recent success of tours by megastars like P!nk, Taylor Swift and Fred again.. as proof that Australians want to buy live tickets to things, which may be true. However, history shows that if music fans in this country are being asked to choose between seeing an international superstar and an Australian artist on the rise, they’ll more often than not choose the overseas act that they’ve known and loved forever. “We feel more needs to be done to highlight local emerging acts who rely on touring to build their music careers,” Trishanth says. “There is a plethora of amazing local talent we have that play shows to half-empty rooms or super tiny venues when we know they can be doing more.”

Corporatisation Vs Community

When push comes to shove in the music industry, the dollar typically reigns supreme, and corporate and community interests don’t often align. In 2022, the Sydney Morning Herald wrote that American multinational events company Live Nation is part “of a triumvirate of foreign-backed companies … that industry insiders estimate collectively control at least 85 per cent of the Australian live music market”. Independent promoter and artist manager, Isobel Lamberton, says that historically, successful music promoters have been proactive tastemakers, rather than reactive conglomerates.

“When you operate in these roles in the arts industry, you’re not just serving culture; you’re actively shaping it,” Isobel tells Junkee, pointing to the original Boiler Room concept, which “emerged from the ingenuity of one guy in a factory’s boiler room, with nothing more than a camera duct-taped to the wall”. She adds, “Some of the most transformative initiatives in live music have emerged from the sheer necessity of working without external support. Unfortunately, once these ideas or events gain enough traction to catch the attention of Live Nation, they are once again rendered inaccessible to the community that started them.”

She calls on large organisations like Live Nation to instead embrace those pushing live music forward in these communities. “Moving forward, it’s essential for entities like these to prioritise fair play,” she says. “By embracing sustainable business practices, such as transparent and equitable contracting, supporting diversity and inclusion, and fostering collaboration with independents rather than domination over them, our music industry can positively evolve to a healthier and more resilient ecosystem overall.”

Isobel points out that it’s not just Australian music festivals that are struggling — at every level, costs are ballooning. Gigs at pubs and clubs are where the festival acts of tomorrow are honing their skills, but unless emerging artists are willing to go into the red on a regular basis (or break even at best in many cases), they are struggling to get consistent stage time — which means they take longer to hone their live skills to a festival-ready standard. “At a local level, music venues are working with slim to no profit margins, and local music communities are effectively reverting to DIY efforts,” she says. “It’s an unstable but exciting space to be in, live music will always hold cultural significance as a space for connection to the arts and community. What we’re witnessing is its organic evolution, adapting to survive our evolving and complex economic and social issues.”

These numbers are drawn from her most recent event, organised at a 100-person capacity venue: Venue Hire: $600; Production: $350; Artists: $400; Marketing: $200; Administration/Materials: $150.

She adds, “The total cost was roughly $1700, though it’s important to note that this budget didn’t include payment for our videographer, lighting engineer and sound engineer. Their services were generously provided as gratuities, plus they are project partners. Additionally, the budget didn’t cover lighting and projection equipment hire, which was lent by friends for the same reason.”

“We sold out the venue, our tickets were priced at $25, and with 100 tickets sold, the total revenue generated was $2,500,” she says. “This left us with an $800 profit. This profit was split between the project team, equalling to a $200 takeaway each for two months of work. I personally cover all of the upfront costs for events, and any profit I receive goes back into savings for future projects. As an independent promoter, there’s little, if any at all, financial incentive to do this. Additionally, if it weren’t for the incredible support and commitment of my community, who graciously volunteer their time and expertise, independently promoting events is essentially financially unviable.”

Grants are often posited as a solution to rectifying the shifts that are happening in Australia’s live music landscape, but these grants can end up going back into the pockets of some of the scene’s biggest players. In 2022, the Sydney Morning Herald noted, “During the pandemic the former federal government established an emergency arts fund known as RISE (Restart Investment to Sustain and Expand), spending $200 million to support struggling arts organisations. Live Nation and its numerous subsidiaries pocketed nearly $7 million in public money from RISE, while music managers had to tell their artists — some of whom were playing their first-ever festivals — they would only be receiving part of their fee for Splendour.”

In 2023, the Federal government launched their national cultural policy, Revive, designed to reinvigorate Australia’s arts sector. As part of this, they established Music Australia, a body that sits within Creative Australia, and has been designed to support Australia’s music industry, financially and otherwise. One of Music Australia’s initiatives is the Contemporary Music Touring Program, which according to Creative Australia’s website, includes “national touring activity undertaken by Australian musicians performing original Australian contemporary music”.

To receive funding, “The tour must comprise of performances in at least three venues or locations outside of the performer’s hometown. Tours that include regional and remote destinations, or which assist performers residing in regional and remote areas to tour, are a priority for funding,” with grants from $5000 to $50,000 available. However, Rum Jungle’s manager, Isaac, says grants aren’t a long-term solution. “Obviously grants and other financial support that government/music-related bodies provide can help, but it’s then up to the artist/team to turn that support into a profitable business so that it doesn’t rely on this constant support.”

Is The Answer To Australia’s Live Music Problems Overseas?

Asking music communities to run using free labour and traded favours is unsustainable long-term. A survey conducted by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance found that half of the Australian musicians surveyed earned less than $6000 from their creative pursuits last year. However, introducing a basic income for artists may go a long way to reviving Australia’s once-thriving independent music scenes, freeing up those involved in creative pursuits to focus on upskilling and giving back to their community, rather than searching for paid work. It’s not an untested model, either. In 2022, the Irish government announced The Basic Income For The Arts (BIA) scheme, which is providing three-year support for up to 2000 individual artists. Successful artists/creative workers are given a weekly income of €325 (A$479), which is not affected if they earn extra money. Similar trials have also been held in Finland and in American cities like San Francisco and New York.

A basic income for artists differs from the current welfare model that exists in Australia, which is both means-tested and includes mutual obligations, requiring welfare recipients to regularly complete training courses and provide evidence that they are looking for work. Data collected from the Irish government’s pilot scheme so far appears promising. During the first six months of the pilot, it was found that life satisfaction (reported out of 10) for BIA recipients increased by more than half a point when compared to the control group, while BIA recipients were able to spend “3.5 additional hours on their creative practice per week”. The control group is made up of eligible applicants for the scheme who were not selected — they “respond to the same survey and data requests as those in receipt of the payment”. 

Part of the support for a basic income for artists comes from the changes that were seen during the pandemic. “I speak to so many artists of different genres, who tell me about how their lives changed during COVID, because the Centrelink rate was doubled for that short period of time, and mutual obligations were ceased temporarily,” says Associate Professor Tully Barnett, a Senior Lecturer in Creative Industries in the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Flinders University. “And so that meant that people could focus on their practice. Their exhibitions may have been cancelled, the music tours may have been cancelled, their shows and performances may have been cancelled, which is devastating. But because there was a more livable safety net, there was actually the opportunity for a lot of artists to use that time productively.”

Tully says that Ireland’s rate for the pilot program was set “above welfare and below minimum wage”, while also considering what “the trial could afford”. She also notes the political conditions that led to the trial getting up. “It’s come through a Green party initiative, but the Green party is in a consortium government with other parties. The [Irish] Arts Minister [Catherine Martin] comes from the Green party. They wanted to do a trial, there was all the information through COVID about how that was affecting artists in particular. And so there was a particular moment where they realised that it was palatable to the community and to the voter to do that trial in the arts sector.”

While it can be tempting to try and measure the impact of programs like the BIA from an economic standpoint, Tully reflects on the other benefits that these programs can have for artists. “One webinar that I saw was an artist who was receiving the basic income,” she says. “One artist said that he broke down in tears the day that he got the letter saying that he was in because he realised he could now get that dental surgery done that he had put off for years. And it’s those stories that make you realise what are the sacrifices that artists across all genres are making all the time in order to produce their art? And what is the obligation then of society to be thinking differently about how we’re going to support those artists?”

Admittedly, when I started writing this, I was pretty despondent about the way things were going. Venues are shutting down around us and being turned into apartments. Emerging Australian artists struggle to tour — many are simply hoping to break even, or at least not take a huge financial hit. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for Australian artists to cut their teeth in a live setting, and when they reach festival-ready status, those opportunities are being taken away from them due to market conditions by the fistful. 

While I still believe all of the above to be true, there is a path forward, for both festivals and live gigs. Trishanth offers the following advice to festival promoters: “Go niche. Target a smaller audience subset and over-deliver for them. I love seeing promoters who are actually from the niche they are serving.” Music fans have become better than ever at speaking with their wallets, and we all want events to have a genuine connection with the community. Isobel says this has come about post-COVID: “The pandemic also changed our relationship towards the entertainment industry in general. It’s contributed to positive changes, consumers are a lot more conscious of what they invest their money in and have genuine concerns about the sustainability and ethics of a business.” 

Gig guides like and Sticky Carpets are great ways to keep across what’s happening in your nearest music scenes, and it’s more important than ever to get out to see that Australian act you’ve been enjoying. Some of my favourite gig memories have been seeing Australian acts in sweaty, too-small venues, where the walls feel like they’re about to cave in. The Australian stars of tomorrow are already playing shows just like this, and the time is now for us all to consciously support them as much as we can. Take a chance on an Australian next time you’re looking for a fun night out — you might just discover your new musical obsession.

Ben Madden is a Melbourne-based music writer and Junkee’s Music Editorial Specialist. You can follow him on Twitter at @benmaddenwriter and Instagram at @benmaddenwriter, as well as keep up with his Sucks column here.

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