Remember When Australia Hosted Its Very Own Fyre Festival Disaster?
"There weren't a lot of punters and everyone who was there was ravaged by recreational drugs."
The small goldrush town of Ararat in regional Victoria is nothing like Exuma Islands in the Bahamas. You definitely can’t get a Big M and vanilla slice for under $8 in the Bahamas; and you definitely can’t swim in crystal clear waters with pigs anywhere in Ararat.
But these distinct places do have one thing in common. They’re the sites of the biggest festival disasters in recent memory: Fyre in Exuma Islands and Blueprint in Ararat. One just didn’t have the luxury of a Bella Hadid endorsement – you could probably guess which one that is.
Long before washed-up rapper Ja Rule started plotting a luxury “once-in-a-lifetime” festival for rich kids (and Instagram influencers), two Victorian brothers thought it’d be a sick idea to throw a festival of their own. This was back in 2009 when the Big Day Out, Future Music, Stereosonic and Soundwave were firing on all cylinders, and a whole bunch of upstarts thought they’d hitch a ride on this apparent gravy train.
But organising a three day festival for 5000 people with 53 bands on the bill is quite a tricky thing to pull off, especially when the last thing you organised was your best mate’s 21st. (And even that ran out of booze before Johnno roasted Stevo and Dad’s pool had to be drained.)
Blueprint For A Disaster
Taking place in September 2009, Blueprint Festival seemed like a great idea on paper. Described as a “unique musical experience” set among two (TWO!) natural amphitheatres, the promoters – Tristan, 23, a sales executive from Melbourne, and his younger brother Aaron, 20, a uni student – promised it’d be free of the problems that beset most of the major festivals at the time.
There would be no long queues at Blueprint. No blocked-up and smelly portaloos. There would be arts and crafts markets and educational workshops, a “beer hall” featuring some of Victoria’s craft beer on tap and a “gourmet bistro” serving steak. Steak!
That may seem like setting the bar pretty low compared to Fyre’s rather outlandish promises of a $1-million treasure hunt, lush villas and Michelin-quality food – but this is Ararat not Exuma remember, and the ticket prices were $US12,000 compared to just 110 bucks for three days of regional Victorian splendour.
“There weren’t a lot of punters and everyone who was there was ravaged by recreational drugs.”
Of course Blueprint couldn’t match Fyre’s promise of Blink-182, Major Lazer and Disclosure, but the line-up was actually pretty good! Jebediah, The Panics, Tim Rogers and Clare Bowditch topped a bill of exclusively homegrown acts.
While the festival presented a veneer of legitimacy – an experienced PR was hired to help promote it and it had the backing of FasterLouder as a media partner – behind the scenes things were falling apart. Many of the businesses were only paid half of their fee initially, and according to The Age if anyone ever questioned whether the two inexperienced operators could actually pull it off, they were reassured that “Mum’s backing us”.
When It Rains It Pours
When festival-goers arrived for day one of the festival, things were – to put it mildly – not in the best shape. According to a reviewer for FasterLouder, the two natural amphitheatres had been whittled down to one main stage, which was still in construction at 3pm that afternoon.
“Two massive stages” were, in fact, one massive stage and one very small stage, which kept in line with the camping theme of the festival by looking like no more than a slightly oversized dome tent itself. Those stages may have been bare of bands, but that just presents a challenge to find your own entertainment, like viewing the bogged truck, which tried to push itself out of the mud with its own skip and was labelled by onlookers as “Epic Failure”. Around 7:15, the dome, SYN stage, finally had some music on it, and not too long after that the main RRR stage did as well. Music that could not have been more welcome and more needed.
To make matters worse the region had just come off the back of a torrential downpour, which wasn’t the best news for a festival held on literal swampland. There was still no power to the site when Melbourne’s Calling All Cars were supposed to kick things off on the mainstage. “We were supposed to play at 4pm and ended up playing at midnight because the stages were still being built when the bands were supposed to start,” Calling All Cars drummer James Ing told Music Junkee. “The main stage was a mud pit. The beer was unattended backstage too so it was an endless rider. Beers for days!”
The beers were flowing out in the campgrounds – but for different reasons altogether. After security restricted access to the famed craft beer hall for most of the first day, punters got the message and started smuggling booze in or nicking riders from backstage. With punters outnumbering staff by a ratio of 150-1, this was a surprisingly easy thing to do.
As for the gourmet food – well, that didn’t appear until the second day. Getting wind of the promoters’ cashflow issues, the head chef of the festival quit just two days before the event, but not before spilling the beans to other suppliers. It meant the food on-site was limited to say the least and the bistro didn’t open until day two of the event. When it finally did the “gourmet” offerings amounted to little more than “rissoles between two slices of white bread”.
On day two of the Blueprint, punters were making the best (or worst) of the muddy conditions. There were reports of 50-metre slide down the length of the amphitheatre, more streakers than a one day cricket match in the ’80s, and even a tent that caught ablaze. On day three, the smaller Triple R Stage collapsed, leaving Blueprint with a dome tent for a mainstage and punters with a “a severely reduced viewing area”. That’s when people decided to leave.
The Fall Out
In the days following the festival, promoters Aaron and Tristan went for a drive into the bush – and never came back. The brothers were reportedly $500,000 in the hole, leaving a trail of angry bands, suppliers, farmers, cleaners and septic tank operators in their wake. Melbourne’s The Tote Hotel was also a victim, with Crikey reporting of a botched $75,000 alcohol deal that contributed to the iconic venue momentarily shutting its doors in 2010.
Tom Lyngcoln of Melbourne band The Nation Blue said that if it weren’t for a “hardass” booker, they would’ve come away with nothing. “They smelt the fraud and demanded half our fee up front for us to even show up,” he told Music Junkee. “We turned up an hour before we were due to play and quickly realised that it was out of control. We drove into the pit and as we driving in there was a human chain ferrying water into the pit from the top because the trucks couldn’t get in or out of the hole.
“There weren’t a lot of punters and everyone who was there was ravaged by recreational drugs. It was a day in and I think everyone just went all out in the name of salvaging a good time. If you are booking The Nation Blue for your festival it is probably doomed from the outset.”
So how did it all go so wrong for two “young guys who love music and don’t care about the money”? Speaking to The Age from his bush hideout at the time, older brother Tristan put the problems down to naivety and basic maths. ”We sold tickets cheaper than we should have, and only made about a quarter of what we counted on from food and alcohol sales.”
But one of the main creditors – farmer David Powne, who was owed $20,000 for the use of his paddock – had an different theory. ”They came up here in a new Landcruiser and a couple of new Hiluxes,” he told The Age. “If the bands haven’t been paid and the property owner hasn’t been paid and all the contractors haven’t been paid, who has been?”
So If you’re listening Ja Rule – this is not how you put out a festival Fyre.
All images by Anna Kanci and Carole Whitehead for FasterLouder.