18 Dec Australian Music Festivals Are A False Economy

Photos by Sarah Chavdaroska

Probably the first and only time Ripe will use a click-bait feature image, but something’s wrong. No wait, not something, the music industry economy is wrong. It’s been a false economy for years, and now we’re paying for it — or more literally, not paying.

You can point your finger at the bookers, the sponsors, the labels, the artists or the locations. But the main reason Australian Music Festivals are either selling out in 2018 or not selling well, is because of the generation that attended festivals for the first time during the ‘pay what you want’ era. The generation that sparked so much open minded interest in artists that don’t attract big bucks, the same generation to start niche festivals with no plan on making profits. This generation now needs money, this generation now have families, HECS debts, loans, and they don’t live at home anymore. That free loan era between 2007’s Radiohead – In Rainbows, where one of the biggest bands in the world gave away a classic album for free, and somewhere between 2013-2014 when Spotify doubled it’s subscriber numbers and hit 10 million. Marking an end to the era of ‘pay what you want’. The peak point coming in the middle of 2010 with the shutdown of Limewire and free easy downloads without the average-joe needing to know anything about Torrents or VPNs. Now in 2018 it’s all tight Facebook algorithms making you pay to post, Spotify algorithms limiting your music horizons not expanding them, and YouTube algorithms feeding you only the biggest of YouTube channels. But it’s not algorithms that make algorithms (not yet). It’s companies hiring smart code writers, who are paid to max funds and compete with the other big companies. It’s their job, it’s their livelihoods, so I can’t blame them either.

It’s the same with the bookers of Laneway Festival 2019. 2018 didn’t sell out, and they’re running an expensive and tough business. They had to put a lot of Triple J artists on the bill to sell tickets. I’d love to live in a world where the Laneway lineup had the most critically acclaimed artists of the year, like Laneway used to aim for each year. But a lineup of Idles, Low, Yves Tumor, Snail Mail, John Coltrane, Skee Mask and Amen Dunes ain’t selling tickets. Who are they, you may ask? They’re some of the most critically acclaimed artists of 2018, but this algorithm generation will likely never know. And for the bookers at Laneway, they’re also the more expensive options.

So how does a Festival like Meredith get away with featuring so many critically acclaimed artists, just a couple Triple J artists and manage to sell out every year? numerous reasons. The first is that the people pay for the festival experience, not just the lineup. There’s no experience left at Laneway, it’s just teens popping pills or as one commentator posted on the Laneway Facebook page, “could have been a better lineup but I’ll still go lmao chance to get fucked uppppp.” Secondly, Meredith owns the land, it owns a lot of the infrastructure, it doesn’t have to tour the lineup around a country that’s less invested in live music than Victoria. Meredith still have a lot of expenses that punters don’t think about, ever wondered how they get rid of hundreds of couches every year?

Speaking of those couches, that’s where the festival problem reaches beyond Laneway all the way to Meredith. The same culture that made Meredith so relaxing and welcoming, that freedom to bring a couch from your home to the front of the Amphitheater, has attracted the same crowd that think it’s cool to throw rubbish out of your vehicle. “Hey bro, at Meredith you can smash beers on a couch all day, piss on it, and then just leave it behind at the end. It’s sick!” said an attendee who would only venture down to the stage when they need to charge their selfie-taking phones. This isn’t Meredith’s fault, the festival itself has barely changed in its almost 30 year existence. I can never remember which Meredith year was which. What did change over that time was the death of festivals that drew crowds who just want to “get fucked uppppp” such as Stereosonic, Future Music or Soundwave (lesser extent). All three of which died in 2015 and that crowd’s been looking for new options ever since. Laneway targets those who just need half a day to black out. Meredith targets those who worked hard (I’d like to hope so) all year, and come December just want to escape the city and let off some steam. I get it, life can be really tough and messed up for a lot of people, you may not even really care much for music, and when else can you catch up with all your friends and get away together for a whole weekend. Meredith makes a lot of sense for those people. The calendar position makes a huge difference, because the crowd at Golden Plains (same location and team behind Meredith) held in March is vastly different. If you’re still spending money on festivals in March, when university or work or family life is full throttle, you must really like music, because there’s cheaper ways to “get fucked uppppp.”

If you’re ready to run away to even smaller niche festivals, you’re in the minority, because those festivals are struggling to sell 1,000 tickets with interesting line-ups, line-ups far more critically acclaimed than the 2019 Laneway lineup. However, many of them paid the price. Paradise Music Festival ran a loss for many years and became financially unsustainable. Many others are trying to stay afloat such as Inner Varnika (didn’t sell out this year), Hopkins Creek (didn’t sell out last year), By The Meadow (didn’t sell out this year), Freedom Time (didn’t sell out this year) and Shady Cottage (have had to take two years off to think hard about their model). Maybe too many niche festivals popped up at the same time and the market wasn’t ready for all of them, but even collectively the numbers just don’t add up. How can so many festivals in Melbourne, the live music attending city that makes more money from live music than the AFL does nationally, struggle to sell out 1,000 or less ticket festivals. There’s no simple answer. You could point your finger at the talent crops or those damn algorithms, but I think it’s something else. I think it’s the novelty, the location novelty.

You see, most of my music loving friends with deep historical musical knowledge and really varied tastes in music, never seemed to know 80% of the Paradise Music Festival lineups. They went because the location on Lake Mountain was unique, the location was the experience, there just happened to also be interesting music, too. These interesting artists may be fantastic, but they’re also local, we can watch them anytime in Melbourne, often for free. So are niche festivals meant to change location every year? They would if they could, but locations are extremely hard to find. Permits are even harder to get. The always popular and respected party throwers Animals Dancing recently tried to host a festival on the upcoming Grand Final weekend at the Tallarook location that’s hosted Boogie Festival since 2008 (and more recently New Year’s EVIE Festival). But even Animals Dancing couldn’t fight extreme opposition from local residents. Apparently electronic music is a no go in Tallarook, despite the fact that Boogie has a stage called Clubhouse. It’s all just a big misunderstanding, the people of Tallarook probably lumped Animals Dancing in with the same crowd who once went to Stereosonic, and you can’t be mad at them, how are they meant to know the difference.

Which brings it all full circle. Everyone is misinformed, or simply doesn’t have enough time to be informed. Music Festivals in Australia are dying, and that’s just not a message that’s getting spread publicly. Who is meant to spear this information? Triple J promote their festivals, you know all about those. Triple R promote their festival associations, you hear about those. Everyone else, they don’t have a voice, a media outside of online algorithms. If numbers continue to drop at small festivals, they’ll die. If the loyal crowd move away from the bigger festivals, they’ll die. If Music Festivals die, then you’ll struggle to get an international artist to fly all the way to Australia. Local artists will have to move overseas to make real money in order to fund their profession and find financial value in their already niche market, because it’s now very hard to do that online in 2018. Australia will be right back to where it was before 2007, dictated by Triple J and playing catch up to the rest of the world.

Marcus Rimondini

Managing Editor & Music Editor - Follow on Twitter