17 Feb St Jerome’s Laneway Festival is filling the space left by the Big Day Out
In 2014, one of the co-founders of the Big Day Out music festival, Vivian Lees, stated during an interview with Triple J that “Big Day Out set the high benchmark which is not going to be succeeded by a one-day festival in the near future, for sure.” That near future is now.
Stereosonic attendance numbers are far higher than those of St Jerome’s Laneway Festival, but Stereosonic is only a place for electronic dance music, while this year’s Laneway lineup was dominated by bands with guitars like those seen for years at Big Day Out. Laneway also covers the five major Australian cities and New Zealand in a similar fashion.
BDO tried a few Laneway tricks in its final years by booking non-guitar acts who you could easily see playing a Laneway slot, such as Girl Talk, Röyksopp, Das Racist, Animal Collective, Crystal Castles, Death Grips, Flume and Toro Y Moi. But these bookings were too few and far between, or past that perfectly-timed point of peak interest, something Laneway Festival has nailed every year since it started in 2005 (except this year, which I’ll get to later). So why does Laneway’s formula work for them, while BDO faltered? The appeal of a one day festival will always draw a young crowd, yet only Laneway actually provides new and young artists, while BDO continued to target old and theoretically nostalgic ones – which made sense, before the advent of the internet.
2005 was the year that online music behemoth Pitchfork held their first festival in Chicago, and was also the year Arctic Monkeys exploded on to the scene via MySpace. It would take another eight years for Big Day Out to realise the power of the internet, whereas it has always played a big role in the Laneway formula. It’s no secret that they’ve been following Pitchfork very carefully for years, providing similar line-ups to the latter’s festivals in Chicago and Paris, and snagging new artists with popular releases out in the last year and a half, as opposed to the last decade. For the most part it’s worked, but it can backfire slightly when those new, truly exciting artists don’t arrive in any given year. This year was kind of one of those years.
One outside factor that’s come into the equation in recent years is the Sugar Mountain festival, which has become increasingly similar to Laneway, pinching international acts such as Shabazz Palaces, Tune-Yards, John Maus, Julianna Barwick, Kelela, Le1f, Empress Of, Ariel Pink, Swans, How To Dress Well and Iceage. Laneway still managed to bring together some exciting talent in the form of Grimes, The Internet, Vince Staples, Thundercat, DIIV, Royal Headache, Blank Realm, Shamir and Majical Cloudz, all of whom performed brilliant sets, but some of the other artists on the lineup felt a little bit long in the tooth when compared to previous years.
Unfortunately, Laneway is also becoming a little bit like BDO in another respect: the crowd. It just doesn’t feel like the music lover’s festival it once was, with more and more people keen on chatting and getting cooked rather than taking in the acts onstage. This also feeds back into the main issue that the Melbourne location still needs to address (outside of physically moving buildings out of the way to prevent bottleneck crowds): the lack of shade. It’s rather appalling given the festival’s current budget and the reasonably narrow stage areas. One day of Laneway in the sun is more fatiguing than four days at Rainbow Serpent, simply because the latter covers every stage area with shade.
Laneway certainly isn’t the only well-run festival yet to fix this problem, with Meredith, Falls, and Beyond the Valley all forcing their crowds to suffer to various extents, but those festivals have to deal with wide open stage areas. While the Mistletone stage on the grass hill might be a hard ask for Laneway to cover, they could certainly be doing more.
Shade and comfort play a massive part in the atmosphere of a festival; aside from being dangerous, day-long heat leads to an irritated crowd and some stupid decisions. Young punters especially, who are potentially heading to their first day festival, are likely to dismiss sunscreen and water in favour of over-indulgence in alcohol and other substances. While people ultimately need to be responsible for their own safety, Laneway (and other festivals) need to appreciate that it’s also their responsibility to make sure the next generation’s first festival experiences are positive ones. Every other aspect of the festival was run immaculately well, both from a punter’s perspective as well as in the media room, but as Laneway grows to fill the space left by the Big Day Out, I’d love for it to set the standard for the festival crowd experience.
For the record, the entrancing guitar waves of DIIV were unsurprisingly the best on ground. This tour represented their first shows in Australia after their BDO ’13 appearances were cancelled due to the arrest of band leader Zachary Cole, and it was immensely satisfying to finally see them on Australian soil.