A festival promoter roundtable: Has the bubble really burst again?

Originally published in 2013

Over the past 12 months in Australia there has been six major festival cancellations: Harvest, Peats Ridge, Sprung, Pyramid Rock, Parklife and, just this week, Homebake. Big Day Out has scrapped its second Sydney show and, according to an article published in The Age last week, is facing an uncertain financial future. This spate of cancellations has lead many in the music industry to claim that we are in the midst of a “festival crisis”, that the bubble has burst. However, is there really a crisis or is the Australian festival market simply readjusting itself after a few decades of growth?

A similar reaction was had back in 2010/11 after a number of newer events, including Bam!, Lost Weekend, Soundwave Revolution and Blueprint failed, and more established festivals such as Splendour In The Grass and Big Day Out faced sluggish ticket sales for the first time in their histories. Many put that period of failures down to a crowded market – simply too many new players trying their hand in a small marketplace. The difference this time is that it’s affecting not just start-ups, but established brands.

So why have punters stopped buying tickets to events that have traditionally been safe bets? Have promoters become too complacent? Do punters simply have too much choice? To get to the bottom of the situation, FL spoke to three festival promoters – St Jerome’s Laneway Festival’s Danny Rogers, All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Barry Hogan and Fall’s Festival’s Simon Daly – to get the inside take on the state of the industry. Melbourne Festival’s director of contemporary music Declan Forde spoke to FL last week about the state of the industry. His comments are included below.

Is there a festival crisis in Australia?

Barry Hogan (ATP): The market is kind of at a weird strange flux down here I think. Years ago, when everyone had more money than they do now, they would just go to festivals year and year out, usually the same one. I think the ones that are suffering are some of the bigger events, they’re not performing like they should, and obviously there have been cancellations all over the place.

Declan Forde (Melbourne Festival): The huge levels of apparent success of three, four, five years ago was definitely not sustainable and I’d guess that only a couple of them have been making money or even breaking even over the last year or two. I don’t think it’s anything for the music-loving public to worry about. There are still loads of good festival options and this slowing down will probably ensure that ticket prices do not continue to rise.

Simon Daly (Falls): I think the cancellations are just the ongoing correction in what was a really oversaturated market over the last eight years. I don’t think there will be too many more casualties. Typically the newer festivals have found it harder to find a permanent place on the festival calendar. I think the longer running festivals were lucky to be afforded time to really get their operations right. It is rare that patrons have a bad experience at these events, and in turn that loyalty is repaid.

Festivals have lost touch with what people want

Danny Rogers (Laneway): When it all becomes about how much money can be made, when it all becomes about how many tickets can be sold, then you start making decisions based around [purely] financial decisions. And that’s all you really focus on. Everything’s about headlines and you lose touch with why people want to have a music experience. I reckon that’s been a problem in music festivals around the world for a long time. I think people in Australia have been subjected to some pretty average experiences across a number of events and after a while there’s just no goodwill in the brand. And if things start to go a bit wrong [for an event], if they don’t have a strong a line-up as they would have liked, people don’t have any loyalty.

Barry Hogan (ATP): The festivals that are kind of like the cookie-cutter ones – where they’ve got the same old shit they’re rehashing every time – I just don’t think those festivals are necessarily moving with the times. People say, “Oh the markets totally fucked and it’s really struggling,” but the bigger events like Meredith and Golden Plains have got this unique following and they do it in that great space that they have. Obviously they own the venue, but they’ve got really interesting line-ups – looking at Golden Plains, that line-up has something for everyone and it’s really good and people think that “Yeah, there’s been some effort put into this”. But too many festivals spend too much time on what they think is popular and what’s going to sell tickets and they’re not thinking about what the audience is actually looking for.

It’s not just about getting the biggest headliners anymore

Barry Hogan (ATP): There used to [be a time] where if a huge band, let’s say Nine Inch Nails or something, people would just flock to the show and they just wouldn’t care about what else is on [at the festival]. But now [people are] actually interested in seeing bands where they might not have heard their music. They also want there to be good sound and be able to eat decent food. I think some of the bigger or older festivals may be struggling with that. And it’s not just in Australia, I mean, there’s things falling apart in Europe as well, and America. What people are looking for is a kind of different experience for shows and different line-ups and whether we’re able to provide that is another thing … I mean, obviously Harvest is one that stumped everyone but I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t think the line-up was doing them any favours.

What festivals are getting it right in Australia?

Danny Rogers (Laneway): I think Groovin’ The Moo have slowly built up a really nice name. They’ve done a fantastic job at building something that’s really successful. It’s going to be a really successful brand and I think it’s only going to get bigger. They’re managing it really well, they’re keeping it at 15-20 thousand [capacity] and I’m sure in the next few years it’ll get to 25 [thousand]. They’re in a really great position, and they’ve got Richard [Moffat – Falls Festival booker] programming, who knows that market extremely well. And they’ve tapped into the Australian bands really early and have picked up the fact that Australian bands are equally as popular international bands.

Barry Hogan (ATP): I think Danny [Rogers] is smart because every festival he books bands so far in advance and then they start blowing up around the time of his event. He’s ahead of the pack on that front and I think Laneway will continue to do well because they’re always evolving their lineups with how the market is changing. The same with Meredith and Golden Plains. But I just think with some of the other ones, they’ve got merit and people should never forget what they’ve done in the past. But I think everyone [in the festival industry] needs to sort of wake up and realise times are changing and us [ATP] included.

On what went wrong for Harvest Festival

Danny Rogers: I just think the programming in the first two years was done by someone different than this year [Declan Forde left Harvest at the end of the 2012 event] and it was quite obvious. Honestly there’s not one act on the lineup, except for The Drones, who I would have chased to play on Laneway, to be brutally honest. And I did try to get The Drones, but unfortunately they weren’t able to play. But honestly it was an outdated indie line-up.

Simon Daly (Falls): A great festival, but maybe too ambitious for its size.

Barry Hogan (ATP): [Promoter] AJ [Maddah]’s approach to Harvest was, “I’ve got more money than everyone, I’m going to pay them like 10 times what they’re worth”. Which is a really foolish thing to do because all he has done is he has out-priced so many bands on the market. Another promoter who did that in Europe, they were called Summer Case, and they’re based in Barcelona and they did it on the exact same site as Primavera and basically just copied Primavera. And they just kept paying bands insane amounts of money and when I tried to book them the following year for Primavera, because I’ve got a stage there, the following year I couldn’t get them because they’d already received the king’s ransom. And AJ did the same thing with Harvest. He just paid bands way too much money … No wonder it didn’t sell. It was always going to collapse by doing that because that’s not a good business method; just to pay way too much money, because it affects the market all over the place.

On the future of the Big Day Out

Barry Hogan (ATP): AJ’s done very well and had some been successful with Soundwave so what’s to say he can’t do the same with Big Day Out. I just think his approach to Harvest was wrong but I think if he’s smart about it, and between him and [festival partner] C3 I’m sure they can figure it out.

On the future of “traveling festivals”

Danny Rogers (Laneway): It is still viable. I mean, Falls Festival runs over multiple days across different markets and that’s killing it I think obviously Stereosonic seems to be working across all its cities.

Simon Daly (Falls): It is a harder market, but there is still great stories out there.

There are just too many people trying to be festival promoters

Barry Hogan (ATP): I guess it’s like everyone who bought CDs at Greville Records [in Melbourne] seems to think they’re a promoter nowadays. Its just like, “Oh I’ve got a friend who has a field lets put some bands on”, and too many people are driven by the fact that they think it’s just a license to print money.

Danny Rogers (Laneway): Everyone thinks they can be a promoter. It’s not simple, but if you’re going to be a promoter you should probably follow a pretty simple philosophy: know your audience. When you’re working in anything you should know your audience: Why do we want those people and what do we do to keep them there? And how do we talk to them differently here than how do we talk to them elsewhere. For me, I think, that’s one of the problems, a lot of promoters don’t really know their audience that well and that becomes obvious when ticket sales dwindle. They all know how to put on a show, but putting on the event comes with those challenges.

How competitive is it to secure festival acts in Australia right now?

Simon Daly (Falls): It’s competitive, but with he current shakeup I imagine it will become easier.

Danny Rogers (Laneway): It’s definitely competitive. For me (I’m not trying to be smart about this either), I haven’t found it incredibly difficult. Maybe I’ve had a really lucky year. For us personally, there’s seems to be a lot of goodwill for the event on many levels, and that includes artists and managers and agents coming to us and saying “Look, we want to play your event and we think it’s the right event for our artist.” I think agents and managers are becoming far more savvy about playing something more meaningful for their artists’ overall career, rather than taking a big cash cheque upfront. For us, that’s becoming a good position to be in. I don’t know how long it’s going to last, it could change any minute, really, but at the moment people seem to be interested in playing Laneway so it has been a lot easier to program.

It helps when a festival can offer more than just money

Danny Rogers (Laneway): I think that Laneway has been a really major launching pad for a lot of young acts. Obviously it hasn’t just been because of Laneway that they’ve launched, but we’ve timed it well and we’ve helped them set it up. I think we have a really good team. We have a fantastic PR team. I’d say the best PR in Australia. When you can go back we had six acts in the Hottest 100, and the year before we had four, and the year before I think three, and the year before that we had Mumford & Sons and Florence and The Machine. You’ve just got to look at the track record and people start to realise that playing Laneway can be a really great stepping stone to play other events

The festival market is also suffering overseas

Barry Hogan (ATP): Latitude [in the UK] is a big festival that holds about 30,000 – and they didn’t sell out. They had quite a good line-up. Reading Festival got there but the Leeds edition of that struggled. Things are just a lot slower than usual over there and people are buying later – it is kind of like the late ‘90s when as a promoter you were kind of sitting on the edge of your seat hoping that people would buy tickets. I think it’s just that people are holding on to their money and seeing if something better comes along. And it’s a very risky business to be in. I know that in Japan, the market’s really suffering as well. They’ve been struggling with their economy after Fukushima – the festivals are not selling as well and shows are not performing. They’re really, really struggling there. But there are other places in America, like in the west coast, where festivals are doing really well. But on the east coast, not so great.

What is working right for your festivals right now?

Danny Rogers (Laneway): Laneway’s got a very particular aesthetic and I feel that the team know who we – we’re talking to people like ourselves. We’re actually engaged with the music, we actually listen to music all the time and go to events, not just to look at the talent, but to go there and have the experience. I feel like often with Laneway I could be friends with a lot of the people who go and most of the people there are just similar people, in a lot of ways. We can relate to them, and I think Laneway is a reflection of our personality and I think people feel that.

Simon Daly (Falls): Doing it nice and slow, held in stunning locations, keeping the patron as the most important stakeholder and staying true to a program that keeps Falls different to everything else.

Where can it all go wrong for a festival?

Danny Rogers (Laneway): There are often very tight budgets [on a festival] and sometimes you can just have a massive win and be like “fuck we can sell another 20,000 tickets” – and that’s obviously a lot of money for people. It’s just trying to avoid the temptation and finding a balance between having a really good business that’s sustainable and not getting too greedy and letting the whole thing fall down on you. Every year for the last five years I could have sold more tickets in every market. Don’t get me wrong, every year we slightly increase, but just small little increments versus overnight changing everything that people come to expect from you. And it’s hard, I’m not saying that I’m some kind of person who doesn’t want to sell tickets, and I want to be successful and make money as well, but it’s just about how you get there that’s really important.

Barry Hogan (ATP): Bands charge too much money and agents pander to the band. When they start asking for too much, the promoter has to raise ticket prices and at the end of the day the person that suffers is the fans because they have to pay more money than they should.

No festival should ever take success for granted

Danny Rogers (Laneway): You never take anything for granted. I’m not for a moment just assuming Laneway is going to sell out in two seconds. I tell everyone we’ve got to roll our sleeves up again and work really hard, and for us, many years it hasn’t sold out straight away so that’s actually been a blessing in disguise. It’s taught us to be prepared and to have all of our plans in place to make sure we’re working really hard. It’s easy to get complacent when you sell out.

What does the future hold for festivals in Australia

Simon Daly (Falls): I think that things will become slightly easier for the festivals that survive. The competition for the ever diminishing pool of headliner acts will ease and festivals will be able to add more depth in their program, which is a win for all.

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