Bluesfest boss Peter Noble on triple j, Kendrick Lamar and the future of festivals

Over the course of an in-depth 40 minute interview with TOM MANN, Bluesfest boss Peter Noble explains why Kendrick Lamar is the perfect headline act for 2016, how the festival market has changed and poses a few tricky questions about the role triple j plays in the Australian music scene.

Before Soundwave and Laneway, before Splendour and Falls, and even way back before the Meredith and Big Day Out, there was Bluesfest. The festival made it’s debut in 1990 with 6,000 fans turning out to see Charlie Musselwhite, Canned Heat and Big Jay McNeely and has gone on to host the likes of Bob Dylan, Gil Scott Heron, James Brown, B.B. King, Iggy and The Stooges, REM and The Roots.

As other festivals have come and gone but Bluesfest just powers on and now attracts a crowd of over 100,000 punters. The festival is set to celebrate its 27th year over the Easter long-weekend this year with a damn impressive lineup that features appearances from from Kendrick Lamar, D’Angelo, The National, Noel Gallagher and legends including Tom Jones and Brian Wilson. And Bluesfest boss Peter Noble says he already has half a dozen acts that want to play Bluesfest in 2017 “some of whom can sell out arenas”.

After so long in the business, it’s hardly surprising that Noble has formed a few strong opinions and theories about how the game works and why so many festivals struggle to survive. And he’s not afraid to share his views with blunt honesty.

The extreme reaction to Kendrick Lamar

I think it was just an audience that doesn’t really rate rap as having any value. And when you get into that, as rap is one of the dominant types of dominant black music, I wonder even more so are they really saying that they don’t think black people have any value. Because when a really great record comes out, like To Pimp A Butterfly, it can’t be denied and it doesn’t matter what the form is – it’s a work of genius. Even David Bowie is saying it was the influence for his latest recording.

“Everyone’s got a right to have an opinion but some people’s opinions really aren’t right”

People who listen with their ears and not their minds discover great music and it doesn’t matter what the artist is using as the form – be it hip-hop, be it any other type of music. I mean, there’s great music coming out all over the place, it’s just a pity that an audience that should be listening to records like that or recordings like that and getting the amazing joy that you get from discovering great music, is closed to a type of music that is producing a lot of great music. Yeah, okay, some of it is misogynistic and violent – but that’s not what Kendrick Lamar’s about, and to think that if you’re black and you’re singing or you rapping, that everything that you’re doing is therefore worthless, or even worse, is pretty damn ignorant.

But you know what, [the Bluesfest fans who didn’t like Kendrick’s booking] were very vocal at first and then they all went away because too many people came back and said, ‘You know what? You guys just don’t get it – you have to give it a listen, it’s just a brilliant record and it’s set a new tone for where that form of music is going.” It’s amazing how it was really loud and very uncomfortable – people were making some very rude comments – I like the ones where they said I must be on crack! [laughs] But you know, what they do actually by doing that is creating more media where more people who know what’s going on go like, “Guys, you know, everyone’s got a right to have an opinion but some people’s opinions really aren’t right.” [laughs]

The true meaning of  “the Blues”

Every festival has got a right to grow and we started out as a purely blues festival, when Australia didn’t have any. Then, it wasn’t too many years before I coined the name “blues and roots”. Which, you don’t see that being used anywhere else in the world but we get blues and roots radio programs, we have blues and roots festivals, we have a blues and roots ARIA award. I did that because I needed to find ways to get more great music that was occurring that was outside of blues, that could be sold, that could be alternative country, that could be anything – but that was great music and that’s why I came up with that name to try to broaden the listening audience and I’ll never stop doing that.

“We stopped being a strictly blues festival a long time ago”

There’s always be blues at Bluesfest, but we stopped being a strictly blues festival a long time ago – people that don’t know that I guess they don’t know much about the fact that we’re also the most highly awarded festival in this country. We’re also the only festival that’s been nominated four years in a row in the Pollstar awards for world’s best music festival. No other Australian festival has been nominated in over a decade.

There’s plenty of blues at Bluesfest, and you now what, if you knew where blues was going – you’d be listening to Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo. It’s that simple, it’s black music. And there’s great things happening in blues right now, blues is going through a wonderful time – as is jazz. When you look at artists like Kamasi Washington and Robert Glasper, of course they’re all associated with Kendrick.

We’ve seen great things going on in black music right now – and white guys playing blues too. And I’m used to people coming up with that one, “oh, you should change the name of the festival,” but you’re not calling Jazzfest to change the name of their festival – they only have one jazz stage. [laughs]

The demise of Soulfest

I thought Soulfest was really imaginative festival booking that as a festival director, I was just going like, “Wow! I love these artists!” I love Jill Scott, and I love Mary J [Blige]. Kamasi was on there, and others too, but I always wondered if he was just being a little bit too narrow in what he was presenting to an audience that maybe there’s not quite enough of them? Lauren [Hill] was on there too; it was just brilliant. But in Australia, you can’t over specialise, and if you do, the public will show you why you can’t over specialise – there’s not enough of them. It’s unfortunate – a festival like that in the US would be as good as the Essence Festival in New Orleans – or better even!  Better than the bills they put on. It was brilliant, it’s just a pity there’s not enough of us here to make things like that work.

“If you knew where blues was going you’d be listening to Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo”

Why travelling festivals are failing in Australia

[The festival scene in Australia] has been volatile forever. I mean, I’ve been in the business a long time and you can go way back to Sunbury days and go, “well there was only about three of them”. All of a sudden people stopped going to festivals. There was a time in the ‘80s when the only major festivals around the place were the biker festivals – like Broadford [run by the Hells Angels] and Bindoon [which ran from 1986 to 1995 and was organised by the Coffin Cheaters bikie gang] and all those damn things and I would go to them with my bands. Then we all started – the next festival boom was around the ’90s when Mulaney Festival became Woodford and Bluesfest started, a few years after that Big Day Out started, I’m not quite sure when Soundwave started.

The travelling festivals have high production costs – they were leapfrogging production and major productions, staging etcetera. So they had to have two sets up there, they were renting stadiums and in most cases, the only income they had was from ticket sales – the food and beverage, the liquor, the parking, the food supply, was all from long term leasers of the venues, and they didn’t have any access to that so they had what income stream? [But] as long as your getting, whatever that number was they needed, [say] 50,000 people, they were just doing fine.

“Festivals never make a lot of money”

Festivals never make a lot of money: people think they do but they cost so much. But as soon as that dropped a little bit, that business model didn’t work and all of a sudden they go from making three or four million dollars a season to dropping $12 million – and there’s no way back from that. It was the fact that it wasn’t the multiple income streams, festivals don’t make money of merchandise; the artists make it. They give you such little percentages; you hardly cover your costs.

If you look at the destination festivals like Falls, Splendour, Woodford, many many others – they own all their sites, when you come there, chances are you pay to park. You rented a space to camp, you went and you drank from the liquor that they have the liquor licences for, there’s stalls there; there’s all the other income streams, food stalls – many many more. That’s the difference – that those festivals where able to get multi income streams and build their sites and make the festival experience which is a great experience if it’s well presented. There’s no better experience because where else do you get 12 or 20 bands a day for $150 or $200 bucks or something. You get to see, within that, maybe eight or 10 of the best bands on the planet, day after day after day. You can’t buy that, any other way in music, you’ve go to a concert, you get two or three hours.

“I think the festival audience did peak five or 10 years ago”

That’s the difference with festivals and multi-day festivals – and truly the fact that they’re destination events and it tells a journey, getting out of town, going there to somewhere great, like Byron Bay or other places like Lorne. That’s what makes the festival experience and there’s not too many festivals in that area that are having difficulties – it’s the one day events which never should have been called a festival in the first place. They’re not festivals; festivals are multi-day events. They’re the ones who have had to travel and seen their profit models not work, as we get into the last three or four or five years, and I don’t think they’re going to work. Even looking to the US where they have travelling festivals like Lollapalooza and stuff like that, they are now two or three day events in places like Chicago or Berlin even – where they did it for the first time this year. That’s the model that’s working; the other model doesn’t work.

Australian punters have been spoilt for choice

I think the festival audience did peak five or 10 years ago. However, there’s still a lot of people going to festivals, there’s still a lot of people coming out to one day events. Look at Mumford’s just had 25,000 people in the Domain, in Sydney on the same night that the Beach Boys had almost 6000 people on Bondi Beach. And Florence was doing one of four shows on the steps of the Opera House. People are still going out to events, it just seems that the festival experience and the one day travelling event was something that the audience may have gone, “gee, I’m not getting what I want here.” I think it’s kind of that simple.

Look at Soundwave a couple of years back they had Metallica, they had Linkin Park, they had three or four amazing acts – it was their 10 year birthday year, I think. I don’t think there could have been a better festival in the world if you like that kind of music, than what they put on. But then the public expects that every year. The public thinks, “well that was a great one, what are you doing better next time?” and if you don’t meet that expectation, then they don’t buy the ticket.

The Australian public is almost spoilt for the level of some of the events that they have been getting. I mean, Big Day Out was delivering amazing events, in terms of the billing of the artists. When I used the word “spoilt”,’ I don’t mean that negatively, but it was an embarrassment of riches artistically playing on those stages, and that becomes very hard to replicate year after year after year.

Although with Bluesfest, that’s what we do – we challenge ourselves, and we go, “it’s gotta be the best that you get”. And some years, it all happens, and other years, not so many artists want to get on a plane and travel 20 hours, or whatever it is to Australia, but that’s something that we deal with every year and try to do the best one. Of course the next year you try to do it again. I think this year, I am delivering one of my best ever festivals. And we’re not done yet!

How triple j influences festivals and ticket sales

I think that festivals that specialise and just do triple j programmed artists and they will get “presents on triple j” and I think that that’s fine, but we’re going to fine more and more in the future that festivals need to be a little bit more diverse. And it would be great if triple j would see that festivals do have large contemporary components of their events, could get a bit of that incredible nation wide free marketing that triple j gives to those events that specialise and only present within what triple j programs. Now, I’m not knocking triple j in any way, I just think that there’s a whole lot of opportunities missed there. I mean, why wouldn’t triple j be presenting an event that’s got Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo and The National – I could keep going on it.

“I’m not knocking triple j in any way, I just think that there’s a whole lot of opportunities missed there”

Oh, they are interested in Kendrick Lamar… But they’re not presenting us putting on Kendrick Lamar. And that’s where it gets a little like, “oh guys, maybe you should be reviewing this a little bit.” I’m not trying to say what you’re doing is not great but maybe there’s always room for change on the planet and reviewing what you do. Look at Bluesfest this year – I’ve decided we are going to be the leader of this country in music festivals. I’m programming it that way, it’s a little bit of a pity that all media is not getting behind us as a result of that. But if you don’t believe what we’re doing is becoming a frontrunner, then maybe as we become a frontrunner, the events that don’t stay up with us and the media, they are no longer necessarily with the frontrunner. We still book artists that are 80 years old, and we’re happy to book artists that are eight years old, and that’s the way it should be.

[Support from triple j] would mean hundreds of thousands of dollars of free marketing, on a radio station that is up to number three in some urban markets. You can’t buy ads, it’s that simple, and so you can sell an event out just on that alone. It becomes very hard for other events to compete with events who receive that much free marketing on radio. It’s kind of that simple.

I’m not trying to reach around or throw shit at triple j but I think they should consider all those things because I think I’m not the only one who is answering that question. When I said something the other day, which was kind of misreported a little bit, what I said at Face The Music. I wasn’t being overly critical about them – I was just saying, ask them to review it. I couldn’t believe how many people in the media said to me, “you know what, it’s time stuff like this was being said more.” Major people in media saying that to me – people in street press and radio, because triple j is a very very very powerful arm of the government. It is paid for by the taxpayers; that includes me and everyone else that pays tax. Well, we should have every right to look at what they do, and maybe make comment about it and perhaps they shouldn’t sit there and not respond to that comment. They are public servants, in the end – even if they don’t see themselves as that.

“It becomes very hard for other events to compete with events who receive free marketing on triple j”

Double J

Double J needs to get on the radio. Double j is an internet station and as long as it’s an internet station it can’t be a major player. If the goal is for people to migrate from triple j to double j as they get older and they want to hear more mature forms of music then the goal also should be to get double j on the dial. It’s that’s simple, otherwise to some degree; it’s a Clayton’s move. It’s great that it’s there, but it would be really brilliant if it was on the air. And we’re waiting for this to happen and wasn’t that what was said in the beginning? That that was where it was going? And I know there’s been cutbacks in the government, and maybe that’s the reason. We were all expecting this brilliant idea to go to air at some point. Well, we’re still waiting – it would be nice to hear what’s going on there.

Explaining the 2016 lineup

We had a couple of issues early because our traditional audience decided to see the Facebook post going, “well, I don’t know anybody on the bill,” or “I only know Jackson Browne” or something. So I just thought it would make it easier for them to split it out and see who the artists are that they like. So that was one of the reasons, also we just wanted to show the different things we do during a festival.

We are a multigenerational event and we’re trying to do the best that every part of those areas we specialise in and on top of that, we’re also a family event. We want you to bring your kids – doesn’t mean you should have them out rocking around at 11 o’clock at night, but we really are a family event. It’s important because that’s how you introduce people to music. So many people say, “I’ve been bringing my children year after year and they love this kind of music, and they love what triple j plays too,” but if you let people hear great music, they will love great music and they will grown up loving great music and that’s my mission.


Working with Auckland City Limits to secure a bigger lineup

[We worked] very closely with them. It was my idea to bring Kendrick Lamar to Australia and I certainly pushed that very hard onto them. I’m glad that they’re doing some roots. Because I think the original idea with that festival was to be more indie rock, certainly in partnering up a little bit we… or at least having a strategic alliance, I guess you’d call it, we had to have discussions about who was suitable for both of us. I know they felt strongly about Cold War Kids, we had a discussion for a while. They talked me into that – I don’t book one act for Bluesfest unless I absolutely believe that it’s going to be perfect on that stage, on that time. Nobody gets booked for no other reason. I didn’t book anybody that they have just based on the fact that they have it. Quite a few acts I passed on, and there’s quite a few acts I’ve yet to announce that they’re not going to have.


Personal favourites

Well, my idea – I mean I get to be the curator, and certainly people in my office get a lot of say in it, and a lot of people can lobby me and a number of those artists will get booked. And it’s always changing – if you go back and look at what’s on the bill five years ago, it will have changed to what’s on now. That’s just a part of wanting to be a festival that’s not resting on its laurels. To me, I’m just as excited about announcing Kaleo as I am Bros. Landreth, as I am about announcing D’Angelo. I realise that he’s a big guy on the announcement, but gee, artists like Fantastic Negrito and Con Brio and Kaleo and Bros. Landreth, I mean, all those artists are poised – they’re ready to be next big things.

I mean, Fantastic Negrito already won the national public radio contest this year at SXSW; best new band. Kaleo’s had five number one singles in a row, in their home country of Iceland and have played to the biggest audience to ever come together in that country. So these are the artists that we’re renowned for breaking at Bluesfest. I mean, once upon a time we brought Jack Johnson to Australia for the first time, or Ben Harper, or so many others. To me, Kaleo is going to be one of the biggest bands in the world. They’ve already got a major label and they’ve got Arcade Fire’s producer producing it and this is the stuff that we get to do that is just so exciting. Or the Bros. Landreth has got the Juno award for Best Roots Band in Canada this year. Nobody gets on our bills by just the fact that they want to tour. I get bands saying they’ll come to Australia and play for nothing on Bluesfest but I’m yet to book one!

“If we can’t sell this line up out, then, I would say that Australia isn’t responding to the best of the best in all types of music”

Booking the lineups

It’s the goal [to book bigger lineups] every year. A lot of people say our best year was the Dylan year. A lot of people say 2013, when we had all the legends like Paul Simon and Santana… Robert Plant and Iggy Pop one. Every year is different. If those guys all want to play on the same year again, I’m going to book them. It might mean that the makeup of the audience slightly changes, although this year there’s plenty of stuff happening for older people too.

And let me say this, the discovery of music, no matter the age that you are, should be what it’s about. When bands like St. Paul and the Broken Bones come along, I hear that guy sing and I just go, “Oh my god, that guy is amazing.” I like Nathaniel Rateliff too, but I really like St. Paul. Nathaniel’s gonna sell more tickets for sure, because he’s had the song… He’s exploded.

But for my money as a music listener, you have to be… you have to have commercial sensibilities if you’re a promoter or a festival director. But it’s about having artists like St. Paul, or in this announcement, Kaleo, also Fantastic Negrito. Honestly, just google those artists up – they are just amazing! I think you’ve got to be right there… to use a band that plays Bluesfest names… the spearhead, the very tip all the time, you’ve gotta be putting on what’s going on.

Yet at the same point in time, knowing what’s happened in the past and be willing to get out there and in a year when an artist like Brian Wilson has had so many good things happen through the movie Love & Mercy and the great album. No Pier Pressure, to me is a better album – better music than Pet Sounds. It’s that good. There is a couple of tracks I jump over… the very last track on that album [‘The Last Song’] is as good as anything he’s every done, except maybe ‘God Only Knows’.

I’m a veteran. I’ve been in the game almost 50 years and that’s what I see as my role. Is to put on the best of the best and challenge the audience to go, “Well, if I’m going to go to one festival in Australia this year, it can only be Bluesfest.” That’s my job, you know. And at a time when festivals possibly could be doing a little bit better, I see that it’s even more important to have the best bill. Because that’s the one that should sell out – but I’m not sold out yet! So we’ll see.

If we can’t sell this line up out, then, I would say that Australia isn’t responding to the best of the best in all types of music. It’s just… perhaps as good as the best that I’ve ever done. I don’t want to ever say that, you know, it makes you sound egotistical but I think it’s up there with the best years of ’11 and ’13 and, what year was our 25th year? ’14? This decade we’ve had more good festivals of blues that we probably had since way back when we were breaking the Ben Harper’s and Jack Johnson’s in this country. It seems we’re having a golden run, or maybe after all these years in the business I’m learning how to do it better!

[Lead image of Peter Noble and Steve Smyth via Bluesfest Facebook and Tao Jones Photographer]