Exclusive: AJ Maddah on how Adelaide nearly “wiped out” Soundwave

Is Soundwave returning to Adelaide? Was 2015 the last hurrah? What’s with all the contradictory stuff on Twitter? ANDREW P STREET gave promoter AJ Maddah a call yesterday to sort things out once and for all. Photos by DAVID YOUDELL.

Speaking as someone who spent most of their gig-going life in Adelaide, there’s an undeniable fact about the City of Churches: people don’t buy tickets. And they don’t because they don’t have to. Punters in Sydney and Melbourne have learned from painful experience that those who leave things to the last minute are doomed to pay scalper prices or beg for plus-ones on Gumtree. In Adelaide audiences know they can lob in on the night with little chance of a “House Full” sign. From the perspective of promoters it makes predicting tours incredibly difficult. Are people not buying tickets because the gig is a flop, or because they’re waiting to see how they feel on the night? The upshot is that the bands and touring agents that come to Adelaide do so blind, and are often rewarded by a dozen people looking vaguely embarrassed.

It’s not a recent thing by any stretch: for a solid 15 years I was generally one of those embarrassed people. A decent slab of my 20s were spent watching Fauves gigs where Andy Cox would harangue the dismal audience for our lack of numbers and our city’s shit treatment of touring bands, despite we being the ones who did actually turn up. The pitiful audience for Mclusky’s sole Adelaide show in 2003 guaranteed that their later incarnation Future of the Left would skip the city evermore. “Every time we come out we mention it to [our promoters] and they just shake their heads (or at least, do a passable impression of an email shaking its head),” frontman Andy Falkous explained via email. “No chance. A shame.” And that’s part of the reason that last weekend saw the Soundwave Festival take over Adelaide’s Bonython Park for what may be the last time.

Ahead of the event, the festival’s mercurial promoter AJ Maddah announced that he wouldn’t be bringing it back to the city, citing the smallest ever sales in the festival’s history – prompting a passionate outcry on social media. Not long after he tweeted that he sincerely hoped to return to Adelaide soon. So I decided to call him up and ask: what gives?

First up, it’s well known that A-town punters never buy tickets until the last minute. That’s a historical fact. So was this year a surprise?

Well, it wasn’t a shock that they left it until the last minute – they leave it until the last minute every year. It was a shock when they didn’t turn up at the last minute.

Two days standing in 40 degrees isn’t a great incentive, of course.

Oh, absolutely. And even the Big Day Out sold 60 per cent of their tickets in the last two weeks, back in the day. Soundwave 2013 we sold out nice and early, because that line up was undeniable, but 2013 is I think the only year we made money in Adelaide. Generally speaking we bankroll Adelaide [shows] out of the other cities.

“Adelaide basically wiped out everything we’re making in the other three cities”

So why do it at all?

Well, first up it’s good to have the shows to make up the numbers so it’s worthwhile for the bands, but also I’ve always loved Adelaide. Adelaide people are generally really genuine, from the fans to the suppliers to everybody down there – everyone’s just really nice people. As opposed to say, Sydney where a lot of the people are complete arseholes. [laughs]

Hey, it’s a fine town.

Adelaide’s always been my favourite Soundwave. When we had a dispute a couple of years ago with the Adelaide Council [over noise complaints] it was amazing how quickly the fans mobilised and got petitions and Facebook pages up – 30,000 people protested the mayor when we were kicked out of Bonython Park.

So it comes down to money?

Yep. I’ve got a great fondness to Adelaide, but unfortunately the losses of doing it are staggering down there. And I can take that for one year, but second year it’s starting to jeopardise the festival nationally.

What sort of money are we talking?

We lost a modest amount of money last year – $300,000 – and that’s subsidised out of the other cities. But this year it’s ridiculous. We were basically 8000 people short, which is crazy. And that’s basically wiped out everything we’re making [after costs] in the other three cities, because we work on very small margins. Every cent we have goes into more acts or making things more comfortable for punters.

Your average Soundwave bill is somewhere between 10-15 million dollars in artist fees, and it costs between 2-2.5-million dollars to put on each show. So when you’re 8000 seats short at $180 per ticket, then that’s $1.4 million. So essentially I’ve lost the equivalent of the family home in one weekend.

Is part of the problem the fact that Adelaide puts damn near all of its events on in February? Soundwave aside, there’s the Adelaide Festival, the Adelaide Fringe, WOMADelaide, the Clipsal 500…

I would have liked to have thought that our market is not the same as the Fringe or WOMAD, and obviously it hasn’t affected it too badly in previous years. Although the whole reason we moved this year’s dates around was to avoid Clipsal. But everything from One Direction to the Foo Fighters is failing in Adelaide, I don’t think it’s an isolated thing. Nothing has worked in Adelaide in the recent past aside from the Rolling Stones and Katy Perry. I’ve had to cut down the club and theatre shows I’ve been putting through Adelaide simply because nothing’s selling.

Why aren’t these tours working, in your opinion?

There is a general aura of depression in Adelaide at the moment. Obviously, how much bad news can you take – from the federal government not backing the auto industry down there to the uncertainty about submarine [construction]. But it’s not just a financial depression, it’s a mental depression because there’s just so much bad news and people are worried about the economy. And South Australia has the highest youth unemployment rate in [mainland] Australia, and guess what? That’s the market that we’re selling tickets to. We’re not selling tickets to wealthy retirees.

So is this definitely it? No more Adelaide Soundwave?

We would love nothing more than to go back to Adelaide every year, but I think we’re going to have to sit out at least a couple of years until I’ve got enough of a war chest to take the risk again, or until we see signs of recovery in the Adelaide market.

Is a single day event a possibility?

I haven’t even decided if we’re going to go back to one day nationally or stick with two days. We’ll consult with the punters after the gigs and determine how it was for them and what they prefer. But I just can’t take the risk of taking a four million dollar show to Adelaide and selling $1.7 million in tickets.

What’s the plan for the future?

We’re going to keep testing the water. We’ve cut down the number of shows that we send to Adelaide, but every fourth or fifth thing we do in Australia we’ll send to Adelaide and that’ll give us an idea of what the market’s like. And should we see any signs of recovery or enthusiasm, we can start having a go back in Adelaide [with Soundwave]. But it’s definitely not going to happen next year.