Groovin The Moo: “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”

The first Groovin the Moo show – on 24 April 2005 – drew over 1,400 punters to the Gloucester Showgrounds to see the Screaming Jets, Killing Heidi, Evermore, The Spazzys and a bunch of local bands. Eight years on from that debut, the festival has grown to become a national festival hosting a lineup of international talent and attracting tens of thousands of punters to the five stops on the regional tour.

While other regional (and even big city) festivals have struggled or failed, Groovin the Moo has become a fixture on the festival calendar. In fact this year’s edition of the festival features its biggest ever lineup of international acts with a record number overseas bands making the trek from Sweden, Germany, Canada, America and England to play shows in those classic touring hotspots – Bendigo, Maitland, Bunbury, Townsville and Canberra.

Stephen Halpin is a statistician by trade but for nearly a decade now he has been running the Groovin the Moo festival with his business partner Rodney Little and doing it damn well.

Halpin, who is curiously described on the festival’s website as the show’s “Livestock Manager”, spoke to FasterLouder offer some practical country spun wisdom about how the festival has managed to avoid the mistakes made by other festivals, why some bands don’t work in the country, and about the festival’s ‘Don’t Be Greedy’ motto. Oh, and of course chat a bit about the bands on impressive 2012 lineup including City and Colour, The Maccabees and Mutemath!

Let’s start right back at the beginning. What inspired you to start the festival?

Being based in Newcastle we would see a lot of kids go down to Big Day Out and those sort of things and we thought that if we could have a mini-Big Day Out and focus it in regional towns is was a model that might work. And it has! Being a bit naïve probably helped, not knowing the risks. Had we known how hard and stressful and risky it was that we know now we might not have started!

So what experience did you have in ‘the business’ before you started the festival?

Not a great deal. I’d played in a few bands around Newcastle and I had an interest in music but I’d never really worked in this area as such. I’m a statistician by training so I’d done a lot of project management stuff and that helped with the planning and logistics. What we learnt easy was to contract or employ people who knew what they were talking about; getting good production people, good event management people. Sop although we hadn’t really worked in the industry before it was about knowing what you don’t know and then handing it over to people who are experts in those areas.

What was the most naive thing that you did in that first year that you learnt from it?

I suppose leaving things to the last minute and not realising how much goes on when you’re putting a festival together. You just think get the stage organised, you book the bands, the speakers, you sell the tickets and off you go – you forget that there’s fencing and security, toilets, catering (for the bands, the people working on site as well as the punters). There are just so many elements that you don’t realise until you actually get in and do it.

What did you do differently to avoid the mistakes made by other regional festivals that have tried to start up in recent years – such as Blueprint?

I guess first of all when we started eight years ago we were a bit under the radar. I don’t think we made the same mistakes that Blueprint and those others made but maybe we just had a bit more planning nous. Those guys sound like they were just as inexperienced as we were but maybe we were a bit more experience in a business sense. We weren’t perfect and we made a lot of mistakes but we were probably one step beyond where they were at.

A week out from the first show we realised that we weren’t going to get to the break even point, but we were still confident enough in the big picture to go ahead regardless knowing that we were probably going to lose money. But we had backing behind us to see it through – so our money management, our cash flow management, was a bit different.

So you always planned to expand and become a touring festival?

Yeah! That was the plan. We started in Gloucester and then went to a place called Narrandera. I guess in the first year we realised that those places were a bit too small and a bit too far away. So we moved the Gloucester one to Maitland – so it’s still in the hunter Valley but it’s a bit closer to Newcastle and the Central Coast. And we moved the Narrandera one to Bendigo where it’s accessible to a bigger population in Central Victoria and more economically viable.

Groovin the Moo Gloucester 2005. Photo: Ross Carroll. GTM website

You tried events in Albury and Darwin and that didn’t work out – what was it about those locations that led you to move on?

Again it’s just the population. And Darwin’s a long way from anywhere and the population’s around 100 000 people. That’s too small a population to draw a decent crowd. Running a festival costs a lot of money with production and staging so to have a chance to break even you need to be drawing on a decent population. The most you could get at one of those festivals [Darwin or Albury] is about 4 or 5 000 and it’s really hard to have a decent lineup and break even on those numbers.

This one’s a question for a statistician – do you have stats on what percentage of the Groovin the Moo audience is from the local areas and how many punters make it a road trip from the bigger cities?

Yeah and it varies from place to place. With Bendigo nearly half the crowd is from Melbourne and then there’s a lot of others from all over country Victoria. For Townsville it’s from all over North Queensland – we get people driving ten hours from Mt Isa and Rockhampton. In bunbry it’s similar to Bendigo with about a third of the crowd coming down from Perth and then the rest come from South West WA. Maitland – maybe 10 – 20% are from Sydney and then a lot of people from the North Coast like Coffs Harbour and Port Maquarie, and from inland Bathurst and places like that. So the majority of crowd is still a regional audience.

But there is a significant overlap with the audiences that are heading to the capital city festivals as well; so you’re not totally insulated from the issues they have at the moment.

Well, we do have up to 40% of our audience coming from capital cities, but it’s becoming a bit of a weekend away; like with Bendigo making a weekend of it. It might be a similar lineup to what you might see at a Big Day Out, but it’s in a different context. You get a road trip, you get to see the bands in a country showground so it has a different vibe. I think that’s part of the appeal for people coming up from the city.

With so many punters from Melbourne making the trip to Bendigo it always seems to be the first date on the tour to sell out. Will you need to move it to a bigger venue to meet that demand?

We’ve thought of it, but it works really well in the showgrounds because it’s close to the city and people can catch a train or a bus up and then you can just walk to the venue. There is a racecourse but that’s about five kilometres out of town and that would just change the energy I think. It sells out quickly but to be honest we’re pretty happy where we are. We don’t feel we have to make it bigger. We could probably sell another 10 000 tickets but that brings in a bunch of other complications. As it is it works and has a really good vibe; it works for us and the town. And if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.

I think the thing with festivals is ‘Don’t Be Greedy’. If it’s working and making a reasonable amount of money then just stick with it. I’m happy to keep it as it is.

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