Inside Falls Festival

Since 1996, The Falls Festival has been a pinnacle of the summer season. With its dual sites of Lorne and Marion Bay providing the natural splendour, the New Years Eve camp-out grows stronger with each edition.

Last year, Falls won Best Line-Up in the inaugural Festival Awards, acknowledging the 12 solid months of work that goes into getting the programming just right. With votes currently rolling in for the 2009 Festival Awards, FL sat down with founder and Festival Director Simon Daly to find out what keeps the Falls magic alive.

In last year’s Festival Awards, you guys won Best Line-Up. It was probably one of the most talked about awards because of the massive emphasis on lineups at the moment. I wanted to find out how you cope with the growing pressure for promoters to have the biggest and best line-ups in the world?

It’s an internal pressure to be better than what you were. The day you stop trying to be a better festival is the day you go stale. I think that goes through the whole festival – from programming to the experience of patrons throughout the festival.

In the old days, when I started doing Falls, there was only ever a couple of us working for three to four months. This is how it was for the first five to six years, but as a patron you got the end of that work, which wasn’t much in my view. But it was a different sort of a festival and a different experience. But now there is six people who all year on the two events.

It’s hard to believe it’s a 12-month affair.

People still come up to me in my local town and say, “What are you doing at the moment?” Those six full-timers will complain about being overworked and there is another seven people who will work for six months of the year. So it’s a really big team that come together. If that team wasn’t there and it didn’t keep on developing, then the experience of the festival for the patron wouldn’t keep developing either. It’s the work that everyone puts in throughout the year that people get to see on the ground.

At what point in your year do you start looking at booking acts?

Programming is just one element and it occurs year round with a core two people who work on the program entirely. That’s myself and Richard Moffett – he works at RRR on –  “New and Incoming’. By nature of his other job, he’s across everything which is fantastic. So he’s always keeping me up to speed with everything and we’ve both got our own feel of what a program can be. It’s a really rare combination of tastes which completely compliment the style and the feel of the fest. Everything he loves I love, and if it wasn’t that then we’d be programming a festival that would clash.

There is always a really nice shift between the acts. It seems really considered.

It’s a hard one to get right because I never want to be genre specific. It’s all got to gel, intertwine, make sense and feel right. Last year was a great year programming-wise, so the challenge this year was to match that. I think that this year hasn’t gone backwards – if anything, it’s forwards.

Do you feel an external pressure from the punters to one-up the year before? Or are you just trying to create your own thing?

Externally, not at all. Not even remotely. But internally it’s intense. Between Rich and I, the work which goes in is phenomenal. The amount of program options we have available and the time that goes into getting that to feel right is just incredible. We spent hours every day for months on end just working on each program. When one act doesn’t come through that we are really keen on, that can completely throw the balance of the rest of the program and the acts that we’ve been considering. So we’ll move in a slightly different direction again just to make sure the feel stays right.

You seem to leave a lot of space for local artists, at least half of the bill each year. Is that something you set out to achieve or just something that just happened?

Funnily enough, I thought it was the other way round. I though we were mostly international. The kind of artists we’re accommodating and driving around just seems to increase every year. I think there’s a strong consideration for both. We want to be recognised as both a strong local and international festival, which I think is important for the festival’s longevity.

Have you ever booked an artist and regretted it?

Well, dance isn’t really my forefront in programming. After one dance act, we finished it all and at the 11th hour they wanted an extra $50000 in lighting, which we felt compelled to get them but it wasn’t budgeted for. We were just like, “Really? Do we have to?” Most of the acts we work with are really amenable. If you look through the program from last year, you think, “I doubt any of those acts would have given them a hard time.”

I was at Marion Bay last year and was surprised by how relaxed everyone was compared with most of the other festivals I’d worked for, all the artists included.

That comes down to the environment. People kinda realise they are in a unique setting and they fit into that spirit.

Is the festival where you saw it 20 years ago? Are you happy with where it’s progressed to?

Very happy where it’s progressed to. I always thought it would be something but I didn’t really know what because I was 21. You don’t have too bigger vision at that age. I do remember distinctly my old man saying, “This will probably be good for two to three years. These things come in waves, so enjoy it while it’s there, but don’t be too disappointed when it all doesn’t come to be.”

Famous last words?

Yeah, I took his words and thought, “Geez, I hope I get four or five years.” Certainly at his age I don’t think that he had the vision to see that his son would hold the same position for 17 years.

How do you go from a 21-year-old who just wants to have parties with his mates to a festival promoter?

We very much just learned as we went. In the early years it was just an informal gathering amongst friends and it became an event – but by no means a festival. Then after about four or five years it started to take the shape of a festival. It was a really organic process. The council and authorities we had worked with were certainly not experienced with this sort of thing either, so we had to learn from the tribulation and trials of what would serve the festival best.

Is there an essential element that make a festival a good festival? Is there one thing you have to get right before anything else?

Yes, and my view is probably different to other people’s views, but I think it’s about the comfort of patrons. You have to ensure that the backstage is great for artists but I like the idea that the experience should be great both ways. Often I think that’s not the first consideration, but it’s a critical one.

The most compelling experience I can relate that to is with my wife. In our first year of going out, she went to the toilets of the event, and I’d never been because we had our own toilet out the back of the event, and she said, “My God! They’re horrible!” She went for a mop and broom and spent the whole event just cleaning the loos. So I’m pleased to say that in the last 10 years we’ve had a massive upgrade on the toilets. It’s from that point that I never considered that we’d have a contractor come in and deliver us a toilet truck and tell us he’d have cleaners.

You have to put a lot more thought in than that, so in the last 10 years with the scale of the event, people have to be very comfortable. We went out and got our own private networks – our massive volunteer network from within the community to come and help us clean the loos. It includes the wilderness society in Tassie. It’s something like $25,000 just to maintain the loos in Tassie.

Then in Lorne we have a rambling football team in the hills called The Forest Football Team. They haven’t won a premiership for 30 years. They took over the Lorne loos and within three years they won their first premiership and completely transformed the town. That was a landmark step in terms of creating that patron focus.

Within two or three years, the festival was taking huge steps forward in patrons and return participation – especially for females. It may sound like a funny stat, but we have more females at Falls than males, which is very unusual for any festival setting. I’m sure that’s because they know they’re coming to a safe and clean time, which is very important. The loos started off as something small and then they became the first self-composting loos which Falls pioneered in the festival environment.

Is there any other festivals that you look to and admire and learn from, whether they be local or international?

Festivals all over the world have their own little things and I think you can pick something up off them. I think on the whole, in terms of the established festivals in Australia, we really lead the pack. Travelling the world, you look at the patron factor and there are so many things that make you think, “I can’t believe that this happens.”

There is just such a healthy vibrancy amongst the local festival community to provide a better experience. I think that has translated in the healthy festival scene we see now. A lot of effort is put in and as a result a lot of festivals are really well received.

Is Falls Festival your favourite festival? VOTE NOW in the 2009 Festival Awards to show it your love.