It’s that time of year again, festival lineups are out and punters’ pockets are beginning to empty as Summer approaches with a hoard of both international and local acts about to hit the road in aid of our enjoyment of the sun.
But behind the summer idealism and musical parties that we all look forward to is a fiercely competitive festival market of promoters that work all year round to earn our dollars.
Festival lineups either bring out our snarkiest social media comments or force us onto a diet of Mi Goreng and Goon in order to save the necessary cash in order to afford the asking price.
What is the magic element that ensnares our purchase though? Is there a successful formula for lineup success? What is the precise balance of international acts versus local talent that is necessary for a festival to sell out, let alone survive?
Looking towards the festival lineups that have been released for the summer ahead, as well as further back to earlier this year, there is a clear distinction between some of the country’s most well-known one day festivals and camping festivals.
Looking at the acts that have made up the bills of both recent and forthcoming camping festivals, it’s clear that a host of Australian acts are included to fill out their multi-day rosters.
While most have over 50% of Australian acts on their bills, Falls at present sits on just 40%, although a third announcement is expected to bolster their local stable.
Other camping festivals though, are heavily reliant on local bands. The Pyramid Rock festival features 80% local bands. Peats Ridge sits at roughly two-thirds, while Festival of the Sun is made up exclusively of Australian and New Zealand acts.
Of all the festivals though, it would appear that Splendour in the Grass have found the best balance between homegrown talent and international draw-cards. 62% of acts at this year’s sold-out festival were Australian or Kiwi.
A huge vindication for the festival after it failed to sell out its 2011 event, despite possessing some of the biggest international headliners yet, in Coldplay and Kanye West. The problem being that the high cost of booking such banner names meant the cost was passed on to the consumer, and that there was little left to pay for Australian acts.
But a trend has emerged from some of Australia’s biggest one day festivals, where it seems international artists have become a necessity to get people through the gates.
The usually mammoth Big Day Out trimmed the fat after the much documented disasters of last year’s event, with a notable lack of local acts on the bill in comparison to 2011 with just 29% of 2013’s lineup being Australian.
Laneway and Parklife are marginally less with 26% of their respective lineups made of local artists, although that is excluding a long list of local DJs from the latter.
Even Homebake, which has traditionally been exclusive to Australian and Kiwi acts branched out this year for its ‘Global Edition’, acquiring Blondie to be their first international band to appear at the festival.
Summadayze has 15% worth of home-grown acts with just four representatives (Kimbra, Knife Party, Stafford Brothers & Timmy Trumpet), but if you thought that was bad, look towards AJ Maddah’s festival stable.
Both Soundwave and Harvest festivals are heavily centred on international acts, with Harvest having just one local act (in Sydney’s Winter People), while Soundwave has four Australian representatives out of a whopping 73 acts (in Confession, Amity Affliction, Northlane, Milestones).
But does having international acts necessarily guarantee that a festival will sell out?
Both Parklife and Big Day Out are yet to run out of tickets and according to Splendour in the Grass co-founder Jessica Ducrou, local acts can sell more tickets than the international draw-cards.
Speaking at BIGSOUND on whether artists were being paid too much, Ducrou said that “Australian acts, in many instances, sell more tickets than their international counterparts.”
Many though might argue that one day festivals don’t need local acts, as they generally tour the country more than once throughout the year.
Speaking on the same BIGSOUND panel, Stephen Wade, booking agent and owner of Select Music, pointed out the huge discrepancy between how much local and international were getting paid to play festivals, much of which is due to bidding wars in the market for overseas talent.
“Australian acts will play a whole bunch of shows throughout a year which makes them a little less attractive to a festival because someone may have seen them a handful of times beforehand, so it’s not the real reason you will buy a ticket,” said Wade.
There is no doubt though that playing at festivals which have the ability to pull massive audiences, like Soundwave and Big Day Out, provides a unique opportunity for Australian and New Zealand acts.
These festivals can provide career highlights for many local acts as they play in front of the biggest crowds of their lives.
While Wade agreed that homegrown bands might not be paid as much as their international counterparts, the exposure can be worth far more than the money.
“At times when you are not getting paid enough you may end up playing in front of 8,000 people, so that’s a lot of people you would not have been able to impress or turn on to your act if you did not get that opportunity,” he said.
Shouldn’t more Australian acts headline more of our local festivals, in the same way that artists like Florence + The Machine and The xx sat at the top end of the bill of Bestival in their own homeland?
The same way that the likes of Coachella and Lollapalooza regularly spruik American acts, but surely there are Australian acts that could match the pulling power of a Red Hot Chili Peppers or Blink 182?
Damian Costin, a booking agent at Premier Artists who represents acts such as Stonefield and Illy, reasons that Australian acts are big enough to headline festivals but are simply never given the opportunity.
“How can Australian acts even compete when they aren’t even given the chance?” says Costin.
“Radio should absolutely be playing Australian acts at prime time and not between 7pm and 6am when everyone is asleep. APRA, ARIA and all the associations representing Australian acts and especially the Australian content laws of Australian music are embarrassing compared to the rest of world,” continues Costin.
This brings us to the important question of whether festivals should have a responsibility to feature local artists on their bills.
With Triple J giving many young Australians there first taste of acts not just from Australia, but all around the world, the radio station is somewhat of a taste maker. This in turn means that the bands Triple J play are generally the ones who pop up on festival bills throughout the year.
Triple J are often targeted with the responsibility of fostering the Australian music scene. Should promoters share the burden of some of that responsibility?
Costin believes that “ultimately, yes” promoters do have a responsibility to feature local artists on their lineup.
“Australian acts are some of the world’s best… and music punters are happy to support Australian music – just ask them,” said Costin.
“Not all promoters have this outlook but we need to look after the future of the industry and that means we need to invest in acts that potentially can compete and mix it with the best of them.”
Should then promoters have to abide by a quota of local acts for their festivals in the same way that radio and TV do?
Back in 2010 as a part of the Labor Party’s pre-election strategy, Midnight Oil frontman-turned-Federal Minister, Peter Garrett, put together a proposal where foreign music acts would be legally obliged to having local support acts by creating ‘Entertainment Visas’.
However the scheme was shot down, with most in the industry agreeing that it was more of a burden and would only provide limited opportunities for local acts.
Garrett may not have been able to get his scheme off the ground, but he certainly had the right idea – introducing systems that actively enforce the promotion of local talent, rather than relying on the good will of promoters and bookers to ‘do the right thing’.
It is clear that one day festivals this summer will have less of a local presence, but with promoters wanting to avoid the blood bath of cancellations from 2011’s disastrous festival season, should we blame them for doing what they might believe is necessary to survive?
Or do you argue that a balance between local and international is imperative? That promoters should be more conscious of Australian music?
Either way, you can’t downplay the risks associated with putting on a festival, as past failures have shown us.
As Ken West, boss of the Big Day Out poignantly put it at the BIGSOUND panel about the impossibly high stakes of the music festival business: “you don’t want to put your house on the line every year.”
Undoubtedly, responsibility can’t solely rest on the shoulders of those promoters looking to entertain the greater musical masses, because if festivals don’t sell tickets, there would be no festivals at all.
But it is the responsibility of all players who have ties to the Australian music industry to support local acts as much as possible, whether that be the media, the government, and right down to the punter.
Until Australian acts are given the necessary exposure, their appearance at the top of one day festival bills won’t become as commonplace as it could and should be.