‘Boutique’ music festivals are seemingly one of the great success stories of our local music industry, with more and more events cropping up across the country every year, each tailored to meet the needs of increasingly-specific niches.
Many of the enormous cornerstones of our festival scene have crumbled in recent years, leaving an exciting new market to spring up in its place. But why this new formula is proving so popular, what does it take to run a successful event, and what does the future hold for the boutique festival?
To answer all of this, we’ve enlisted the help of some very experienced festival organisers who have just stepped into the marketplace with a selection of impressive new events, to get their perspectives on the boutique boom.
Geordie Baker and Glen ‘Goose’ McGrath are the co-directors of new boutique festival The Pleasure Garden, which will come to St Kilda’s Catani Gardens this December, lead by The Cat Empire, The Opiou Band, Blue King Brown and Tash Sultana, and boasting an array of art, theatre and gastonomy.
The duo have decades of event and festival experience between them, and have worked for names including Glastonbury, Big Day Out, Bluesfest, Burning Man and even the London Olympics.
Cody Edmonds is the Event Director of boutique regional festival Let Go Fest, which in its second year will bring an impressive range of acts like RÜFÜS, Hayden James and REMI to the Mornington Peninsula, together with all sorts of rides and attractions. Cody has also started up Oktoberfest St Kilda, which just saw a successful first run at Catani Gardens.
He began his career in the industry as a promoter running various live shows, before making the leap several years ago into the festival market.
Let Them Eat Cake’s setting sure beats your average stage in an empty field.
Out With The Old
The idea of a boutique festival is a nebulous one, but the common theme is of an event that aims to meet the needs of a more specific audience and offer a more unique experience than the larger festivals that once dominated the scene, based as they were around huge, all-encompassing lineups stacked with big names – and little else.
A new guard of festivals like Strawberry Fields, Rainbow Serpent and Let Them Eat Cake, with their focus on the atmosphere as much as the lineups, have swept in and paved the way for newer events like The Pleasure Garden and Let Go Fest. But why have we seen such a huge shift in the festival marketplace, and what led to the demise of previous super-festivals like Soundwave, Stereosonic and The Big Day Out?
“That’s an absolutely classic question that we get asked all the time,” Goose tells us. “Largely it’s the fact that the old model had moved away from embracing a community, and basically turned it into a commodified product that was so lineup-dependent.
“When you create a space that can engage people and a community, you’re gonna have better longevity and people will get more enjoyment out of the events they go to. Once you strip that back to pay for artists or whatever, you’re gonna lose the core soul of your business.”
“Obviously the lack of large festivals drawing in the market was a key feature – ultimately it’s the punters voting with their feet. The crowd numbers at big festivals over the last couple years were nothing on what they were five years earlier.
“I’d like to tell you it was the right time and we got all our ducks in a row,” Geordie says, “but realistically it was that the festival public had voted with their feet over the last few years that a stage, a burger van, and a bar wasn’t good enough to warrant their time and their wallets.
Cody agrees that there is now a demand for something that wasn’t being offered by the larger festivals.
“People can now more easily find the music that they like, and then, given that, want to search for individual events that they’ll also like. In the past, to see a particular artist you’d have to go to this big event. Now, you can look for the sideshows, or a smaller boutique festival that’s actually tailored to your liking.
“Everything now is an experience – eating food out of a truck is an experience,” he adds. “Going with friends to the food trucks, sharing, then going to another – it’s a whole activity now. That’s what we underpin at Let Go, with things like the Fear Factor Zone, with snakes, crocodiles and turtles – we want people to come and touch and feel, and experience something different.”
“It’s about all of the finer details,” Geordie believes, “and that’s what we’ve really tried to do with The Pleasure Garden. Because in my ideal world I’d love someone to come because they’re mad about The Cat Empire, but leave talking about the interactions that they had, the friends that they made, the food they ate, and the beer they drank, rather than they came and saw The Cat Empire.”
A Gap In The Market
With fewer big festivals commanding the punters and copious experience working on massive overseas events like Glastonbury and Burning Man, Geordie and Goose saw an opportunity to put what they’d learnt into their own local festival.
“We’d been talking about this for about five years of bringing that English and American influence on festivals and culture into an Australian market, and the timing came down to ultimately the availability of a public that was ready to listen and engage in a new idea, and take a punt on giving something new a go.
“I think it is a reeducation process,” Geordie adds. “The boutique festival market here certainly isn’t mature – it’s somewhere in its early teens. It’s gotta find its own footing and identity, rather than just replicating what people have done overseas for a few decades.
It wasn’t an entirely altruistic decision though, Geordie says, as the pair couldn’t quite find what they were looking for in the new bumper crop of boutique fests.
“From a slightly selfish perspective also, we’ve been lucky enough to travel the world going to, working on and experiencing some of the most wicked parties around, and for us it was like, ‘Well, what’s the kind of party that we want in Australia?’ Well, there isn’t what we want. So what’s our mission statement, essentially? Okay, so let’s basically create the best party that we can and invite as many people as we can and create that space.
“You look at the kind of boutique festivals happening now and a lot of the organisers are our friends and we’re connected in those areas as well, but The Pleasure Garden has a lot of key differentiation points in terms of its programming, aesthetic and content. There’s still enough of, ‘We love what you’re doing, whether it be Strawberry or Rainbow, but there’s a party that we want to do.’ And generally, if you can approach that right, other people want to party with you too.”
For Cody, meanwhile, it was a natural step up from running smaller events – even if there was a steep learning curve.
“We started off three years ago running events with live acoustic artists, with around 50 people,” he tells us. “We then started going bigger and better and putting on more events, growing friends and networks, which created an opportunity – and we took it.
“We started up a boutique festival because there was a demand for it down in our area,” Cody says, describing Let Go Fest and its location on the Mornington Peninsula, and hour and a half from Melbourne’s CBD. “Regionally there’s not really that type of event that targets ages 18-35, there’s more stuff that targets 35-plus.
“We threw it together, and learned everything we needed to about putting on an event, from OH&S to all the documentation that needed to be done. So we definitely don’t consider ourselves experts! It really is true that the best way to learn in business is: do it – and that’s what we’re doing. We’re just learning as we go, and improving every time we do a new event like Oktoberfest St Kilda.”
Festivals like Strawberry Fields offer memorable settings that earlier events couldn’t match.
Building A Brand Identity
One of the key factors that goes into a successful boutique festival, and what makes them so appealing, is establishing a brand identity that extends beyond just the names on the bill. In shaping their festival’s image, the Pleasure Garden team took many of their cues from overseas, and the key point was clear: community.
“Mine and Goose’s background was running Parachute International,” Geordie says. “We worked in the UK for seven years, bunny-hopping between the UK and Australia for summers. The overriding thing we saw between the Australian festival scene and the UK festival scene was one of community and experience.
“The UK festival scene, there are festivals that are very large and have very large lineups, but the ones that have stood the test of time are the ones that create a community and allow people to express themselves as well as watching the artists express themselves. They centre around people being comfortable in a space.
“The brand identity is important because it’s much more than what you’re gonna bring, it’s the community you’re gonna foster. And certainly for examples like Pleasure Garden and Boomtown Fair and Shambalah, all of those are centred around a group of people coming together to not just watch the expressions of others, but to express themselves. You know, fancy dress, decor, exciting art installations that are interactive, hidden venues…”
For Geordie, thinking outside the box to create the ideal environment for that expression is key.
“The Secret Garden party, for example – they planted eight-foot high sunflowers and timed them correctly so that they came to bloom during the festival weekend. There wasn’t any sound installations or art in there, it was literally just the sunflower field. It’s so simple, but such a beautiful backdrop for people to come together. I personally spent three hours in there playing Marco Polo, in the middle of a music festival.
“It comes to a head when you allow people expression, and you give people that opportunity. How it links back is brand identity is community identity. In our experience, with the festivals we’ve done abroad, such as Boomtown and Secret Garden and Glastonbury, their brand is built around the community identity of the people that exist in that space for that period of time. That is as much about what it is as anything else. It’s not about going, ‘Okay, we want to be identified as this.’ It’s about going out with a really strong ethos about engagement, creativity and positivity. Those are the foundations of what will define our community and thus our brand.”
“The overarching emotional imprint is what it comes down to,” Goose adds. “It’s not just about looking good. Oh great, there’s big themed stages and a few art installations. The overarching emotional imprint, which is where you get your experiential value, is that feeling you get walking away and you just go, ‘Wow, that day was absolutely amazing.’ And that comes down to how you can produce the event on a technical and logistical level.
“It’s all about, ‘How long did it take me to get in through the gate? How long did I have to wait for the toilet? Could I get enough food? Could I get water when I needed it? How long was the queue to the bar? And did it sound good? So if you can focus on trying to make those key experiential aspects good as well, and value them as much as you do your creative content then that’s going to create that emotional imprint.”
Cody also believes that we need to draw on the massive selection of overseas events to help bolster our own.
“When you travel, you pick up ideas here and there and think, “Wow, that could be really cool to do back in Australia”. We keep an open mind about everything. There are so many boutique festivals that we don’t just draw from one, we draw from many – they’re all great in their own little way.”
Building a brand identity is important, but building brand loyalty is what keeps punters coming back year-on-year, allowing a festival to thrive. For this, Cody draws on the same principles as when he was booking 50-person rooms.
“Our core business started off with us as promoters, so we would be at a night and literally be along the bar drinking with friends – and a lot of our friends are our strongest supporters.
“And the amount of work that goes into it – people can recognise it. When you’re there at the events, they recognise, ‘Wow, there must have been a lot of work to do, these guys must be okay – we’ll try out their next event.’ That seems to work really well for us.
“While we’re at the event, we always want to be welcoming. We always want to welcome people to our event, whether it’s giving them lollies at the front gate, we just want to make sure that people feel welcomed at our events – that opens up the loyalty.”
Events like Let Go Fest offer plenty to do away from the main stage.
Risks, Concerns And Challenges
Despite the Australian festival scene being verdant turf for aspiring organisers, there were always going to be an array of concerns and unforeseen challenges. For Cody and the crew behind Let Go, one of the biggest considerations was, of course, the financial commitment – and the value that the public places on these events.
“To start up yourself, without any backing is immensely hard – and pre-Oktoberfest St Kilda, we had a lot on the line if that didn’t work. If a massive typhoon had come, sure, we had insurance… but that doesn’t refund you for all that work, time and effort striving to put on a great event.
“We try to put our ticket prices as cheap as possible, but people still think the price should be lower than that, even though we sometimes work on just breaking even. A lot of people don’t perceive the back-end and how much work goes into an event.”
That sheer amount of work it takes to run an event of this scale proved to be the biggest unforeseen challenge for the team.
“There’s a massive workload,” Cody says. “That was probably the biggest barrier – the work, and the number of people that needed to be involved. We want to make sure that everyone gets paid and hopefully get to the point where we don’t use volunteers, instead having a paid event staff. If we want to get paid ourselves, there’s no reason they shouldn’t get paid.”
Finally, pulling together a lineup with so much competition was another hurdle, but one that, like everything, gets easier with experience.
“Booking artists is a massive, massive effort that I definitely underestimated in the first year. Now we’re getting better at it, and booking RÜFÜS for our second year is a massive drawcard and a massive win for regional events.”
“Their tour is great; they’re really supporting the industry, not just playing the easy CBD gigs, which is just a credit to them. I think it shines through with their music, too – they’re great musicians, and they’re really giving it a crack with this regional tour, which is incredible for so many people who wouldn’t otherwise get to see these artists.”
For Goose and Geordie, who went into their planning with a decade of experience under their belts, there were other concerns.
“I think the first one,” Geordie says, “is that, looking at how the New South Wales Government has handled the treatment of live music and entertainment in the late night district, there certainly was a risk factor there – the idea of “we’ve gotta wrap you all in cotton wool because you don’t know what’s good for you” could’ve spread. That was a risk, obviously, not being able to predict the future with that.
“I think there’s no fewer risks now than there were five years ago, there’s just a few more pronounced issues with licensing that thankfully haven’t translated to Victoria, and thankfully we’ve got a very good state government that is very supportive of the arts and music – and I think it’s a coming of age for the whole industry.”
Could The Bubble Burst?
So, with so many boutique festivals cropping up across the country, is there a concern that the market could collapse as it did under the weight of the bigger festivals?
“Saturation of the market is obviously a risk factor that will be ongoing,” Geordie acknowledges. “There are a great deal of new events this season, first timers that haven’t existed before. So competition was another factor, but I think ultimately people in Melbourne are much more open-minded, and much more able to take an idea and investigate a little bit further, and come and engage.”
“There is an element of risk with that,” Goose agrees. “Obviously there’s been a zeitgeist shift to the boutique model and there’s been a lot of self-branding of events in a way as being a boutique experience but that becomes homogenised in itself. Just like having a craft beer bar and some electronic acts and an art installation doesn’t make it unique and a boutique event.
“What you’ll find is there will be a homogenisation of the boutique experience to some degree. But as long as there are enough events that stay true to their own vision about creating an individual space, that individuality and creativity, that’s going to foster long-term relationships with an audience. And that’s where you’re going to get much better longevity than a commodified commercialised festival.
“So it’s really about how creative people can keep being, and for how long. As soon as you start repeating and go, ‘Alright, Art Piece One goes there, Art Piece Two goes there’, you’ve homogenised the whole thing and commodified your product. If you look at Big Day Out, the years when they were going well and had a great experiential brand connection, those were the years when they had [art and performance stage] Lilypad and those sorts of value-add features, which don’t have an intrinsic ticket-sale value.
“You say to someone we’ve got a six-metre tall sculpture that we’ve curated, well guess what: no one’s going to go out and buy a ticket to your event based on that. But while it doesn’t have a direct, correlatable fiscal association, as soon as you strip that back, that’s when you lose your product.”
Again, it all comes back to the community focus of boutique festivals, which Geordie believes can sustain them in ways the previous mega-fests never benefited from.
“We’ve got an amazing community here of artists, installation artists, visual artists, performers, and musicians that allow it all to come together into a really collaborative effort. We actually found that it was really, really easy to bring together certain elements once we told people what we wanted to do as part of an overreaching vision, as a mission statement. And I think giving artists freedom as well and pushing those boundaries is a really positive step.”
Cody agrees that there is a risk, and acknowledges that his festivals, like any others, may be playing a part in that.
“I think we probably have something to do with that,” he says, “because we’re a new entrant, so we’re adding to the number of festivals. It’s just like any industry… With the super festivals five years ago, you thought, “They’ll never shut down, they’re incredible” – Summadayze and those types of things – but we just focus on what we know, and that’s all we can really do.”
Once again, he believes that the focus on community rather than pure profit that drives so many boutique festivals is what will hopefully continue to set them apart.
“We’re just really passionate about getting people involved,” Cody tells us. “The smiling faces – that’s what we want to put our money towards. We’re not really in it for the money or the fame (laughs), we’re just in it to see a celebration down our way, where we’re from – there’s no ulterior motives apart from just having a good time!”
Rainbow Serpent, shot by Birthmark Photography
What Do We Still Need To See?
So, while boutique festivals are going from strength-to-strength, Goose and Geordie still see plenty of scope for improvement and growth for the market, and everyone is in agreement that much of the onus now rests on both the government and the music community itself to support the industry.
“I’d really like to see the opening and the availability of more public space,” Geordie stresses. “If the councils in the inner-city and the outer suburbs of Melbourne were more willing to work with organisers and professional operators, spaces could be activated that would allow more participation and would allow more people to access more festivals.
“We’re just on the cusp of being regional,” Cody adds, “so it’s really hard to get people from the CBD to go outwards. It’s really hard to put on these events – a lot harder than we thought. Music Victoria and Tourism Victoria are really trying to get behind small business, and that’s really great – it can help companies like us who want to up-skill and do more of these events.
“The hardest thing for us is being regional, but we’re making that our strength by keeping things really tight and locally-based. Government and patrons need to understand it’s really hard out our way, and it’s a big risk – but me might as well have a crack!”
“It’s an interesting thing to have watched the festivals evolve,” Geordie says, “and to have seen how they were constantly fighting for audiences from each other. What I would like to see from the boutique market is that we all work together to allow the industry to progress and move forward and work alongside each other. And then, instead of trying to steal each other’s audiences, maybe we work together to engage more people to come to more festivals.
“There’s a big population in Melbourne, but I’d assume the majority have never been to a music festival. If we all work alongside each other and we all work professionally and make sure we tick all of the boxes and do it professionally and take care of the residents around and take care of the patrons, what’s to say we couldn’t get more of Melbourne to come to more festivals? There’s plenty of love around and plenty of people who haven’t experienced these things.
The final sentiment, then, is a positive one: let’s pull together as a community.
“If the industry does well and we progress together, and we progress professionally, and we push the boundaries of what can be expected, there’s nothing to say Australia couldn’t be a class leader in music festivals and event production in years to come. We already conquer it in science, we already conquer it in design and engineering.
“There’s nothing to say that the willing people aren’t there, it’s just that festivals have spent a lot of time battling each other, whereas I think the festival industry really could work together to engage more people and move forward together.”
And the common ground that can hopefully pull so many completely different niche events together?
“The core values we have are about creativity, positivity, and community. And if you look at any of those aspects in relation to boutique festivals, you’re going to find most of your answers. Whether that be cross-cooperation between events, focusing on the experience and happiness, or focusing on generating creative outcomes that are going to have a lasting impact on the community, I think you’re gonna find most of it in there.”