The new frontier of Australian music festivals

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The new frontier of Australian music festivals

Written by Elodie May, photo courtesy of Best Before

A recent report published an assessment of the Aussie festival scene, documenting the sad decline of many mega festivals between 2014 and 2016, but a recent upswing in newcomers created for the hungry eyes and ears of punters all over Australia.

With more and more festivals oozing into the gaps in a once sparse calendar (Hello newcomers Ultra Music, Electric Gardens and more) we stop and ask, what makes a good festival?

Once, people used to ask you what your first concert was. I have to say mine was seeing the Wiggles at the Sydney Opera House. I’m not sorry; Hot Potato was a banger then, and it’s a banger now. But for most young people, the question has changed. Because rather than attending a concert, you’ll probably be at a festival. It’s a whole immersive experience, a playground, and a chance to stick lots of plastic jewels on your head.

My first festival was Big Day Out in 2012, the middle of a golden age of festivals. The day coincided with a blistering summer heatwave in Sydney. Everyone was wearing those shorts that showed half your ass, and I fainted right before seeing Vampire Weekend. It was awesome.

I could immediately see the appeal of festivals. I saw huge acts like the Killers, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Childish Gambino (he was a much smaller fry back then) all at once, for a fraction of the price of attending their shows individually.

But this was the golden age of rock and Aussie hip hop, with much less electronic music in the mainstream (shout out to Nina Las Vegas for being literally the only one repping the scene at BDO ’12).

It was a time when the Aussie festival scene was growing, but changing. Monoliths like Big Day Out, Stereosonic, and Peats Ridge had been going strong for years … until they weren’t.

Often, companies went bankrupt trying to pay artists and tour across the breath of the Australian east coast; not to mention the cost of going to WA or Adelaide.

Other festivals have gone from strength to strength, like Splendour in the Grass, Groovin’ the Moo, and Falls. These festivals, with the backing of the national broadcasting power of Triple J, have become a millennial ritual.

Road trips to Byron, Canberra, and Tassie have become annual pilgrimages with mates you might rarely see otherwise. It’s a time to escape, throw off the stresses of work, uni, or renting, and roll yourself in glitter like a kid again. It’s this element of escapism that is the real magic of festivals for me. And studies back this up. One study says that we experience ‘temporal’ differences in festivals aka changes in time. Spooky.

Academics say a festival is a space where normal behaviours are at once “represented, contested and inverted”, creating an otherworldly realm that exists within normal life. That’s exactly how I feel at Secret Garden festival, a choose-your-own adventure festival set in a forest west of Sydney.

Festival director Clare Downes curates some of the best and most innovative local artists and performers to create hidden, immersive experiences on her lush family farm. She says the key to a good festival is diversity in what’s on show.

“A huge melting pot of different musicians, genres, dancers, art, games, theatre and areas to explore is paradise to me.”

At Secret Garden, the lineup is secondary to the overall experience (art, community, dress-up, games), which is why it isn’t dropped until after it sells out — every year.

Usually though, the lineup is everything. Splendour pulls huge crowds and buzz every year because of the names it gets on the bill. Artists who rarely tour in Australia are thrown into the limelight of Byron’s beautiful natural amphitheatre, and it’s accessible for everyone.

Well, that is, if you have the money and the personal organisational skills to do a Splendour weekend. We all know the stresses of ‘Front left! Can’t you see my totem stick? ’ And the biggest festival stress of all: clashes.

That’s why FOMO, established 2016, has come through with a one-stage showcase of talent. The best thing is, it’s not just the same bands we see at Splendour / Falls / Laneway. The FOMO lineup is out there, with massive names like Nicki Minaj and Kali Uchis (No Sideshows), and heaps of ‘the-next-big-things’ that we haven’t quite heard of yet. They’re also serving us our own domestic talent like Just a Gent, Anna Lunoe, and more. Fostering new talent isn’t just an afterthought.

So, what makes a good festival? Is it the outfits and the drugs? Is it having access to hot showers and cold beers, and maybe (hopefully) not seeing human faeces at a three day camp out? Is it about getting so see big artists or making new discoveries?

Researchers at Western Sydney University surveyed festival-goers and found a ‘clear expectation of the unexpected’ in punters. So to me, what we need to ask, or demand of our festivals, is surprise.

A festival can have a stacked lineup, clean toilets and good food, but if it doesn’t give you those jaw-dropping moments, it’s not going to be that memorable.

Because if we’re being honest, we want our festivals to be that other world: a place where crazy things happen. It’s like a rip in time and space, a different temporal reality, and a chance to forget about laundry, bills, and responsibilities. Don’t we just for a day, or a weekend, want to be the best, most childlike, silly, loving versions of ourselves?

Maybe it really is all about the glitter.

Interested in holding parties? we’ll have something for that shortly!


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