30 Years Of Byron Bay Bluesfest — Australia’s Best Beach Town Festival

Byron Bay Bluesfest
Courtesy Bryon Bay Bluesfest
– Byron Bay Bluesfest
Jack Johnson likes to talk about how his first visits to Australia’s surf town Byron Bay were as a documentarian, working on the 2000 surfing film “Thicker Than Water.” When the mellow rocker eventually released his debut album, 2001’s Brushfire Fairytales, he was still only playing small clubs in the U.S. By chance, a Bluesfest Byron Bay team member heard the record and booked the little-known Johnson for his first festival appearance.
“It was the best reaction I got from a crowd, and I mean that,” Johnson said later. “It was like having all your friends and family in a tent. I was really shy onstage then, but they were so welcoming.” Johnson now turns up regularly at Bluesfest even when he’s not booked to play, to hang with the crowd or jump onstage with Ben Harper, Michael Franti or the Animal Liberation Orchestra.
Johnson’s not the only one who rates Bluesfest highly. “Of festivals around the world, this is in the top three,” Taj Mahal announced backstage 20 years ago. “Taj, I must be paying you right,” quipped Bluesfest executive chairman Peter Noble OAM. (OAM stands for Medal of the Order of Australia, an award Noble received “for service to live and recorded music, to tourism and to the community” in 2016.) Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle and Ziggy Marley have given similar compliments.
Johnson will perform at Bluesfest’s 30th anniversary installment from April 18-22, in his only announced Australian booking this year, and in one of only two 2019 shows he currently has on the books.

Innocent Criminals:
Courtesy Bryon Bay Bluesfest
– Innocent Criminals:
Ben Harper, who has played Bluesfest 12 times, with Peter Noble, the event’s executive chairman.
Ben Harper will also visit Australia solely for Bluesfest 2019. The musician made his Bluesfest debut in 1996 as an unknown, and the raucous response he received made him an Australian talking point overnight. His performance was a landmark for the festival in more than one way. “When Ben walked onstage and played not a blues set but a blues-based set, from that moment I knew Bluesfest was going in a new direction,” Noble recalls. Harper has returned 12 times, including six with The Innocent Criminals, who will accompany him this year.
The 2019 bill also includes the Bluesfest debut of Jack White’s The Saboteurs (known globally as The Raconteurs), the farewell of George Clinton & Parliament/Funkadelic, and an exclusive by St. Paul & The Broken Bones. There’s also Iggy Pop, Norah Jones, Hozier, Ray LaMontagne, Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul, Mavis Staples and Gary Clark Jr; emerging overseas acts such as Devi Mahal, destined to make a mark Down Under; and Australian drawcards including Paul Kelly, Tommy Emmanuel, Kasey Chambers, Colin Hay and The Black Sorrows.
The ticket tally for the 30th is at 105,000, placing it among the three best-selling Bluesfests ever. The 2011 event, which sold 115,000 when Bob Dylan headlined, ranks highest. 
“The difference with Bluesfest is we’re not just booking three or four headliners, we’re booking an event with a lot of artistry and no filler,” Noble says. “After you finish seeing the headliners, you’re not going to put your head down and catch some sleep. You know there are still so many great acts to catch. That’s what makes a festival work – you’ve created a mini-environment. Obviously there are commercial considerations and obviously EDM and hardcore acts don’t play Bluesfest.”
Bluesfest crowds are passionate: they get married there, they have their ashes scattered before the main stage, they hold annual family reunions at the festival. Some even move to Byron Bay because of it.
In 2018, Bluesfest’s largest demographic, at 28 percent, was the 55-64 age group, followed by the 45-54 (23 percent), the 35-44 (18) and the 25-34 (15) demographics. The average age of patrons was 45.5 years – slightly younger than 2017’s average of 47.6 years – and the gender split was 58 percent female and 42 percent male.
On average, patrons spent A$320 (US$226.58) daily. Last year, Bluesfest’s economic contribution was $32.8 million ($23.2 million) to the Byron Shire, $54.6 million ($38.6 million) to the wider Northern Rivers region and $73.7 million ($52.1 million) to the state of New South Wales (NSW).
Additionally, the festival’s touring division, Bluesfest Touring Pty Ltd, spent approximately $4 million ($2.83 million) on Bluesfest Touring in 2017 and 2018, including more than $193,000 ($136,650) in Byron Shire and a further $1.1 million ($778,977) in the rest of NSW. Bluesfest Group’s total expenditure in 2017 and 2018 was approximately $19.5 million ($13.8 million), of which an estimated $13.5 million ($9.55 million) was spent within Australia and $2.1 million ($1.48 million) in Byron Shire. 

High Tea:
Courtesy Bryon Bay Bluesfest
– High Tea:
The 120-hectare Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm site.
Bluesfest is a tourism and economic diamond as a result, and Australia’s most decorated festival. The event’s tally includes seven wins at the Australian Event Awards, nine at the North Coast Tourism Awards, two at the Australian Tourism Awards, five at the live sector’s Helpmann Awards and eight at the NSW Tourism Awards, which also inducted Bluesfest into its hall of fame.
Globally, Noble received the 2018 Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis, Tenn., the 2015 Pan Australasian Festival of the Year at the Canadian Music Week International Festival Awards and half a dozen of the International A Greener Festival awards.
Though Noble’s team grows to 1,500 around the event, his full-time staff consists of only 15 members, some of whom have worked with him for decades. Those staffers include head of touring Kimberley Galceran, a one-time college radio presenter and venue booker who will also juggle 21 Australian side tours during the festival; event manager Brendan Meek, who operated local venues before joining Bluesfest; Nadja Konietzko, who heads logistics and administration; communication and publicity manager Mary McGuire, who started out working with clients such as U2 and Lisa Hannigan at Irish firm LHP; marketing manager Rusty Thorpe, previously known as Rusty Nails on the Double J and triple j youth radio networks; head of contracts and budgeting Alexis Groen, who cut her teeth approving film budgets at BBC Worldwide; and head of accounts and finance Karren Gimbert.
Other longtime Bluesfest staffers are site and operations manager Matthew Williams (20 years with the event), head of partnerships Shelley Sellors (15), site and operations manager Nova Mikin (15) and head of production Peter McFee (10).
In October 2017, Noble landed Steve Romer as COO after an eight-year courtship. Romer’s extensive sports and entertainment background spans 30 years and includes stints as GM of the Sydney Entertainment Centre, show and entertainment manager at Australia’s Sea World, director of operations at Dreamworld park, and CEO of the Venue Managers Association Asia Pacific.

Paul Kelly:
Courtesy Bryon Bay Bluesfest
– Paul Kelly:
Aussie singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, who first played Bluesfest in 1999, will make his seventh appearance.
Upon coming aboard, Romer conducted a strategic assessment of Bluesfest’s place in the market. “We were really marketing ourselves as a Holden [a common Australian family car] rather than a Rolls Royce,” he reveals. Bluesfest’s $120 ($84.97)-a-day ticket undervalued the festival’s offering of 200 acts and 300 hours of music. Accordingly, the event increased ticket prices, to zero customer resistance. “We really are a great value and we needed to sell ourselves and be the award-winning event that we are,” Romer says.
Other changes included a social media and marketing push to emphasize Byron Bay as a tourism and counterculture destination, the tapping of additional corporate sponsors, and coordination with locals to stage more events at the 120-hectare Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm site, which Bluesfest owns.
Bluesfest’s political, spiritual and environmental bents reflects Noble’s philosophies. Long lauded for its waste management, the event eliminated 23,000 plastic bottles this year by banning them backstage. 
Bluesfest also hosts Boomerang, a festival within a festival co-curated with arts administrator Rhoda Roberts to display the music, dance and culture of indigenous Australians.
“People ask, why do you put an indigenous festival within Bluesfest?” Noble says. “It should be obvious. Australia has so far to go to reach reconciliation with our original Australians. So, we put on some of the most compelling performances where people, if they walk into that area, can be welcomed by the original Australians and learn about them.”
After starting out playing bass in blues bands in Sydney in the ’60s, Noble relocated to the U.S. where he set up Portland, Ore.’s first International Jazz Festival before returning to Australia. In 1990, Bluesfest began under Keven Oxford as East Coast Blues Festival. Located at Bryon Bay’s Arts Factory Lodge, the event had a head count of 6,000.
After Noble used his international contacts to secure Canned Heat and John Mayall, he joined as co-director in 1994. By that point, with purist favorites such as Little Charlie, Louis Walker and The Blind Boys of Alabama, the festival relocated to the larger Belongil Fields and expanded to a three-day format. 

Tao Jones/Courtesy Byron Bay Bluesfest
– Crowd shot from the Byron Bay Bluesfest.
Between 1994 and 2007, Bluesfest’s home was Red Devil Park. The event grew to five days and hosted Taj Mahal, Fabulous Thunderbirds, Elvin Bishop, Gil Scott-Heron and more. In December 2004, Oxford sold his 50 percent share to a consortium comprising Michael Chugg (MD of Michael Chugg Ent.), Daryl Herbert (CEO of Definitive Events) and Glenn Wheatley (CEO of Talentworks), who ran the festival with Noble, before he bought out the consortium and became sole owner. Crowds continued to swell as Bluesfest attracted marquee acts like ZZ Top, Robert Cray Band, Dave Matthews Band, Jonny Lang, Burning Spear, Angelique Kidjo and George Thorogood. In 2010, Bluesfest moved to its permanent home at the 120-hectare Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm and celebrated with Buddy Guy, Jeff Beck, Buena Vista Social Club and Crowded House.
Tellingly, as the Australian media celebrates Bluesfest’s milestone, Noble is already looking ahead. He returned to Australia in mid-March after a two-month sojourn through North America and Europe – during which he met with a hundred agents – and on his first day back he immediately began meetings for 2020 bookings.
When asked if he still has acts on his Bluesfest wishlist, Noble chuckles: “I’m not giving my competitors any tips.” He adds, “Turning 30 is a major milestone, I agree. I’m really looking forward to it. Bluesfest inspired a whole lot of imitators around Australia, some of which are no longer with us. I can’t deny that Bluesfest turned the Byron region into a major arts and cultural center; but our audience’s expectations are growing every year and we are continually reviewing what we do. We have to.”