Leadoff: The Return Of The Aussie Mega-Festivals

Download Festival
Sam Tabone / WireImage

Crowd surfing the Australia festival market: Australia’s version of the popular UK-birthed heavy- rock Download festival, pictured here at Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne March 11, continues to grow after its debut last year.

The collapses within 18 months of the Big Four major Australia music festivals – alt-rock Big Day Out, hard rock Soundwave and electronic dance music Stereosonic and Future Music – indicated a shift toward boutique events with niche bills and focus demographics. However, that does not seem to have been the case.  

Despite the weak Aussie dollar and escalating major artist fees, 2019 saw a handful of new mega-festivals have strong bows or second years with major global names, spectacular production, savvy sites and, for some, the lure of brand names.
The inaugural Festival X (Nov. 28 to Dec. 1) drew 100,000 electronic dance music fans to a 28-act bill headlined by Calvin Harris, Armin van Buuren, and Lil Pump with stops in Auckland, Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. A joint venture by veteran EDM promoters / Hardware and OneLove with Live Nation Australasia, the festival will next year expand to six cities over two weekends.
“We definitely feel like there was a big hole in the market that not just any promoter could step up and fill,” Hardware’s Richie McNeill and Onelove’s Frank Cotela tell Pollstar.
Speaking of the three-way collaboration, they add, “We have mountains of experience in this area and worked incredibly hard for almost two years behind the scenes to deliver an immensely strong and current artist lineup, alongside a great music experience and safe environment.”
Live Nation, UNIFIED and Secret Sounds tapped the metal market with a version of the UK’s Download. Last year’s test in Melbourne attracted 25,000. Expanding to Sydney this year put the current figure to 50,000 “with a healthy gender balance in the 18-45 age group,” reports LN Australasia’s chief executive Roger Field. The event returns to both cities in 2020 with a number of exclusives, including headliner My Chemical Romance.
Field acknowledges the brand name’s role in its growth Down Under. “The fans are extremely loyal and if we can continue to deliver an incredible event year on year, then we will see the brand grow here steadily each year. All that said, we know where we are, and we program a line-up that suits our Australian market.”
LN’s regional presence includes a stake in the Secret Sounds-produced Splendour In The Grass (50,000) and four-city Falls Festival, and in New Zealand, a partnership with Rhythm & Vines (22,000) and a production of Pharos Festival (9,500).
Ultra Australia debuted in February in Melbourne’s Flemington Racecourse and Sydney’s Parramatta Park with imported production. More than 40,000 attended to see A-listers such as The Chainsmokers, Martin Garrix and Marshmello headline. It returns for 2020.
Sydney-based TEG teamed with AEG Presents to introduce the UK/Europe C2C (Country To Country). The format of a country music festival in metro venues – Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney (Sept. 28) and Brisbane Entertainment Centre (Sept. 29) – was new for Australia. The two shows drew 20,000 and return in 2020.
Midland McClymonts
Don Arnold / WireImage

Continent 2 Continent: Australia got its first dose of the “Country 2 Country” craze, co-produced by AEG Presents and Australia’s TEG. Pictured are Midland and The McClymonts members Cameron Duddy, Mollie McClymont, Mark Wystrach, Brooke McClymont, Jess Carson and Samantha McClymont at Qudos Bank Arena in Sydney Sept. 28.
Geoff Jones, chief executive of TEG, concurs the locations were important but notes, “The world-class calibre of the lineup – which included superstar Tim McGraw as well as fantastic acts like Kelsea Ballerini and Midland – was a huge draw-card.”
A plan to host SandTunes to 35,000 Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 on iconic Coolangatta Beach was green-lighted by Gold Coast Council after a forecasted injection of A$14 million ($9.6 million) tourism dollars. After resistance from some local businesses and politicians over the impact on the beach, SandTunes moved to Metricon Stadium. It was scrubbed weeks out due to low ticket sales. “We are not going to revisit it,” Jones states.
Good Times was set up by Destroy All Lines in 2018. In its second year it drew more than 50,000 in Melbourne (Dec. 6), Sydney (Dec. 7) and Brisbane (Dec. 8). “It was above our expectations,” says general manager Chris O’Brien, attributing its success to filling a vacuum in the market. The other events, he says, were “very (national youth broadcaster) triple j indie-leaning or EDM-based or very metal-based. 
“We just want to create a day where all acts feel comfortable being on the same festival and that vibe spreads out to the punters. Everyone just has a great day out and the vibes are really strong.” 
The newcomers’ success comes at a time when the overall festival scene is buoyant.
Live Performance Australia’s “2018 “Ticket Attendance and Revenue Report,” published in November, shows contemporary music festivals had a total attendance of almost 1 million, generating more than A$102 million ($70.1 million) from ticket sales. Ticket sales revenue increased by 1.3% and attendance rose by 14.4% between 2017 and 2018.The average ticket price also increased slightly (3.9%) to A$131.58 ($90.47).
But are the new festivals learning from the downfall of the Big Four? Big Day Out, which debuted in 1992 as a Sydney-only offering, had by 2000 collected 250,000 stubs in six cities in Australia and New Zealand. In 2014, its last year, that slipped to 130,000 with media reports suggesting losses of A$8 million (current rate of $5.5 million) to A$15 million ($10.3 million).
Soundwave, which lifted off in 2004, has in nine years overtaken Big Day Out’s crowd numbers and posted a profit of A$7 million ($4.81 million). Within 12 months, it was A$5 million ($3.4 million) in the red, and by September 2015 in voluntary administration owing A$26 million ($17.8 million) to 186 creditors.
Stereosonic began in Melbourne in 2007 and by 2013 had an attendance of about 280,000 in five cities. It was acquired by Robert Sillerman’s SFX Entertainment and closed its chapter in 2016.
Future Entertainment’s five-city Future Music began 2006 in Sydney. In 2011 turnout reached 50,000. Ticket sales declined after. In 2012, it expanded to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where it claimed 20,000 from across the region in its first year, and 55,000 for its second. Michael Gudinski’s Mushroom Group came in as a rescue partner in 2013. But with 2015 Aussie tickets less than 30% of break-even, it was axed.
Good Things’ O’Brien maintains, “We don’t have any interest in being a monolith like those festivals turned into where you have 8 to 10 stages and 70+ acts. That’s not sustainable and I think people have learnt those lessons.  People seem to love that they can relax a bit more at Good Things and just enjoy the day amongst great friends and a great atmosphere. 
“If we programme too many acts and people are running around trying to catch bands all day it will lose that vibe.”
LN’s Field cites the parent company’s Power Of Live research where 73% of 13- to 49-year-olds want to experience real than digital experience. “There’s definitely a craving for community, in that fans of a particular style of music want to congregate with like-minded people. Festivals represent this sense of community and togetherness better than any experience.”
Festival X’s McNeill and Cotela argue the demises were more to do with “bad management” than a shift in public taste. 
Their tour company Totem-Onelove ran Stereosonic until SFX’s buyout. SFX erred when it expanded Stereosonic to a two-day format in line with its other dance festivals. “We don’t think they really understood the market here and the actual scale of our landscape.” The festival was still doing the numbers until sidelined by SFX’s bankruptcy.
“With Festival X we’re not just picking up where we left off, but bringing an entirely evolved concept to market, and the public support upon launch has proven it’s viable.
“We’ve always felt promoters should take time to understand their market, have a vision for it and be self aware of how the decisions you make can sabotage your future.”
TEG’s Jones says Big Day Out and Soundwave created massive logistical challenges for themselves with up to nine stages.
“We are seeing that quality is ruling over quantity and we’re seeing more boutique festivals with lower capacities, single stage urban festivals and destination festivals on the rise.”
However, he notes that none of the new generation of festivals “appear to be attempting anything matching the gargantuan scale and complexity of a Soundwave or a Big Day Out.”