Fourth Time’s A Charm: Peter Noble On Byron Bay Bluesfest Exceeding Expectations

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It’s A G’day: The 2022 Byron Bay Blues Fest went off without a hitch after several cancellations. And thankfully the site was spared the worst of the March flooding that hit New South Wales. Courtesy BBB

After two traumatic cancellations caused by COVID restrictions, one of Australia’s highest profile festivals, Bluesfest in Byron Bay, New South Wales, returned with a strong headwind April 14-18. 

Director Peter Noble budgeted for an attendance of 85,000. A ticket spike in the last 10 days, however, saw the figure rise to 101,024, among its best turnouts ever.

“That last minute surge of over 16,000 patrons was very important, for our future and our confidence,” Noble said. “Before that, we were worrying, ‘People have bought tickets but will they show up at the door?’”

There was still a possibility of a last-minute fourth cancellation by authorities. Two weeks earlier, heavy rain continued around the region, compounding the worst flooding in its history, which led to entire towns being submerged and evacuations being ordered.

The festival site, Byron Events Farm, was hit twice with flash flooding, leaving some camping areas unusable.

Noble remained haunted by events in April 2021, when health officials ordered the event stopped a day before gates opened after a visitor to the region showed COVID symptoms. 

He did not have a ticket to Bluesfest.

“It was a wrong and hasty decision,” Noble said. “It was an over-abundance of caution, a political issue, and as it turned out, nobody caught COVID. The music industry deserved better.”

The move not only cost the festival an estimated $10 million (US $7.2 million) but, according to an independent review, lost a $97.7 million ($70.8 million) injection to the local region and $171 million ($123.9 million) for the rest of New South Wales.

Little wonder that when the gates finally opened this time, after an October 2021 false start, some of its 1,200 staffers gathered outside to shout “f— you!” as a message to those faceless bureaucrats.

$1.00 from each ticket went to flood relief. Victims were granted free entry, with an invite to 268 volunteers in the college town of Lismore.

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Gimme a Break: Byron Bay Bluesfest Director Peter Noble says the “music industry deserved better,” after the festival’s April 2021 cancellation.
Tao Jones / Courtesy BBB

“The floods in Lismore were apocalyptic, think Katrina,” Noble said referencing the 2005 hurricane that devastated New Orleans with damages reaching approximately $170 billion.

“On the morning of Feb. 28, 268 got into their tinnies (boats) and kayaks and rescued 4,000 people who had water up to their necks or were stranded on the roofs of their houses. The death toll would have been staggering if those people hadn’t done that.”

With Alanis Morissette, Dave Matthews Band, Lenny Kravitz and Patti Smith and Her Band unable to roll over from 2020, it was mostly left up to domestic acts to create the vibrations for a crowd that was noticeably younger this year.

These included Midnight Oil, Jimmy Barnes, Paul Kelly, Amy Shark, Baker Boy, The Cat Empire, Kasey Chambers, Missy Higgins, Casey Barnes, Xavier Rudd and The Teskey Brothers.

The international visitors included Crowded House (who drew 28,000, among the largest attendance for a solo act in Bluesfest’s history), George Benson, Six60, Cory Henry and The Wailers.

A number of musicians dropped out because of COVID but not one of the 100 acts pulled out.

Plans have already begun for 2023, with half a dozen international A-listers already confirmed. But Noble warned that festivals are still not out of the woods in Australia.

With a federal election set for May 21, Labor leader Anthony Albanese visited Bluesfest to outline his party’s arts policy onstage.

The promoter took the opportunity to stress the need for a national insurance scheme to cover future cancellations. “There’s very little incentive to invest in live events,” he said. “And no matter who wins this election there’ll be less grants funding for us.”