Aussie + New Zealand Focus: Independent Festivals Continue To Perform Strongly Despite Growing Gap

Photo of Bluesfest Byron Bay by Lachlan Douglas

The COVID pandemic highlighted the growing disparity between festivals run by multinationals and the independents owned by Australian businesses. Some in the independent sector talk about the need for an association to represent their own voice.

As Pollstar’s 2022 Australia / New Zealand charts show, there is strong activity in the independent sector.

Bluesfest Byron Bay, for instance, appears in a number of rankings for its April 14-18 return after COVID-related cancellations.

Despite high no-shows elsewhere, its 120,875 turnout placed it in its all-time Top 5 attendance since 1990, and marked a 29.9% rise from 2019.

Untitled Group, launched in 2018, posted 237,246 tickets grossing over A$22.64 million in the eligible period.

This was double its pre-COVID numbers, with the company forecasting 400,000 tickets across its eight festival brands over the next 12 months.

Bluesfest director Peter Noble maintained his event had a bigger rebound from pandemic woes – compounded by flash flooding weeks before – than any other festival.

“No one came more from behind than I did,” he emphasised. “No one had their festival canceled a day before to a $12 million ($8.5 million) loss, because of New South Wales Health’s fear of a single COVID case that did not eventuate because there were no further cases in the region.”

Almost 18 months later, Noble remained enraged that stringent safety conditions developed by the live sector were ignored by authorities when such decisions were made.

“We could have done a smaller ‘Taste of Bluesfest’ event, but that would have been the kiss of death for the business,” Noble says. “It had to be brilliant, and to this day no one can tell me that it was not the best Australasian bill – with Midnight Oil, Crowded House, SIX60 and L.A.B – ever presented in this country.”

Noble noted that an independent economic impact study showed that Bluesfest 2022 injected $232.3 million ($165.5 million) into the New South Wales economy, $272.3 million ($194 million) into Australia’s economy, $70.2 million ($50 million) into Byron Shire and $143.9 million ($102. 5 million) into the Northern Rivers.

Bluesfest is negotiating to widen its brand in Southeast Asia and additional Australian cities.

Also casting a wider footprint is the Untitled Group, a Melbourne-based collective covering festivals, venues, touring, artist management and the Proxy booking agency.
Its growth is rapid: in January 2021, its staff numbered seven. It’s now more than 40.
This year, Grapevine Gathering went from three states to five, forging a run of 80,000 tickets.

a.grapevine 1
Grapevine Gathering

Wildlands, which ran in Brisbane over the Christmas / NYE period, now has a 70,000 run after widening to a three-state event.

“The expansion was always our intention prior to the pandemic,” said Christian Serrao, one of the group’s four directors.
“But the timing was perfect with such a huge demand for live events, which helped solidify us as a national promoter.”

He added: “Expanding our assets helps to make international bookings attractive.” While noting the uncertainty of the pandemic and downturn in global markets, Serrao said, “Risk taking is something we’ve never shied away from as long as it’s done in a calculated way.
“We pride ourselves on innovating and being industry leaders, and to do that you need to take risks.”

Untitled Group’s eight festivals have a strong bent for emerging Australian acts.
They include New Year’s Eve flagship Beyond The Valley with rock and dance music; the techno Pitch Music & Arts; and fashion-focused For The Love,which plays coastal locations.

Beyond The Valley

Ability Fest, a collaboration with wheelchair-using Olympian and tennis champion Dylan Alcott’s foundation, attracts physically challenged fans who don’t attend festivals.
It has raised $1 million ($712, 800) for young Australians with disabilities.
Both Bluesfest and Untitled Group emphasise their Australian ownership, and how their independence gives carte blanche in programming and formulating future plans.

Noble pointed out it’s not an even playing field, with the Australian government’s COVID RISE funding going mostly to events by multinationals.

He revealed, “I’ve never been asked to be a member of the Australian Festivals Association.

“I will publicly say there should be an association that represents all the festivals, and I’d love to be a foundation member.”

Serrao’s take was: “We’re always supportive of new initiatives but we’re also on the board of the Australian Live Music Business Council and members of the Australian Festival Association.

“Both have done great things for the industry, especially giving the events industry a voice during COVID with the government.”