Talks With Governments Begin As Festivals Face Crisis

2 February 2024 | 10:57 am | Christie Eliezer

"Our Government is not addressing the cost of living crisis. Until it does, the future is a little murky for the live sector except for recession-proof superstars."

Beyond The Valley

Beyond The Valley (Supplied)

The live sector is in talks with governments about short-term solutions as cost-of-living jammed out five small-to-medium festivals within the first weeks of 2024.

The situation is dubbed “in crisis” by at least one major promoter, as the latest blackouts followed a stream of cancellations and lay-offs last year.

There is fear that if the current situation is not resolved, promoters will stop taking risks, new entrepreneurs will keep their distance, and the attempts to coax back staff and production crews who left after COVID will stall.

The Australian Festival Association's (AFA) Managing Director Mitch Wilson explained: “Festival organisers are still trying to work out what audiences want post-pandemic and what their offerings have to be. 

“Young people who hadn’t gone to festivals before also want different things. 

“But also, costs are up 40 per cent across the board, and we’re just not able to raise ticket prices to the same level. So just the economics of festivals are becoming more difficult in this environment.

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“The margins were already so tight, and the substantial increase in costs have made them even tighter.”

Gold Coast-based Apex Entertainment’s Andrew McManus asserted, “If we’re looking at five festivals closing within weeks of each other, and one just days out before gates opened, then obviously the festival scene is in a crisis. 

“At the end of the day, our Government is not addressing the cost of living crisis. Until it does, the future is a little murky for the live sector except for recession-proof superstars.”

What a mindbeef. On the one hand, some promoters are breaking attendance records. The country’s biggest independent promoter, Untitled Group, reported its most successful New Year’s festival run with 150,000 tickets sold for Beyond The Valley, Wildlands and Sun Cycle.

It had its best-ever turnout for its flagship Beyond The Valley in Victoria, with over 35,000 arriving, while the multi-city Wildlands shifted 85,000 tickets. Co-founder Nicholas Greco revealed Untitled is “on target” to sell 500,000 tix from 400 events from July 2023 to June 2024.

Groovin’ The Moo, which heat-scored 130,000 nationally in 2023, looks like it will hit a new attendance record this May/June after a move to the Sunshine Coast Stadium, and Kawana Sports Precinct increased its capacity by 10,000.

In December, the Woodford Folk Festival had a combined audience of 120,000, injecting over $17 million into its immediate Moreton Bay Region and a further $12.3 million into other parts of Queensland.

A month later, Tamworth Country Music inbounded a combined 300,000 over ten days, which injects what Festival Director Barry Harley has estimated “more than 60 million dollars…[which] reflects about 20 per cent of the total economy for Tamworth.”

Apex Entertainment’s inaugural Pandemonium’s number-crunching indicates a reach of 80,000 in its first pop. This is for four shows in April for 13 acts with Alice Cooper, Blondie, Deep Purple, Wolfmother, Placebo, Cosmic Psychos, Gang of Four, Palaye Royale, Wheatus, Gyroscope, Psychedelic Furs and Dead Kennedys.

Pulling The Plug


But on the other hand, five festivals pulled the plug in December/ January, citing the effect of the rising cost of living and “bad timing”.

The inaugural Summerground, to open Sydney Festival in the first week of January, blamed “changing consumer behaviours, cost of living pressures and mounting operational expenses.” The bill was strong enough, including King Stingray, Electric Fields, Cimafunk, Brand New Heavies, Dem Mob and The Teskey Brothers.

It was followed by Vintage Vibes in South Australia’s wine region, Coastal Jam on Victoria’s surf coast, ValleyWays in Camden outside Sydney and Tent Pole: A Musical Jamboree in a winery in Geelong, Victoria.

Coastal Jam went dark just few days out. “I did everything I could to steer the ship, but nothing I did worked,” revealed founder Adam Metwally. He blamed the latter-day trend of buying tix later.  

Coastal Jam had over seven years built up to become the state’s biggest coastal music bash with rotating picturesque surf sites, banger acts and “a joyful summer vibe”. This year, it expected 5,000 to Rosebud Village Green, with a lineup of Aussie and US acts headlined by Lime Cordiale. Tickets were slow. This trickle of money restricted his spend on the event.

Metwally soon realised that going ahead would have meant a long-term financial disaster. If fans are going out, he observed, major festivals and “massive international tours are the priority, which I fully understand. But it’s led to the smaller boutique events such as ours to fall by the wayside.”

A sympathetic McManus added that promoters pulling the plug is just part of their nightmare. “That’s just to save the costs of running the event. They’ve still already lost artist deposits and their marketing, so that a decision so close to D-Day is a pretty disturbing factor in anyone’s mind.”

The AFA’s Mitch Wilson explained how the longer punters wait to get in the game because every dollar counts, the more it puts pressure on promoters. “It adds to the uncertainty of how many people are going to be on-site, and making sure they have enough infrastructure for that amount of attendees because they don’t want to outlay more money on that than they have to.”

The cancellation of the five followed a pattern in 2023 where Bluesfest lost 30,000 punters, Splendour In The Grass failed to sell out, and Falls (multi-state), Dark Mofo (Tasmania) and Goomfest (Victoria) took a year off.

Pulling up stumps in NSW were Newtown Festival in Sydney after 40 years and Play On The Plains in Deniliquin. Victoria saw the end of Wangaratta Jazz & Blues, Music In The Vines and Goldfields Gothic.

The parent companies of Now & Again, Grass Is Greener and Lunar Electric, went into voluntary administration or put in liquidation.

In a survey released just as 2024 dawned, most Australians put saving money at the top of their New Year resolutions. Cost of living pressures are hitting Gen Z the hardest. Three-quarters (76 per cent) of them will save more cash in 2024.

None of which is good news for promoters. Untitled’s Michael Christidis suggested, “Seeing many of them cancel and postpone in 2023 could impact market confidence in consumers tying up funds with new or smaller events. 

“This concern will simply see us introduce less new events and concepts and focus on developing what is already working in market.”

Research Project


Creative Australia’s first-of-a-kind National Festival Research Project is due out in late March or April. This will provide a vital insight into the size and scope of the problem.

The AFA is already in talks with various governments on how to temporarily partner with the live sector over “this challenging period until we get back on our feet, with a better idea what audiences want, and supplier costs settle down.”

Discussions have been about the costs imposed on promoters, like user-pay for ambos and cops. “It’s at its worst in NSW where police bills have gone up 50 per cent, 100 per cent in some cases, and with no justification because there’s been no change in audience numbers or set-ups or anything like that.”

The AFA urges the Commonwealth Government to extend its Live Music Major Events Fund for another four years, for the Victorian Government to open applications for its similar fund, and for NSW to provide more specifics about its $103 million commitment.

Other Factors


Some executives suggested other factors at work with some recent blow-offs. 

Tim McGregor, TEG Live’s Managing Director, said, “Another issue has been the proliferation of festivals arising from the various Government funding initiatives designed to reactivate events in regional and metro areas during the pandemic.  

“Ultimately, there were probably too many new festivals being operated by inexperienced and under-capitalised promoters, and some attrition was always on the cards.”

McGregor went on to explain that many of the new festivals had a stronger-than-expected first year due to the funding and patrons going out for post-COVID live experiences.

“But typically, it takes three years for a festival to start making money, so these inexperienced promoters with Government-funded new festivals might have become a bit over-confident with their initial success.

“So, when the COVID-related Government funding stopped, and we saw huge operating cost increases post-COVID, these new festivals have probably been forced to increase ticket prices to achieve the sort of financial outcome they saw in the first year.  

“However, it is extremely challenging to put ticket prices up in regional areas where the cost-of-living impacts are most acute.

 “So I am sad but not surprised to see that many of these new festivals have become non-viable.”  

He stressed: “The pandemic has created some unusual dynamics which are still playing out, but I expect we will see normal transmission resuming very soon.”

Untitled Group and the regional Groovin’ The Moo’s Cattleyard Productions held on by playing to their strengths. 

Untitled’s Greco revealed, "In a post-pandemic world, we have had to adapt to different ticket-selling strategies to meet the change in consumer purchase behaviour.”

These have included combining the brand loyalties for their festivals with top-tier acts so that audiences will rush out and get tickets early for fear of missing out. 

Its marketing embraces the crowd from teaser to after-event surveys. In setting up Beyond the Valley last year, it teased Rüfüs Du Sol’s appearance with the line “There’s no place I’d rather be,” a line from a song.

It resulted in 4,000 calls to a phone number listed on the poster and 833 people leaving 356 minutes’ worth of voicemails singing lyrics to a Rüfüs Du Sol song.

For the set-up of Pitch Music & Arts in autumn, a retro video on the festival’s highs hit 600,000 users for 861,000 plays across social media.

Specifically, creating content for TikTok highlighting the euphoria of the festival experience has been especially successful.

A spokesperson for Groovin’ The Moo said, “As we are an all-ages show and a lot of people's first festival experience, we are really focusing on festival education for our customers.”

As announced on Wednesday, the eclectic bill has Kenya Grace, San Cisco, Meduza, Wu Tang’s GZA, Stephen Sanchez, Jet, Alison Wonderland, Mallrat, DMA’S and The Jungle Giants.

GTM explained its continued success: “We are a really strong brand that is focused on a varied lineup, community engagement and a positive festival experience.

“We put lots of info on our socials, the lovely triple j make announcements on air and our wonderful comooonity all around the country tell all their friends, ‘You have to come!’”