Boom or bust: What’s up with Australian dance festivals?

The International Music Summit took place in Ibiza last week, with the world’s leading dance music heavyweights flying into the Spanish party island to debate some of the hot button topics in the dance world. Organised by Pete Tong and friends, this year’s IMS featured a market spotlight on the Australian dance music scene, with a panel of select key players taking to the stage to talk about exactly where our scene is at right now.

The panel discussion was moderated by Tim Duggan from inthemix, and featured Richie McNeill from Totem Onelove, Grant Smillie from Neon Records, Jon Hanlon from Konkrete, Matt Nugent from Onelove Recordings, Bev Malcolm from EMI, Kaz James and Wade Cawood. It was a lively discussion, with topics like how Australian acts crack overseas, who’s buying what dance music, the state of our radio market and the saturated festival market all getting an airing. Here’s a conversation-starting excerpt of part of the IMS panel discussion about our festival scene.

inthemix: Australia’s at a fascinating place in dance music at the moment. For a country of only 20 million people, it certainly punches over its weight. It’s the sixth largest music market in the world, and for the past few years, there’s been an over-saturation of festivals, which is surely of interest to the rest of the world. There’s been an adjustment over the year, where the strong ones have survived, and others haven’t. Richie, what’s your take on the health of the Australian festival market right now?

Richie McNeill, Stereosonic: There are a lot of festivals in Australia. Compared to other countries, we’ve had a strong festival climate over the last 20 years. I think it’s got a lot to do with the fact that our summer season is long – from October/November to March/April. I guess every Tom, Dick and Harry has come here from overseas to try to do festivals – some have succeeded, some haven’t. Australia’s probably very different from other countries because a lot of festivals overseas like Electric Daisy Carnival or Glastonbury are just one weekend.

Our festivals are more like a travelling circus – five festivals in two weekends. Competition is really healthy. We try to look at the end product and the individual punter who comes to the festival: how can we make it easy for them on the day? The ones who cut corners and do shitty production, or the line-up isn’t so strong, or the price is too much, won’t survive.

Grant Smillie: I reckon, to be fair, we’ve had every big jock in the world to Australia multiple times. There are only so many artists who have breakthrough records. Would it be fair to say when you’re building a line-up and charging hundreds of dollars for tickets, the punters these days are very savvy as to what the value proposition is. People aren’t asking, “Is Tiesto enough for a hundred dollars”, they’re saying, “Who else?” And that’s the problem. You might have 30 people on the line-up, but if they’ve been there twice in the last two years, that could be too often.

Richie McNeill: Yeah, also the price of the talent. It’s been hard to juggle a quality line-up, afford to book it and keep the ticket price at a good price. With competition comes an increase in prices. Say, we used to get an act for $100,000 for five shows, and in two or three years, the price went up to half a million because there are five other festivals competing for that act.

We talk in football terms: we’ve got a salary cap where we’ve got X amount of dollars to spend and we’ve got to put together the best line-up we can. The kids are getting savvier, and they don’t want to see the same acts every time. You look at something like Creamfields in the UK or Ultra in Miami, the line-ups from year to year are 80-percent the same. In Australia, there’s so much competition that if you had 80-percent the same acts as last year, people complain on the forums and say, “Oh, it’s the same old shit as last year.”

Kaz James: I think Australia pays more money for acts than anywhere else in the world, and I think it’s their fault. There’s a lot of egos and competition involved and only so many acts that pull in the numbers.

Matt Nugent: And the spin-off of that is that clubs have six weeks on either side of a festival where everyone’s spent their money on the festivals. We talk about festival pricing being too much, but you can’t tour decent big DJs through clubs anymore because, especially with America coming on-board, to offer someone $3,000 a show plus flights when they could get $20,000 a show on a festival, well, they’re not going to come. I think the club has become the unintended victim of this.

Jon Hanlon: I think though it can work if you get the right artist at the right time. For example, we did Hardwell in November when he didn’t have anything else booked, and we did six shows over two weekends, which was excellent. Some tours work, some don’t. It’s probably one of the most competitive, cut-throat markets to crack in Australia, particularly if you’re a foreigner. Tommy Trash is a good example of a guy who built himself up in Australia for years, and now he’s earning ridiculous money in the U.S.

inthemix: Live Nation’s purchase of Creamfields in the UK was one of the industry’s worst-kept secrets. We’ve heard they’re looking at the Australian market next. Richie, are they?

Richie McNeill: I mean, there’s always been outside interest in Australia. ID&T has come in and run shows, Global Gathering, V Festival and so on. Live Nation is definitely looking to invest. They just bought Australia’s biggest touring company, Michael Coppel. Pink, Metallica, Lady Gaga, all that stuff. Live Nation bought Creamfields UK, Summer Sonic in Japan, then Michael Coppel in January. I don’t think anything has to change if someone buys your company and keeps you there.