How the fall of the mega-festival changed Australia’s summers
Back in April, Stereosonic became the final Australian “mega-festival” to drop off the summer calendar. With the big guns gone, this season looks very different from years past. JACK TREGONING spoke to industry insiders about what’s changed for dance music fans.
A Blockbuster Summer
On this day five years ago, we were heading into a heavyweight Australian festival season. If your memories of the 2011-into-2012 summer are a far-gone blur (or you were just an innocent school kid at the time), let us set the stage.
After expanding to five cities in 2009, Stereosonic was now the biggest game in town. The festival’s 2011 touring party was headed by Armin van Buuren, Carl Cox, Afrojack, and The Bloody Beetroots, but the breakout star was a young Swede called Avicii and his earworm anthem Levels. It was an unapologetically all-dance line-up from the boldest font to the smallest print, with bass music, tech-house, trance and big room all covered. LMFAO was also prominently billed, but you can’t ace them all.
For all its success, though, Stereosonic couldn’t claim the season to itself. Future Music Festival, Stereo’s sworn rival, announced Swedish House Mafia at the top of its late summer line-up. Landing the Swedes as headliners was enough to move tickets across all cities, but Future also had Skrillex, Knife Party, Porter Robinson, and Aphex Twin in its corner. Both festival companies dropped big money on world-class line-ups, and both came up winners. (Future also had its Summadayze festival tour in early January, which hit Perth, Melbourne and Adelaide, plus the Gold Coast under the name Summafieldayze.)
Scheduled right between Stereo and Future, at the sweaty peak of summer, was the original Australian mega-festival. Big Day Out’s 2012 line-up didn’t inspire the mania of the previous summer’s Tool and Rammstein double-bill, but the 20-year-old festival was still in robust shape – while also finding the younger, rowdier Soundwave Festival to be a dangerous challenger.
Though Stereo and Future took some shine off Big Day Out’s dance bookings, the Boiler Room still stood as a rite-of-passage for young dance fans. 2012’s contingent of Nero, Bassnectar, Girl Talk, and Shockone was perfectly pitched at the rock diehard who wanders in sceptically, only to have their mind rearranged. In short, it was a congested summer for big-ticket spectacles.
How the Mega-Festival Fell
If big-budget blockbusters dominated the 2011/2012 festival season, this summer is all about the indie comeback.
Across the country, the one-size-fits-all model has given way to smaller-scale thrills, from 10,000-capacity festival tours to one-off weekenders tailored to a city’s specific musical tastes. As new events are added to the calendar each week, it’s getting hard to keep up – which, in turn, makes promoters hustle harder for our attention.
This summer of downsizing follows fundamental shifts in the festival landscape. It’s telling that of Australia’s best-known touring festivals, the one still standing is Laneway. While it follows a familiar formula of five cities across two weekends (plus side-trips to Auckland and Singapore), Laneway is still a boutique endeavour at heart. The modest electronic contingent assembled for its 2017 tour – including Bob Moses, Tourist, Tycho and the Floating Points live band – has no aspirations of filling arenas.
In the past, Laneway’s dates bumped up against the Big Day Out tour, making the two festivals competitors for certain acts and a slice of the audience. It’s notable that Big Day Out’s top-heavy 2014 line-up, hyped as its “biggest and best yet”, turned out to be its last. While the festival’s co-founder Ken West got his three “white whales” – Pearl Jam, Blur and Arcade Fire – as headliners, ticket sales didn’t reflect his initial excitement.
That year’s Big Day Out was not quite the victory tour its organisers had planned on. Blur dropped out, Sydney’s scheduled second show was cancelled, and overall attendance dipped. Major Lazer headlined the Red Stage, which left Steve Angello to close the Boiler Room after Dillon Francis and Flume. West described booking Angello as “a bit of an experiment”; one that ultimately delivered mixed results. It came as no great surprise, then, that Big Day Out’s new US owners C3 Presents announced there would be no festival in 2015.
Future Music Festival was the next to call time after its 2015 tour, which featured the bank-busting triple-bill of Drake, The Prodigy, and Avicii. There was no sugarcoating from festival director Brett Robinson: they simply didn’t sell enough tickets. “It’s been a difficult decision to make,” the official statement read, “but in the end travelling the festival in its current form across Australia simply doesn’t make financial sense anymore.”
Future Entertainment had entered into liquidation in 2013, with Australian music giant the Mushroom Group stepping in to shore up its future. Two years later, however, Mushroom chairman Michael Gudinski was similarly gloomy about the economics of dance music festivals. In an interview at the time, he attributed Future’s untimely end to the fluctuating Australian dollar, ever-increasing staging costs, and the effect of America’s EDM boom on escalating DJ fees.
“Stereo’s sudden absence now brings us to this atypical Australian summer”
For Stereosonic, the situation was more complicated. In the scale of its line-ups and production, Stereo was Australia’s closest peer to the EDM massives blowing up in America. It was no surprise, then, that US events conglomerate SFX Entertainment acquired Stereo’s producers Totem OneLove Group as part of its erratic dance music spending spree. We all know how that grand plan worked out for SFX.
Despite an initial promise that Stereosonic would not be affected by the bankruptcy of its parent company, the 2016 edition was soon called off. (A statement assured the festival will return “bigger and better” in 2017, but that now seems improbable.) It was a disappointing end for a homegrown success story, but Stereo’s sudden absence now brings us to this atypical Australian summer.
Scaling Down and Wising Up
“Sometimes you’ve got to go a couple of steps back to go forward,” muses HARD Events boss Gary Richards, aka Destructo, when I ask his thoughts on the scaling down of Australia’s festival season.
I’ve called Gary at his LA office as he’s getting ready for standalone HARD shows in Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, and Brisbane. (The whirlwind visit went down last weekend.) HARD hosted its own stage at Stereosonic from 2012, and the festival’s former boss Richie McNeill – whose long-running Hardware Group now has a bass division named Out Here – helped coordinate this new tour with local partners in each city. “I feel like Australia is a great market for us, but I don’t have boots on the ground,” Gary says. “I needed a partner over there. I hooked up with Richie who had an idea for these locations.”
Instead of making fans fight through a festival to stay at one stage, this was an undiluted HARD showcase in relatively compact surrounds. With just six internationals on the tightly assembled line-up, Canadian bass duo Zeds Dead took the headline slot. “It’s the homies I play with all the time,” Gary tells me. “It’s not a line-up that’s going to sell a hundred thousand tickets, but it works for the night. You’ve got deep house, some techno, a little hip-hop, some mental shit.”
Because the organisers didn’t blow their budget on an oversized line-up, ticket prices could start at $90. Both at home in LA and overseas, DJs know HARD is a sure bet. “There’s some artists who’ve priced themselves out of the game for me,” Gary reasons. “But for the most part, I’m able to work it out with people. They have faith the shows are going to be good.”
That same faith applies to Australia’s own independent touring agency BBE, which entered the festival game last summer with FOMO at Brisbane’s Riverstage. In January 2017, the show will also travel to Sydney and Adelaide, a decision its organisers did not approach lightly.
Anand and Jess Krishnaswamy, the married couple behind BBE, know how changeable the Australian market can be. Since 2013, they’ve toured acts right on the cusp of blowing up (RL Grime, Baauer, Kaytranada and Flosstradamus are all BBE favourites), and it’s a philosophy that now extends to FOMO.
Speaking to inthemix from the company’s Sydney office, Jess admits to mixed feelings about the changing scene. “I personally think it’s really sad these mega-festivals are dying away,” she says. “That said, it’s opened up the whole market to smaller touring companies. I’m not sure we would’ve had the chance to do FOMO at a different time when those festivals could come in and snaffle all that talent.”
The FOMO model is far removed from those massives that sprawl across arenas and showgrounds. Its tagline – “one stage, no clashes, party together” – speaks to a wider trend of festivals putting the experience first. “We thought back to all our favourite festival memories,” Jess says, “and they were never running around, losing mates, and set times clashes. The special times were everyone together, sharing in the same moment.” Meanwhile, the no-clashes edict gives “all the acts a mainstage experience.”
“The mega-festival touring idea is just not financially viable anymore”
BBE has built strong relationships with artists, but it’s still at the mercy of our exchange rate. “The mega-festival touring idea is just not financially viable anymore,” Jess reasons. “Artists are more expensive than they’ve ever been, it’s more competitive, and the dollar is horrendous.”
This financial reality influenced how BBE built its FOMO line-up. They needed to book artists that would work across three distinct cities, while still keeping the cost as low as possible for punters. “If the ticket price is blowing out beyond what it should be, we wouldn’t do the festival anymore,” Jess says. “We want a model where kids can afford to go to multiple things.”
Playing to Your Crowd
Another approach is flourishing more than ever this summer: the standalone, state-specific festival.
The success of events like Let Them Eat Cake, Golden Plains, Breakfest, Field Day, and Defqon.1 underline the limitations of the touring festival model. Promoters who intimately understand their audience are more likely to build a loyal following. Take, for example, Melbourne’s It’s A Fine Day, which debuts at Sidney Myer Music Bowl on New Year’s Day. Rather than casting the net wide and hoping for mass appeal, the line-up directly targets the city’s trance and progressive devotees, with MaRLo, Cosmic Gate, and Ferry Corsten leading the charge.
A shining example of this focused approach is Origin NYE, which turns ten in 2016. Origin is a Perth festival to its core, from the team behind the scenes to the particular energy of its line-ups. “Perth has a history etched in bass music,” Origin’s Samantha Gartner tells inthemix via email. “Veteran rave promoters in the ’90s and early 2000s were some of the best, and artists like Pendulum and Shockone have been repping our hometown, which strengthened Western Australia musically and culturally.”
While Origin’s production value has steadily improved over the years, its greatest strength is its specificity: this is a bass-driven festival for a bass-driven state. It’s testament to Origin’s standing that they secured Pendulum’s three founding members – El Hornet, Rob Swire, and Gareth McGrillen – for a reunion DJ set in the city that made them. “Each city has different musical tastes,” Samantha reasons. “What’s celebrated on the East Coast doesn’t necessarily resonate with festival-goers in Perth.”
“Each city has different musical tastes. What’s celebrated on the East Coast doesn’t necessarily resonate with festival-goers in Perth”
True to that argument, WA has traditionally been a risky stop for major touring festivals. As Jess from BBE explains, “It’s hard to tour that many artists; freight and production is just so, so expensive.” AJ Maddah – the former Soundwave promoter who also had a short-lived 50-percent stake in Big Day Out – often contended a Perth leg wasn’t commercially viable.
Speaking to Ballarat radio station The Voice about Soundwave in 2014, Maddah argued that “Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne have been subsidising Perth since the thing went national.” In a later interview on triple j’s Hack, he said the same of Big Day Out.
In the mega-festival model, Perth was often left with a watered-down, budget-conscious version of the line-up. The success of a festival like Origin NYE, with its proud hometown ties, feels like a necessary course correction.
House and Techno, Here We Go
When Big Day Out, Future Music Festival and Stereosonic announced their summer line-ups, they could be sure of one question: “Sideshows?”
Grumbling about festivals and hoping for sideshows is, after all, an Australian summer tradition. No festival wants potential ticket-buyers holding out for a cheaper show, so we were usually told with absolute certainty there’d be No Sideshows. That was often true of the top-tier headliners with festival exclusivity written into their contract, but No Sideshows has rarely meant no sideshows.
“Grumbling about festivals and hoping for sideshows is, after all, an Australian summer tradition”
The call for sideshows often comes loudest from house and techno fans who don’t want to schlep to a festival. Sven Väth’s Cocoon stage was a regular feature of the Future line-ups, with the German showman joined by friends like Richie Hawtin, Dubfire, and Luciano. Stereosonic had the Carl Cox & Friends stage, although its techno contingent was pared down in later editions. (2010 was its banner year for the sound, with Jeff Mills, Redshape, Technasia and the long-overdue return of Ricardo Villalobos.)
In the case of both promoters, techno club shows and after-parties would be announced at the last minute, allowing the longest possible window for the festivals to sell out.
This summer presents a very different picture for the country’s house and techno believers. The past five or so years have seen a groundswell of carefully-curated boutique festivals, particularly in Victoria and New South Wales. With the likes of Rainbow Serpent, Strawberry Fields, Let Them Eat Cake, and Subsonic Music Festival leading the charge, a new crop is following suit.
After the success of the inaugural Tell No Tales in Sydney and Melbourne this past weekend (headed by Villalobos, Matthew Dear, and Pan-Pot), the next project for Richie McNeill’s Hardware Group is the new camping festival Babylon in March 2017. While its bookings include psytrance, bass music and more, there’s a central vein of techno from the likes of Speedy J, Dave Clarke, and Luke Slater as Planetary Assault Systems.
“With no mega-festival flexing its muscle, the world’s “underground” talent is spread wide across the Australian summer”
With no mega-festival flexing its muscle, the world’s “underground” talent is spread wide across the Australian summer.
Perhaps the most talked-about newcomer this season is Victoria’s Pitch Music Festival. Its line-up announcement came straight out of leftfield back in October, with a list of names you’d expect to see at a festival in the Netherlands or Germany. The three-day event in regional Victoria is a collaboration between Beyond The Valley (a New Year’s Eve camping festival also in Victoria) and the Melbourne-based touring agency Novel.
As Beyond The Valley’s Nicholas Greco tells inthemix, both parties set out to build a head-turning line-up. “It was always our intention to have a calibre of artists that haven’t really been seen on the one line-up before,” he says. “It seems every other weekend now there are unique events with amazing artists appealing to a different crowd. This just wasn’t possible in previous years, with the acts and dates taken up by the bigger events.”
In other words, this is a dream summer for the techno obsessed: you’ll just have to decide where to direct your money.
The Internationals Effect
While the fall of the Australian mega-festival has changed summer for punters, international artists are also feeling the effect.
Each year, it usually fell to Stereo or Future Music Festival to bring out the super-expensive mainstage DJs like Calvin Harris, Tiësto, David Guetta, Hardwell, and the former members of Swedish House Mafia. Now we’re likely to see a return to standalone shows for big-name crowd pleasers, or a sharp drop-off in their visits to Australia.
Steve Aoki, for one, has noted the change. “What happened?” he mused in a recent interview with Music Feeds. “Stereosonic and Future have bowed out. Where do artists like myself, in the electronic space, go to play and to build our careers down here?” Even without a festival to headline, some mainstage regulars are sure to keep visiting: Armin van Buuren, for one, will stage Embrace in Sydney this summer, while BBE is bringing Diplo out for a headline tour next March. (That plan is serving him well, with the Sydney show sold out two months in advance.)
Aoki might not like it, but this new state of affairs has brought a welcome change to our festival headliners. The usual suspects have been edged out by other acts that, in Aoki’s words, are now building their careers down here. For BBE, putting Flosstradamus at the top of the FOMO bill is the culmination of a close relationship. As Jess Krishnaswamy explains, “With Flosstradamus, we did a club tour, then two hard-ticket tours after that; headlining FOMO felt like the perfect next step.”
The festival is also scheduled a week after New Year’s Eve in the dead of the northern hemisphere winter, so “we’re not being asked to pay crazy amounts for a DJ because it conflicts with something in the States.” For FOMO-sized festivals working with a shaky Australian dollar, there are always delicate manoeuvres to be made. “The artists still want to make a certain level of money,” Jess says, “but we don’t want to bankrupt our business.”
“The artists still want to make a certain level of money, but we don’t want to bankrupt our business.”
Australia’s myriad house and techno festivals also have to be savvy in building a line-up. As Beyond The Valley’s Nicholas Greco explains, it’s not as simple as drawing up a wishlist. “For an overseas artist to come to Australia and play our event, we need to find them multiple shows to make it financially viable,” he says. “When we’re working with interstate partners, sometimes an act that works for Victoria might not work for, say, Western Australia.”
Earlier this year, FasterLouder spoke to Big Day Out founder Viv Lees about the end of an Australian festival era. While Lees wasn’t involved in the final years of BDO, he’s not ready to declare the mega-festival tour a thing of the past. “It’s a great model,” he reasoned, adding that a “bright spark” will probably make it work again in a few years. “A big festival is a beautiful thing,” he said.
There’s no doubt a big festival can be a beautiful thing: those sprawling, frenetic, lose-your-friends spectacles have long been an Australian rite of passage. But if the evolution of our summer calendar tells us anything, it’s that bigger doesn’t always equal better.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in New York. You can follow him on Twitter.