Any outdoor music festival or event in Australia has to weigh the risks of crappy weather dampening the day — it’s always a possibility organisers have to plan for. But recent extreme weather events caused by climate change are threatening the industry to the point where punters are increasingly hesitant to book tickets and festivals are having to reconsider their spending and setups.
In the past six months alone, Byron Bay’s Splendour in the Grass, Strawberry Fields on the Murray River, Grapevine Gathering Victoria and Yours and Owls in Woollongong were partly or entirely cancelled due to heavy rain or flooding.
Bluesfest also announced on Thursday that a Melbourne edition of the Easter festival would launch in 2023, but in a state and festival-first, it would be fully indoors and “weatherproof”.
“It’s a massive challenge to put on a music festival anytime, but when you’re up against the elements and some pretty crazy weather patterns that we are experiencing now in Australia, you do really have to bring that into consideration,” artistic director of Tasmanian events and production company Vibestown Jesse Higgs told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
Vibestown runs a number of music festivals, including Party in the Paddock since 2013, which Higgs said has had to adapt its operations in recent years due to the severity of weather risks. He said in 2018 one of their headliners had to cut their set short after the first song due to rain. Another artist lost some gear due to water damage.
“We had random torrential rain in Feb in 2018, 2019 and 2020. We never used to get that. We’re definitely seeing some weird weather patterns and we have to rethink our stages now, we have to make sure they’re weatherproof,” he said.
Climate change has undeniable effects on all businesses and industries, but the music industry is particularly sensitive because artists, venues and events organisers all rely on each other. Artists only tour in Australia when there are events to stage them, and festivals only sell tickets when they have artists to perform. It’s a delicate balance.
“The whole industry is an ecosystem, so if something bad happens to Splendour it negatively ripples through the community,” Higgs said.
“We’ve seen that in the past with different things like drug overdoses or bad behaviour, it almost stains the whole thing and people’s perceptions do shift a bit.”
Strawberry Fields festival director Tara Benny said the pandemic spurred hesitation among festival-goers to buy tickets as soon as they’re released, and extreme weather conditions have made it all worse.
“The biggest flow-on effect is to the confidence of music fans in making a decision to pay for a ticket,” Benny told PEDESTRIAN.TV.
“It’s not that people don’t want to go, everyone still loves music, but the likelihood that someone will pay for a ticket 10, six, or even two months in advance has declined radically. People are way more likely to decide at the last minute.”
This can lead to music festivals having to tighten their purse strings and ultimately not put on the type of event they may have envisioned.
“If [tickets to your festival are] on sale for eight months and for seven of those months your sales are terrible, basically your organisational psychology is to save as much money as possible … to get it over the line,” Benny said.
“And if in the last month the ticket sales come in and suddenly you have that sold-out capacity you wished you had, you’re really going to be under-prepared.
“You’re not going to have access to the same level of staffing, pre-planning and epic delivery that you would if you knew that’s where you were going to end up months before that.”
In other words, festivals would, across the board, be bigger and better if those interested didn’t wait until the week before to buy their ticket.
Benny said this hesitation has yet another flow-on effect on the wider music industry because it tells them to take fewer risks.
“When event organisers don’t have good forward-looking confidence in how many tickets they can sell, they’re less likely to put on shows and [especially] emerging shows or shows that seem risky. So it kind of constricts the whole landscape to be a lot less interesting, diverse, robust and growing.”
Benny said she’d like to see governments extend their COVID cancellation insurance payments to cover all cancellation scenarios for the music industry because the pandemic and floods have made cancellation insurance policies almost impossible to obtain, or “eyewateringly” expensive.
But she said the easiest short-term solution would be for anyone who loves festivals and has the means to attend them regularly to put their money where their mouth is.
“The call is on all of us to do more for the environment, not give up hope in the Australian music industry and be willing to back that with your dollars,” Benny said.
“As an event promoter, I’m backing it with my dollars by saying we’re not going to stop putting on shows. We’re going to keep trying. And I hope punters … and governments … do the same.”