Is the City Festival Dead?

Ears are still ringing from Splendour in the Grass which for many is now the most important date on their festival calendar. A reunited Outkast certainly encouraged people to find their tent pegs and inflatable pillows, but the larger trend of weekend regional events is hitting inner-city festivals hard.

The Big Day Out heading on an indefinite hiatus made headlines earlier this year, but other city festivals have recently left holes in the line-up. Homebake cancelled their event on the steps on the Sydney Opera House in 2013 and don’t plan on returning this year. The cancellation of Harvest last year due to poor ticket sales was almost forgotten as rumours Soundwave boss AJ Maddah would take a share in the Big Day Out swirled. Those who couldn’t make it to Byron Bay for Splendour could see some of the acts at the appropriately-named Spin Off festival in Adelaide in 2012 and 2013, but the event has not been continued.

East coast event Good Vibrations took a year off in 2012 and despite festival boss Justin Hemmes saying “We will be in touch in due course regarding plans for 2013” a return never eventuated. Summadayze was a big date in the dance music scene across the capital cities, but was dumped last year as management focused their attention on Future Music’s competition with Stereosonic for the electronic dollar. As recently as June Sydney hip-hop festival Come Together was cancelled only a week out from the event, blaming ticket sales in an official statement.

“We regret to announce that due to ticket sales not reaching their targets we have decided to cancel this year’s Come Together on June 7.”

Soundwave is looking to take the city festival crown once held by the Big Day Out, although it’s seen its fair share of troubles with Perth missing out in 2015 and festival founder AJ Maddah locked in a battle with the Adelaide City Council.

The festival lost their $10,000 bond after exceeding noise restrictions for around two-thirds of the Bonython Park event. This led to the Council looking for public submissions on the future of the festival, and sent Mr Maddah onto his favourite public forum: Twitter.

“ACC is trying to get rid of #SW15 Please go to this link & show your support in a respectful manner Please RT” he said.

The future of Soundwave in Adelaide is still in question, although Mr Maddah has said it is “adios Adelaide” if they are unable to secure the Bonython Park site on the outskirts of the CBD.

Soundwave will follow Stereosonic’s lead in moving from a one to two-day event in 2015, leaving Laneway in competition with Future Music as the biggest one-day city festival. Beginning as an inner-city festival in 2004, Laneway has since had to move each of its Australian legs into the suburbs as its popularity grew and space and noise restrictions made an inner-city location unviable.

In New South Wales the Byron Shire Council has pushed itself as a home of “cultural creativity” according to Mayor Simon Richardson, who can count Bluesfest and Falls along with Splendour as major music events in the region. The Mayor is supportive of the effect festivals can have on the beachside town.

“We have a rich tradition of cultural creativity, and so for us in a way it ensures that the alternative or progression of culture and community here continues to have a voice, continues to share their skills and ideas with the wider community” he said.

Splendour, Falls and Bluesfest have established themselves as major weekend events, and relative newcomers Golden Plains, Groovin’ the Moo and Southbound are also seeing ticket sales jump.

Groovin’ The Moo extended its run of regional events in 2014, adding Oakbank to the existing roster of Maitland, Bendigo, Townsville, Bunbury and Canberra. The festival isn’t looking to move to the city any time soon according to promoters Steve Halpin and Rodney Little.

“It brings a lot of the city’s young people out; a chance for them to get away,” Halpin said.

“People make a weekend of it.” Little adds.

Electronic music has managed to avoid the regional trend with its two pillars of Future Music and Stereosonic planted firmly in capital cities, but that will change for Sydneysiders come September. SASH Sleepout is a three-day camping event in the Hunter Valley and will be competing for the Future/Stereos audience. Whether it will be successful and return in 2015 is unknown, but it is tapping into a market looking for more than just a good line-up when working out where to spend their dollars.

The reason city festivals are shrinking as regional multi-day events flourish and multiply is hard to quantify. A few years ago more festivals entered the market, making repeat headliners an issue. Kanye West headlined Splendour and the Big Day Out within a six-month period in 2011/12, establishing troubles from which the Big Day Out would never recover. The loss of ‘all-rounder’ festivals such as the Big Day Out and Homebake seems to have decreased line-up conflicts, as each festival fortifies its musical niche.

Council support is important, as showcased by Byron Bay as well as Soundwave’s continuing stoush with the Adelaide City Council. Also in the City of Churches the Port Adelaide Enfield Council poached Laneway from the CBD earlier this year after the festival struggled to handle sell-out crowds in the city space and Port Adelaide offered a unique venue that attracted record attendance.

As Groovin’ The Moo organiser Steve Halpin said it may be as simple as a chance for city dwellers to “get away”. It’s a trend that we won’t really understand until it’s over, and while many still remember when the Big Day Out ruled over all, it seems those days are gone for now.