Why Australia’s music festivals are falling over?

On Wednesday, following a day of intense speculation, Splendour in the Grass made the announcement of canceling this year’s music festival, just one week after ticket sales began. The renowned camping festival, scheduled to take place in July at North Byron Parklands in New South Wales, with headliners like Kylie Minogue, Future, and Arcade Fire, attributed the cancellation to “unexpected events,” according to Splendour’s co-chief executives Jessica Ducrou and Paul Piticco in their sole statement.

They mentioned that the festival would be taking a hiatus for the year, without firmly committing to its return in 2025 (Splendour did not respond to further inquiries from Australia for additional comment on this matter).

This development dealt another blow to Australia’s already struggling music festival circuit, coming shortly after the regional festival Groovin The Moo scrapped all six dates due to insufficient ticket sales. These cancellations occurred against the backdrop of a summer marked by severe weather conditions affecting various festivals such as Pitch and Golden Plains in Victoria and Womadelaide in South Australia. In light of these challenges, Splendour’s decision has sent shockwaves throughout the industry.

Prior to Splendour’s cancellation, I was in discussions with individuals involved in the Australian festival scene to understand why multi-genre festivals are finding it difficult to attract ticket buyers. The explanations varied, including a scarcity of headline artists available and willing to perform in the global market, budget constraints exacerbated by the weakening Australian dollar, Generation Z’s preference for established headliners, and a growing demand for festivals offering a sense of community beyond just a shared musical experience.

However, all conversations led to the same conclusion: there’s no single factor responsible for the current state of affairs.

According to an Australian festival promoter who spoke anonymously, gone are the days when festival-goers meticulously scanned through entire lineups; instead, it’s the top-tier artists that predominantly drive interest, particularly on social media and in the media.

For Splendour, one of these top-tier artists became embroiled in controversy. Allegations of sexual misconduct against Arcade Fire’s frontman Win Butler emerged, although he denied them, and no charges were filed against him. In contrast, Groovin The Moo organized its lineup alphabetically to avoid debates over headliners.

The festival promoter emphasized the current difficulty in securing what is considered headline talent in Australia, attributing it to a combination of factors such as artists prioritizing the lucrative US touring market or opting to stay home for mental health reasons.

Meanwhile, music festival attendees tend to focus on the top two or three artists to decide whether to attend, as evidenced by the promoter’s comments on the potential impact of having Billie Eilish as a headliner for Groovin The Moo.

Other observers highlighted the escalating operational costs for post-pandemic festivals, making it especially risky to compete for expensive headliners. The end of the Australian government’s Rise fund, which provided financial support to festivals post-COVID-19, further exacerbated the situation.

Secret Sounds, the Australian company behind Splendour, is predominantly owned by the US-based Live Nation, which reported record profits in 2023. This concentration of ownership within a few major multinational corporations, including Live Nation, has implications for the financial decisions made regarding festivals.

While concerns about the cost of living may explain a shift away from expensive tickets, recent successful tours by international artists like Taylor Swift and Blink-182 suggest otherwise. These blockbuster tours contrast with the struggles faced by Australian artists trying to secure festival bookings, according to Julia Robinson, head of policy and advocacy at Aria.

Maggie Collins, executive director of the Association of Artist Managers Australia, concurs, noting the challenges faced by Australian artists in competing in such a crowded market. She emphasizes the critical role of festivals as platforms for Australian artists to reach wider audiences.

Despite these challenges, there’s hope for a positive outcome from this setback, with a focus on reconnecting Australian audiences with local artists to bolster their standing in the music industry.

The issues plaguing Splendour and the wider festival landscape in Australia aren’t unique to the country, as evidenced by Coachella’s recent struggles with ticket sales. This uncertainty underscores the industry’s collective hope for Splendour’s success as an indicator of what lies ahead for Australia’s festival scene.

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