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A History of Brisbane's Music Festival Scene

When I try and conjure up an image of a music festival that is pure Brisbane my mind goes completely blank.

When thinking of Melbourne I instantly think of St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival with the unique laneway setting and the slant toward indie artists. When I think of Perth, I am reminded of hard as nails festival Soundwave.  With Sydney of course I think of most mainstream festivals, such as Big Day Out, that all began there and then expanded around the country. But when I try to think of a festival that has Brisbane’s character, a festival that can call Brisbane home sweet home, I think of nothing but memories of festivals past.

The only major festival to ever truly call Brisbane home was Livid, which began in 1989 and ran until 2003 at the RNA showgrounds. Apart from Big Day Out, this was probably one of the only long-running Aussie festivals to boast regular giant alt-rock and indie headliners, such as Sonic Youth, Linkin Park, The White Stripes, Lou Read, The Cure, The Yeah Yeah Yeah, Oasis and Butthole Surfers, amongst others. The festival began in 1989 at UQ with The Go Betweens, Chris Bailey and Died Pretty headlining, moved to Davies Park when it began to get major attention, and then finally found a home at RNA showgrounds.

 

The festival was never officially cancelled, but ‘took a year off’ in 2003 that became ten years off this year when it never returned in 2005, as it was expected to. There have been many suggestions of a return for Livid, however, none of the rumours have turned to be true. The latest is that the festival could return in 2014 for it’s twenty-fifth anniversary, but in the current festival crisis it seems unlikely with its biggest competition, Big Day Out, slated to be cancelled in 2014. Festivals that seem to be favoured these days are long-winded camping affairs out in the bush such as Woodford Folk Festival, Splendour In The Grass, Falls Festival and The Blues and Roots Fest, or electronic dance festivals that are really just an excuse for people to get pissed and take a heap of drugs. A festival just for the music – now there’s a crazy idea.

Around the mid 2000s a festival bloom seemed to occur throughout the market, causing festivals to sprout up all over the place and expand to most capital cities. This included Parklife (2005), Laneway (2006), Soundwave (2007), Future Music Festival (2007), Stereosonic (2007) and Harvest (2011). Yet none of these music festivals were unique to Brisbane, nor represented Brisbane artists very well. Parklife died off this year to be replaced by a boutique dance festival, Listen Out (a good indication of where the festival market is unfortunately heading in), whilst Harvest was also cancelled due to poor ticket sales, with no poor imitation replacement in sight.

 

Meanwhile, Laneway, Soundwave, Future and Sterosonic are all still going strong as they each have a broad appeal, whilst still maintaining a distinctive image. I also believe prices have not inflated for these festivals as much as Big Day Out has, which is now up to $199 for a one day festival. Whilst popular festivals like Sterosonic and Future also have a rather engorged price at around $180 on average, festivalgoers seem more keen to pay this kind of price for an event that is all about debauchery and over-spending. With music festivals that are more about the music, such as Harvest (priced at around $160), these prices need to be lower, especially as these festivals are typically one day affairs. Take Laneway for example – a one-day festival that boasts a hefty line-up, and it is priced at a reasonable $123. Greedy festival promoters should look toward the drink tents if they want to steal festival attendee’s money.

In 2007 there was one festival that celebrated Brisbane and its music heritage, but it was a one-off event. The festival was called ‘Pig City: Brisbane’s Historical Soundtrack’, after Andrew Stafford’s famous book that outlined a detailed history of Brisbane’s music, cultural and political landscape from the 70s up until the 2000s. The festival took place at UQ and featured The Saints, Regurgitator, The Riptides, Kev Carmody, Screamfeeder, David McCormack, Ups & Downs, The Apartment and Kate Miller-Heidke on the lineup. It marked the first reunion of the founding members of The Saints for twenty-eight years, as well as combining the festival event with a symposium the day before on the music industry in Brisbane to attract festival goers and industry types alike – much like a larger scale Bigsound.

 

Recent years have shown little development in the festival scene in Brisbane, with 2008 only marking the beginning of one new festival - Sounds of Spring (at Riverstage) that only had two successful years before calling it quits. 2009 saw All Tomorrow’s Parties visit Australian shores on a national scale, with one show at Riverstage featuring festival favourites The Saints, Spiritualised, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Robert Forster and James Blood Ulmer. The Saints were supposed to play their debut album ‘I’m Stranded’ in its entirety, but opted to play a set of their own choice in typical ‘punk’ attitude that only featured a couple of songs from the album. Unfortunately, All Tomorrow’s Parties has not since returned to Brisbane and it’s easy to see why if you know what happened in 2010 in Brisbane.

 

Indeed, 2010 was an even sadder year for the Brisbane festival circuit as it saw two massive festival failures that have probably determined the current state of the Brisbane festival circuit. First was Lost Weekend, a festival intended to mirror Melbourne’s successful Meredith Festival, but a festival that did not achieve any success nor actually take place as Brisbane’s alternative music scene is a lot scarcer than Melbourne’s. As such, sales for Lost Weekend were meagre and did not warrant enough financial security for the festival to take place. The festival was supposed to occur at Ivory’s Rock conference centre over three days, with headliners like Dinosaur Jr., The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Wooden Shjips and The Drones, but festival organisers cancelled the event when they couldn’t cover the shortfall in ticket sales after the event was abruptly moved to Riverstage.

The event was allegedly moved because of a ‘licensing dispute’, but it has since come out from festival promoters that in a last attempt to boost festival sales the organisers moved the festival to Riverstage so that Brisbaners would not have to travel too far, and so that the festival could be downsized to two days. Personally, I can identify with this mindset as Brisbaners rarely seem to like to travel too far for a festival unless it’s a big three-day party like Splendour In The Grass. You have to offer a festivalgoer a lot of bang for their buck if you want them to make the dangerous and costly trek out of their Queenslander to some dingy camping ground for three or more days, with no comfy bed or BWS down the road to provide comfort in the cold, cold night.

Following in the footsteps of Lost Weekend was BAM, a small festival set to feature Brisbane artists at the same doomed venue. Warning bells were ringing early on, with poor planning and odd payment and organisation schemes implemented. For instance artists were not going to be paid for their involvement, instead they would receive a ‘bonus’ for selling tickets to their friends. On top of this prices were inflated, with the cheapest tickets being sold for $85 and camping for artists at the $100 mark for two-person tent in the only area with power (which means the camping grounds for festival punters obviously had no power and was probably more expensive). At the bare minimum an average five-piece band would have to pay $300 to play the festival. The line-up was also ridiculously inflated, with an alleged 100 bands on the bill, with the festival intended to be a 24-hour a day, 3 day festival experience. Needless to say the festival got canned.

After these last two attempts to have a Brisbane-only music festival failed with large money losses and ego-loss for everybody involved, it seems the future of Brisbane’s music festival circuit is dismal. The only thing I could see creating a spark for the dark festival future is the revival of Livid, but even this could be bad news for the market if it fails. And with all the recent festival cancellations it seems we all better just be prepared to pack our bags for Byron Bay if we want the festival experience. 

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