Aussie Outdoor Music Festivals – Stuck and Stagnant or Moving Forward?

Anyone who has been a part of the electronic music scene in Australia for more than five years will likely be aware that it has changed a lot in the last decade. Although this can be said true for the culture since the beginning of its time, it is clear that social networking and media has overhauled the scene dramatically in the past 5-7 years.   It is a subject talked about often among campsites and especially among veterans of the scene, but rarely discussed in an open forum.

I was inspired this year at Earth Frequency Festival  2016 (one of Australia’s most esteemed and valued festivals) , by the events main man Paul Abad,  a beloved and very well respected member and leader of our community,  with the work he did to rise above some major challenges caused by these changes. His desire to help everyone win certainly peaked my interest and inspired the following conversation with him.  A man who has been a part of our amazing culture for many years, Paul has wonderful insight into the current situation and a wise and humble outlook for the future.  Truly something for Dreamland readers to review and take onboard.

Do you feel that Earth Frequency Festival (EFF) is ahead of its time in implementing strategies to keep the festival sustainable and respected in the local and wider community? on’t wait. The time will never be just right!

That’s a really interesting question and it’s hard to answer as I don’t have a crystal ball to tell how the current increased attention on music festivals is going to play out!  

Political sentiment and public opinion are a bit like the wind, it can be gale force one moment in one direction and then suddenly it’s all still or blowing in the other direction, so it’s hard to say where things will be at in 5 years and if it’s going to be easier or harder to have music events and festivals approved and what it will take to be sustainable.

I do think the shift to a slightly more accessible model and higher levels of transparency and monitoring is definitely helping in the short term to ensure Earth Frequency can survive and thrive.  For our 2016 event it felt like we were pushing new territory for what an event of this size had to do to get the go ahead.  When I zoomed out from what was going on, I saw the whole process as a form of future-proofing form what might be increasing levels of scrutiny and difficulty in having an event of this type approved, but it did mean some new changes and compromises.

The way things unfolded for EFF2016 also provided an opportunity to accelerate the ideas I had been developing around local community engagement, charity outcomes and side projects from the festival, and I’m really pleased with where it has landed.  We now have a heap of positive outcomes from the festival including fantastic fundraising outcomes for a number of community groups, a partnership with the neighbouring nature protection group QTFN, the festival has funded a study on local koala populations, I was invited to help organise an event for World Environment Day with the venue and Ipswich City Council, we now have a local community fund which is about to do its allocation of funds for the first time, and there’s more awesome happenings on the horizon which involve working deeper with the venue on other events including one specifically focused on multiculturalism and peace (very important considering the political climate at the moment!). 

I really see these sort of external collaborations and partnerships as the next level for established festivals.  It’s one thing to be able to organise an event, do it well, and make it sustainable, but it’s a whole new level to have an array of local area partnerships and positive community outcomes like this.  Hopefully this also resonates for the Earth Frequency community.

We’ve got this tricky situation at the moment where music events are by default associated with drug culture which is not fair or accurate, and there’s also a dysfunctional approach and lack of useful dialogue around drug laws and drug education and harm minimisation.

Last year there was some major work done with the local council regarding EFF to keep everyone on the same page, specifically in terms of the music levels – how did the council react to those changes?

In some ways, 2016 was our toughest year and we had our tightest set of council conditions to operate under.  This was partly due to a widespread higher level of scrutiny on music festivals, especially electronic music festivals that is being experienced in Australia, but in the background we were also silently enduring a fairly nasty smear campaign from a couple of local residents.  I won’t go in to it much and very little was mentioned about this at the time, because I prefer to keep a positive and diplomatic outlook than respond to intense negativity with further negativity, but it’s enough to say it was a difficult situation to navigate.

We worked closely with council to set some event parameters that would provide a balanced way for the event to move forward, and although there were a few issues that came up as a result, council was very pleased with how we worked with them and addressed all concerns and considerations.  This has really solidified the council support and made the long term outlook very positive for the festival.  To the point that we now have strong support and negotiating power and some more reasonable operating conditions for 2017 and beyond.

The friction with smaller scale non-approved events and the authorities which unfortunately gets a lot of media coverage is a real problem, and it leads to the general public pigeon-holing the entire culture as a bit of a renegade, illegitimate platform which is a real shame.oing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment!

How did you find the reaction from the guests, do you think this will impact anyone’s decision to attend this year? 

It was a bit of a shock that on short notice we had to go from a 24/7 music event with less scrutiny to a new format where the big stages close at midnight and we focus on smaller scale after hours venues after midnight.  I guess it felt like a bubble popping and it was a difficult change at the time. 

I think there’s a section of our audience that might find the new format a deal breaker, and that’s fair enough – some people are really just into the all night doof tunes and I totally understand that.  But what I’m seeing so far is that the majority of our audience is still on board and understand it was a difficult year and we had to play it smart with the long term view in mind, rather than compromise our long term viability.  The reality is that our most packed dance floors have always been in the day sessions and evening sessions, so I think the most important sessions of music are still intact for the majority of our audience.

At this point ticket sales are trending similarly to previous years, and we’re seeing a great response to the 2017 lineup so far, so I think it’s all nicely on track. 

Considering we hit 90% capacity in 2016, if we do lose a few people with the new format, it opens up space for new people to come and experience the festival which I think is positive.

How do you feel about other events and the way they regard their local community, do you feel like there is enough coherence between the opposing parties maintained to support the continuance of the bush doof/transformation festival culture? 

It’s such a mixed bag of events around Australia that it’s hard to make a simple response to this.  I know of many excellent examples of festivals and smaller events in Australia who are thinking outside the box and implementing the ‘party for a purpose’ idea – whether it is the whole concept of the event or more like an offshoot of energy from an established event.  Rainbow Serpent and Regrowth spring to mind as two great events which are leading the way with eco and community projects and fantastic outcomes.  Manifest which took place in S.E.QLD also had a lot of awesome peripheral outcomes including tree planting and youth mentoring. Also Grounded which had its first event this year was a great initial concept of permaculture education combined with entertainment, and the wonderful team behind this event will be joining in for EFF2017 to hold a permaculture intensive at our venue’s organic farm before the festival begins which is awesome. 

I think any event is capable of creating these sorts of collaborations and outcomes, and aside from it being a great thing to do, it really does help generate good will and support which in turn makes the events sustainable.  It’s why it really helps to find a venue that is viable in the long term because you can then get busy meeting the local community, creating good connections and opening the door to positive outcomes.  Personally I think this is absolutely essential for the long term survival of music events in rural areas.  if you’re not engaging the local community and giving back in some way, there’s a good chance all the local community will focus on are the perceived negatives and risks.

With the information flowing a lot more openly online, there is obviously a lot more media attention on both illegal underground events and on the well organised festivals these days, do you feel like this media attention impacts positively or negatively on our community?

To be honest, in the past 12 months especially, I’ve seen some really damaging media coverage of music events for everything from small illegal events to some of the major festivals, which I think sets the scene back quite a bit.  In some cases this is because the events are being organised irresponsibly, but it’s certainly not entirely the fault of the events, and some of the best organised events have also received negative media.

We’ve got this tricky situation at the moment where music events are by default associated with drug culture which is not fair or accurate, and there’s also a dysfunctional approach and lack of useful dialogue around drug laws and drug education and harm minimisation. Things are also coming to a head with events that don’t get council approval, and there’s some high level political will to shut down or scrutinise even the most professionally organised music events in some parts of the country.  It’s quite an explosive mix when you think about it and I really do think the future of music events is in the hands of the festival attendees .. to take a safe and responsible approach to partying and not make the events we all love easy targets. 

But at the same time, it would be nice to see a more pragmatic approach at the higher levels of politics and media when it comes to the dialogue around harm minimisation and event safety. 

How do you/EFF deal with the media attention?

Earth Frequency is at the point we are too big to try and hide and that’s not even considered an objective – I’m proud of the event that has been shaped over a decade working this awesome community!  I take a pro-active approach with dealing with the media and send press releases about the festival to local newspapers and other publications to start things off on positively.  This has been really critical for promoting good awareness of what the festival actually is about, and avoiding sensationalist and defamatory reporting.  I’m happy to say that we have had great outcomes recently including two very positive front page articles in Ipswich’s newspaper The QLD Times.  They have a great editor and media team who provide a lot of support but also balanced reporting on community perspectives about the festival.

Police presence at both big and small parties has been increasing heavily in the past few years, guests are often a bit put off by this, how do you feel about it?

With the bigger events, to some extent it’s unavoidable to have a police presence either outside or inside the eve

nt, and so I think it’s more something to manage and adapt to than to react to or make a fuss about.  Most big music events have an onsite police presence and I’ve seen times where situations have been dealt with by police onsite much better than what would have happened without them there.  I also really believe in road safety awareness as a big priority for any type of event and think it’s important to have this reminder before and after big celebration gatherings.

The main issue really is about behaviour standards – and this goes both way.  Festival attendees need to understand that basic behaviour standards and laws still apply even in the space of a music festival, and with a bit of respect and smart choices, it’s not really an issue having a few police at the event.  On the other hand, there’s also behaviour standards for police officers working at events and I’ve witnessed some situations which I think push the line when it comes to issues around privacy and respect, or acting on their own agenda without collaboration and consultation with the event organisers, and the organisers then have the tough job of monitoring these behaviour standards. 

I guess music festivals are the meeting point of different layers of society so there will be some tension.  Although it’s a tenuous interaction at times, at the most basic level, police and event organisers have the same goals – safe and healthy events, no negative impact on the local community, no casualties or injuries.

With the smaller events, a police presence is usually more a reactive response – usually responding to a complaint or arriving to shut down a non-approved event.  This is definitely not ideal and it’s symptomatic of a much bigger issue.

These days, it’s getting harder and harder for new crews to make a start and do small scale events because authorities in party hot spots are constantly monitoring Facebook and it seems like every few months there’s a nice event hitting the wall with authorities and being targeted and shut down. 

The culture of these types of events has dramatically changed with the introduction of facebook and over the past 5-7 years a lot more people have become aware of these events. These have brought some positive and negative effects, both from the attendees and from local people/councils/authorities. Do you feel like our culture as a whole is evolving forward at the moment or standing stagnant in this current era?

It’s definitely interesting times for outdoor music events, especially doof style events in Australia.  When I started organising small events 15 years ago, the internet was a fairly recent phenomenon, there was no facebook, just a few closed party forums, most events around these parts were fairly small and underground and word of mouth played a big part in how the events were promoted.  The idea of police turning up to an event or media coverage was totally foreign. Over the years I’ve seen the scene go through a few expansion and contraction phases as the internal logic of how the events are planned is tested.

The people who have stuck at it for 10+ years usually either take the path of going fully legitimate, approved and transparent, and scaling up to the point it’s actually sustainable financially to operate this way, or they maintain a very careful strategy to do properly organised and responsible underground private events that fly under the radar.

These days, it’s getting harder and harder for new crews to make a start and do small scale events because authorities in party hot spots are constantly monitoring Facebook and it seems like every few months there’s a nice event hitting the wall with authorities and being targeted and shut down. 

The sad thing about this is that there’s a lot of promoters and crews that want to do the right thing and learn how to organise properly approved events, and aren’t just doing it renegade style with a ‘screw you’ attitude to the authorities. But there’s a lack of information and resources on how to organise events to a professional standard, and the rulings vary from council region to council region, and not only that, there’s a real scale of economy issue where the bare minimum compliance conditions for council approval really doesn’t work for smaller scale events of say less than 1000 people with low ticket prices. 

This makes it very hard for the smaller commercial events or cheap/free community events to actually get all the necessary approvals, even if the organisers genuinely want to. 

It’d be nice to see that addressed in future so there is a strategy for supporting the development of events from a small scale so they can develop up to the point it’s possible to afford what is considered the bare minimum for compliance and safety standards.  Outdoor music events can be very culturally enriching and financially beneficial for regional areas but it’s a hard situation when to do an event legally, you really have to start about 5 steps forward on the growth cycle.  I’d love to see more regional development funding for start up events, event management tool-kits, more collaboration between established and emerging event crews, and even a cross-council initiative for how to support and approve small scale community events.  I’ve actually suggested some of this in the past to my council contacts and will continue to do so.

I see a mixed bag of outcomes from all this change – I honestly think that the standard council conditions are just common sense for organising safe, healthy, responsible events and for those events working with the authorities, it makes the events much more professional and sustainable.  But the friction with smaller scale non-approved events and the authorities which unfortunately gets a lot of media coverage is a real problem, and it leads to the general public pigeon-holing the entire culture as a bit of a renegade, illegitimate platform which is a real shame.  Every time some event ends up with negatively focused mainstream media coverage or being shut down by council and police, it’s a step backwards for the scene. 

What do you feel are the most important factors when creating Earth Frequency, what are your top priorities?

Sustainability on all levels is the number one guiding principle. That means at a personal level – encouraging our staff, volunteers and patrons to look after themselves and enjoy the festival experience in a safe, healthy and personally sustainable manner. As an organisation, it means making smart choices for long term viability of the festival regarding anything from financial decisions and growth planning, to the overall creative direction.  Sometimes these choices are difficult and involve compromises, but sustainability and viability has to be the guiding principle or else it’s a very short sighted approach.Considering the fact we are working towards staying at our current venue, a sustainable outlook also includes the way we approach external relationships with the surrounding local community, authorities and other strategic partners.

 And finally – maintaining and continually improving on our environmental policies and procedures for a sustainable operational model – so we are hopefully treading lightly on the earth – with our leave no trace policy, carbon offset scheme, local wildlife and tree planting charities, increased focus on locally sourced food, and some new exciting initiatives to do with green energy which we will be launching soon !

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