Is This The Death Of The NSW Festival Scene?

The Woodstock era of free love and truly woeful mismanagement may be long gone, but the popularity of events like Byron Bay’s Bluesfest, Splendour in the Grass and Brisbane’s Laneway Festival is proof that Aussies are still enamoured with festivals.

Long-form outdoor music events routinely attract tens of thousands of revellers, netting organisers, local businesses and – by extension – state governments, not insignificant incomes in the process.

Why, then, is it apparently perfectly valid to say these days that the New South Wales festival scene is dying?

The “war on festivals”

In the past months, established and well-supported events in New South Wales have had to relocate or cancel their plans entirely as they attempt to navigate increasingly turgid political waters stirred up by state government officials calling into question the industry’s approach to safety.

Talking heads are calling for increased police attendance at events that are deemed “high risk”, as well as major changes to the existing licensing regulations which include (but are not limited to) increased administration fees and a requirement for “chill-out spaces”, ambulances, police and fire services on-site.

All this comes in the wake of a recent surge in apparent drug deaths and injuries at high-profile festivals.

However, instead of uniting organisers and policy-makers under the common cause of safe merry-making, these deaths have sparked a mood between stakeholders that can be described as legitimately outraged at best, and hostile at worst.

Take, for instance, a recent (albeit satirical) Facebook event rallying NSW residents to defecate in front of the office of state premier Gladys Berejiklian over her stance against pill testing at festivals. The event gathered over 11,000 disgruntled expressions of interest in a matter of days before police intervened.

The Facebook event has since been removed.

While bombarding government officials with human refuse is, of course, illegal – as it should be – such ideas and (bowel) movements are an age-old method the masses use to express their gripes with elected leaders. Their use in this day and age comes as a result of politicians being either too blind or too stubborn to discuss or implement necessary changes to important policies –  changes that have already been researched, modelled and trialled around the world with great success.

When one considers the reasons why more than ten thousand Australians – and likely many, many more – are up in arms over these recent political blunders threatening their favourite festivals, their ire becomes not just understandable, but downright justifiable.

Licensing gone mad

The newly leaked (and then hurriedly confirmed) changes to festival licensing laws by NSW Liquor and Gaming are in no small part responsible for the apparent slow death of festival culture in the state.

For instance, introducing a requisite ‘user-pays’ police attendance (without which a festival licence cannot be granted) in a country already obsessed with underhanded revenue-raising at every turn will, interestingly enough, likely result in the exact opposite outcome: no revenue at all.

Having not conducted a Regulatory Impact Assessment – an study that explores the potential issues that a law change might cause – it appears that NSW Liquor and Gaming’s promise of altruistic movements towards safety at our favourite events has fully given way to knee-jerk reactions in pursuit of revenue.

As festivals are forced to cancel their plans or move to neighbouring states and territories, secondary industries that rely on these events will also crumble, which will in turn cause irreparable damage to local economies and culture – something the politicians behind the controversial laws will have to answer for in the future.

The casualties of regulation

Already, this month saw the cancellation of Kariong’s Mountain Sounds Festival as a result of last-minute massive increases in monetary demands from local police for their attendance –  a tactic that is now routinely used by authorities to regulate events they deem threatening (according to unknown criteria).

This view is echoed by the organisers of Psyfari, another NSW festival that was forced to pack up under similar circumstances.

These cases may appear isolated for now, but under the aforementioned changes to the regulations, they may very well become the norm.

The changes to the NSW liquor licensing scheme will take effect on March 1, in lieu of any scheduled trial period.

It remains to be seen whether this over-regulation is what Australia’s festival scene requires; for now, enjoy the music while it lasts.

This piece was written by Julian Lehnert, a long-time journo with a passion for music, literature and the arts, and a keen eye for a great story. Find him on Twitter or tune into his weekly radio show on Brisbane’s 4EB.

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