You can’t get much more grassroots than your 89-year-old grandma handing out scones to the vollies, your mum and aunties manning the gate, and your brother and cousins running the site maintenance.
And, as anyone who has ever made the trek to Esoteric will tell you, this event will make you feel like you’re part of the family.
That’s not a cliche: The proof is in the pudding.
When co-founder Sam Goldsmith first started the gathering at his family farm in 2017, his event drew 1100 attendees – despite the fact it launched on the same weekend as Babylon and Pitch Festival!
Cut to 2019, and almost 5000 people travelled through the 1600-person township of Donald to enjoy the festivities this March. And, what’s more impressive, 1000 of those who attended were staff, volunteers, or contractors.
So, what does it take to convince thousands of people to participate in your vision for one glorious Victorian weekend?
According to Sam, it’s all about community.
What differentiates Esoteric Festival from other similar events?
We try to make the whole Esoteric a community – it’s very family friendly. And that means we concentrate a lot on more than just the DJs and the music. Those little extra bits are what makes it. Everywhere you walk there’s something different to do or see. This year the entrance to the hammock temple was an amazing moulded archway made out of sticks intertwined together. It was very cool.
It’s getting more and more unusual for the festival manager to also be the site owner and manager. How does owning the site change the way the event is run?
The biggest difference is that I’ve grown up and lived in Donald my whole life. I’ve been involved with community events and charity stuff for many years, so the local community is backing me.
If you want the community spirit you need to be involved in the community.
And, we can set up and leave our infrastructure on site. We don’t have to pack it up and reset it up every year. That means we’ve got over 10km of underground water piping, we’ve got around 100 taps, almost ½ million litres of water storage, approx 1km of underground power so the generators don’t have to be in the festival area and 60 permanent composting toilets. We have a whole heap of permanent stuff.
And, if you want to get a bit of work done during the year, you do a little ring around get some mates over and you all have a camp and have a good time while you get a bit done.
How far are you from your neighbours?
I only live 2.3 km from the main stage. My neighbour just put a house up at Christmas time, which is about 2 km away. Apart from that and myself and mum and dad, the next neighbour is 5 km away.
And my whole family love it. Mum and my aunties run the gate, grandma (who is 89) cooks scones and does a tour giving them out to the volunteers. They are basically at the gate all weekend. My brothers and cousins are in charge of maintenance. The old man is flat out helping out.
Would you classify Esoteric as a bush doof or a festival?
Definitely a bush doof. There’s a huge difference in the demographic we get coming to our event than your everyday festival, even though we might have a lot of things that are very similar to those events, for some reason we just attract the right crowd.
A big part of getting the right crowd is that my business partner Lucas, who is our artist lineup guru, he’s all about not spending huge dollars on big-name acts that everyone’s seen. We give the up-and-comers a go. A lot of our internationals aren’t massively famous yet either, they’re known, but they haven’t been to Australia. So they want to come because they’ve heard of the festival and they’ve never been to Australia!
Speaking of up-and-coming artists, do you have any tips for those trying to get on the lineup at events like yours?
Probably the best advice I can give is to keep getting gigs. Keep working. Don’t just kick back and wait for the right gig. The more gigs you play the more you get known. Networking. Keep sending through your stuff. Keep applying to everything. Make it happen. And don’t be a dickhead.
Do you have a plan if you do encounter dickheads?
If you end up in our medical tent twice, you’re banned for life from our event. Same with security. If you get pulled up with something, it’s not a good thing. But if you are a return customer or a repeat offender then you’re not the type of person we want at our event. Having said that, we haven’t really had much of a need, we just haven’t had the wrong sort of crowd turn up.
How did this year’s event go?
Absolutely fantastic. Crowd was amazing. Rubbish was almost non-existent. Everything was just really, really good. We certainly attract the right crowd, that’s for sure.
Do you get to party at Esoteric, or are you always running around having to sort things out?
Bit of both. The plan is to kick back and enjoy it, but there’s always things behind the scenes that keep you busy so you can’t really enjoy it to the full extent. But I make sure I get at least one night in and have a boogie.
How long did it take you to construct that epic stage?
Months of planning, putting it together onsite for a couple of weeks. If you’ve got good plans and good people, it all comes together in the end.
What do you love about your job?
All the hard work pays off on that Friday night once everyone has come through the gates and you see everyone smile and have a good time. It’s a good feeling – better than money could give you.
What don’t people realise about what goes on behind the scenes?
They don’t realise the number of hours involved in the planning side of it. A lot of our decisions might not be our preferred decision but we’ve got permit conditions and requirements we have to adhere to, and some are good and some not so good. At the end of the day, someone may see a certain thing as our decision, but it might not be our first choice.
There’s a hell of a lot involved – I do a lot of the permitting side of it – but we haven’t had any issues whatsoever. Council has been good, all stakeholders are good. We’ve just got our first of our five-year permit.
Also, a lot of it has to do with good communication with the police. They’ve got their place but we don’t want them going over the top and scaring people away because it doesn’t work. Don’t be afraid to get help, get help early. Keep hydrated. We want punters to be comfortable to get help when they need it, not to be scared of prosecution. Which is probably why we don’t have near the incidents of what others may have.
How did you come up with the name?
My business partner Lucas has had this idea where he’s wanted to run a festival for a long time, and he’s had this name for 10 years. When I rang him in June 2016 to talk about starting a festival he said, “I’ve even got the name ready”. It’s quite unique and special and it fits the whole festival.
Biggest lesson you’ve learned?
Probably sticking to budgets is one that we could do better. Sometimes your budget is not as big as your dreams unfortunately. We keep pushing it and making the event better at a cost of our own.
The other big thing I’ve learned is communication is key. You’ve got to talk to everybody in a nice way. You can’t afford to be pissing off the wrong people or you’ll lose help especially when you’re relying on family and friends and volunteers. Treat everyone right.